How to build a skincare routine: basics, steps, products

Reviewed by Chimene Richa, MD, 

Written by Linnea Zielinski 

Reviewed by Chimene Richa, MD, 

Written by Linnea Zielinski 

last updated: Oct 13, 2021

5 min read

What do your Pinterest boards, closet, and skincare routine have in common? Without some careful curating, they can all easily get out of hand. The maximalist 10-step Korean skincare regimen that swept the internet may look good on Instagram or your bathroom countertop, but does the average person's skin need that much TLC? Here's how to craft a skincare routine that will work for your skin—and your schedule.

Healthier skin

Custom Rx treatment for your skin type and skin goals

What is a skincare routine?

A skincare routine involves the steps you take to care for your skin regularly. And since different people have different skin concerns, it stands to reason that this routine looks different for everyone. For skincare devotees, this may include weekly or monthly treatments. For minimalists, it's likely all about the everyday essentials. But you should use the core of your skincare routine each morning and evening. 

If you've gone through the routine at night, it may be tempting to skip your skincare in the morning, but it's not a good idea. Overnight, your skin purges oils and debris that you should cleanse from your skin in the morning. This will prevent these particles from contributing to clogged pores or breakouts.

There may be some small variations between your morning and evening skincare routines. Removing your makeup, for example, is likely a part of the evening's cleansing process but not the morning's. And while moisturizer might be a staple in both routines, your morning glow up should include an SPF, while your evening cream can be SPF-free.

Basic steps and products to include in your skincare routine

Cookie-cutter routines don't work for all skin tones and textures. However, your routine should be something simple, so that you can follow it daily. The basics of healthy skincare include: 

  • Cleansing

  • Moisturizing

  • Protecting your skin from the sun


Throughout the day, your skin accumulates environmental pollutants, dirt, and oil. That's in addition to any makeup you applied in the morning and haven't yet taken off. All of these things can get into your pores, potentially clogging them. A build-up of bacteria, dead skin cells, and oils can cause blackheads or whiteheads (Sutaria, 2021). 

Your skin produces sebum, natural oils that keep the skin moisturized throughout the day, but too much of it can lead to pimples. Haircare products meant to keep your hair sleek and shiny can also cause breakouts if they come in contact with your face.

Use a gentle cleanser or face wash to remove this dirt and excess sebum (and makeup), and make sure you don't scrub too hard. It is possible to cause dry or irritated skin by over-exfoliating or cleansing. Some facial cleansers can strip necessary face oil, so choose something gentle (not a harsh soap) (Harwood, 2021).


This is one of the areas where your skincare routine will likely include two separate products, one for morning use and one for the evening. To control sebum production, especially if you have oily skin, most people will opt for a lighter formula without added oils. Some moisturizing creams include hyaluronic acid in their formulas—a great choice for just about every skin type (Harwood, 2021). 

Hyaluronic acid is naturally produced by the body, though less so as we age, and it's generally well-tolerated.  Hyaluronic acid encourages your skin to hold onto water, lending a plump and voluminous look, and can be combined with other active ingredients to address specific issues (Walker, 2021).

Sun protection

Environmental factors, genetics, and smoking affect skin aging, but sun damage is the biggest external factor leading to fine lines and wrinkles. The ultraviolet (UV) part of daylight, specifically UVB light, damages elastin and collagen fibers, leading to photodamage and premature aging (Guan, 2021). 

Although many moisturizers now come with sunscreen incorporated into their formulas, a good rule of thumb is that sunscreen should be the layer of your skin care closest to the sun. So if you're planning on going out without makeup, a moisturizer with sun protection may be a good product in your daily lineup. 

But if you plan on applying makeup, be sure to finish off your routine with sunscreen to prevent the potential photodamage caused by UV rays. Mineral sunscreen allows for easy application without messing up your makeup.

