You Don’t Need an Extensive Routine to get Amazing Skin – Here Are the Steps You Should Prioritize

Skincare can be a form of self-care; beyond just maintaining your skin, having a routine – a ritual of sorts – can be soothing, and can help set the tone for the rest of your day. But lengthy routines just aren’t for everyone.

As college students, we don’t always have the time or the energy for the 10-step Korean skincare routine. Plus, more products doesn’t always equal a better skincare routine; there is such a thing as over-doing it on skincare. And, in my opinion, having a simple, easy-to-follow routine that you can easily stick to is way more effective when it comes to building healthy habits than imperfectly completing a more intricate routine that's harder to stick to. The only way to see real results when it comes to addressing skin concerns is if you actually use your products regularly.

So, what’s the best way to balance simplicity and effectiveness when it comes to good skincare? Here’s what to prioritize when crafting an easy skincare routine that you still feel motivated to do, day after day.

Set up your skincare routine so that it actually sparks joy

skincare products sit clustered together on a table or vanity Charisse Kenion | Unsplash To be perfectly frank, skincare is more than just trendy brands and TikTok-famous products. But there is something to be said about purchasing from brands you’re actually excited about; you’ll actually be motivated to use your products. Some trendy brands that still have good formulations include The Ordinary, The Inkey List, Versed, COSRX, CeraVe, First Aid Beauty, Youth to the People, and Krave Beauty.

“Good” formulations generally entail an ingredient list without sensitizing essential oils, the active ingredient at its optimal concentration, and other supplemental ingredients that might help the main ingredient do its job better. Because we’re not all chemists, I like to defer to Hyram, James Welsh, and Lab Muffin Beauty Science for reviews on the products I’m interested in.

Besides efficacy, I also like to look for products with sleek, easy-to-use packaging, and a texture that feels silky and sinks right into the skin without feeling thick, greasy or sticky.

Another thing that has helped me actually want to do my skincare routine when I might feel too tired is that I set up a specific area in my dorm designated for skincare. Instead of haphazardly throwing everything in my shower caddy or a toiletry bag, I keep all my products at my dresser, right by my bed and right where I can see them. Lay out your products in an organized fashion; I added a wall mirror and two vanity trays to store my items. This way, for the skincare steps that don’t require water (aka everything but cleanser), you can just do them in your room. It saves you a trip to the bathroom, and with your products out in the open, you’ll not only remember, but actually want to use them.

Start off strong with a good cleanser

Cleanse your skin of the oil and debris that builds up throughout the day with one really good cleanser. I love the CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser ($14) for a squeaky-clean cleanse that won’t strip your skin. They also have a salicylic acid cleanser for acne-prone skin ($14) (as do other brands), which means that you won’t need to exfoliate as a separate step later.

I like to keep my cleanser in my shower (or in my shower caddy when I’m at school) so I can wash my face while I’m showering – anything to save me an extra trip to the bathroom! If you find yourself forgetting to wash your face, just add it into your shower routine, as opposed to thinking of washing your face as a separate step in a completely different routine.

Use an “active” to treat your specific skin concern

cottonbro via Pexels Serums, essences, and face oils, oh my! You really don’t need them all. I recommend first identifying your main skin concern(s) – if you have none, congratulations! I’m lowkey jealous of you, and you can skip right to moisturizer. But if you’re not as genetically blessed, you might want to incorporate a product or two with an active ingredient designed to fix your skin woes. I’d recommend focusing on a product’s main ingredients rather than its formulation type – the main difference between, say, a serum and an essence is the product texture and how the active ingredients are delivered, as opposed to what they actually are.

If your main skincare concern is oil control or uneven tone, I’d recommend using a serum with niacinamide ($6) or azelaic acid ($8). The Ordinary has two excellent and inexpensive options.

If you have skin so dry it can’t be quenched by a moisturizer, check out serums with hyaluronic acid, or products marketed as facial oils or face milks.

If you have acne-prone or textured skin, I’d recommend using a chemical exfoliant (e.g. alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids). Exfoliants aren’t just for acne, though – they can also be effective at removing dead skin to reveal a brighter, more supple complexion. You’ll want to exfoliate at night, as the acids can make your skin sensitive to the sun, and only every other day or two. It can be a lot to keep track of, especially if you’re creating a new skincare routine, so I’d recommend setting a regular alarm or writing out when you’re supposed to use each product on a sticky note on your bathroom mirror. Because after a long day, you don’t necessarily want to incorporate critical thinking into your nightly skincare routine.

