Get your routine under control.

By Erin Lukas and Kaitlin Clark
Updated Jul 06, 2020 @ 12:00 pm
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Credit: Leandro Crespi/Stocksy

Raise your hand if you’re still dealing with breakouts as an adult.

If your hand is currently in the air, you’re not alone. While the hormonal changes of puberty likely played a role in your teenage breakouts, the American Academy of Dermatology Association has found that stress can be one of the leading causes of acne in adults.

Stress acne differs from hormonal zits, and tends to respond best to medical-grade topical treatments. Formulas that offer a cocktail of bacteria-busting ingredients, like dermatologist favorite Differin gel, are designed to clear up breakouts quickly and prevent new pustules from forming.

“For years Differin was a pharmaceutical prescription product,” explains New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Macrene Alexiades, founder of the Dermatology and Laser Surgery Center of New York. “Therefore you’re getting a very active anti-acne over-the-counter option.”

If stress acne is a new thing for you, worry not — it’s easy to integrate Differin into your regular skincare routine without overhauling your entire routine.

But for each skincare product to be effective, you need to follow a lineup that doesn’t cancel out the previous product's benefits. Think about it: Why would you slather on an expensive anti-aging moisturizer, then wash it away with a cleanser?

Figuring out the proper steps is essential with all skincare, and even more so acne-fighting actives, which can leave skin raw, irritated, and uncomfortable if layered incorrectly.

The sequence you should do them in can seem confusing, but spare yourself the flow chart diagram. To make the difference between your daytime and nighttime skincare routines a little clearer, we turned to a few dermatologists to find out the correct order in which you should be applying your skincare products — morning and night.

Daytime Skincare Routine

The main focus of your morning routine should be hydration, plus setting the stage for the day with protection against whatever elements your skin is going to come into contact with.

Although most of the world is still abiding by shelter-in-place or social distance mandates, our day-to-day routines right now still impact our skin, from wearing a face mask regularly to the endless Zoom work calls you’re doing all day long. And if you’re anything like me, not adhering to proper posture and resting your chin on your hands instead.

"You may believe that most of the skin damage you get is caused by sun exposure and outdoor pollution, but the World Health Organization has now determined that indoor pollution is worse than outdoor pollution," says Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta skincare. "Consider what you’re doing during the day and what elements you may be facing when you're applying your skincare products in the morning."

Step 1: Cleanser

Using a gentle cleanser in the morning is important when incorporating Differin into your routine.

“Cleansers for sensitive skin with a creamy or milky formulation are best to use with Differin,” says Dr. Jennifer MacGregor, dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology, who also notes that Differin can have a bit of a drying effect at first. “I love Cetaphil milky cleanser because it gently cleanses without drying or stripping your skin’s moisture barrier.”

Step 2: Differin or other acne topical treatment

“Differin is the only topical that can be applied day or night,” says MacGregor, but it should always be applied to skin directly after cleansing and patting — never rubbing — skin dry.

“Use only a pea-sized amount of Differin gel around your entire face,” recommends MacGregor. Then gently massage until the gel is absorbed.

Step 3: Serum

A hydrating serum is a great option for morning to ensure the skin is moisturized. MacGregor’s favorite, Alto Defense Serum by Skin Better, offers a generous mix of antioxidants, fatty acids, and ceramides. These powerhouse ingredients build a saran wrap-like cover over the skin, which protect from dryness and free radicals, plus it soothes inflammation and the appearance of skin redness. Remember: Hydrated skin is happy skin.

Step 4: Eye Gel

An eye gel can de-puff smooth out the under-eye area, which will make makeup application easier. Tap Biossance Squalane + Peptide Eye Gel around the upper and lower eye area with your fingertip to calm and hydrate skin.

Step 5: Moisturizer

Once your serum and eye gel are fully absorbed, follow up with a lightweight, but seriously hydrating moisturizer to further prime and prep your skin for the day ahead.

