TikTok, the internet at large, many of our competitors… We don’t know exactly who's to blame, but the fact of the matter is that skin care can seem really really complicated.
There’s this idea that a skincare routine has to include 16 steps or multiple serums, toners, and special creams to be effective. That’s not even remotely true.
For a lot of consumers, this mistaken notion is paralyzing, confusing, and it can totally overwhelm your skin, often doing a lot more harm than good. It can hurt your skin and your wallet.
On the other hand, most dermatologists champion simple and short skincare routines. So today, we’re simplifying, with a clear and concise explanation of the ideal skincare routine steps.
We’re keeping it basic and easy. Why? Because simplicity is actually so much better for your skin.
In this post, we’ll touch on the complicated science behind the “simple skincare” philosophy, but mostly, we’ll focus on how to put together an effective, easy-to-follow skincare routine that offers your skin nothing but goodness while helping it look its best!
This post at a glance:
- Basic skincare routine in a nutshell (TL;DR)
- What to consider when building a skincare routine
- Night skincare routine steps
- Morning skincare routine steps
If you’re just here for the basics, with no time to waste on long, boring explanations, we’ve got you covered - here’s the closest thing to a universally ideal skincare routine. All other routines are just simple variations on this depending on your skincare concerns.
- Splash your face with a bit of cool or lukewarm water, or let your skin absorb some watery goodness in the shower.
- Apply a real vitamin C serum by gently pressing it in. (What do we mean by real? You can read more on that below.)
- Hydrate if your skin needs it with a simple moisturizer. Most drugstore moisturizers will work just fine.
- Protect yourself with a good amount of sunscreen.
- Cleanse damp skin gently without harsh rubbing or abrasive aids. (The cleanser you choose will depend on your skin concern. See below.)
- Treat your concerns with a serum. Our Enzyme-Activated Retinol Serum is a great option for most skin concerns.
- Moisturize comprehensively by massaging cream or lotion over your skin.
Why use a treatment? What on earth do we mean by clinically effective skincare? If you found yourself asking these questions, this section is for you! If you couldn’t care less, feel free to skip it.
Basically, in the world of science-based skincare, there are three main approaches, and the reasons why you might be interested in each one:
1) Simple, boring, and cheap
Do you have super sensitive skin? Just starting out with skincare? You don’t have to spend much money or drown in complications. The best basic skincare routine is kinda boring, very mild, and quite cheap.
Expensive ingredients aren’t better, and nowadays, you can find a ton of simple yet effective fragrance-free, dermatologist tested products in the drugstore. We’re big fans of Vanicream.
2) Advanced and active
That said, a routine can be simple and non-irritating while still including active ingredients that have real skin benefits.
The best way to do this is by adding one key serum or treatment per skincare session (i.e. your nighttime or daytime skincare routine) in an otherwise basic routine.
This is ideal if you want to see specific results, like brighter skin, wrinkle reduction, fewer breakouts, or anything else.
3) Trendy but complicated
Any guesses as to what we think about trendy 7-step skincare routines? You guessed it - we’re not fans.
This kind of routine may promote skin renewal or help target specific skin concerns, but it can be incredibly irritating to the skin. Plus, irritation can push your progress back as your skin has to work hard to repair itself.
In other cases (and this depends on the specific products), too many steps can dilute the effects of any important ingredients in your routine. We can't count the number of times our clients have told us, "My routine is the simplest it's ever been and my skin has never looked better.”
So now that you understand the premise behind the main skincare philosophies, let’s apply these fundamentals so you can create your very own simple yet effective skincare routine.
We think night is the best time to let your skincare routine be a little more involved. Here’s a guide to the most important night skincare routine steps.
We tend to think of cleansing as fundamental - it’s basic hygiene! But as dermatologists will tell you, it’s also one of those steps that has the most potential to damage or irritate the skin.
Most people cleanse more often than they really need to, and in a way that’s very disruptive to the skin microbiome and barrier functions. If you’re not a frequent makeup wearer or extremely acne-prone, daily cleansing might not be necessary at all.
There’s a lot of room for error with something something as basic as a cleanser. And in fact, you definitely don’t want a basic cleanser - at least not when it comes to pH. Cleansers with a more alkaline pH (i.e. basic) can raise the pH of the skin, disrupting its lipid layer and making it an attractive environment for bad bacteria.
Other factors to watch out for are cleansers that are simply too drying and stripping (that “squeaky clean” feel is a good sign that a cleanser is too harsh) or that contain abrasive scrubby bits that scratch instead of exfoliating.
When in doubt, we’d suggest going with a mild, cheap and boring cleanser from the drugstore. Buy from brands that position themselves as dermatologist-recommended and suitable for sensitive skin.
If your skin is oily or acne-prone, medicated cleansers with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide can help unclog pores.
