Why You Need a Flexible Skin-Care Routine, According to Experts

Your skin's needs are always changing. Why shouldn't your routine adapt with it?

Practicing skin care
Photo: Carina König/EyeEm/Getty

Your skin is constantly changing. Hormone fluctuations, climate, travel, lifestyle, and aging can all affect things like skin-cell turnover rate, hydration, sebum production, and barrier function. So your basic skin-care routine should also be flexible, adapting to the state of your complexion.

"My routine changes almost daily," says Michelle Henry, M.D., a dermatologist in New York. "I decide which products to use depending on how my skin looks and feels. But I have a few non-negotiables, namely sunscreen and an antioxidant serum, that I consider part of my foundation."

And like Dr. Henry, Tiffany Masterson, the founder of Drunk Elephant, is all about change: The beauty guru says she started her skin-care line on the premise of daily customization. "You open your fridge and decide what you're in the mood to eat," she says. "I view skin care similarly. My goal is to teach people how to read their own skin and treat it appropriately." (

Customizing your basic skin-care routine might look something like this: "On vacation in Italy over the summer, it was really hot and dry, so I wore sunscreen and an antioxidant serum. By day's end, my skin felt battered. So I loaded up on our Lala Retro Whipped Cream (Buy It, $60, sephora.com) before bed. On average, I might use one or two pumps a day. But I applied four," says Masterson. "Back home in humid Houston, I scaled that back to one pump of Lala combined with a drop of B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Serum (Buy It, $48, sephora.com), which is very hydrating but has a much lighter consistency."

You don't need to bust your budget or overstuff your medicine cabinet to create a flexible, basic skin-care routine, either. The key is creating a baseline with just four or five products—and then learning how to step on and off the gas when applying them (think Masterson and her Lala cream).

Work off this standard lineup, then you can play with your dosing as your skin—or situation—dictates:

  • a cleanser
  • a sunscreen for daytime
  • an antioxidant serum
  • an anti-aging treatment for nighttime (typically a serum laced with an active ingredient like retinol or glycolic acid)
  • a basic moisturizer
  • a weekly exfoliant, depending on how sensitive your skin is and how often you use your serums

When to Tweak Your Basic Skin-care Routine

If you’re outdoors all day.

"Double up on your antioxidant serum, applying it both in the morning and at night," says Renée Rouleau, an aesthetician in Austin and the founder of an eponymous skin-care line. "Your skin's antioxidant supply can become depleted if you're outdoors all day, so reapply again at night to up your reserve and stay protected."

Add BeautyRx's Triple Vitamin C Serum (Buy It, $95, dermstore.com) to your basic skin-care routine to give your skin a much-needed antioxidant boost. (Here's why antioxidants are so important for your skin.)

If you’re feeling sensitive.

"If your skin looks dry or red, scale back on anti-aging products that may contribute to irritation," says dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. "Chronic irritation is a sign that your skin's barrier function is disrupted, letting moisture seep out and irritants get in," says Rouleau. She agrees that easing up on formulas that are very active (and potentially irritating) and slathering on a generous amount of nonactive moisturizer will support the barrier and give it time to repair itself.

If this problem is chronic, dial down your use of anti-aging products like L'Oréal Paris Revitalift Term Intensives 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum (Buy It, $30, ulta.com) to every two or three days.

If it’s really cold outside.

In winter, when temperatures dip and humidity is low, consider swapping the order of your product application. The general rule is to apply active products first (for example, put on your antioxidant serum or your anti-aging treatment before your moisturizer).

But when skin is prone to dehydration and barrier-function disruption, applying your moisturizer, like the SkinBetter Science Trio Rebalancing Moisture Treatment (Buy It, $135, skinbetter.com) before your retinol or glycolic acid may stave off irritation because the moisturizing ingredients can penetrate more readily, and it slightly reduces the potency (and potential irritancy) of your active treatment.

If you work out in the a.m.

Even if you don't normally wash your face in the morning, cleanse after an early workout to minimize pore-clogging bacteria that can grow in oil or sweat. Then do it again before bed. "It's important to wash off all the impurities that accumulate throughout the day. This ensures that you have a clean slate when applying your products at night," says dermatologist Shereene Idriss, M.D.

Stash a bottle of Philosophy Purity Made Simple One-Step Facial Cleanser (Buy It, $24, sephora.com) in your gym bag to wipe away all the dirt and grime you've built up during your workout. (

When to Add a New Treatment to Your Basic Skin-care Routine

If you’re traveling a lot.

"Airplane travel, especially east to west, can wreak havoc on the skin," says Shape Brain Trust member Neal Schultz, M.D., a dermatologist in New York. "Resetting your clock is a big stress on your system and can cause both breakouts and dehydration." The cure for both conditions: Up your gentle exfoliation with an extra at-home treatment like Renée Rouleau Triple Berry Smoothing Peel (Buy It, $89, reneerouleau.com) before and after your flight.

Removing dead-skin cells minimizes the risk of pore clogging and enables moisturizing ingredients to penetrate when applied. (P.S. Demi Lovato has been using the triple berry peel for years.)

If you break out around your period.

"A lot of my patients become oilier and get pimples that coincide with their periods," says Dr. Idriss. "Switching up the type of cleanser you're using—say, from a lotion-based cleanser to something gel based—can make all the difference in how your skin reacts throughout your cycle."

Try Honest Beauty Gentle Gel Cleanser (Buy It, $13, target.com) when it's that time of the month to eliminate excess and built-up oil.

If your moisturizer just isn’t enough.

"Seasonally, especially in a dry, cold winter, you might need to layer a skin oil on top of your regular moisturizer," says Rouleau. An oil like Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil (Buy It, $34, sephora.com) tends to be occlusive enough to act as a shield in frigid wind, but an everyday moisturizer may let the skin's barrier develop tiny cracks that moisture leaks out of and irritants sneak into.

If an adding yet another product to your basic skin-care routine stresses you out, you can also switch to a richer moisturizer, like Dr. Barbara Sturm Face Cream Rich (Buy It, $230, sephora.com), and use a creamy hydrating mask like Tata Harper Hydrating Floral Mask (Buy It, $95, sephora.com) at least once a week.

How to Figure Out Your Skin Type

Quite a few patients get their skin type wrong, often because they haven't realized that it's changed, says Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, M.D., a dermatologist in New York. Follow her helpful techniques to self-assess correctly.

  1. Analyze your skin at the end of a typical day. Ask yourself if your face looks shiny. You may have oily skin. Is only your T-zone slick? Then you have combination skin. If you feel tight, you're likely dry.
  2. Wash your face with a gentle, mild cleanser (one with granules or acids will cause a false reading), then wait 30 minutes. Now check out your skin. Is it screaming for moisture, red, or oily? React accordingly.
  3. Know the difference between sensitive skin and irritated skin. Sensitive skin is an ongoing condition that can require treatment. Irritated skin occurs when you expose skin to a certain ingredient or environment.
Was this page helpful?
Related Articles