How To Build A Minimalist Skin Care Routine (Derm’s Guide)

How To Build A Minimalist Skin Care Routine (Derm’s Guide)

Every one of us has at some time or the other has gone through this:

You have a skincare routine and it works for your skin. Then one day you see a new skincare product on your Instagram page which every influencer seems to love. You buy that, and the perfect balance of your routine is broken.

To mend that, you buy more products that promise to calm and heal your skin, you cannot stay fixed on your routine anymore and the cycle goes on and on.

Does all of this sound familiar to you? I know it does to me.

After going through a crazy skincare experimental phase myself, and after treating hundreds of patients with this history, I have become a firm believer of what may best be described as ‘minimalist skincare’.

That does not mean using the same three products the entire time, but listening to your skin and buying and using targeted products for prevention and treatment of your skincare concern, and at the same time strengthening your skin health.

In the current frenzy of skincare products and marketing tactics tempting you to buy more, it is difficult to restrict oneself to a minimalistic approach. But with this article, I am going to tell you why to do that and how to do that and why you absolutely need to stop overusing skincare products.

Trust me, not just your skin, but your wallet will also thank you for that.

Skincare minimalism: Why do you need that?

A lot of people find their skincare routine therapeutic. And there is of course a lot of validation on the internet for that. A 10 step skincare routine apparently is the secret behind Asian glass skin, and all the influencers seem to be doing it.

But have you seen a dermatologist or a medical skin care expert advising that? In all likelihood, no! Most stick to advising 3 or a maximum of 4 skincare products in one routine.

Here is why:

1. A lot of ‘active’ products irritate the skin

One of the worst things you can do for your skin is layering multiple active ingredients in a routine. This irritates the skin and damages the skin barrier necessary for the healthy functioning of the skin. Once the skin barrier is compromised, it leads to loss of water from the skin surface giving rise to dry and inflamed patches.

Multiple ingredients have different optimal pH for which they are formulated and they work best at that level of acidity. Putting products with different pH one after the other causes pH spikes on the skin, and, although the skin can regulate its own pH in a few hours, frequent short-term pH changes can be damaging to the skin in the long term. (1)

2. Interaction of ingredients

Most products that we buy are tested for stability and efficacy in their finished state. When multiple skincare products are worn with each other, it could change the way ingredients interact with each other and its effect on the skin.

In addition to that, most skincare products with actives have penetration enhancers in their ingredient lists which cause skin barrier to dysfunction for a short period of time for effective delivery of the active ingredient.

When multiple such penetration enhancers come in contact with the skin, the barrier is disrupted to a larger extent, and the active ingredients penetrate more than desired causing increased irritation. (2)

3. Every time your skin undergoes irritation, it ages a little

Trying all the products currently in ‘trend’ could be very tempting. Especially the ones that seem to fit the budget. But every time you try a new product that does not sit so well with the skin and irritates it, it damages the skin barrier.

This damage to the skin barrier makes it look red, feel irritated and it not only takes weeks to recover but also releases free radicals causing oxidative damage and accelerates skin aging. (3) So the more you experiment with the skin, the more the chances are that it may go wrong with some products and you could end up adding months to your skin’s age.

Starting a minimalistic skincare routine

Now that you have decided to go this route and give your skin and bank account some relief, the question is how to start planning. Here are some tips:

1. Set up your preventive and corrective goals

Across the age groups, ethnicities, and genders, preventive goals of skincare remain the same- preventing the signs of aging, preventing acne and pigmentation, and maintaining a calm, healthy skin barrier with no signs of irritation and redness.

The preventive steps include using a product to protect the skin from the most damaging external factor- the sun by using sunscreen, a product to neutralize the stress caused by the environment with antioxidants, and a product to stabilize the skin barrier like a good moisturizer.

On the contrary, corrective goals are highly individual. It could be to improve the fine lines, fade the pigmentation, or any other skin concern your skin is currently suffering through. You can choose one or two concerns and get products that target those. If you have multiple concerns, use the targeted products on alternate nights.

As a piece of general advice, use the daytime routine to prevent, and night time to treat.

2. Buy products with multitasking ingredients

We are lucky to be living in a time with so much skincare research at our disposal. There are new ingredients, new research popping up by the minute. It could be a challenge to keep up with all of that and decide on what your skin needs.

A good solution to this is to choose multitasking all-rounders ingredients. That means ingredients that target more than one concern. Through this, you should be able to cut down your skincare steps and still be able to get great results. It is a great way of practicing less is more skincare, without compromising the results.

