The Best Nighttime Skin-Care Routine

We’ve all seen the studies about why sleep is so important — a full eight hours keeps our bodies and brains more fit, happy, and focused. As it turns out, the effects of sleep on our skin are oddly similar to its effects on our bodies; we can actually wake up with a healthier glow after a night’s rest.

Here’s how it works: While we lay sleeping, our cells go into overdrive to help repair the damage incurred during the day (from contact with environmental pollutants and UV radiation, for example). Our blood vessels dilate, allowing an increased flow of nutrients and oxygen to the skin, which helps stimulate the removal of toxic cellular products. Research shows that our cells even regenerate faster while we’re sleeping.

Cells do this work whether or not we take care of our skin. But, think of the time before you go to bed as an opportunity to feed your skin cells the stuff they need to optimize healing. You can pump 'em with antioxidants to fight UV and free-radical damage, hydrate for improved barrier function and less flakes, regulate oil production to quell congestion and zits, minimize pigmentation...the list goes on. Or, at the very least (on those nights when you're not in bed until the wee hours) you can wash off the day’s grime to create a clean slate for your cellular system.

To figure out how to optimize cellular repair for different skin conditions, we talked to Drs. Melanie Palm (a dermatologist and assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego) and Jessica Wu (a Los Angeles-based dermatologist and author of Feed Your Face). They assured us that the only truly essential steps to late-night skin care — no matter your skin condition — are cleansing and putting on an eye cream.

Read on for the scoop on how to optimize your skin-care routine at night, and wake up to a happier complexion.

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Dull
If your skin is lifeless, it’s likely not just because you’re tired. It could be that your top layer, or the the stratum corneum, is not exfoliating correctly, which leads to build-up of dead skin cells and overall dullness. To help regain that bright, glowy quality, boost skin regeneration at night by exfoliating, hydrating, and delivering a few key ingredients with this cleanser before hitting the sack.

Korres Wild Rose Daily Brightening & Refinishing Buff Cleanser, $28, available at Sephora.
To help rid the skin of dulling buildup, Dr. Palm suggests using a brush and a salicylic acid-laced cleanser to help break down the cell-to-cell barrier and lift the top layer of dead skin. She warns not to overdo it, though: Aggressive exfoliation can cause skin to become oily, irritated, and acne prone, so don’t cleanse with a brush more than a few times per week.

Sephora Collection Cleaning Me Softly Facial Cleansing Brush, $10, available at Sephora.
One of our favorite acne cleansers? This gel formula from Burt's Bees. It contains salicylic acid and willow bark extract to sweep bacteria and grime off your skin, while primrose extract hydrates it.

Burt's Bees Acne Solutions Purifying Gel Cleanser, $10, available at Burt's Bees.
If cleansing brushes aren't your style, try a gentle scrub to slough away dead skin.

Volition Turmeric Brightening Polish, $38, available at Sephora.
The skin’s surface isn’t its the only possible dullness factor; often, dull skin isn’t getting hydrated properly, either. After cleansing, apply products that will hydrate and brighten, such as peptides (which can help with the overall smoothness of the skin) and enzymes (which can help break down dull skin, rejuvenate, and give your complexion a glow).

Om Aroma & Co. Pumpkin Seed Renew Serum, $58, available at Om Aroma & Co.
Finally, Palm suggests practicing patience. Stick with your face-brightening nighttime routine for a few weeks. It will often take that long to see true results if you're using over-the-counter products — and even longer (two to three months) if you're using prescription-strength topicals.

Verso Skincare Night Cream, $100, available at Sephora.
Dull skin? This weekly mask will make your complexion glow, even if you skew sensitive. The cream formulation is non-drying, the turmeric reduces redness, and the cranberry seed gently exfoliates away rough skin.

Kiehl's Tumeric & Cranberry Seed Energizing Radiance Exfoliating Mask, $32, available at Kiehl's.
The sound of lactic acid can be scary, but think of this rejuvenating treatment as a powerful serum that can change your skin overnight. While the formula is gentle enough to put underneath your makeup during the day, we praise its power as it works while we sleep. Layer it over an oil and wake up with redness reduced, tough skin smooth, and pesky bumps gone.

Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment, $158, available at Sephora.
Dry Skin
The PM plan for dry skin is pretty straightforward: Clean your complexion of the day’s grime, pollutants, and leftover sunscreen. Then, pump it with super hydrators and lock that moisture in.

Those with dry skin may find it helpful to perform a gentle two-step cleanse, first using an oil to remove their makeup...