When it comes to the best ingredients in a moisturizer to satisfy thirsty skin, “look for barrier repair ingredients, like fatty acids and squalane,” recommends Alexiades, as a healthy skin barrier is essential to smooth, hydrated skin. Omega-3 and omega-6 are the most popular fatty acids. Although common plant, nut and seed oils, like sunflower, safflower, flaxseed, and rose-hip seed, also have high concentrations of omega acids, so keep an eye out for those ingredients, too.

But before you settle on a morning moisturizer, evaluate whether stress is also affecting your skin’s oil production, causing your face to look extra shiny by lunchtime.

“If moisturizers with those ingredients are too creamy and your skin is oily, consider Theraplex HydroLotion or CeraVe moisturizing cream,” says MacGregor, adding that these formulations were specifically designed for sensitive skin.

Step 6: SPF

"You should finish off with SPF," says Dr. Ellen Marmur, dermatologist and founder of Marmur Metamorphosis Skincare. "No matter the time of the year, this ingredient should always be a factor in your routine in order to fully protect your skin from the sun’s UV rays."

Active topicals like Differin that work to increase cell turnover tend to also increase photosensitivity, says Alexiades, making daily sunscreen applications an absolute must.

Marmur suggests using a mineral sunscreen with zinc or titanium dioxide, which sits on top of skin instead of getting absorbed. EltaMD's UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 is a sunscreen beloved by beauty editors and dermatologists alike.

VIDEO: Pre-Makeup Skincare Routine

Nighttime Skincare Routine

At night, Dr. Marmur says that your primary concern should be repairing and rejuvenating your skin.

"Your skin needs to be nourished morning and night," adds Dr. Ciraldo. "But nighttime is when you should address your personal skin issues."

Plus, let's be realistic: Who has time to do a face mask when they're getting ready in the morning?

Step 1: Cleanser

You've probably heard how important it is not to sleep with your makeup on, so unsurprisingly, cleansing your face should be the first step in your nighttime routine, but which cleanser you reach for depends on your skin type.

“People with normal to dry skin should choose a hydrating cleanser,” says Alexiades. “If you strip the skin with an alpha hydroxy acid cleanser, it may be too dry and the Differin gel will further peel the skin and result in itchiness and flaking.”

If you have oily skin, “a sulfur or acid cleanser may be okay to prep the skin before your Differin,” she explains, while noting that with serious breakouts, a medicated cleanser may be prescribed and should only be used at night.

Step 2: Differin or other acne topical treatment

Just like in the morning, “a pea-sized amount of Differin should be first on cleansed skin and then layer creamier formulations on top,” says MacGregor. Be sure to apply Differin all over your face rather than as a spot-treatment to defend against future breakouts.

Step 3: Serum

When treating acne with Differin, there is truth to the "too much of a good thing" saying. Dr. Alexiades says to definitely avoid using retinol, Retin A, or other retinoids, and think twice before adding chemical exfoliants or peel pads to the mix. “If you use a benzoyl peroxide or acid, beware that your skin may get too raw, dry and inflamed,” she warns.

An ultra-nourishing and replenishing serum is your best — and safest — move for a bedtime serum after Differin. Go with a formula that has soothing, hydrating ingredients to bind moisture to skin without clogging pores, like SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel.

Step 3: Eye Serum

"Always use an eye repair serum, since this is one of the more sensitive parts of the face and ages faster than other areas," says Dr. Marmur. "People may habitually itch and rub their eyes during the day due to dryness or just pure stress." Elemis' Absolute Eye Serum is designed to reduce dark circles and puffiness while keeping the entire area soft and smooth.

Step 4: Moisturizer

Nighttime is when you can use a moisturizer that's richer than what you would typically use in the morning. "This will keep your skin hydrated throughout the nighttime and ready for the morning," explains Dr. Marmur. "Look for a moisturizer that's oil-free in order to not add to the amount of natural oil your body produces when you're sleeping."

This is Skin Deep, where we’re looking beyond the surface. Here, you’ll find all the tools you need to get your beauty routines back on track.