Skincare 101: The only products you need to get good skin

Dermatologists recommend starting with a cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen every morning.

Getty Images This story is part of New Year, New You, everything you need to develop healthy habits that will last all the way through 2020 and beyond.

The skincare industry is steadily climbing toward $6 billion, and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down anytime soon. Let’s face it, some new device or treatment seems to launch onto the market daily, making it hard to figure out where you should actually focus your time, energy and money. And there’s now a spectrum of how people approach their skincare routine these days: On one end you have the 10-step skin care regimen that is followed religiously and on the other you have someone who swipes a makeup wipe across their face at night before falling into bed.

No matter where you fall on that spectrum (neither example is necessarily ideal) there’s always room to learn and get back to the basics. To cut through the noise, I asked two dermatologists about how you should actually take care of your skin in this age of beauty influencers, products galore and general skincare confusion.

“Skincare is simpler than the beauty industry is trying to make it. The reality is the industry needs to keep creating a need to get consumers to buy more products,” Caren Campbell, a dermatologist tells CNET. “Skincare for most people is basic — a sunscreen, antioxidant and retinoid are my holy trinity,” Campbell said.

Below are the basics of what you should know and what is worth your time when it comes to coming up with a skincare regimen that is effective (and that you’ll actually do!). And no, you don’t have to have a 10-step regimen to get better skin in 2020.

Morning routine

For me, there’s nothing more refreshing than washing my face with cold water as soon as I wake up. But I’ll admit, sometimes I’m a little lost about what kind of cleanser is best in the a.m. — I mean, I don’t have makeup on and I didn’t just work out, so what should you use when your skin doesn’t feel dirty?

Face wash, serum and moisturizer with sunscreen.

Sarah Mitroff/CNET

According to dermatologist Amie Sessa, you should use a gentle cleanser and avoid using too-hot water (which can be harsh on your face). Campbell’s favorite cleansers are Cetaphil Gentle, CeraVe Hydrating or Skinceuticals Gentle Cleanser. Just a note that the Cetaphil cleanser has parabens in it — so if you are avoiding products with them, the other two choices are paraben-free.

Once you cleanse, you can immediately follow with a moisturizer, or add an antioxidant serum before you moisturize if you’d like. “Antioxidants should be used during the day, as this is when you are most exposed to sun and pollution. They cause reactive oxygen species (i.e., free radicals) that break down collagen and elastin (the building blocks of the skin) and mutate DNA leading to sagging, dull and pigmented skin,” Campbell says.

For dry or combination skin types she recommends a moisturizing serum with Vitamin C and ferulic acid, and for oily skin, an antioxidant serum that is lightweight or oil-free if you’re prone to breakouts. If you want to add an extra boost of hydration, hyaluronic acid is a great option for layering under a moisturizer and works for most skin types. It also layers well with other products and is gentle.

Sunscreen should be part of your daily routine.

Angela Lang/CNET

The moisturizer that you choose often depends on your skin type, concerns and personal preference. For most patients, Campbell recommends one with SPF 30. If you are acne-prone or have redness or brown spots, a moisturizer with a high concentration of niacinamide is good since it helps calm inflammation and lightens brown spots over time.

Finally, you should always complete your morning skincare routine with sunscreen before applying your makeup or leaving your house.

Evening routine

Your evening routine can look pretty similar to your morning routine, with a few simple tweaks.

First, you should always remove your makeup and cleanse your skin (especially at night). “Not washing your face before bed is one of the biggest skincare mistakes I see. Also, using makeup remover wipes as face wash every single day doesn’t cut it. They have too many chemicals, so only use these in a pinch but not as your regular washing method,” dermatologist Dr. Amie Sessa tells CNET.

If nothing else, make sure to remove your makeup at the end of the day.

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Once you cleanse your skin, you can moisturize (again, always moisturize!) or apply an exfoliating product or retinol, depending on your needs.

When and how to exfoliate

Sessa and Campbell advise against using harsh scrubs to exfoliate and instead opt for a chemical exfoliating product. Chemical exfoliation (like AHA or BHA) sounds scary, but it’s actually less abrasive on your skin than a scrub.

“As patients get older, AHA/BHA products should be incorporated to help speed skin cell turnover as this slows into our 40s,” Campbell said. But it’s easy to go overboard with chemical exfoliators, so it’s important to use them sparingly. “Over using AHA/BHA in younger skin types can lead to dryness and flaking and inability to tolerate more effective ingredients for anti-aging like retinoids.”

Over-the-counter and prescription retinol products can help reduce acne and smooth wrinkles.