Murad Renewing Cleansing Oil for Face, Eyes & Lips, $32, available at Nordstrom.
And for step two? While any gentle cleanser that won’t strip the skin can be a good option, Dr. Palm particularly likes cleansers stocked with ceramides — the building blocks that help restore the skin barrier.

Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Purifying Cream Cleanser, $29.50, available at SkinStore.
Want to keep the good times rolling and stick to that ceramide goodness? Try the Dr. Jart+ best-selling Cermidin Cream for an extra big boost of moisture.

Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Cream, $48, available at Sephora.
After cleansing, both Wu and Palm recommend delivering water right back to the skin by spraying it with a microfine mist of plain H2O.

Avène Thermal Spring Water, $18, available at Drugstore.com.
Next, lock that soothing blast of water into the skin by applying a moisturizing cream made with hyaluronic acid — a molecule that can attract hundreds of times its volume in water — to seal moisture into the skin.

Sunday Riley Tidal Brightening Enzyme Water Cream, $65, available at Sephora.
Not into creams? Face oils like this one from Drunk Elephant are great for dry skin. It's super-hydrating, but absorbs quickly.

Drunk Elephant Virgin Marula Luxury Facial Oil, $72, available at Sephora.
If you have a few extra minutes to dedicate to Operation Hydration at night, apply a moisturizing serum before your cream or try adding a hydrating mask into the mix a couple of times a week. Dr. Wu notes that these masks can help seal in moisture: “It’s like deep-conditioner for your skin,” she says.

Wilma Schumann Oxygen Moisturizing Serum, $56, available at WilmaSchumann.com.
Oily Skin
Looking to avoid the grease-bomb look during the day? Optimize your nighttime skin-care routine to regulate oil production by focusing on cleansing and feeding your skin nutrients that don’t trigger even more sebum. As Wu points out, those with oily skin tend to have larger pores, so a big part of regulating oil production is getting — and keeping — your skin clean.

Dr. Palm recommends cleansers with either salicylic acid (a beta-hydroxy acid) or sulfur and clays, because they typically sequester oil and rid skin of makeup and dirt. “Salicylic acid is what we call a folliculocentric — a concentrate within the hair follicle and the oil gland; it helps regulate and calm down overly oily skin and helps control breakouts as well,” Palm says, adding that anti-inflammatory sulfur- and clay-based cleansers can achieve similar results.

Shankara Deep Cleanse Treatment, $50, available at Shankara.
Added oil production also means a heightened risk of clogged pores. So, Dr. Palm likes cleansing tools like a konjac sponge or brushes for cleaning oily skin. However, she warns that these tools' effects can be counterproductive if used more than once a day, “You can get a paradoxical increase in oil production from stimulating the skin too much,” she says. Dr. Wu also suggests exfoliating a few times a week to help keep pores clear.

Another key weapon in regulating oily skin? Retinoids and retinols, which help control oil production and the stickiness of skin cells within the hair follicle, Dr. Palm says.

Boscia Konjac Cleansing Sponge with Bamboo Charcoal, $15, available at Sephora.
A moisturizer may not always be necessary for those with oily skin. However, when dry patches surface, a non-comedogenic, light moisturizer can hydrate the skin without clogging pores.

Those with oily skin can generally use retinols and acids like AHAs and BHAs without compromising the skin barrier function, but Dr. Palm advises they steer clear of vitamin E or squalene-centric products, since those have a tendency to increase oil production. And, while ascorbic acid (vitamin C) itself isn’t likely to throw oil production into overdrive, Palm notes that many vitamin-C serums deliver the antioxidant in an oil carrier, which can potentially make oily skin worse.

Decleor Paris Ylang Ylang Purifying Night Balm, $73, available at Beauty.com.
Finally, about midway through our monthly hormonal cycle, when androgen hormone levels spike and cause more oily skin, a little extra TLC in the form of a detoxifying mask and exfoliants can deliver that extra kick to keep oil production in check.

Skin Rescue Purifying Mask, $30, available at Sephora.
Combination Skin
Those with combination skin may assume that practically any product will work on their complexions, since they include oily, dry, and in-between skin. But, when skin conditions change from one zone on the face to another, great skin care lies not so much in which products to use, but in how to use them.

To begin with, Dr. Palm recommends a cleanser with gentle aspects, such as glycolic and AHA washes or a foaming cleanser with antioxidants. These pack the power to lift oil off the skin, but can still calm inflammation and keep the face's dry portions happy.

Ole Henriksen African Red Rea Foaming Cleanser, $30, available at Sephora.
Swipe these pads on before you sleep to resurface and balance skin — all while you rest your eyes.

Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Overnight Resurfacing Pads, $52, available at Sephora.
She also recommends erring on the gentle side when selecting a moisturizer: Pick an emollient-based product with free-radical-fighting antioxidants such as vitamin C (what she calls “the gold standard” antioxidant because of its widely cited benefits) or resveratrol (a very concentrated, grape-derived antioxidant that helps with cellular repair). When it comes to those antioxidant-delivering serums and moisturizers, be sure to hit dryer patches while completely bypassing oily T-zones.

SkinCeuticals Reservatrol B E, $152, available at SkinCeuticals.
When the temperature drops, most skin types benefit from switching to a richer moisturizer to lock in hydration. That’s where this luxurious cream comes in: A bouquet’s worth of rose extract does wonders for keeping skin soft and balanced, but the weightless texture is never greasy and won’t clog pores.

Sisley Paris Black Rose Skin Infusion Cream, $195, available at Sisley Paris.
Palm also recommends a vitamin A derivative — either via a retinoid or retinol — for its anti-aging benefits. Again, use it judiciously by applying to areas that might benefit from oil, wrinkle, and pore control.

Kate Somerville RetAsphere 2-in-1 Retinol Night Cream, $85, available at Sephora.
Instead of turning to abrasive scrubs for more intensive care a few times a week, Palm suggests a low-percentage AHA or BHA peel because they aren’t likely to flare the skin, dilate vessels, or worsen broken blood vessels like a gritty scrub might.

Zelens Resurfacing Facial Pads, $95, available at SpaceNK.
Acneic
As pimply teens, many of us learned that obsessive scrubbing, treating (and, lets face it, picking) can cause even more acne. So, enhance your skin’s natural power to heal itself while you sleep with a before-bed routine that doesn’t go overboard.

Wash away the day’s pollution — and buildup of spot treatment — by cleansing the skin with an oil-free formula made with salicylic acid, an active ingredient proven to help reduce acne lesions.

Eminence Clear Skin Probiotic Cleanser, $38, available at Dermstore.
Both Drs. Palm and Wu point out that some with acneic skin can skip PM moisturizing altogether. And, while pimple sufferers may fear that adding moisture will further clog pores, Wu and Palm note that many acne medicines can dry out the face, creating a need to hydrate. Wu suggests oil-free formulas with hyaluronic acid or glycerin to help bind moisture to the skin without creating greasiness.

Dr. Dennis Gross Hyaluronic Moisture Cushion, $58, available at Sephora.
Dripping an oil on acne-prone skin might sound counterproductive — but this is unlike the others. This dry oil is formulated with 1.5% salicylic acid to loosen and clarify clogged pores, blackheads, and incoming blemishes.

Sunday Riley U.F.O. Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil, $85, available at Sephora.
Dr. Palm advocates the use of a retinoid product, since it can “help control oil production and decrease inflammation in the hair follicle, but also bring anti-aging benefits, like building collagen over time and fighting fine lines and pigmentation.” Important to note: Palm reminds patients to consult with a dermatologist about their combination of products in a routine, since retinoids are deactivated by benzoyl peroxide, a popular active ingredient in acne-fighting products.

Vichy LiftActiv HA Concentrate, $45, available at Ulta.
Mario Badescu's cult-favorite drying lotion is a spot treatment that won't interfere with your retinoid. Stick a cotton swab in the pink pigment, dot it on your problem spots before bed, and you'll wake up asking yourself, "What zits?"

Mario Badescu Drying Lotion, $17, available at Mario Badescu Skin Care.
Want something a little less noticeable? This spot treatment from Kiehl's will help lesson blemishes, without drying out your skin — and it's totally sheer.

Kiehl's Breakout Control Targeted Acne Spot Treatment, $28, available at Kiehl's.
And, while you may feel inspired to turn up the treatment frequency in hopes of erasing blemishes, stick to twice-weekly exfoliating and sulfur-based mask application to retain clear pores, keep skin calm, and discourage breakouts.

Finally, stay away from comedogenic products — like those that are ceramide, squalene, and cholesterol-based — since they can irritate the hair follicle, cause clogging, and lead to more breakouts.
Anyone who struggles with hormonal breakouts probably lives by this quick-fix remedy: The gel mask uses 2% salicylic acid to lift dirt from congested pores, while soothing allantoin calms inflammation. Consider it your skin's answer to monthly breakouts that, otherwise, never seem to go away.

Renée Rouleau Detox Masque, $60.50, available at Renée Rouleau.
Sensitive
For those with sensitive skin, complexion care can be a double-edged sword. Just like everyone else, you should complete a nighttime skin-care routine that counters daytime exposure to pollutants, bacteria, and UV light. But, sometimes, the products designed to do that can cause rashes, flakiness, and redness.

