Skin Basics – 4 Multi Stage Steps
When I really got into skincare 15 years ago, I was making my own vitamin c serum with water and l-ascorbic acid powder after reading about the proven, Holy Trinity of Skin – vitamin c, tretinoin, and sunscreen. These three ingredients are the most effective way to prevent wrinkles, acne, discoloration, pigmentation, age spots and everything else that you try to prevent your skin from doing. It was hard to find something without vitamin E/tocopherol which is a major cystic acne trigger for me unless it’s way way diluted. I also used Differin in 2005/2006, a weak retinoid that was Rx only at the time, and it did nothing for my acne prone, oily, thick skin. After discovering a retinaldehyde and glycolic acid based cream, my acne cleared up. Since then, those 4 ingredients (vitamin c, retinoid, an acid, sunscreen) have been constants in my routine, even during the Asian 10 step routine trend. I always look for those ingredients during different stages of my routine. After participating in the K-Beauty craze of layering product after product with fun new and exciting ingredients, I decided to streamline and go back to basics with the trinity + AHA to help loosen the dead cells. It’s still multiple products (8) but they are all purposeful and performance-driven.
I want to stress that this is what works me and does not mean it will work for you. It’s just a skeleton you can work off of if you have a similar skin type and concerns. My skin concerns are typical of women in their 30s – we want a bright glowing complexion while ensuring we are preventing wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. This routine does exactly that and it doesn’t have to be product specific because there are affordable options for a vitamin c, AHA/BHA, retinoid, and sunscreen for everyone. I try to be inclusive of all socioeconomic backgrounds when reviewing/recommending a product but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love a bit of luxury!
Step 1: Cleanse
stage a: balm cleanser – creamy, oil-based balm or cream designed to melt makeup, sunscreen, grime of the day.
stage b: regular cleanser – can be foam, gel, milk, cream to cleanse the skin. If your stage 1 balm/cream cleanser rinses clean, you can use the same one.
I use a washcloth to remove my cleanser so nearly all types of cleansers work on me. Washcloth is highly recommended and makes a tremendous difference because it lightly exfoliates and removes all product from the skin. A friend of mine recommended this to me when I was a pimply 13 year old but I was way too aggressive with it. I tried again in my early 20s, gently, since I was wearing tons of makeup and always had residue around my hairline after double cleansing. Now, if I go for a while without using a washcloth for a while, I immediately feel a difference in my skin. I get a few 6-packs of washcloths from Target so I have a fresh one daily. Also, Caroline Hirons told you to do it, so why wouldn’t you?!
Step 2: Treat
This is where your active ingredient products go. Use just one at a time.. choose between AHAs/BHAs & vitamin c in the AM, and choose either of 1 of the 3 below in the PM:
- stable vitamin C
- an exfoliant with AHAs/BHAs
- retinoid in the PM alone.
Also – you don’t have to do use the strongest actives. In fact if you’re just starting to incorporate actives, you should start at the lowest, most mild concentrations so your skin can get used to it. Again, here you need to use the absolute best in each category that you can afford. I think of this stage as whipping my skin into shape and preparing it for what’s next.
Step 3: Hydrate
stage a: serum – this is where you replenish your skin. When you start incorporating acids your skin responds better to what you put on after. Serums with antioxidants, peptides, hydrators like b5, growth factors (can go before retinoids/aha/bha/c) are excellent here.
stage b: moisturizer – this nourishes and seals in your skincare. This can be a cream/oil/both depending on your skin. This is a lush step for me and I love to experiment here! This step is, sadly, usually very expensive for me. I’m super grateful to the universe that I can afford all of the products I try!
Step 4: Protect AM
SUNSCREEN! Important at every age and non-negotiable when practicing an active skincare routine. I have been wearing sunscreen everyday since I was 15 years old and I think I have great skin for someone who smoked for 10+ years (AH). This is an extremely important step that most people overlook and then generously use exfoliating ingredients. You’re just damaging your skin more when you don’t protect it.
How I Incorporate Actives
Best way to get vitamin C in routine: In the AM treatment stage or in place of an acid/tretinoin in the PM.
Best way to get AHA/BHAs in routine: a liquid exfoliant or toner like Biologique Recherche P50. Nothing beats this. I started using it in 2012 after getting a facial at Paul Labrecque in Midtown. I was fascinated and found Caroline Hiron’s blog post on it and the rest is history. Prior to P50, I had tried Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Pads, DDF Glycolic Toner, Mario Badescu and Paula’s Choice types which left unremarkable results.
Every one I know with bad acne has benefitted from using an AHA/BHA product. I recommend speaking to a Biologique Recherche product expert to determine the best one to start with if you chose to try P50. On that note, every skin type benefits from using an AHA appropriate for their skin type, it doesn’t have to be P50. Find what works for you! Lactic acid is pretty mild to start with. I often mix it up and use a AHA/BHA based serum or peel pad.
Another great way to get AHAs/BHAs into your routine is by doing peels/masks. Some of my favorites are the Jan Marini Luminate Face Mask with lactic acid, mandelic acid, and alpha-arbutin, Biossance Squalane + Glycolic Renewal Facial, and Renee Rouleau Triple Berry Peel.
Best way to get retinoid in routine: ONLY in the PM and NEVER with AHA/BHA/vitamin C.
***Do not use retinol, retinaldehyde, or tretinoin on skin or orally if pregnant or breastfeeding ***
The only retinoids I believe in are retinaldehyde/retinAL or tretinoin. Retinol is great and plentiful in the drugstores but rarely is it ever in a product at a high enough concentration unless it specifically says so (see: Skinceuticals Retinol). Retinol converts to retinoic acid on the skin in a 2 step process (retinol -> retinaldehyde -> retinoic acid) whereas retinaldehyde is just 1 oxidative process (retinaldehyde -> retinoic acid). If you’ve been feeling bummed about retinol not doing anything for you and every tretinoin formula drying you out — RETINALDEHYDE IS FOR YOU! It’s the perfect middle ground. Anyway, I only use a retinoid 2-3 times a week because that’s not only effective enough to see results, but it allows me to incorporate the AHAs and vitamin c products without damaging or stripping my moisture barrier. I keep my PM routine very simple when using a retinoid and give it 25-30mins to absorb before adding hydrators on top. I usually alternate with an exfoliant on non-retinoid nights.
I love trying new, innovative skincare products that flawlessly blend into my core 4. In my 30s now, I’m more concerned with preparing my skin for microneedling and lasers to resurface and correct pock marks and minimize the look of pores. The best way to do that is to continuously use The Holy Trinity until ready for medical skin treatments. You have to stop using actives for a week before beginning a medical skin treatment like lasers or microneedling, but afterwards everything works better as your skin naturally starts to heal itself and absorbs those anti-aging warriors for smooth, glowing, flawless skin.