Earlier this year, I wrote an exhaustive skincare guide for a group of friends and family, and it blew up. It came along after guinea-pigging what I felt like was every product on the Internet during COVID. Back in Pandemic: season I, when retailers collectively freaked out, and expensive, covetous skincare went on fire sale, I got it all: tres-fancy moisturizer, over-hyped serums, gooey sheet masks, and a litany of other stuff. After all, what better time to test something that might break me out than during quarantine? But none of it really blew me away, especially for the price (looking at you, Dr. Barbara Sturm).
Then, like many during that time, I joined TikTok. Suddenly I was flooded with new information, not from well-branded retailers selling me pretty little lies, but from actual dermatologists, estheticians, and industry experts! What they had to say was refreshingly practical. I listened and saw results the $250 creams never gave me. Thus, I learned the hard way that expensive doesn’t necessarily = efficacious.
Fast forward to now. I’ve had more time to see real results. I’ve made some tweaks and modifications to my routines. And I know more now. So I give you the redux version of my super-ultimate, comprehensive, exhaustive guide to all my hard-won, expensive skincare lessons learned.
But first, a three-part disclaimer:
I’m not a dermatologist or an esthetician. PLEASE talk to your professional squad before implementing new products with acids or retinoids — I sure do. Not everything plays well together, especially on different skin types, so make sure you’re mixing and layering products safely.
Your skin is different than mine. My routine works for me and may not work for you. I am in my 30’s, white, with fair-medium olive-toned skin. I have combination skin, meaning oily in my T-zone and dry elsewhere. My primary concerns are hormonal acne, fine lines, sebaceous filaments (those tiny pores on your nose that look like blackheads when clogged), loss of volume, and most importantly, avoiding skin cancer.
Most of this stuff is nice-to-have, but not vital. All you really need is a cleanser, a moisturizer, and sunscreen.
I wash my face most mornings with a gentle cleanser and cool water. A cleanser shouldn’t strip your skin or interrupt your skin barrier, and especially in the morning, there’s no need to use anything with harsh ingredients.
La Roche Posay’s Hydrating Gentle Cleanser (milky, gentle, dreamy)
Inkey List Oat Cleansing Balm (especially like this one for post-sun or laser irritation)
If I’m puffy (ahem, wine face), I really like the ice rollers you can get on Amazon, which I stash in my freezer and use after I wash my face.
Bioderma’s Micellar Water is the OG French Pharmacy gold standard for a lazy splash-and-go morning. I’ve used it for years.
If my skin is happy that morning (no irritation), I use a Vitamin C serum. This is not a VITAL step, FYI. I just have some hyperpigmentation, and it helps. Finding a good Vitamin C serum was tough for me. There are a lot of empty promises out there, and a lot of fear-mongering about it not being “shelf-stable” when packaged incorrectly. It’s all very hard to wade through. But when I found a C that worked, it went a long way to help with discoloration.
Singapore’s Allies of Skin’s Vitamin C serum is the first Vitamin C that finally worked for me. I actually love so much of what this brand is doing, but I haven’t experimented with it enough to make any other recommendations right now.
When my skin needs soothing, I reach for Krave Beauty’s Great Barrier Relief. TikTok is obsessed with this stuff. I’m not sure how to describe its consistency, which has to be somewhere between a serum and a moisturizer. This isn’t necessarily an essential item, but it goes a LONG way to proactively protect and soothe my skin barrier.
Skinceuticals C-Ferulic is considered the gold standard of C serums, but it is expensive. It’s a genuine workhorse, and I’ve since replaced the Allies of Skin with this in my morning routine.
Next, I moisturize! I love moisturizers. Love. I give myself a little face massage to de-puff while my skin drinks them up. I have lots of them. Some live in my medicine cabinet, some in my purse, some in my nightstand.
La Roche Posay’s Cicaplast Baume B5 (all-time favorite, but good luck finding it. If Amazon’s got it in stock, do not dilly dally.)
Dr. Jart’s Ceramidin Cream (second place, but will pill under heavy makeup FYI)
If my skin is SUPER dry, I’ll use Weleda’s Skin Food with a few drops of face oil. (Just don’t wear this one under your makeup unless you want it to melt off.)
Finally, and this is the most important daytime step: sunscreen. I swear I look younger than I did this time two years ago, and I think most of that has to do with the fact that I started wearing sunscreen every. single. day. Even when I’m inside! Sunscreen is kind of annoying because of consistency and white cast, especially if your skin tone is darker. So fiddle around and find what works for you by shopping with a retailer like Amazon or Sephora who will make a return if you don’t like it. (I wrote sunscreen its own exhaustive guide here, if you’d like to dive deeper.) BTW — If your skin is oily, you can probably skip moisturizer and just look for a moisturizing sunscreen.
If I’m not wearing makeup that day, I like Ulta MD’s tinted sunscreen.
Maelove’s mineral sunscreen — it’s straightforward and low-maintenance. Influencers are onto this one though so sign up for those restocks.
If I’m wearing makeup, I’ll use Supergoop’s Glowscreen. It gives a nice luminous glow that makes a great base layer for makeup.
Cocokind also makes a great no-BS sunscreen, and I really appreciate their transparency efforts as a brand. (Plus you can grab it at Whole Foods or Target.)
A new addition to my lineup is Apostrophe’s ‘Screen, which has quickly ascended to the top of the pile for the masterful way it slays multiple concerns in one product.