I recommend starting off with one “treatment” product and committing to it before integrating anything else into your skincare routine; building up to strong habits little by little is the key to combating skincare laziness. If you really want to, you could build up to two treatments (e.g. separate steps for morning and night), but that’s absolutely not necessary.

Most products will tell you on the packaging when and how often you should be using them, but some rules of thumb are that retinols, vitamin c, and exfoliants should be used at night. Hydrating post-cleanser steps can be done in the morning, at night, and/or as needed. 

Don’t forget to moisturize

Moisturizer is an essential part of your morning and nighttime skincare routines because it can keep your skin looking nourished and plump, and it helps balance your skin’s oil production. Some people with oily skin may prefer two different moisturizers – one with a lighter texture in the morning and something thicker at night – but you really only need one product for both day and night. I’d recommend the CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion ($12) as a universal, classic option that could work for a variety of skin types, due to its “just right” consistency – not too thick, yet not too thin.

If there’s one thing *not* to skimp on, it’s SPF

Sunscreen is such an important morning skincare step, as it can help prevent signs of aging, or even skin cancer. Your moisturizer might have SPF in it already, but even so, you’ll want to use a separate sunscreen to really make sure you’ve got your face covered. Using sunscreen is just as important in the winter as it is in the summer, since your skin can still absorb UV rays. And even though many of us aren’t venturing outside all that often, sunscreen is still necessary. As dermatologist Joyce Park tells Allure, windows only block UVA rays, not UVB rays.

I personally recommend the Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen ($34) or the Innisfree Daily UV Defense Sunscreen ($15).

Tone(r) it down

Toner (also known as astringent) is a thin, watery product designed to be applied right after cleansing, and is traditionally used to remove excess oil and debris from the skin. Nowadays, however, cleansers have become more effective, so if you’ve found a really good one, you don’t need to tone. Some products labeled as a toner may have additional claims or properties (e.g. hydrating toners or exfoliating toners). These toners can be used interchangeably with any other skincare product with a similar claim (e.g. hydrating essences or exfoliating serums). Toners are just another type of product that can deliver active ingredients, but you really don’t need to tone as its own separate step.

I scream, you scream, we don’t scream for eye cream

At the end of the day, eye cream is really just a thicker moisturizer in a smaller tub, so if you’re looking to simplify your skincare routine, eye cream is an easy step to cut out. Eye creams are generally only helpful if your undereyes are significantly more dry than the rest of your face, or if you’re prepping for under-eye concealer.

Melissa, a junior at University of Maryland, agrees. She says, "I’ve never used an eye cream before but lowkey I feel like they really don’t do anything drastic, and that the effects are very temporarily tightening and cooling."

If you need stronger treatments, visit a dermatologist.

If your new routine doesn’t leave you with magically glowy skin after just one day, don’t fret; you'll likely not see results until two weeks to a month later. If your skin hasn’t changed after extended use, or worse – it breaks out or becomes red or irritated – that’s when you’d want to consider booking an appointment with a derm.

And that's exactly what I did when I was struggling with acne. The dermatologist prescribed me two prescription-strength products (one for morning and one for night) and instructed me to cleanse, treat and moisturize every day – just three steps, but because the ingredients in the prescription-strength treatments were so strong, this simple routine cleared my skin in a matter of weeks. If you find yourself adding more steps to your skincare routine to treat more and more skin concerns, I’d refer to an expert. Plus, some prescription-strength topical treatments don’t play well with other skincare actives, so using dermatologist-prescribed products will force you to keep your skincare regimen to a minimum.

On the rare days you feel extra, you can literally do skincare in your sleep

We all love a good face mask or peel for a DIY spa-treatment moment. But applying the mask, waiting 20 minutes, and washing it off is honestly a whole production that we don’t always have time for. If you feel like your skin needs some extra TLC, try a leave-on option instead, like a sleeping mask. I’d recommend doing this step on an as-needed basis, as opposed to daily (or not at all – this step is super optional, but the lazy-yet-extra skincare junkie in me always prefers a sleeping mask over a clay mask).

If your skin feels dry or irritated, repair it with the First Aid Beauty FAB Pharma Arnica Relief & Rescue Mask ($32) – it’ll absorb into your skin so you don’t need to wash it off, just make sure it does so before your face hits the pillow. If you struggle with acne, you can treat it with pimple patches that you can stick on right before bed and peel off when you wake up. The COSRX Acne Pimple Master Patches ($6) are a classic fave. 

At the end of the day, you don’t need to be a skincare junkie with extensive product knowledge or a large serum collection. And even if you are that person, I just know you don’t feel like doing your entire pamper routine every single day – and you don’t need to. The most important thing is finding a simple, doable routine that works for you, and sticking to it.

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