For example, a potent retinoid (like tretinoin, retinal, or retinol) can fight acne, pigmentation and reduce the signs of aging. (4) Sunflower oil can moisturize the skin while working as an anti-inflammatory at the same time. (5)

If it seems too tedious to find out what one ingredient can do, do not go for products that rely on solo ingredients to perform, select a product that has more than one active ingredient.

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3. Giving your skincare time to work

We live in the times of fast fashion and a shirt that does not look flattering on the body type ends up in a corner of the closet and never sees the light of day. Do not keep up with this practice when it comes to skincare.

While some products like moisturizers or skin-calming products should show improvement quickly within days, more complex products meant to be anti-aging or fight pigmentation can actually take weeks or months to show results. Changing products in your routine frequently will not only make your skin agitated, but it will also not result in any significant improvement of your concerns that you want to achieve.

The only reasonable reason to throw away a product that you have just bought is when you do not tolerate it. If you feel like your skin is irritated, or breaking out after using a certain product, you should discontinue it.

4. If your skincare works, stick to it

And why not? If your skin looks healthy, feels calm, and your skin concerns seem to be improving at a steady rate, stick to it. Do not introduce new products and throw them off balance. The skin naturally needs changes with the season, hormones, and multiple other external factors, in that case, it is okay to change a couple of products to adjust with your skin changes. But otherwise, do not change a winning team.

5. Meet an expert

If your skincare does not seem to be working for you, do not continue to experiment and add skincare products to your routine until the breakpoint. See a dermatologist and get expert advice on your skin concern. No dermatologist is going to prescribe you a 10 step skincare routine, so if you cannot seem to push yourself to skincare minimalism, let an expert do it for you.

6. Skip these steps:

Minimalist beauty routine also requires ‘minimalist’ product choices. That means cutting down on skincare that you do not absolutely need.

  • If you do not have a particular concern with your undereye area, you do not need a separate eye cream. Your face moisturizer should work just as well for your under-eye area.
  • Similarly, you do not need a different cream for your neck. The skin on the neck is just as sensitive as the facial skin and is also exposed to a lot of environmental stressors. It needs a good amount of pampering, just like the facial skin.
  • You do not need facial mist, toner, and essence. They are essentially similarly formulated. Choose one of them if you want to. But you do not need all of them.
  • Facial tools: There is no evidence that facial stones or rollers help penetrate your skincare products better, or stimulate collagen production. This is an unnecessary step in your skincare routine.

Steps to a minimalistic skincare routine

When it comes to designing a minimal skincare routine, it involves just the same basic steps but with specific goals in mind:

1. Cleansing

According to your skin type go preferably for one cleanser that you could use for morning and night.

  • The cleanser should be strong enough to remove the dirt and products from the skin, and at the same time, should not dry out the skin. There should be no after-wash tightness.
  • In order to make the other products penetrate the skin better, the cleanser should not leave a film on the skin either. Instead, choose mild cleansing agents with moisturizing ingredients. (6)
  • Make sure that the pH of the cleanser is below 5.5. A cleanser above the skin’s natural pH could irritate and damage the skin.
  • If you wear waterproof makeup and sunscreen, use a double cleansing method in the evening. A double cleansing method involves using micellar water or an oil-based cleanser to break the makeup and follow it up with a mild water-based cleanser or cleansing milk.
  • Avoid deep cleansers with harsh tensides.
  • Avoid using cleansing brushes and makeup wipes.

2. Exfoliating (And not over-exfoliating)

Exfoliating products containing Alpha, Beta, or Polyhydroxy acids and mechanical exfoliators improve the skin texture and increase the dead skin cell turnovers. Most of the exfoliating products in the market advise exfoliation daily, and some even twice daily. This is one of the worst things you can do to your skin.

The dead skin cells shed themselves. Exfoliation just assists this process. But it is also important to remember that they are there for a reason- to protect the living skin cells from external wear and tear and to form a layer to prevent water loss. Once you remove that protective layer aggressively, your skin starts losing moisture, gets inflamed, and is more prone to irritation from other products.

Signs of over-exfoliation are:

  • Tight shiny skin
  • Red inflamed skin with a sensitivity that burns every time a product is applied, even a mild moisturizer
  • Patches of dryness between otherwise oily skin.