Makeup and sunscreen are no joke to fully remove, so I double-cleanse my face in the shower, first with an oil cleanser to break everything up, then with one of the same gentle cleansers from my morning routine to really get it all off. I follow that with a sweep of Micellar Water and eye makeup remover once I’m out of the shower — more makeup always comes off on the pad.
K-Beauty brand DHC’s Oil Cleanser
Paula’s Choice Cleansing Balm, a favorite new addition to the lineup that’s going to be great for winter skin and is excellent at breaking up makeup.
Glossier Milky Jelly Cleanser, which I also keep a mini of in my travel kit.
La Roche Posay makes my favorite eye makeup remover. It smashes through even the most stubborn waterproof mascara.
Instead of disposable cotton pads, try sustainable reusable ones. I just toss them in the washing machine. Buy lots and keep them in a tub under your sink. I also have black washcloths designated for makeup removal. For travel, I rely heavily on a makeup eraser.
Most nights, I follow my cleanser with an active (here’s a good breakdown of what that means). Don’t rub your face to death to exfoliate or tear it up with micro-beads (step away from the St. Ives!), acids will sweep that dead skin off for you and de-gunk your pores.
What do I truly consider a miracle product in this category? Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant. You’ve heard of Salicylic Acid? Well, this formula is it, sis. I splash a little on my hands and rub it all over my face, chest, and shoulders. Truly nothing has cleared up my skin like this stuff. Bury me with it.
Alternatively, I’m feeling lazy and I don’t want to do much after I wash my face, or if my skin is just looking dull, GoopGlow’s Overnight Glow peel is a great one-step.
Can’t forget the iconic cult favorite Lotion P50, which stinks to high heaven but does the Lord’s work if you’re dealing with acne. The only legit place online to get this is Rescue Spa. I get it in Atlanta at Artisan Beautè.
If my skin is dry, I’ll use Hyaluronic acid serum on still-damp skin. The still-damp part is key because you need to give your serum some moisture to grab onto and drink. You want to make what Charlotte Palermino (one of my favorite skincare follows) calls a “moisture sandwich”: water > serum > moisturizer > oil.
Product recs (all K-Beauty!):
Then comes moisturizer. I use Augustinus Bader’s The Rich Cream. I’m sorry. I know it costs an arm and a leg. I would like to tell you it isn’t worth the money and give you an inexpensive alternative, but then I’d be fibbing to you. The Rich Cream genuinely improved my skin over time, and I really love it.
Finally, if I am being extra, my occlusive. This is basically what “locks” everything in. This is the moment for your face oil. When it’s cold, I use Vinter’s Daughter. It’s another investment, but one bottle lasts a whole year.
Additional, But Essential (For Me):
This requires a trip to your derm, but get yourself some Tretinoin (aka Retin A). It’s only available by prescription, but when it comes to legit results, this stuff is untouchable. It plumps up fine lines, fights acne, and improves the overall texture + tone of my skin. It’s usually around thirty bucks for a several-month supply. You only need to apply a tiny bit once or twice a week. After cleansing, apply it on bone-dry skin, and then once the product sinks in, follow that with a gentle moisturizer. That’s your whole routine that night. Do not pair with actives!
Be warned: Tretinoin is a long game. Retinoids (not to be mistaken with Retinyl or Retinol — ack, confusing!) like Tret take at least six months to see results and are meant to be used routinely for a lifetime. You might see a tiny breakout at first if your skin is purging stuff that’s been hiding under the surface, which is why you may have heard the term “retinoid uglies” before. It’ll pass. And it’s worth it. Age backward, my bb!
Speaking of prescriptions, going on a low daily dose of Spironolactone all but eliminated my hormonal acne. Ask your dermatologist about it. Again, online derms like Apostrophe will hook you up with this.
With the exception of consistent sunscreen use, pretty much no cream in a jar will give you dramatic results like injectables and lasers.
Treatments I utilize:
I do a little Botox between my eyebrows and in my forehead.
As far as lasers, I love the results of Moxi and BBL (Broadband Light).
I *also* recently tried fractional microneedling treatment Morpheus in the skilled, safe hands of my practitioner Lauren Bays at Artisan Beautè in Atlanta. I’m only two weeks post my first round, and Morpheus requires 2-3 treatments, so I’ll report back on that one later.
So many of us baby our faces and then completely neglect the skin on the rest of our body!
Necessaire has an amazing lineup of body care, including an AHA Glycolic acid body wash, a quick-absorbing moisturizer, and nourishing body oil. Everything is gentle, efficacious, reasonably priced, widely available, and a pleasure to use.
Bioderma’s Face + Body Cleansing Oil is also wonderful for dry, itchy winter skin. It comes in a big pump bottle that I leave in the shower — it’s also so inexpensive ($20 for almost 40 ounces!).
If you are obsessive like me, then there are a few maintenance devices I think are worth investing in.
The Light Salon’s LED red light mask! I wear it for ten to twenty minutes twice a week and it dramatically evens out my tone. Not a bargain by any means, but an absolute game-changer.
For tightening, I like my microcurrent device, NuFace. If you buy it, then use it consistently and correctly. It’s a waste of money otherwise.
More questions? Send me a DM on Instagram @jessnellgraves, and I’ll do my best to answer!
I’d love it if you’d share this guide with a friend or two who might find it useful — your shares, whether over email, Instagram, Reddit, Twitter, or Facebook — really help me continue to grow The Love List. I genuinely appreciate them!