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How Many Skin-Care Products Should You Really Use?

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Illustrated By: Elliot Salazar.
Whether you’re simply obsessed with skin care or are on a mission to find the best products for your sometimes moody, often confusing skin, you've probably spent some time perusing the internet looking for answers. (Hey, you’re here, aren't ya?) And like us, you're likely equally fascinated by a story that lays out an intensive 10-step Korean skin-care routine and one that offers up tricks to streamline your daily regimen to the bare bones.

Even with all the good reads and helpful tips out there, it's pretty hard to decipher whether a maxed-out or minimal routine is better for your skin (or if you should just stick with your somewhere-in-the-middle situation). In other words, do you take your skin care like you take your coffee? (Black.) Or are you more the caramel-latte-Frappuccino type? To get some clarity, we reached out to a few skin-care pros to determine whether less really is more, or we need to up our ante.

To massively oversimplify, the way you treat your skin is cultural, personal, and situational. People in South Korea, for instance, are taught the importance of an in-depth skin-care routine from a very young age. When asked who this maximalist regimen — which can include makeup remover, cleanser, exfoliator, toner, multiple treatment essences, masks, eye cream, moisturizer, and night cream — is best for, David Colbert, MD, says it's not necessarily about having a certain skin type, but about an ingrained cultural proclivity.
Illustrated By: Elliot Salazar.
Ted Lain, MD, expresses a similar sentiment: “Most people would not be able to follow that maximalist regimen," he says. "Although it is entrenched in the South Korean culture, I do not think that it would work very well here in America where most people are looking for a more efficient and time-saving regimen that still gets good results."

However, Dr. Lain says those who might benefit from such an intense routine are people with an array of different concerns, such as dryness, acne, rosacea, or sun damage. "Only when there are multiple issues occurring at the same time can I justify such a time-consuming and expensive regimen of skin-care products," he says. As for how often to do your routine, twice a day works for those with normal skin, but Ellen Marmur, MD, tells clients who suffer from extreme dryness to moisturize their bodies 10 times a day — knowing that they'll never do it, but hoping they hit four.

RealSelf.com contributor Joel Schlessinger, MD
, can see the benefits of the Korean way. "The biggest difference between South Korean skin care and what we’re accustomed to in the United States is [a focus on] prevention," he explains. "If Americans were to adopt similar practices, it would be very beneficial in preventing future signs of aging. Many times we don’t care for our skin as well as we should and later look for products to diminish existing damage."

Still, Dr. Schlessinger thinks you can overdo it. "There is such a thing as [using] too many products — or more specifically, too many active ingredients," he says. "Overdoing it on active ingredients can lead to skin irritation. If you’re using a glycolic-acid peel, a retinol, and an exfoliating scrub every day, your skin is likely going to become sensitive, red, and flaky. It’s better to stick to one or two active ingredients that specifically target your concerns, rather than piling on several potent ingredients every day."
At the other end of the spectrum, we all have that friend who only uses Cetaphil and has skin clearer than Cate Blanchett's. Well, lucky her — it's her genes. "Some people are just born with smaller pores, no acne, and have a good balance," says Dr. Colbert. "Their skin isn't easily irritable and is lower maintenance." Dr. Schlessinger adds: "Everyone’s skin is different, but chances are their great skin won’t last long if all they’re using is soap and water. Regular cleansing is a good start, but it’s important to replenish any lost hydration with a moisturizer and protect your skin from sun damage with sunscreen."

So how low can you go? "For the person with normal skin — which means that there's not too much oil production, there's not too much dryness, they don't battle acne on a daily basis or have persistent redness on their cheeks — a good regimen includes an exfoliating cleanser, antioxidant cream, followed by sunscreen in the morning. At night, a cleanser followed by a retinol product and moisturizer," says Dr. Lain. "I try and limit the regimens to three steps in the morning and three steps at night."

Dr. Schlessinger says that somewhere in the middle is the skin-care sweet spot. "Minimal is fine, but as you age you’ll likely want to add in things like antioxidant serums, anti-wrinkle treatments, and brightening creams," he says. Dr. Marmur also advocates for situational skin care. “I don’t think people should get stuck in either [the maximal or the minimal] rut,” she says. “Sometimes you’re a minimalist — you’re on a tropical vacation, the weather is humid and wonderful, and your skin can breathe.” Then, you might go with only a gentle cleanser and sunscreen. But in winter, or if you're stressed, your skin can become super-dehydrated or irritated and you may need to up your product game.

Bottom line: Your skin-care regimen should contain whatever number of products works for you (except that you should always, always wear sunscreen). This is one of the biggest reasons for (and benefits of) finally making that derm appointment. "I don't like to blanket skin-care suggestions," says Dr. Colbert. "A skin-care approach has to be personalized to your needs and skin type." Dr. Schlessinger adds: "Someone in their 20s isn’t going to have the same skin concerns as someone in their 50s. By taking into account what you wish to address and how much time you’re willing to spend each day on your skin, you can develop a skin-care routine that best fits those needs."
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