If any of these is happening to your skin, it is time to take a break from exfoliation. Follow these tips to get the most out of your exfoliating products:

  • It is prudent to limit the exfoliation to 1-3 times a week depending on your skin’s condition
  • Do not combine exfoliating with any other irritating products like retinoids or Vitamin C.
  • If you do not tolerate leave-on products, use a cleanser containing exfoliants on alternate days.
  • Always moisturize liberally after exfoliation, and make sure to wear sunscreen every day if you exfoliate regularly.
  • Physical exfoliating products with walnut/apricot shells cause micro-injuries to the skin and do not belong to a healthy skincare routine. If you like physical exfoliation, choose rounded beads or water-soluble ingredients which do not scratch the skin.
  • Choose chemical exfoliators according to the skin concern. Choose polyhydroxy acid or enzyme peels over alpha-hydroxy acids if you have sensitive skin. Consider beta hydroxy acids /salicylic acid if you have acne-prone skin.

3. Moisturizing

Regardless of the skin type, and regardless of skin concern, everyone needs a moisturizer in their essential skincare routine.

  • Moisturizers, depending upon the ingredients, can bind moisture on the surface of the skin (humectants), prevent water loss (occlusives) into the atmosphere, and make the skin soft and smooth (emollients). A good moisturizer contains ingredients from at least two categories of the above.
  • An extraordinary moisturizer, however, performs over and above these basic functions. Apart from just ‘moisturizing’, a multitasking moisturizer also repairs the damaged skin barrier, soothes the skin with its anti-inflammatory properties, and protects inflamed skin from external irritation, for example, plant oils, natural moisturizing factors, or ceramides. (8)
  • A minimalistic skincare would involve a moisturizer which hydrates, repairs, and protects. It could either be the same moisturizer for day and night or a lighter formula for the day and richer for the night.

Pro tip:

Do not think that a cream (richer) is always a better moisturizer than a lotion. A good combination of ingredients in a lotion can perform just as well as a cream in hydrating the skin and improving skin’s quality. (7)

4. Preventing

Like all of us have always learned, prevention is better than cure. When it comes to skincare, preventive practices can save you a lot of trouble, whether it is aging, pigmentation, or skin cancer.

Sunscreen:

The single most important habit that you need to integrate into your skincare routine is using sunscreen. Sun is responsible for more than half of your skin’s problems like aging, pigmentation, uneven skin tone, and texture, and of course, it is the most important risk factor in skin cancer.

Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with high UVA and UVB protection. Choose a texture that you are comfortable wearing every day, even when you are indoors sitting near a window during the daytime. (9) Apply sunscreen liberally- at least half a teaspoon for your face and neck to achieve the desired level of protection. Complement the sunscreen with a broad-rimmed hat and sunglasses when you are out in the sun.

A sunscreen with moisturizer will also provide the same protection listed on the product package, provided you use it in sufficient amounts. If you want to go for a minimalist morning routine by skipping moisturizer, go for a moisturizing sunscreen instead.

Antioxidants:

A lot of damage due to external factors like the sun or pollution is a result of free radical formation. These free radicals are reactive oxygen molecules that react with the DNA causing the acceleration of skin aging. This shows on the skin as wrinkling or pigmentation.

Some of the free radicals can be neutralized by the body itself, but as we age this capacity of fighting the free radicals reduce and our body needs an extra boost. This boost is provided by the use of an antioxidant-containing product which should be a part of your morning skincare routine. (10) Using antioxidants in the morning also improves the sun protection factor of the sunscreen.

Starting an antioxidant product early in your skincare journey will reduce the need for multiple repair/treatment products in the future.

A lot of antioxidants do more than just fighting the free radicals. For example, Vitamin C can also assist in treating hyperpigmentation and production of collagen, green tea extracts soothe the skin and also improve the skin texture. Try to opt for such high-performing antioxidant ingredients to get the most out of your products.

Pro tip:

Instead of buying a separate antioxidant serum, use a sunscreen containing antioxidants or a moisturizer containing antioxidants to layer under sunscreen to reduce the steps in your morning routine.

5. Treating

This step targets the particular skin concern(s) you are facing at a particular point in time or trying to avoid (like aging or pigmentation). This step usually involves high potent actives and thus increases the chances of irritation and damage to the skin barrier. It is important to go about carefully with this step to make the most of it without overkill.

  • As mentioned above, do not combine more than one actives in one step. Instead, if you are trying to use more than one actives, use them alternate evenings.
  • Start with low potency, and give your skin time to recover in the case of irritation before applying the same product again.
  • Using the most potent version of every active is not necessary. It is important to keep your skin healthy by avoiding any unnecessary irritation and to improve compliance. Do not be short-sighted. Skincare is a lifelong commitment and you need a partner with whom you can stick it out, and not just for a short-term adventure.
  • Do not focus on one ingredient. Read the ingredient list of the product. Most of the well-formulated products may be targeting more than one of your concerns. If you know the product well, the chances that you will need more and more products will be less.

