My mate messaged me the other day asking for my advice. Having just hit 30, she’s never had a “grown-up” skincare routine and wanted to nail one down. Beyond washing her face and throwing on a bit of moisturiser, the other lotions, potions and serums all seemed a bit confusing and unnecessary. “Elle, I’m trying to get my skincare shit together, but what do I actually need?” she asked. Now, I fully understand that soap and water has seen people straight for generations and that, strictly speaking, we can live without moisturiser. But, the fact is, it does a splendid job of making our faces softer, plumper and less tight-feeling. That said, the legion of skincare essentials out there can make things feel overwhelming. Stripped back, there’s five products every good skincare arsenal should contain to make sure you get the best out of your skin. Of course, everyone’s skin is different and you may want to add and tweak as you see fit, but this is a good place to start.
A decent cleanser
It won’t come as much of a shock that a good cleanser is top of the list. Throughout the day our skin accumulates oil and grime from our make-up, sweat and pollution, which can prevent it from functioning effectively as a barrier. A proper cleanse will help to lift away all the dirt and remove unwanted bacteria, which will stop pores from clogging, help skin to breathe and leave it looking healthy and fresh. Depending on your skin type, look for different ingredients in your cleanser. Oilier skin types might want to opt for cleansers containing salicylic acid (which helps to unclog pores), like Super Facialist Salicylic Acid Anti Blemish Purifying Cleansing Wash, while drier skin types may prefer a nourishing cleansing oil, such as Simple Hydrating Cleansing Oil, which whizzes away grime and leaves skin feeling soft (you can check out our guide on skin types here).
A gentle exfoliator
Our skin naturally sheds dead skin cells to make way for the fresh ones beneah but, as we get older, our cell turnover can slow down. This means that we can get a build-up of old cells that sit on top of our skin, making it look dull. Exfoliating can help with this. There are two types of exfoliation: manual (using gritty scrubs and facial brushes) and chemical (using gentle acids that work to unglue and lift away dead skin cells). What form you choose is largely down to preference. I personally can get a bit too vigorous with physical scrubs, while others might not get on with chemical exfoliants. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll have heard me wang on about my favourite chemical exfoliator – Pixi Glow Tonic – before. It’s well-priced (a 250ml bottle costs £18), gentle (it contains a low percentage of glycolic acid, which can be found in most fruits) and performs just as well as its expensive counterparts. Sweep it across clean skin using a cotton pad. For manual exfoliation, a warm flannel gently buffed over skin as you cleanse is a good idea. As for scrubs, look for ones that contain natural grainy bits, like jojoba and sugar – Neal’s Yard Rehydrating Rose Facial Polish is great and contains rose-seed powder to gently slough away dead skin. How often you exfoliate depends on your skin type. Those with oily skin may want to use a gentle exfoliant daily, whereas sensitive skin types may only need to do it once a week.
Retinol has earned itself a dedicated spot on the list because it has a science-backed ability to boost our skin’s collagen production and smooth lines over time. It can also help to tackle pigmentation and has a proven track record of effectively treating acne. The more potent it is, the more effective it will be, but the trade-off is that it’s not easily tolerated by skin and you normally need to work up the strength slowly to keep your skin from feeling irritated. I love Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules – 30 single-dose capsules to ensure you don’t overdo it. They are highly potent, but mixed with soothing ingredients such as sunflower, olive and avocado oil they're much less likely to cause irritation. For a less spenny alternative, you can’t do much better than The Ordinary, which offers a variety of strengths, so you can build up your tolerance. Start with the Retinol 0.2% in Squalane or Granactive Retinoid in 2% Squalane, then work up to higher percentages. Apply at night-time after cleansing and use an SPF (more on that in a minute) in the morning.
A nourishing moisturiser
They’re not new or groundbreaking, but moisturisers help keep our skin feeling and looking its best in three ways. First, they contain humectants that help to bind moisture to our skin, keeping our moisture levels topped up. A great ingredient to look out for is hyaluronic acid, which can hold 1,000 times its own weight in moisture and is therefore great at attracting and maintaining dewy-skin goodness. Second, they contain occlusives such as shea butter, cocoa butter and beeswax, which tend to be thicker (and therefore better for drier skin types) and create a barrier over skin to make sure that the moisture provided by the humectant is locked in. Finally, they contain emollients that replace skin lipids (these provide the building blocks for skin, and keep it looking fresh). Not all skin types will want a very heavy, occlusive-rich moisturiser; for instance oily skins will be better served by something lightweight, oil-free and non-comedogenic (less likely to block pores), such as Bioderma Sebium Mat Control Shine-Control Moisturiser. However, drier skin types may want something that feels creamy and quenching, such as La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra, which is also good for sensitive and combination skin.
A lightweight SPF
SPF is perhaps the bogeyman of beauty. Largely, it’s regarded as a chore rather than a luxury. And it’s true that sunscreens have a reputation for being heavy and smeary. However, they protect our skin from harmful UVA and UVB rays, which can cause long-term and irreversible problems with our skin and are the number-one cause of premature ageing (even in winter, folks, since the rays can penetrate the clouds). The answer is to find something that not only protects skin from these rays but is also a pleasure to use. That’s why everyone should try Soleil Toujours 100% Mineral Sunscreen Glow, which has an SPF protection of 30, contains both UVB and UVA protection (it’s important to check your sunscreen protects against both) and has the silkiest lightweight texture. It’s also tinted with a universally flattering golden undertone that helps it double as a highlighter and leaves skin looking glowy and thoroughly healthy. For an invisible option, Beauty Pie’s Super Healthy Skin Ultralight SPF25 is excellent and costs just £7.19 if you have a membership (which incidentally, you’ll get free for a month with The Pool’s Beauty Box).