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Best skincare routine 2023: Your step-by-step guide

Build the perfect regimen for your skin type – morning and night

With a dizzying array of options in beauty, it’s easy to feel somewhat lost in the crowd – and compiling the right skincare routine, in particular, can be quite the undertaking. The truth is good skin is about more than just good DNA. Forming healthy habits, both in terms of your skincare routine and what you eat, will have a big impact on what you see in the mirror day to day.

If you’re keen to embark on a new skincare routine, either because your skin has changed over time or you’ve simply never had one before, below you’ll find a guide covering everything from which skincare products are necessary (and which aren’t), which are right for your skin type, the order in which you should apply them, plus some of our favourite tried-and-tested beauty cabinet essentials that really do deliver noticeable results.

READ NEXT: The best skincare products you can buy

What are the main skincare steps?

Heard about five-step, seven-step, and even 10-step routines? Don’t panic – most of these are optional extras. All you really need for gorgeous, glowing skin are three basic steps:

  • Cleanse
  • Treat
  • Moisturise (+SPF for daytime)

Of course, you can always add in more products to your routine, including eye creams, face oils, and hydrating toners. But most skin types will benefit from a more pared-back routine; it’s just about finding the right products for you.

While cleansing and moisturising pretty much speak for themselves, “treating” your skin involves addressing any concerns (from acne and hyperpigmentation to wrinkles, sensitivity, and more) with serums, lotions, or oils that are chock-full of powerhouse ingredients such as retinol, alpha-hydroxy and beta-hydroxy acids, and antioxidants such as vitamin C.

Remember, consistency is key, and in most cases it will take up to 12 weeks to see the benefits of a good routine.

How much should I spend on skincare?

Thankfully, there are good products in all price categories – spending less won’t necessarily harm your skin, while spending won’t necessarily help it. It’s more about the formulations and investing your time so that you can choose the right products for your skin. The secret is knowing which products are worth the spend – in most cases, if you’re going to splurge on anything, your best bet is your treatment serum, where the formulations are more sophisticated and therefore worthy of the higher price point.

Key steps for a morning skincare routine:

1. Cleanser

The first step in your skincare routine is also arguably the most important – after all, it doesn’t matter how frequently you apply your various serums and moisturisers, they can’t do their job if you’re applying them to clogged pores and dead skin cells.

“Even if you washed your face the night before, you still need to cleanse in the morning,” says medical facialist Renée Lapino. “Product residue from your skin and hair can build up on your pillowcase and breed bacteria, while makeup that’s been applied on top of unwashed skin will seal in oil and bacteria, causing clogged pores and inflammation. Finally, your skin produces new cells while you’re sleeping; the dead cells will rise to the surface, where they’ll sit on top of the skin, leaving it looking dull. If you don’t wash your face in the mornings, the body will slow down the growth of those new, youthful skin cells,” she adds.

But you don’t have to spend a fortune on cleanser – the best formulas will effectively cleanse the skin without stripping it of its healthy oils, and that goes for acne-prone complexions, too. Blemish-prone and oily types should look for gentle foaming cleansers with oil-regulating ingredients such as niacinamide and salicylic acid, while dry and sensitive skins will benefit from a jelly, cream or milk formula that contains glycerin and nourishing vitamin E.

How we test skincare routines

Following years of trial and error, many of the products below are already firm staples in our skincare-obsessed tester’s everyday routine, something that has been considered when making these recommendations. However, all of the products have been sampled for a minimum of four weeks, with the ones that feature on the list delivering the best results. We cover a wide range of skin types and budgets, which is the reason you’ll find both high-end products and pharmacy and supermarket favourites for concerns such as acne, sensitive skin, ageing and more.