If your main concerns are to do with smoothing or brightening the skin, a cleanser with AHA can help “unglue” dead skin cells to boost skin renewal and increase the effectiveness of ingredients like retinol. This is called exfoliation, and it isn’t necessarily a must in every skincare routine. That said, it can be incredibly beneficial as long you opt for a chemical exfoliant like AHA, as opposed to physical scrubs that largely scratch the skin.
How to cleanse:
Some cleansers (especially oil-based ones) work best when the skin is dry, while others (gel and foam-based ones) work better when it’s damp.
- To use a cleanser like our AHA cleanser, dampen your face first.
- Dispense a small (about dime-sized) amount of cleanser, and foam it up between your hands.
- Massage it into your skin gently, making sure not to actually tug on the skin.
- Finally, rinse it away with cool or lukewarm water. Avoid hot water - it can irritate the skin.
- For a more thorough exfoliating treatment, leave the cleanser on your skin for 5 to 10 minutes before rinsing it away.
Treat with retinol
If you’ve nothing to treat, you can skip this step. But let’s be real, most folks developing a skincare routine have something specific they’re trying to fix or improve.
The three most common concerns are skin aging, breakouts, and dark marks. You can find products to address those concerns with any step in your skincare routine, but water-based serums usually act as the best delivery system.
When developing our line, we quickly came to the conclusion that retinaldehyde (aka retinal), a more bioactive version of retinol, is the best ingredient for visibly addressing most common skin concerns. That includes fine lines and wrinkles, dark spots, large pores, and signs of breakouts. That’s why it’s the main ingredient in our Enzyme-Activated Retinol Serum, along with a few skin-supporting substances like niacinamide and gluconolactone.
How to apply your treatment:
- Applying your treatment to damp skin will increase its absorption. This is great for most skin types, but if your skin tends to be sensitive, you can apply it to dry skin instead.
- Dispense a dime-sized amount (in the case of our serums, that’s one pump) of the serum, and gently rub or pat it into the skin.
- Wait for the serum to fully absorb. If you have time, it’s best to give it a full 30 minutes so it can sink in completely.
- If your skin is very sensitive, you can further slow down the rate of penetration by flipping steps, and applying your serum or treatment after moisturizer.
- For even more tips, check out our full guide on how to use retinol.
When the skin is well moisturized, science shows that it acts as a better barrier. Since being a barrier is your skin’s main job, this is a key way of preventing damage and ensuring optimal functions. Plus, when the skin is hydrated and functions correctly, it just looks significantly better.
For a deep-dive into how to REALLY hydrate your skin, see our post on transepidermal water loss and how to stop it.
In the short term, moisturizing plumps up the surface levels of the skin, making it feel softer, look smoother, and helping to reduce the visibility of fine lines. In the long term, moisturizing preserves the skin to keep it looking even and youthful.
A good moisturizer has to help your skin retain water. That’s why it’s best to moisturize immediately after you’ve showered, when your skin is saturated with water that’s just waiting to evaporate. By moisturizing, you basically seal that water inside your skin.
If your skin is dry, it’s important to find a moisturizer with effective occlusives. Occlusives act like a sealing layer, preventing moisture from evaporating from the skin. Research shows that the best occlusive is petrolatum (that’s right - the stuff Vaseline is made of), but there are also more pleasant options like silicones, squalane, and stearic acid.
Look for these ingredients near the top of the ingredient list of any moisturizer you consider purchasing - you’ll discover that often, cheaper moisturizers can deliver these ingredients at a higher concentration than very expensive ones!
If your skin is oily, you may find that very occlusive moisturizers feel too heavy. That said, dimethicone is a great, silky occlusive that feels pretty dry on the skin. Look for moisturizers with lighter textures, dimethicone or squalane for occlusion, and a lot of moisture-attracting humectants that will also help prevent transepidermal water loss.
If you want more transformative results, you’ll want a moisturizer designed to do more than just moisturize. For example, our Hyaluronic Acid & Niacinamide Hydration Cream has a robust renewing formula. It’s made with niacinamide, which is a multi-purpose antioxidant that calms the skin while supporting the effects of powerful actives like retinol.
It’s very effective as a moisturizer, with a blend of silky fatty acids and fatty alcohols for occlusion. It also includes high-molecular-weight hyaluronic acid, which acts like a sponge, holding a thousand times its weight in water, to hydrate the skin directly while also helping to further reduce fine lines and wrinkles.
How to moisturize:
- It’s best to moisturize damp skin - even better if your skin was well saturated with water after a shower.
- Then, dispense a nickel-sized amount of moisturizer in the palm of your hand.
- Gently pat or massage the moisturizer into the skin of your face and neck. Feel free to use it around the eyes, as well.
The ideal morning skincare routine is all about protecting the skin from exposure to the sun, pollution, and other sources of oxidative damage.
Splash of water
To cleanse or not to cleanse in the morning, that is the question.
If your skin is pretty oily or you exercise before doing your AM skincare routine, then cleansing in the morning might be for you. Choose a gentle cleanser that has a low pH, doesn’t sud up much, and doesn’t leave your skin feeling tight.