Daytime vs. nighttime skin routines

During the day, you are exposed to the sun, even if it is just walking from your house to your car. For that reason, all daytime routines should include sunscreen or a moisturizer that uses SPF 30 or higher. This offers protection from photodamage when you head outside. If you plan on extended sun exposure (like at the pool or beach), then consider a higher SPF (Guan, 2021)

In the evening, though, you may want to opt for something thicker and more hydrating to support your skin overnight. Many night creams include extra ingredients to replenish your skin’s moisture. Also, since it is nighttime, you don’t need sun protection—save that for your daytime routine. 

If you use any prescription retinoids to treat acne, premature aging, or other skin conditions, you will want to apply them at night. Retinoids, while effective, can increase your skin’s sun sensitivity and make you more prone to sunburns. 

Skincare routine and skin type

Skin types vary—you may have normal, oily, dry, sensitive, or combination skin. A dermatologist or other skin specialist can help you definitively determine your skin type. However, if you want to get an idea yourself, there are some tricks you can try:

  • Wash your face, dry it, and then leave it alone for an hour. Don’t apply any products.

  • If you have areas on your face that feel oily or look shiny, you likely have oily skin.

  • If you have dry, flaky areas, then you may have dry skin.

  • If you have both (i.e., oily skin on your forehead and dry skin on your cheeks), you probably have combination skin.

People with sensitive skin often find that skincare products cause burning or irritation.

Your skin type can influence your skincare routine to some extent. While the basics are the same, you may need to tweak your regimen based on your type of skin. 

Skincare routine for oily skin

Oily skin still needs moisturizing. After gentle cleansing, you can use a lotion (rather than a cream) moisturizer. Cream or other moisturizers with heavy oils can make your oily skin worse. 

Skincare routine for dry skin

Alternatively, those with dry skin will want the extra hydration. Make sure your cleanser is gentle as you don’t want to strip the oil from your already dry skin. Moisturizing is going to be really important if you have dry skin. Choose a heavier moisturizer to replenish and hydrate your skin.

Skincare routine for combination skin

Since combination skin has elements of both oily and dry skin types, you may want to tweak your skincare routine to account for that. Also, if you have sensitive skin, stay away from products with added fragrances, harsh chemicals, dyes, or other ingredients that may irritate your skin. Look for cosmetics that are marketed with “sensitive skin” on the label.

Other skincare products

People with skin conditions may need to include more products in their repertoire. Certain active ingredients are better at addressing specific concerns. It's up to you, and potentially your dermatologist, to craft the best skincare routine to vanquish your skincare woes without keeping you tied to your bathroom mirror.

Other products you can consider adding to your routine include (Draelos, 2019):

  • Toner: Also known as astringents, toners help remove excess dirt and oil; sometimes, these have additional compounds like glycolic acid to stimulate exfoliation.

  • Eye cream: Many of these products moisturize the skin and have added compounds to reduce fine lines, wrinkles, and dark circles around the eyes.  

  • Serum: Serums often include antioxidants and vitamins like vitamin C and vitamin E, or other ingredients like niacin (vitamin B3) and retinol (vitamin A) to try to fight the signs of aging.

  • Acne treatments: These may include spot treatments with over-the-counter products like benzoyl peroxide or a prescription retinoid like tretinoin (Sutaria, 2021).

  • Topical retinoids: Prescription-strength retinoids, like tretinoin, have been shown to improve cell turnover, reducing fine lines and wrinkles (Yoham, 2020).

Tretinoin Important Safety Information: Read more about serious warnings and safety info.


If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

How we reviewed this article

Every article on Health Guide goes through rigorous fact-checking by our team of medical reviewers. Our reviewers are trained medical professionals who ensure each article contains the most up-to-date information, and that medical details have been correctly interpreted by the writer.

Current version

October 13, 2021

Written by

Linnea Zielinski

Fact checked by

Chimene Richa, MD

About the medical reviewer

Dr. Richa is a board-certified Ophthalmologist and medical writer for Ro.