The safest strategy? Keep it simple with a tightly edited skin-care routine — only using what’s necessary.

Palm suggests starting with a milky cleanser that doesn’t sting upon application. Like with other product types for sensitive skin, cleansers should contain no detergents and should have as few ingredients as possible.

“The more you put on your skin, the more potential exposure you’re facing with various ingredients,” Palm says. She recommends trying one new product at a time for a two- to four-week trial each. Then, if something does cause a reaction, you'll be certain of the source.

Kora Organics Cream Cleanser, $52, available at Kora Organics.
When trying a new moisturizer, for example (Dr. Palm suggests something light and made from few ingredients), apply a dab to the cheek for a few nights before going whole-hog — just to make sure the product won’t irritate. She also notes that sensitive skin types should be extra careful when applying things to the eye area or corners of the mouth, since these spots are more prone to irritation.

May Lindstrom The Blue Cocoon, $160, available at May Lindstrom.
This gel cream is a toner and moisturizer in one, to help you minimize the routine you expose your skin to, but still giving it what it needs. With soothing rose water and jojoba oil, it's a safe pick for the more-sensitive among us.

Fresh Rose Hydrating Gel Cream, $40, available at Sephora.
Finally, Dr. Wu notes that sensitive skin can be dry and flakey and could benefit from the extra moisture of a mask a few times a week. Dr. Palm suggests picking formulations that are fragrance-free, preservative-free, and non-oil-producing, in addition to hydrating.

Hada Labo Tokyo Ultimate Anti-Aging Facial Mask, $14.99, available at Ulta.
Pigmented
For those looking to even skin tone by banishing dark spots, the most combative work can be achieved while you sleep. So, Dr. Palm suggests setting the stage for pigmentation repair by using select products to tackle the problem at every stage of a p.m. skin-care routine.

“Make sure you select things that are purposeful...whether it’s a cleanser, pad, or cream,” she says. “You want to ensure every single thing is actively helping with pigmentation; otherwise you're missing an opportunity to help attack it.”

She suggests either a vitamin C or glycolic-based cleanser, as both have been shown to decrease and break down discoloration by interfering with pigmentation pathways that occur in the skin.

Joanna Vargas Vitamin C Face Wash, $65, available at Beauty.com.
Tone-evening kojic acid and retinol make this cream a godsend — especially for those with dark skin.

Urban Skin Rx Even Tone Complexion Correction Night Cream, $68, available at Urban Skin Rx.
This powder cleanser gently buffs and brightens as you massage it over your face, but it'll never leave you feeling dry. Just be sure to wear a higher SPF than usual with a powerful brightening product like this one.

Peter Thomas Roth Camu Camu C x 30 Vitamin C Brightening Cleansing Powder, $45, available at Sephora.
If your skin is tolerant of a retinoid, use one at night to not only help with pigmentation, but also to allow other products to penetrate better. Active ingredients like hydroquinone (the gold standard in banishing dark spots), kojic acid, mushroom extracts, and arbutin have also been shown to help with skin discoloration.

Neutrogena Rapid Tone Repair Dark Spot Corrector, $23.99, available at Ulta.
Aging
If you’re on the warpath to fight aging, and your skin isn’t sensitive, it's time to bring out the big guns. Selecting products with active ingredients small enough to penetrate past the uppermost layer of skin — the stratum corneum — will help affect your skin’s appearance from the inside.

Dr. Palm suggests using an alpha-hydroxy acid-based cleanser (along with at-home pad preparations soaked with AHA and glycol acids) a few times a week, which can help strip the outermost layer of skin and allow greater penetration of other topically applied active ingredients.

Jurlique Balancing Foaming Cleanser, $34, available at Jurlique
Once the skin is primed to receive anti-aging treatments, look for those with peptides, vitamin A derivatives, and antioxidants, since these ingredients can help repair your skin. Dr. Wu echoes the importance of incorporating vitamin A derivatives (retinoids), since they "have decades of research showing that they boost skin’s collagen and elastin tissue production, helping to strengthen and firm.”

The Organic Pharmacy Antioxidant Face Firming Serum, $160, available at The Organic Pharmacy.
Finally, if your skin can take it, stick to a more intensive regimen at night. Dr. Palm says, “if you’re really going for anti-aging and your skin is tolerant, you don’t want to waste time on things that are meant for sensitive skin or aren’t going to be entirely beneficial.”

Orlane Extreme Anti-Wrinkle Regenerating Night Care, $300, available at Orlane.
A combo of vitamins, botanicals, and patented poly-hydroxy acid leaves skin feeling rejuvenated — and not at all greasy.

Exuviance Evening Restorative Complex, $48, available at Ulta.
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