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How to Start a Skincare Routine

Illustrations by Tara Jacoby

There are a lot of guys who are using quarantine to be productive—whether they’re chronicling their daily workouts in their at-home gyms, finally learning how to cook after years of ordering takeout, or picking up a hobby they’ve long evaded, like playing a musical instrument or actually reading a book. Let’s be clear: there are no hard and fast rules to how you should be processing all of this time at home and away from your loved ones, or even what you should be wearing while you do so. However, now would be an excellent time to make the most of a less-than-ideal situation so, why not learn how to properly care for your face? 

The great thing about skincare is that it’s not so time-consuming that you’ll be forced to drop it after things go back to “normal.” It also helps you get better over time—you’ll see instant results, then they’ll get even better after two weeks (and, ultimately, you’ll look better when you’re older). And frankly, if you’re not already washing your face in the morning and night, that’s gross! So now’s a perfect time to fix that. 

There are three cardinal rules of skincare you must follow for results: cleanse, serum, and moisture. After that, there are the nice-to-haves—what I like to call “bonus material” for guys willing to go above and beyond (both cost- and time-wise). For more on how to get started, check out the below. 

Cleanse (AKA Washing Your Face)

When You Do It: Morning and Night

Why It’s Important: For all the fuss we’ve now made about washing your hands, you should know that washing your face is almost as important. Cleansing at night will help remove the day’s debris, which can be anything from oils built up on your skin to pollution that clings to the top layer of your face—both of which need to be washed off to prevent and treat acne or ingrown hairs. In the morning, cleansing helps you start off with a clean slate, and prepares your skin for maximum absorption of products you’ll apply afterwards. After all, what’s the point of wearing moisturizer if you’re just putting it on top of an oil slick?

What to Look For: Cleansers can come in all forms—some with exfoliating granules (not for everyday use, so beware), some in an oil formula, some as powders. Play it safe with a cleansing gel so you don’t aggravate or over-work the skin. Guys with combination or acne-prone skin would benefit from Sunday Riley Ceramic Slip Cleanser ($35) which contains green clay to keep oil at bay. If you need something more gentle or hydrating, try Clinique Liquid Facial Soap ($19). 

How to Do It: First, splash your face and your neck with warm water. Then, simply wet the palms of your hands with warm water, then put a dime-size amount of product onto your fingertips. Rub your fingers together and apply it all over your face in circular motions, taking extra care around any places where oil or grime builds up (the corners of your nose, the center of your forehead, and your chin). After your face is covered, work your hands down towards your neck and stop right before you reach your chest. Cleansing here is crucial for preventing those pesky ingrown hairs that always pop up. (You’re welcome.) 

Serum (AKA The Real Work)

When You Do It: Nighttime (But, bonus points if you do it in the morning, too)

Why It’s Important: Serums are basically the biggest bang for your buck—typically a watery or oil-based formula, they contain the highest amount of  ingredients that actually deliver targeted results on your skin. If you’ve got acne, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation (dark spots), or just general dullness, you’ll need a serum to deliver a real, potent punch to your concerns. 

What to Look For: Serums are a bit more complicated to shop for because they cater to an individual’s skin needs. Here’s a quick breakdown of the ingredients to shop for based on common concerns:

Acne: Look for glycolic or salicylic acid, ideally at a 1% level or higher. Try Renée Rouleau Pore + Wrinkle Perfecting Serum, $50. 

Fine Lines: Look for retinol, but if you’re using this guy, only use it at night—and take a couple days off per week. Retinol is a concentrate of Vitamin A, and it can sometimes increase your sensitivity to the sun, so make sure you’re using a daily moisturizer with SPF and keeping well-protected when on vacation or playing outdoor sports. Try SkinCeuticals Retinol, $67.

Dryness: Hylauronic acid is your go-to. You can apply this morning and night before moisturizer for best results, and it also plays well with other ingredients, meaning you can use this in the morning and another serum at night if you want to get fancy with it. Try Glossier Super Bounce, $28. 