The best cleansers to buy:

CeraVe Blemish Control Cleanser: Best for acne-prone skin
Price: £10.50 (236ml) | Buy now from Boots

The Ordinary Squalane Cleanser: Best for combination skin
Price: £8 (50ml) | Buy now from Beauty Bay

Pacifica Wake Up Beautiful Dream Jelly Face Wash: Best for dry skin
Price: £16 (140ml) | Buy now from Cult Beauty

La Roche-Posay Toleriane Dermo-Cleanser Milk: Best for sensitive skin
Price: £20 (400ml) | Buy now from Boots

2. Toner

Toners aren’t a necessary step – and it’s true that the astringent-heavy toners of old didn’t do much beyond drying out the skin. However, the new formulations on the market are packed with complexion-boosting benefits, with one swipe with a cotton pad (or spritzing and gently patting in with your fingers) refreshing and hydrating the skin. Think of them as a lightweight first step in treating the skin after cleansing, maximising the benefits of your serum and moisturiser.

If you have oily or acne-prone skin, look for a toner or mist that has hydroxy acids, including lactic acid, which helps to boost cell turnover. Niacinamide and probiotics are perfect for balancing the skin, while witch hazel can help to minimise the look of pores. If your skin is on the dry side, you could be forgiven for wanting to skip this step; but note that a supercharged, alcohol-free formula with nutrient-rich ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, vitamin E and squalane could help.

The best toners to buy:

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant: Best for acne-prone skin
Price: £34 (118ml) | Buy now from Space NK

Ole Henriksen Balancing Force Oil Control Toner: Best for oily skin
Price: £25 (190ml) | Buy now from Boots

Pixi Glow Tonic: Best for combination skin
Price: £18 (250ml) | Buy now from Lookfantastic

Pai Skincare Century Flower Barrier Defence Mist: Best for dry skin
Price: £39 (100ml) | Buy now from Cult Beauty

3. Treatment/Serum

Moisturisers are great, but highly concentrated serums are lightweight formulas specially designed to deliver “actives” – enzymes and acids often known as AHAs, BHAs and PHAs – deep within the skin. They’re usually the consistency of a thin lotion, gel, or oil, and can really address every kind of skin concern. Moisturisers are generally thicker formulations designed to create a physical barrier that locks in hydration and prevents the skin from losing moisture.

One serum ingredient that every skin type can benefit from is antioxidants: “Your antioxidants should always be applied during the day,” confirms Renée. “They can help protect the skin from damage caused by pollution and the sun (when paired with SPF). Vitamin C is great, but note that it isn’t the only option – and certain skin types should steer clear.”

Daytime serums will sit well underneath SPF and makeup (without pilling). If you want to focus on hydration then look for hyaluronic acid, which draws moisture into the skin, while peptides – made of amino acids – are perfect for those who want to tackle signs of ageing.

Niacinamide has been something of a buzzword of late, and for good reason. It’s a form of vitamin B3 that works to brighten and even out the skin tone, while its anti-inflammatory properties make it great for acne-prone complexions.

The best serum to buy

Kate Somerville HydraKate Recharging Serum: Best for hydration and radiance
Price: £67 (30ml) | Buy now from Space NK

Byoma Brightening Serum: Best for brightening
Price: £12.99 (30ml) | Buy now from Boots

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%: Best for acne
Price: £9 (60ml) | Buy now from The Ordinary

Allies of Skin 20% Vitamin C Brighten + Firm Serum: Best vitamin C
Price: £85 (30ml) | Buy now from Cult Beauty

4. Moisturiser

The right facial moisturiser will not only lock in moisture and keep the skin soft and hydrated, but those with added ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, ceramides, niacinamide and even SPF can also be used to deliver an extra dose of goodness.

If your skin is oily or acne-prone, look out for light lotions and gels that will soak in quickly without clogging. If your skin is dry, try a thicker formula, such as a cream, which makes your skin feel supple but won’t pill under makeup.

Moisturisers are certainly a year-round essential. However, if you struggle with especially oily skin, it’s possible to forego moisturiser in the summer and just stick with a super-hydrating SPF instead.

