Certain products (cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen) are musts—beyond that, it can be hard to tell the have-tos from the hype. Here’s the insider scoop on which products you truly need.
It looks and feels like ordinary H2O but contains tiny oil molecules, called micelles, that capture dirt and makeup when the product is swiped onto skin with a cotton ball.
Who Needs It: Micellar water is great if you have sensitive or dry skin, and especially if you use retinoids or other exfoliants, because it removes dirt and oil from the face without stripping skin. “It’s also a good on-the-go product because it doesn’t need to be washed off,” says Arielle Kauvar, MD, director of New York Laser & Skin Care in New York City. A few dabs can even boost skin hydration during the day. One pick: Garnier Micellar Cleansing Water All-In-1 Mattifying ($9; garnierusa.com).
Who Doesn’t: If you have very oily skin, live in a highly polluted area, or wear heavy makeup, it’s not ideal, says Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, director of Capital Laser & Skin Care in Chevy Chase, Maryland. In those instances, “a foaming or creamy cleanser is better.”
For many of us, the cotton-ball-and-toner routine began during adolescence, when we wanted our faces to be squeaky clean. But “while toners can feel refreshing, they really don’t have functional or structural benefits for your skin,” says Lisa Donofrio, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale University School of Medicine and Tulane University School of Medicine.
Who Needs It: Those with acne-prone or very oily skin might benefit from a toner. If you break out from sweat, use one on your back and chest after exercising, says Kauvar. Try OleHenriksen Balancing Force Oil Control Toner ($26; olehenriksen.com).
Who Doesn’t: If you have dry or sensitive skin, toners could cause irritation, since some contain alcohol or witch hazel. To remove lingering makeup after washing your face, Donofrio recommends using a cleansing wipe instead.
When you remove dry cells, your skin is clearer (fewer breakouts and clogged pores), more even (bye, brown spots), and smoother. Chemical exfoliants use retinol or acid (such as alpha hydroxy acid or salicylic acid) to promote cell turnover, whereas enzymatic exfoliants (like papain and bromelain) dissolve the bond that holds dead cells to the skin surface, explains Donofrio. Meanwhile, brushes and scrubs that contain beads or abrasive agents (like rice bran) buff away dead skin and unclog pores. “The challenge is to find the right method for you,” says Kauvar.
Who Needs It: Someone who has acne or rough, dull skin should exfoliate once a week. It’s important not to overdo it with pressure or frequency—you could end up with peeling or irritation. We like Renée Rouleau Triple Berry Smoothing Peel ($87; reneerouleau.com).
Who Doesn’t: For those with dry or sensitive skin, a chemical exfoliant or facial scrub may be too abrasive and irritating. Instead, remove your cleanser with a soft washcloth.
“Chemicals in the air can make your skin look tired and dry,” explains Anthony Rossi, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Anti-pollution serums, which contain antioxidants as well as hyaluronic acid, combat the harmful effects of bad air quality.
Who Needs It: If you live in an area with high smog levels, adding an antipollution serum to your routine might do your skin a world of good. Ditto if you’re exposed to smoke, exhaust, or chemicals at work, says Kauvar. Try Chantecaille Anti-Pollution Finishing Essence ($125; chantecaille.com).
Who Doesn’t: If you live where there’s fresh air, these products aren’t necessary, notes Doris Day, MD, a dermatologist in New York City.
Topical Wrinkle Filler
Just as you use spackling paste to fill cracks in your walls, you can apply a topical wrinkle filler to temporarily hide crevices in your skin. Then you’ll have a more even sur-face for makeup. “It’s especially helpful if you’re taking photos,” says Mary P. Lupo, MD, a dermatologist in New Orleans. Many wrinkle fillers rely on silicone; others use humectants to plump the skin and camouflage fine lines.
Who Needs It: “Topical wrinkle fillers are good if you notice that your makeup is settling into wrinkles when your face isn’t animated,” says Donofrio. An added perk: These products can minimize the appearance of pores temporarily. Try Olay Regenerist Instant Fix Wrinkle & Pore Vanisher ($14; olay.com).
Who Doesn’t: If your skin is smooth or if you get wrinkles around your mouth or eyes only when you smile, skip it. Using too much “can look mask-like,” warns Lupo.
The skin on the neck is especially susceptible to sun damage, as well as to sagging, thanks to the downward pull of gravity. Plus, the skin “has few oil glands, so it dries out and gets damaged easily,” notes Kauvar. Neck creams often contain anti-inflammatory or antioxidant ingredients, brighteners, and peptides to strengthen collagen and reduce lines.
Who Needs It: Try it “if you have bumpiness or brown or red discoloration on your neck,” says Lupo. Also, if the skin on your neck is dry, a neck cream may moisturize better than a regular face cream. We like StriVectin TL Advanced Tightening Neck Cream ($95; strivectin.com).
Who Doesn’t: “If you have lots of cross-hatching wrinkles on the neck, you need a stronger, professional treatment, like filler or laser,” says Donofrio. Also, you can skip neck cream if your face cream is working just fine. But “sunscreen is still mandatory for the neck and chest,” says Tanzi.
The latest generation of face mists are formulated with “thermal water that contains vitamins and minerals you don’t find in tap water,” says Tanzi. Face mists have various perks, from adding hydration to setting makeup and refreshing skin.
Who Needs It: A face mist can be very soothing if you live in a dry climate, if your skin is super dry, tight, chapped, or itchy, or if your face feels dry on a long flight. Try Tatcha Luminous Dewy Skin Mist ($48; tatcha.com).
Who Doesn’t: Skip it if you are oily. And “avoid using mists if your hair frizzes, because it’s hard not to get some in your hair,” says Day.
Besides being noteworthy for what they don’t contain (sunscreen), night creams tend to be thicker and more emollient than day creams. The extra thickness and active ingredients are a plus because “while you’re sleeping, you lose more water from your skin, and it goes through a lot of repair,” explains Day. Night creams often have ingredients like topical retinoids (which are deactivated by sunlight), fruit acids, plant stem cells, or DNA repair enzymes to treat skin damage or boost the skin’s natural recovery process.
Who Needs It: Night creams are a boon for those with dry or damaged skin or wrinkles. And they’re especially helpful in dry climates and during the winter, when humidity is low and the heat is on 24/7. A good one: RoC Retinol Correxion Max Daily Hydration Crème ($25; walmart.com).
Who Doesn’t: If you have active acne or very oily skin, avoid night creams and stick with a lighter hydrating serum, advises Lupo.