If your skin is dry or sensitive, it’s better to avoid cleansing - the last thing your skin needs is for you to remove the few lipids it produced over the previous night. Splashing your face with water is enough to feel refreshed and improve the penetration of whatever you apply next.
A shower or bath will offer even better hydration, since your skin will be thoroughly saturated with water. However, at that point, it’s also critical to seal that hydration in with a moisturizer.
We don’t recommend using our AHA cleanser twice a day unless your skin is unusually thick or hearty, but even if it is, proceed with caution.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant superstar. It’s the kind of ingredient that boosts the morning skincare routine from bare minimum to protective and transformative.
It works by boosting the skin’s resistance to photodamage and free radical damage, neutralizing the main external sources of visible skin aging. It supports the protection offered by sunscreen, and it’s also been found to help lighten the look of dark spots and improve collagen production to actively reduce wrinkles (not quite to the same extent as retinol, but in a way that supports its efforts).
In other words, if you’re interested in a simple skincare routine that also keeps your skin looking smooth, even-toned, and youthful… vitamin C deserves a spot!
However, most vitamin C serums on the market are either largely ineffective or not very pleasant to use. This is because vitamin C, like retinol, is very unstable. Some brands skip using real vitamin C altogether and instead choose less effective derivatives! We have a lot to say on why so many vitamin C products are a total waste and how you can find a vitamin C serum that actually works.
Our solution to the problem was very easy and simple. All we did was assemble an engineering team, study the aerospace and nuclear industries, and spend months developing a patented oxygen- and light-free bottling process. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that simple… but the result is that our Vitamin C Superserum actually works.
How to apply vitamin C:
- Vitamin C is best applied to damp skin.
- Dispense a small amount in the palm of your hand, and then either gently pat it in or massage it into your skin. If you’re left with extra product, you can rub it into your neck or back of your hands.
- Give it a few moments to sink in completely (If you’re using our vitamin C serum, that should happen in under a minute).
Hydrate (if needed)
Most sunscreens are formulated with a cream base, so in a way, they’re also moisturizers. That’s why moisturizing or hydrating the skin in the morning can be optional.
However, if your skin gets really dry or you don’t find that your sunscreen is particularly nourishing, you’ll want to add a hydrating step before applying sunscreen. We’re big fans of applying a simple hydrating serum or toner, but you can also just use your favorite moisturizer.
How to hydrate in the morning:
- Dispense a small amount of your hydrator of choice in the palm of your hand.
- Gently press it into your skin, careful not to rub harshly.
- Wait for the product to dry down and fully absorb into your skin before moving on to the next step.
Sunscreen is the only product that rivals retinoids for anti-aging and skin brightening effects.
Aside from genetics, the most prominent contributor to skin aging is sun exposure, especially to the sun’s UVA rays (as opposed to UVB rays that primarily cause burning). By wearing sunscreen regularly, you actively prevent premature aging.
In the US, sunscreens are regulated by the FDA as drugs rather than cosmetics, since they also protect us from sunburn and skin cancer. This is a good thing - the cosmetic industry would benefit from more FDA oversight. At Protocol, we try to formulate our products as though that oversight is there.
Look for a sunscreen with at least 30 SPF, which means it’ll protect the skin from burning by a factor of 30. In the US, it’s important to choose a sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection. That means it’ll protect against UVA as well as UVB. If you’re a fan of Korean or Japanese sunscreens, you can also look for a PA+++ or PA++++ rating, which is another signifier of high UVA protection.
How to apply sunscreen:
- Make sure your other skincare products have totally dried down (this is really important - you don’t want any layers compromising your sunscreen’s film-forming ability!)
- Dispense around 1/3 to 1/4 teaspoon of sunscreen. This is an estimate - for sunscreen to give you full protection, you have to use around 2 milligrams per square centimeter of skin.
- Dot the sunscreen over your skin, and then massage it in. If you find it hard to rub the full amount of sunscreen into your skin, you can split the application into two layers.
- It’s recommended that you wait at least 15 minutes to allow your sunscreen to finish forming its film over the skin before going outside.
- Reapply after every two hours of direct sun exposure (that means that if you spent most of your day indoors, you’re probably fine).
Bottom line: Keep it simple smarty
So to summarize: Your night skincare routine steps need to clean, treat, and hydrate your skin. In the daytime, your basic skincare routine should be all about protection from the sun, while at night you can focus more on renewal, repair, and hydration.
When developing Protocol, we wanted to develop clinically active skincare that could provide real results while fitting into a simple routine. We settled on 4 products: Cleanser, vitamin C serum, retinol serum, and moisturizer. That’s it.
The active ingredients in each of these products are designed to work together to maximize skin renewal while reinforcing the skin barrier. Together, they create a routine that’s simple and non-irritating, but highly effective at addressing just about every major skin concern.
Sure, we had a lot to say about the different skincare routine steps, but actually following them is pretty easy. For best results, keeping it simple is the way to go.