The best moisturisers to buy:

The Ordinary Natural Moisturising Factors + HA: Best for dry skin
Price: £9.90 (100ml) | Buy now from Boots

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo +: Best for acne-prone skin
Price: £18.50 (40ml) | Buy now from Sephora

Beauty Pie Japanfusion Urban Air Purifying Moisturiser: Best for combination skin
Price: £35 (50ml) | Buy now from Beauty Pie

CeraVe AM Facial Moisturising Lotion with SPF 50: Best moisturiser with SPF
Price: £16 (52ml) | Buy now from Boots

5. SPF

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, applying SPF is key – for every skin type and every age – but especially if you’re using actives in your regimen. It’s also the number-one thing we can do to fight the signs of ageing, even on overcast days. If you’re applying treatment serums in your routine but not SPF in the mornings, it’s like taking one step forward, two steps back.

Sunscreens fall into two categories: chemical, which convert UV rays into heat, and physical (more commonly known as mineral sunscreens), which contain mineral ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to actively reflect the UV rays away. Chemical formulas tend to be thinner, but mineral sunscreens are less likely to be irritating and pore-clogging, so they tend to be better for sensitive and blemish-prone skin types. However, these can be prone to leaving a white cast. Some brands combine both for a belt-and-braces approach.

If you have oily or acne-prone skin, look for non-greasy formulas that are labelled as oil-free and non-comedogenic.

The best SPF to buy

REN Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30: Best for oily skin
Price: £33 (50ml) | Buy now from Holland & Barrett

Zitsticka Megashade Sunscreen Serum: Best for acne-prone skin
Price: £35 (50ml) | Buy now from Zitsticka

Dr Sam’s Flawless Daily Sunscreen SPF 50: Best for combination skin
Price: £29 (50ml) | Buy now from Dr Sam Bunting

La Roche-Posay Anthelios Tinted SPF 50: Best for sensitive skin
Price: £19 (50ml) | Buy now from Boots

Key steps for an evening skincare routine:

1. Makeup Remover + Cleanser

Cleansing looks a little different at night and will need to be more thorough with a double-cleanse. Start by removing every trace of makeup, grime, and SPF with a cleanser that’s been formulated to sweep away makeup and excess sebum – micellar waters, cleansing oils and balms are all firm favourites, thanks to their ability to draw out and dissolve impurities. Most also contain hydrating ingredients to boost skin health. If using a cleansing oil or balm, use a warm, damp muslin cloth or flannel to remove the product.

Following that, a second, water-based cleanser will really get to work beneath the pores, promoting glow, moisture and clarity. It’s fine to use either the same cleanser twice, follow up with your usual morning cleanser, or use a different face wash altogether – just be sure to spend some time on it: “Massage into your face in small, upward circles for at least a minute, maybe even two,” suggests Renée. “Massaging your face while cleansing will boost blood flow, increasing the absorption of your serums.”

The best makeup remover to buy:

Farmacy Clearly Clean Cleansing Balm: Best for acne-prone skin
Price: £32 (100ml) | Buy now from Cult Beauty

Mara Chia + Moringa Algae Enzyme Cleansing Oil: Best for combination skin
Price: £50 (120ml) | Buy now from Oxygen Boutique

The Body Shop Camomile Sumptuous Cleansing Butter: Best for dry skin
Price: £12 (90ml) | Buy now from The Body Shop

Bioderma Sensibio Micellar Water: Best for sensitive skin
Price: £10.80 (250ml) | Buy now from Look Fantastic

2. Toner

Once again, a toner after cleansing at night is optional. If you do decide to use one, use the same product, and apply in the same way as you would in the morning. Since products should always be applied lightest/thinnest to heaviest/thickest, always apply your toner before any serums.

