8 Skin-Care Products You Should Be Using, Ranked By Importance

We’ve come a long way from our grandmothers' cold creams. These days, the products in the beauty aisle are stocked with a whirlwind of claims, an alphabet’s worth of acids and vitamins, and every possible formulation you could imagine. (What the heck does a toner do, anyway?) It can all make finding a daily routine overwhelming — to say the least. What do you truly need to keep your skin healthy, happy, and radiant?
The answer depends, in part, on how much time you’re willing to invest. For some, a quick and easy two-step method can get the job done. But, if you have a few extra minutes, an antioxidant-rich vitamin-C serum or a wonder-working exfoliant (like the beloved Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid) can make a huge difference. It’s simply a matter of knowing when you should add what to your daily regimen. Don't worry — we won't leave you hanging. We spoke to the pros to piece together the best skin-care routines for when you have two minutes or 20. And none of them involve cold cream.
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Two-Step Routine: Cleanse & Protect

It’s unanimous: Every skin-care expert we asked said that if you only have time for two steps in your routine, cleansing and sun protection are musts. (Moisturizer is key, too, but you can cut down on steps by choosing one that contains sunscreen, says Dr. Melissa Garshick of Medical Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery Center in NYC.) Sensitive skin types can look to derm favorites Cetaphil and CeraVe for a gentle cleanser, but if you’re looking for a true multitasker, reach for one with exfoliating glycolic or salicylic acids. “Using an exfoliating cleanser a few times a week...cleans out your pores and [increases] skin-cell turnover,” says Garshick. And, of course, we always preach the importance of SPF. Daily sunscreen application can protect against the long-term effects of sun damage, including dark spots and wrinkles — even if you're only going for a short walk outside, says Garschick.
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3-Step Routine: Do Damage Control With An Antioxidant Serum

If you’ve read anything about healthy eating in the last decade or two, you’re probably familiar with the notion of adding antioxidants to your daily diet. But these miracle-workers are just as important in your a.m. skin-care routine as they are in your green smoothie. Of the many choices out there, vitamin C is king. When applied topically, it can reduce fine lines, even skin tone, and brighten your skin. Plus, it can repair the damage that occurs throughout the day from UV and environmental stress, says Garshick. If your label doesn't say vitamin C outright, look for L-ascorbic acid or ferulic acid in the list of ingredients. These will act as your skin's daily control-Z button.
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4-Step Routine: Exfoliate Dead Skin Cells

Exfoliation is "out with the old, in with the new" in practice. “By removing buildup of dead skin cells, it leaves your skin feeling refreshed and renewed and actually allows you to better absorb other key ingredients,” says Garshick. Without exfoliation, even the most luxe moisturizer will just sit on top of your skin. Look for chemical exfoliants with alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) or beta hydroxy acid (BHA) versus gritty, abrasive physical exfoliants, which can be too harsh on your skin. Paula’s Choice Skin-Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid uses salicylic acid to improve hydration, smooth out bumps and fine lines, and visibly shrink pores the gentle way.
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5-Step Routine: Find A Moisturizer & A Sunscreen That Meet Your Needs

Although multitasking products can be time-saving heroes, if you have more time in your routine, separating your moisturizer and sunscreen into two separate steps allows you to zero in on what works for your skin type. “Particularly for those with combination skin, it's important to find a moisturizer that is non-comedogenic but will still be hydrating,” says Garshick. A boost of hyaluronic acid will also hydrate and protect against fine lines, thanks to its superpower abilities to absorb and replenish moisture. Joanna Vargas (celebrity facialist and founder of Joanna Vargas Salon and Skincare Collection) is preferential to avocado oil and cocoa butter-based formulas, ingredients that, she says, work on any skin type. As for sunscreen, dermatologist Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, at Capital Laser & Skin Care reaches for SPF with active mineral ingredients that act as physical barriers between your skin and the sun. “My favorite sunscreens have zinc and titanium dioxide; the micronized physical sunscreens,” she explains.
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6-Step Routine: Add An Anti-Inflammatory Toner

If you’ve ever scratched your head wondering what exactly a toner does, you’re not alone — its role in skin care has changed over the years. Once upon a time, toners were used to rebalance the skin’s pH levels after cleansing, says Vargas. But this is no longer the case. “These days most cleansers are more balanced, so clients use toners to add moisture to the skin.” A quick pass of the right formula can hydrate, calm irritation, and deliver active ingredients. It can also work wonders for acne sufferers, says Tanzi. “It’s a good way to get extra glycolic acids into the skin." A mist of rosewater-based toner after cleansing (or even throughout the day over makeup) will give you a dewy glow. Witch hazel, too, is a time-tested soothing anti-inflammatory for those with redness.
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7-Step Routine: Disguise Tired Eyes With A Dedicated Eye Cream

Think of eye cream as your morning cup of coffee. Sure, you could skip it, but nothing wakes you up in quite the same way. Your eyes are one of the first places to show fatigue and aging. But the right ingredients in a concentrated eye formula can make a world of difference — "concentrated" being the key word here. Many eye creams are richer and more ingredient-packed than regular moisturizers, as they must compensate for the eye area's natural dryness and fragility. “Some key ingredients to look for in eye creams include caffeine, hyaluronic acid, retinol, and antioxidants,” says Garshick. Topical caffeine is a powerhouse for de-puffing, while retinol is a long-beloved anti-aging ingredient. Peptides rebuild collagen and tackle both concerns.
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8-Step Routine: Add Micellar Water

A pass of micellar water first thing in the morning is a bit like rinsing the dishes before they go in the dishwasher. It acts as a first line of defense in removing oily buildup so that your cleanser can be that much more effective. “Small molecules, called micelles, suspended in soft water can grab hold of dirt and makeup and dissolve them without leaving the skin feeling stripped,” Garshick explains. “Since these formulas don't have harsh ingredients, they won't dry out your skin."