Dullness or Dark Spots: A lot of products labeled “brightening” are meant to disappear hyperpigmentation, and usually they contain a high concentration of Vitamin C. You can’t go wrong with The Ordinary Vitamin C, $6.

How to Do It: Place a dime-sized amount to your hand, then press your palms together and rub twice to evenly distribute the product. Then, apply all over the face, starting with your forehead and working down, bringing any excess down to the neck area as you go. 

Hydrate (AKA Moisturize)

When You Do It: Morning and Night

Why It’s Important: Look, if you want to avoid looking crusty, you need to familiarize yourself with the virtues of hydration. You know how doctors (and your mom) tell you to drink water all the time? That’s because hydrating is essential for replenishing your body. The same thing is true for your face, where dryness can lead to fine lines and other signs of aging. But there’s another element of moisturizing that’s key: Some products contain SPF, which means they protect you from harmful UVA/UVB rays; exposure to sunlight can exacerbate signs of aging and cause hyperpigmentation, not to mention more insidious things like skin cancer. Daily SPF is your barrier from the element, all while keeping your skin quenched throughout the day. 

What to Look For: The big thing here is that you need two moisturizers: one for day with SPF, and one for night without it. For daytime moisturizers, you want a sheer and light lotion with an SPF30. Try Dermalogica Oil-Free Matte SPF30 ($54), which will keep oil at bay and keep you nice and protected. For nighttime, a product that’s richer and creamier will work to repair and replenish your skin while you sleep. Try Eminence Monoi Age Corrective Night Cream ($68).

How to Do It: Take a nickel-sized amount of product to your palm and rub quickly between your hands a few times to distribute the product. Then, apply to the face, starting by gliding your hands across your forehead, then down the sides of your temples towards the jawline, then the center of the face, working whatever’s left onto the neck area. Keep working your hands in circular motions until the product is mostly absorbed—if you still see a little bit of a sheen, that’s ok! It will wear off and absorb in a few minutes.. 

Extra Credit

There are a few things one should consider for “extra credit,” which are basically ways to boost your routine beyond what’s here. And remember, like we mentioned earlier, these steps are an extra investment across the board. They can include but aren’t limited to:

Eye Cream: A lot of guys express feeling puffiness around their eyes in the morning, or are worried about the fine lines on the outer corners of the eyes (we call those crow’s feet). To tackle both concerns at once, try Malin and Goetz Revitalizing Eye Cream ($72) and use your ring finger to tap product into the skin. Do this after your serum and before moisturizer, morning and night. 

Toner: Toner is the step right after cleansing and before serum, and generally requires the use of a cotton pad to apply the liquid product to your face. Exfoliating Toners (or acid toners) are growing in popularity for their ability to better prepare the skin for product absorption, and deliver targeted results pertaining to acne or aging. If the former is your concern, try Glossier Solution ($24); if the latter is what’s worrying you, go for Sunday Riley Good Genes ($122), which you’d apply just like a lotion and before serum. You can do this both morning and night. 

Exfoliants: Guys with facial hair or trouble with ingrowns would be well-inclined to stock up on a face scrub, which is basically a heavy-duty cleanser. Scrubbing the beard area thoroughly (and especially your neck) is a way to promote even hair growth and unclogged pores, thus ridding you of pesky bumps and whiteheads. Try Aesop Purifying Facial Exfoliant ($53). You should do this once or twice per week only, ideally at night. 

All in all, the right skincare routine should be taking you no more than 10 minutes in the bathroom morning and night. Once you get all the steps down, it can take even less—just don’t skimp on face-washing, which should (like hand-washing) cost you at least 20 seconds, if not more. The pay-off, though, will be skin that looks visibly better and healthier and, really, that’s an investment that’s utterly timeless. If you’re still skeptical, try it for a full month before throwing in the towel. I guarantee you that what the results you see in the mirror are all the proof you need.

Phillip Picardi is an editor and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He has a newsletter called fruity, and a podcast upcoming with Crooked Media.