Sarah Mitroff/CNET

When to use a retinol/retinoid

Both Campbell and Sessa recommend using a retinol at night (start with very sparingly once a week, and you can work your way up to more often). Although not an absolute essential, retinol (or Vitamin A) is very effective at treating signs of aging, acne and is widely used and recommended by derms and skincare professionals. That being said, it is very irritating (it can cause redness and peeling), which is why it’s best to ask your dermatologist about what kind of retinol is best for you and your skin needs.

“Many patients come in saying they can’t tolerate retinoid, so it is important to use only 1-2 times per week and work up slowly,” Campbell advises. You can also add a moisturizer on top to prevent dryness.

It’s also a good idea to wear extra sunscreen when you use retinol in your regimen since your skin is more sensitive to the sun. Be careful using retinol with or close to other products like chemical exfoliation as well, especially if you are sensitive. Again, it’s best to consult your dermatologist before using these more advanced products if you are unsure.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

Ever wish you could sneak a peek inside the medicine cabinets of a dermatologist? Now you can!

TODAY interviewed 12 professionals about the anti-aging products they actually use to keep their skin looking young. From a $13 over-the-counter retinoid to a skin-brightening vitamin C serum, keep reading to discover the skin care secrets dermatologists swear by.

Anti-aging serums and retinols

1. Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology in New York City, can’t speak highly enough about Differin Gel.

“It used to be a prescription and then it went over the counter — I love Differin gel,” she said.

Thanks to powerhouse ingredient retinoid, this gel doesn’t just fight acne, it also helps reduce signs of aging. It works by reducing inflammation deep in the skin to clear clogged pores and combat fine lines.

2. La Roche-Posay Pure Vitamin C Face Serum

“When I think of anti-aging, I think of protecting, preventing and correcting, so I always like to have an antioxidant in the morning,” Dr. Michelle Henry, Clinical Instructor of Dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, said.

She recommends La Roche-Posay’s vitamin C serum because it helps brighten skin, get rid of dark spots and stimulate collagen. “It makes skin look fresher and gets rid of lines and wrinkles,” she added.

3. CeraVe Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Face Serum

Dr. Henry calls hyaluronic acid a “miracle molecule” — and this serum is chock-full of it. “It really helps plump up your skin,” she explained. “As we get older, we lose hydration in our skin and this ingredient can help restore moisture.”

4. VI Derm Clear HQ Free

New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Dina Strachan says she and her patients love this product for getting rid of dark spots and fine lines. It was formulated as an alternative to the skin lightening ingredient hydroquinone.

“It’s safe to use the long term because it doesn’t bleach the surrounding skin. It’s also packed with powerful anti-aging ingredients like kojic acid and licorice root extract, which fight free radicals that damage collagen,” she explained. “It can be applied once or twice a day, just be sure to use a sunscreen with this product.”

5. Avon Anew Clinical Line Eraser with Retinol

“I love this product because it’s sensitive enough for first-time retinol users,” said Dr. Kim Nichols, a Connecticut-based dermatologist.

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“Retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, does a lot. It minimizes fine lines and wrinkles, diminishes hyperpigmentation, blackheads and dark spots and reduces inflammation, pore size and the appearance of blemishes,” she said, adding that it’s not too harsh on skin. “Two things to remember when using retinol: Always use with a moisturizer and less is more,” she noted. “You only need a penny size for your whole face at night.”

6. Drunk Elephant Rise + Glow Duo

“I started researching natural skin lines a few years ago when I was looking to replace my underperforming hydrating gel. That’s when I discovered this gel and serum combo. I was initially attracted to the hypoallergenic and nontoxic nature of these two products, but after I tested them, I was immediately drawn to their silky texture and smooth application — and their results,” said Dr. Jessica Weiser, a New York City-based dermatologist.

“I apply the serum every morning — its powerful antioxidants brighten my complexion and help prevent UV and environmental damage. Then comes the gel, which contains hyaluronic acid, which gets ‘set’ over the smaller molecular nutrients and vitamins in the serum. The combination leaves my skin glowing, radiant and perfectly prepped for sunscreen, the final and most important step of my skin care routine.”

7. Skin Medica Age Defense Retinol Complex

“I swear by retinoids! Every dermatologist learns about this form of vitamin A in residency as part of our training. As an anti-ager, retinoids help soften wrinkles and lines and decrease pigmentation caused by the sun. But they also treat breakouts and stimulate collagen and elastin fibers. Want more? Retinoids can improve pigmentation issues, like brown spots and melasma, thanks to its exfoliating properties and they can shrink the size of your pores and give your skin a glow,” said Dr. Gary Goldenberg, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “Any product that’s left on my fingers goes right to the backs of my hands for some anti-aging there.”

1. Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Face Cream

Dr. Henry is a fan of this cream that took over a decade to develop because it’s made with retinol and won’t irritate skin. “It also has some Vitamin B3,” she noted. “The combination helps to not only get rid of fine lines and wrinkles but also helps lighten dark spots and give the skin hydration — It’s a really nice drugstore retinol,” said Henry.

2. Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Facial Moisturizer SPF 15

“While there are many expensive skin care treatments on the market, nothing is better at preventing both skin cancer and premature skin aging than sunscreen. Studies have shown time and time again that regular use of sunscreens prevents the development of skin cancers, including melanomas, which can be potentially fatal. In one recent yearlong study, regular sunscreen use was even shown to improve the cosmetic appearance of the skin, likely because protective skin was able to heal itself. The best treatment for aging skin is preventing ultraviolet light damage to begin with. Skipping one day will not result in too much loss, but if you regularly take a pass, your skin will ultimately pay the price,” said Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research, Department of Dermatology, The Mount Sinai Hospital.

“I was introduced to this product when I was a resident. I love that it not only protects from UV exposure, but it’s the one product that really brightens up the skin, thanks to its soy complex and light diffusers.”

3. Eucerin Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Sunscreen Moisturizing Face Lotion

“I love this anti-ager because it’s dual acting: It’s an oil- and fragrance-free moisturizer, plus it’s a broad spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen that contains zinc oxide and titanium dioxide but doesn’t leave your skin looking pasty and chalky,” said Dr. Sonia Badreshia, clinical instructor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s a must-wear for your face, neck, décolleté and hands. I recommend it to treat and prevent dark marks and it’s my secret weapon for fighting rough knees and elbows.”

4. Olay Professional ProX Hydra Firming Cream Anti Aging

“This is the best anti-aging product in the drugstore!” said Dr. Diane S. Berson, associate clinical professor of dermatology, Weill Medical College of Cornell University New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

She says the combination of ingredients in the formula address most concerns associated with premature aging like dull skin tone, texture and wrinkles.

“This product has been evaluated in clinical trials — in fact, one study published in the British Journal of Dermatology showed that it was as effective as Renova, an FDA-approved prescription product for the treatment of wrinkles,” she raved. “Applied at night, it’s the perfect solution for those who want an effective anti-aging product in one jar.”

5. CeraVe Ultra-Light Moisturizing Lotion SPF 30

Dr. Levin recommends this combination moisturizer with SPF 30. “It has three essential ceramides that really hydrate and protect the skin barrier. It also has a hyaluronic acid which is a super hydrating skincare ingredient that I love,” she explained.

6. Avène Tolerance Extreme Emulsion

If you have dry skin during the winter months, Avéne Tolerance Extreme Emulsion cream may be the product for you. “I really like Avéne during this time of year,” Dr. Levin said.

The lightweight moisturizer hydrates skin without leaving a greasy residue, so you can easily layer it under your makeup.

7. Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel-Cream Extra-Dry Skin

“I’ve been applying hyaluronic acid to my skin for years,” said Dr. Rachel Nazarian, assistant clinical professor at The Mount Sinai Hospital Department of Dermatology. “It’s a substance naturally found in the skin and works to maintain water for a fuller, more youthful look.”

“Its unique, moisture-binding feature allows it to hold many times its own weight in water. I used to apply a high-grade version of hyaluronic acid topically to my face, but the molecules were large, making it difficult for them to absorb into my skin. Today, smaller molecules of high-grade hyaluronic acid with better topical absorption capabilities can be found in over-the-counter products, including this gel-cream that I apply nightly. Bonus: Its hydrating properties curb the irritation caused by retinols,” she continued.

“I still use a few tricks to enhance absorption, such as applying it after I shower while my skin is still damp or using it after an exfoliating wash.”


1. EltaMD UV Physical Tinted Facial Sunscreen Broad-Spectrum SPF 41

“Sunscreen is the most important anti-aging product because the sun is responsible for 90% of skin aging,” said Dr. Arielle Kauvar, a New York City-based dermatologist and clinical professor of dermatology at Langone NYU Medical Center.

“This is my favorite face sunscreen because it doesn’t irritate even the most sensitive skin — we even use it on patients after laser procedures. It’s water-resistant and adds a light tint to your skin, which is great for when you want to go sans makeup. I apply it after my moisturizer and before my makeup. Just be sure to reapply if you’re outdoors all day,”

2. SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50

“This sheer, tinted sunscreen goes on smooth and acts as a great, lightweight primer before makeup, smoothing out any skin imperfections. It’s also a great product to use at the beach when you don’t want to wear heavy concealer and foundation, but still want a little coverage,” said Dr. Sherry Ingraham, a Texas-based dermatologist.

For more beauty buys, check out:

  • Fight against dry winter skin with 19 dermatologist-recommended products
  • 39 clean beauty products that will have you feeling good in 2020
  • This $8 cream will soothe your dry, cracked feet in no time

To discover more deals, shopping tips and budget-friendly product recommendations, and subscribe to our Stuff We Love newsletter!

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