A dermatologist makes the case for incorporating small changes into your skin-care routine.

By Renee Cherry
January 10, 2020
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If you've been meaning to start taking your skin-care routine seriously, there's no time like the present. But resist the urge to Google "best skin-care routine" and then make an immediate and massive overhaul to your medicine cabinet. As with any goal, taking baby steps is the way to go, says Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine. She suggests coming up with a plan and making one small change per week. Think of it the way you would a more traditional new year's resolution. If you go from avoiding the gym to aiming to crush HIIT workouts six days a week, you'll be more likely to give up than if you had you made incremental changes.

Plus, piling on all the skin-care products can do more harm than good. Certain combinations of different products can make your skin especially prone to becoming red, flaky, or itchy, and applying too much product can increase your risk of a reaction, Arielle Kauvar, M.D., director of New York Laser & Skin Care, previously told SHAPE.

Before you dive into this four-week skin-care challenge, know that while every face and its skin concerns are different, these four small tweaks are basically universal steps to achieve better skin. If you choose to try this again, but with other mico goals or products consider your lifestyle, skin type, and regimen starting point. For now, here's a sample of a four-week plan to better skin could look like, according to Dr. Gohara. (Related: Here's Exactly Why You Need a Nighttime Skin-Care Routine)

Week One: Wash your face every day.

On days when you got slammed at work and your commute took forever, just taking off your makeup can seem like a herculean task. Goal number one can be to wash your face at night even when you really don't feel like it. "Sweat, makeup, pollutants, or whatever you come in contact with throughout the day is all accumulating and just kind of sitting on your face," says Dr. Gohara. "Some of it will naturally shed but some of it needs a little help to come off." Washing your face provides that extra boost. Make sure to use a cleanser in your nightly face-care routine, but whether to also use one in the morning is a matter of personal preference, she says. (Related: The Best Skin Care Routine for Oily Skin)

Week Two: Up your sunscreen efforts.

'I've been applying sunscreen every two hours for my entire life,' said no one ever. Everyone has room for improvement on the sunscreen front, so after you've established your face washing habit, turn your attention to SPF. (Related: How Top Dermatologists Apply Their Own Sunscreen (Plus Their Favorite Sun Blockers))

Before you tune this out, consider Dr. Gohara's hack that makes sunscreen application feel like less of a chore: Choose formulas for your everyday face care that don't have the scent and feel of traditional sunscreen. For her initial product layer in the morning, she applies a moisturizer that has SPF to get double the skin health benefits in just one product. For SPF reapplication throughout the day, she goes for a powder sunscreen, since it's easy to apply over makeup and can soak up excess oil.

Pro tip: find a powder with iron oxide in it. "Iron oxide is something that not only protects you from ultraviolet light but also visible light like the lightbulbs in your office and blue light from your computer or phone screen," says Dr. Gohara. Colorscience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50 (Buy It, $65, dermstore.com) Avène High Protection Tinted Compact SPF 50 (Buy It, $36, dermstore.com), and IT Cosmetics CC+ Airbrush Perfecting Powder (Buy It, $35, sephora.com) all incorporate iron oxide.

Week Three: Start using an exfoliator.

With steps one and two complete, you can move on to adding an exfoliator to your skin-care routine. "We lose like 50 million skin cells a day naturally," says Dr. Gohara. Like cleansing, exfoliating is a key to completely removing dead skin cells so they don't sit on the surface of your skin, which can leave it looking dull. (Related: 5 Skin-Care Mistakes That Are Costing You, According to a Dermatologist)

Which type of exfoliant works best for you will depend on your skin type. There are two types: mechanical, aka physical exfoliants, which use grit to remove dead skin cells (think: scrubs) and chemical exfoliants, which use enzymes or acids (e.g. glycolic acid or lactic acid) to break down gluten, proteins that binds dead skin cells together, so that they're more easily removed. If you aren't sure what product to try, read up on the best way to exfoliate according to your skin type.

Week Four: Add vitamin C.

Is vitamin C really worth all the hype? Dr. Gohara says yes. "I think vitamin C just makes everybody look better," she says. "It's a powerful antioxidant for the skin. There are these things called free radicals that are little chemical particles that wreak cosmetic havoc in the skin." They break down collagen, causing the skin to thin out and lose elasticity. Antioxidants offer protection; Dr. Gohara compares antioxidants to Pac Man and free radicals to the little pellets that he gobbles up. Not only is vitamin C one of the most powerful antioxidants, but it also helps build collagen, she says.

You could spend hours researching vitamin C products, but there are a few key qualities that separate the good from the great. Dr. Gohara suggests going with a serum since they're light and easy to layer, and trying to find a formula with 10–20 percent concentration of vitamin C. She also likes options that combine vitamin C and vitamin E together. Some studies suggest vitamin C works better when combined with other antioxidants. Skinceuticals C E Ferulic (Buy It, $166, dermstore.com) and Paula's Choice Boost C15 Super Booster Concentrated Serum (Buy It, $49, nordstrom.com) check all three boxes.

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