3. Treatment/Serum

If you’re really looking to get the best out of your skin, a targeted night-time treatment is the perfect opportunity to do so. Since our skin goes into repair mode and regenerates as we sleep, it will really be able to utilise those nutrients and concentrated actives.

“Actives will break down dead skin cells and encourage new cells to surface,” says Renée. “It makes sense to wear these at night when your skin is out of the sun and while your skin is naturally regenerating.

“You’ll find a serum to address almost every skin concern you might have – be it age prevention, pigmentation reduction, or moisture retention. Retinol is a type of vitamin A that speeds up healthy cell development and prevents skin collagen from breaking down,” she adds. It can be used to treat acne, skin texture, dullness, the appearance of pores, pigmentation, and more.

Note that some serums can be used both day and night – just be sure to check the instructions and always follow with SPF if you’re wearing them in the daytime.

The best serum to buy:

Beauty Pie YouthBomb 360 Radiance Concentrate: Best for firming
Price: £185 (50ml) | Buy now from Beauty Pie

Osmosis MD Rescue Epidermal Repair Serum: Best for acne and inflammation
Price: £112 (30ml) | Buy now from Dermoi!

Allies of Skin Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum: Best for dark spots
Price: £95 (30ml) | Buy now from Allies of Skin

Medik8 Crystal Retinol 1 Serum: Best retinol for first-time users
Price: £45 (30ml) | Buy now from Lookfantastic

4. Night Cream

Of course, you can use your daytime moisturiser if budget doesn’t allow for a separate night cream (and if it doesn’t contain SPF), but a good night-time moisturiser will take your skincare to the next level – especially if you want to tackle specific issues such as fine lines, pigmentation, or acne.

“During the day, your skin encounters external aggressors such as UV rays – so, as mentioned, a day moisturiser may contain SPF, antioxidants to protect, lipids to hydrate, and peptides to strengthen the skin,” says Renée. They’re also light in texture and easier to apply makeup over the top.

“At night our bodies begin to regenerate tissue and skin cells, so night creams focus more on moisture and recovery,” she adds. As a result, they’re richer and more concentrated in terms of active ingredients.

The best night cream to buy:

Allies of Skin Promise Keeper Nightly Blemish Treatment: Best for acne-prone skin
Price: £125 (50ml) | Buy now from Allies of Skin

Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream: Best for mature skin
Price: £73 (50ml) | Buy now from Space NK

Farmacy Honey Halo Ultra-Hydrating Ceramide Moisturiser: Best for dry skin
Price: £42 (50ml) | Buy now from Cult Beauty

Herbal Essentials Rest & Renew Night Cream: Best for combination skin
Price: £12 (30ml) | Buy now from Herbal Essentials

5. Face oil

This final step isn’t a necessary one, but applying a face oil as the last step in your night-time routine can be a great way to lock-in moisture overnight while addressing complexion concerns such as redness, wrinkles, and even acne. Simply pat the oil gently onto the skin once your other products have absorbed.

Naturally, some oils will be pore-clogging; but blemish-prone skin types shouldn’t discount them completely. In fact, many will act as an astringent and can even dissolve sebum, decreasing excess oil overall. As a rule, coconut oil should be avoided, while squalane, grapeseed, jojoba and sunflower oil are all non-comedogenic and can help to regulate sebum production and repair the skin barrier. Sea buckthorn oil also has hugely regenerative and healing properties for damaged skin cells and helps to improve fine lines and wrinkles.

The best face oil to buy:

Allies of Skin CE15 Bakuchiol Firming Oil: Best for firming and toning
Price: £141 (30ml) | Buy now from Cult Beauty

No. 7 Youthful Replenishing Facial Oil: Best for mature skin Price: £25 (30ml) | Buy now from Boots

Caudalie Vinosource-Hydra Overnight Recovery Oil: Best for sensitive skin
Price: £32 (30ml) | Buy now from Space NK

Esse Repair Oil: Best for combination skin
Price: £39 (15ml) | Buy now from Esse

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