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How many steps your skincare routine should be, according to a dermatologist

The Independent logo The Independent 10/10/2019 Chelsea Ritschel
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From toners and cleansers to anti-ageing and rejuvenating products, the skincare industry and its endless options can be overwhelming.

But, just because there are countless products doesn’t mean you need to use them all to take care of your skin - as an effective skincare routine varies by person.

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However, while how many products you use ultimately depends on the time you have to dedicate to skincare, and your desired outcome, dermatologists are in agreement that everyone should at least have a daily routine for caring for their skin.

To find out how many steps we should be aiming for, and what these steps should entail, we asked board-certified medical dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon Dr Melanie Palm.

Step one and two

According to Dr Palm, there are two skincare steps minimum that everybody should follow.

While Dr Palm acknowledges that “how many steps in a routine is really up to the motivation of the patient,” she told The Independent that the two steps that should never be skipped are morning sunscreen application, and washing your face at least once daily.

According to Dr Palm, sunscreen is the “most important skincare product” because it prevents premature ageing. She also added that some sunscreens can promote skin-ageing reversal and reduce oxidative damage to the skin - so it is worth finding a formula that has what you are looking for.

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Daily washing is integral because it cleans your face of any dirt, debris and environmental pollutants, while also preparing skin for topical skincare application.

However, for those who are able to dedicate more time and energy to their routine, Dr Palm advises patients follow a foundational pyramid of skincare.

“I think of skincare products in category, on a sort of pyramid of skincare products - the base or foundation being the most important, with layers of other products rising to the top of the pinnacle in lessening importance,” she told us.

Step three

Young beautiful woman tanning at the beach with sunscreen cream on her shoulder, UV protection and skincare concept Young beautiful woman tanning at the beach with sunscreen cream on her shoulder, UV protection and skincare concept After sunscreen - the “most foundational step” - and washing, Dr Palm recommends a vitamin A derivative applied topically, either a retinol or retinoids.

According to Dr Palm, vitamin A should be used because of the “four decades of research to back up” the various positive effects it has on the skin.

These include "thickening the dermis by building new collagen, improving fine lines, decreasing skin pigmentation irregularities, helping other topical active ingredients penetrate more effectively, preventing pre-cancerous spots, and preparing skin to heal faster from certain laser procedures and deeper chemical peels".

To get the most out of retinols and retinoids, Dr Palm advises using them at night.

But for those with extremely sensitive skin, who may find their skin irritated by harsh retinols, she suggests swapping for a “bakuchiol-containing product” which is derived from a plant and “provides retinol-like effects without the associated irritation or redness”. 

Step four

In addition to sunscreen and retinoids, Dr Palm recommends using a topical antioxidant in the morning, such as vitamin C.

“Topically, vitamin C inhibits abnormal skin pigmentation, protects skin from oxidative stress, and is a necessary cofactor for new collagen growth,” she said, adding that other topical antioxidants such as green tea, vitamin E or resveratrol can also be effective.

Step five

Beautiful asian woman removing makeup and cleaning her face by using white cotton pads. Beauty woman use cotton swab pad after finished bath. isolated on white background. skin care, beauty concept. Beautiful asian woman removing makeup and cleaning her face by using white cotton pads. Beauty woman use cotton swab pad after finished bath. isolated on white background. skin care, beauty concept. The fifth skincare step is the use of alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids, the use of which is backed up with evidentiary support, according to Dr Palm, who told us that alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid “can reduce pigmentation, enhance skin turnover, and build collagen, increasing skin luminescence or glow”.

Beta hydroxy acids, such as salicylic acid, can “help reduce pigmentation and normalise shedding of skin within the hair follicle”, which can be especially beneficial to controlling acne breakouts.

Step six

The sixth and final skincare step is the use of growth-factor or stem cell formulated skincare ingredients.

According to Dr Palm, the large proteins in these products do not penetrate the skin but induce skin cell signalling that helps in anti-ageing.

Overall, your skincare routine can be anywhere from two steps or six, as long as the products you are using are effective.

To gauge effectiveness, Dr Palm told us a product must meet three criteria - an active ingredient that has a mechanism of action (effect on the skin) that is plausible, the active ingredient must be proven through clinical trials to have a biological effect on the skin, and the concentration of the active ingredient must be high enough to have the desired effect on the skin. 

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