In case you do not tolerate an active overnight, instead of throwing it and buying a new product immediately afterward, try the following 3 tips:

1. Always use them on dry skin.
2. Try short contact therapy. Wash off the product 2-3 hours after application with water and apply a generous layer of moisturizer afterward. Do it daily, till your skin starts tolerating the product better.
3. Try the sandwich method. Apply the product containing the active ingredient between two layers of soothing moisturizer. This definitely dampens the strength of the active but gives your skin time to adjust to it.

Conclusion

The trend of minimalism in skincare is catching up, and it is never too early to jump into this bandwagon. It does not include just a bare minimum of products on your skin, but practicing mindfulness when it comes to choosing your skincare. A way to target and prevent without over-treating and irritating. Skincare minimalism is not just easy on your skin but also on your pocket and the environment.

Did we make you change your mind about your current skincare routine? Let us know in the comments below.

If you have a friend going overboard with skincare and they (and their skin) can’t take it anymore, share this article with them.

We believe in skincare that is scientifically accurate and promotes the well-being of your skin. We help you make the best decisions. To get our articles about skincare and products directly in your inbox, subscribe to our mailing list to never miss an article.


References

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  2. Gupta, R., Dwadasi, B., Rai, B. et al. Effect of Chemical Permeation Enhancers on Skin Permeability: In silico screening using Molecular Dynamics simulations. Sci Rep 9, 1456 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-37900-0
  3. Nakai K, Yoneda K, Kubota Y. Oxidative stress in allergic and irritant dermatitis: from basic research to clinical management. Recent Pat Inflamm Allergy Drug Discov. 2012 Sep;6(3):202-9. doi: 10.2174/187221312802652839. PMID: 22827837.
  4. Khalil S, Bardawil T, Stephan C, Darwiche N, Abbas O, Kibbi AG, Nemer G, Kurban M. Retinoids: a journey from the molecular structures and mechanisms of action to clinical uses in dermatology and adverse effects. J Dermatolog Treat. 2017 Dec;28(8):684-696. doi: 10.1080/09546634.2017.1309349. Epub 2017 Apr 2. PMID: 28318351.
  5. Lin TK, Zhong L, Santiago JL. Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils. Int J Mol Sci. 2017 Dec 27;19(1):70. doi: 10.3390/ijms19010070. PMID: 29280987; PMCID: PMC5796020.
  6. Ananthapadmanabhan KP, Leyden JJ, Hawkins SS. Recent Advances in Mild and Moisturizing Cleansers. J Drugs Dermatol. 2019 Jan 1;18(1s):s80-88. PMID: 30681816.
  7. Draelos ZD. Modern moisturizer myths, misconceptions, and truths. Cutis. 2013 Jun;91(6):308-14. PMID: 23837155.
  8. Harwood A, Nassereddin A, Krishnamurthy K. Moisturizers. [Updated 2020 Jun 2]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545171/
  9. Suozzi K, Turban J, Girardi M. Cutaneous Photoprotection: A Review of the Current Status and Evolving Strategies. Yale J Biol Med. 2020;93(1):55-67. Published 2020 Mar 27.
  10. McDaniel, D. H., Waugh, J. M., Jiang, L. I., Stephens, T. J., Yaroshinsky, A., Mazur, C., Wortzman, M., & Nelson, D. B. (2019). Evaluation of the Antioxidant Capacity and Protective Effects of a Comprehensive Topical Antioxidant Containing Water-soluble, Enzymatic, and Lipid-soluble Antioxidants. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 12(4), 46–53.å

About The Author

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Board-Certified Dermatologist

Dermatology (Stanley Medical College, Chennai)

Germany

Dr. Singh studied dermatology from one of the most prestigious medical colleges of India – Stanley Medical College, Chennai. After finishing her post-graduation she went on to work as a consultant dermatologist in one of the largest cosmetology clinic chains in India – Kaya skin clinic. Working alongside expert aesthetic dermatologists of India, she worked extensively with customized skincare as well as lasers and injectables. Alongside, training under famous hair transplant surgeon – Dr. Venkataram Mysore, she learnt the nitty gritties of hair treatments. After doing two traveling fellowships in dermatology in Germany, she decided to settle there. Currently dividing her time between practicing dermatology and aesthetic medicine, she finds immense joy in educating people about the science behind skincare and haircare.

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