As the body’s largest organ, skin deserves some big love. But with a seemingly infinite number of serums, cleansers, and treatments out there, finding the right routine can feel daunting. Luckily, there’s no one correct way to practice skin care. Successful regimens can be as unique as our skin types. What rings true across the board is that like all good self-care, the right skin care for you will help you glow from the inside out.
“My skin-care routine helps me wind down and reminds me I am doing something for ‘me’ at the end of a long, busy day,” says the board-certified dermatologist Emily Wood, MD, who practices at Westlake Dermatology in Austin , Texas.
And practicing skin care as self-care doesn’t necessarily mean shelling out a fortune on luxury creams, either. While topical products can help treat certain conditions and give skin a boost, factors like diet, sleep, and sun protection are equally important to maintaining that healthy glow. “Pick a few high-quality products that have clinical studies and data behind them, that are really simple and easy to work into a routine,” advises Jessica Ackerman, a board-certified physician assistant with Dermatology and Aesthetics in Chicago.
Are you curious about how the pros take care of themselves? Below, board-certified dermatologists and a physician assistant share their own tried-and-true special skin-care practices.
1. Add a Daily Dose of Brightening Vitamin C to Your Routine
Across the board, dermatologists tout the power of topical vitamin C. Research shows it may help treat hyperpigmentation, which can happen when you spend too much time in the sun. “I tend to be a little bit of a minimalist when it comes to skin care,” Ackerman says. “I’m a big believer in vitamin C and other antioxidant serums to reverse any past sun damage and prevent any future damage.” She opts for a vitamin C serum in the morning, following it with her daily sunscreen application. (Don’t skip the SPF, as brightening ingredients like vitamin C can increase your skin’s sensitivity to light and up your risk of skin damage, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.)
Basia Michalski, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Washington University Physicians in St. Louis, also starts her morning with a vitamin C serum.
2. Pack Your Diet With Healthy Ingredients
Consider an inside-out approach when caring for your skin. Certain nutrients — such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, vitamin E, and polyphenols — are associated with healthier skin, notes the Cleveland Clinic, and you can find them in some delicious foods. Treat yourself to seafood like salmon and tuna, add walnuts or almonds to your next baking project, or top your next bowl of oatmeal with fresh berries.
Dr. Wood gets her antioxidant fix from her breakfast protein smoothie, which she packs with blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and a plant-based protein powder (as opposed to whey, which research published in Dermatology Online Journal in August 2020 associated with worsened acne).
Meanwhile, Cristina Psomadakis, a dermatologist with the National Healthcare System in the United Kingdom, loves the Mediterranean diet for healthy skin. “One of my favorite dinners is a Greek salad with lots of extra-virgin olive oil from my village,” she says. Psomadakis may be onto something: Thanks to plant-based foods like fruits and veggies, as well as fish with omega-3s, as the Mayo Clinic notes, your skin may benefit from this eating approach.
Just keep in mind that diet alone won’t solve all your skin problems — more research on the role diet can play in skin health, including skin aging, is needed to fully understand the relationship, as one review points out.
3. Prioritize Exercise to Minimize Stress and Boost Your Glow
The post-workout glow is no myth. Because exercise boosts blood flow to the organs (like your skin), it can also promote a healthy glow, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD).
Wood adds that exercise also helps decrease cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone associated with inflammation and skin damage, per past research. And because stress is a common trigger for flare-ups in conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, regular exercise can reduce the risk and severity of these flare-ups. Take care of your skin while exercising by applying SPF 30+, opting for moisture-wicking synthetic fabrics for your workout outfits, using a clean towel to pat away sweat, and wrapping up your workout with a shower before changing into clean clothing, advises the DAA.
To reap the potential skin-care benefits of exercise, Wood tries to squeeze in 30 minutes of activity at least three times a week, whether that’s a walk with her dog or a spin on her Peloton.
4. Add a Growth Factor to Boost Collagen Production
Collagen is a protein that forms the basis of your body’s skin, muscles, and connective tissues, says Cleveland Clinic. And while your body produces it naturally, collagen production slows down over the years, causing wrinkles and other visible signs of aging.
Ackerman recommends prioritizing this protein in your skin-care routine — and growth factors can help you really treat your skin. Growth factors are naturally occurring proteins that help with wound healing and regeneration, per DermNet; they do this by boosting collagen and elastin production in your skin. A systematic review published in the April–June 2021 issue of the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery suggested that, along with reversing some visible signs of aging, growth factors help treat hyperpigmentation and soothe acne.
To amp up her routine, Ackerman uses a retinol-glycolic acid combination mixed with a cream containing growth factors, noting that “growth factors in combination with retinol are really great for collagen stimulation.” Retinol is a popular over-the-counter vitamin A derivative that can help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and discoloration, per the AAD — so pairing these two ingredients packs a serious punch.
5. Take the Time for a Nightly Skin-Loving Ritual
All four experts take the time to treat themselves during their evening skin-care routine. For Wood, self-care means taking time in the evening to complete her skin-care routine. After washing her face, she relaxes with a face mask — her favorites are the SkinCeuticals Phyto Corrective Masque (SkinCeuticals.com) and, when the weather gets colder, the Revision Pumpkin Enzyme Mask (RevisionSkincare.com). “The phyto corrective masque has a nice botanical blend that is calming for red, sensitive skin,” she says, while she touts the exfoliating pumpkin enzymes and moisturizing squalene of the Revision mask.
Psomadakis believes in taking the time to maintain soft, moisturized hands and feet, a practice she combines with other relaxing activities: “When I am watching TV or reading, I will put a very thick balm on my hands, knees, elbows, and feet and let it soak in.” To achieve the best results, opt for an ointment or a cream, which are thicker and more moisturizing than a lotion, per the AAD.
Ackerman’s personal evening routine involves targeting a condition she also sees in many of her patients at the office: keratosis pilaris, which causes tiny dry skin bumps that can appear on the upper arms, thighs, cheeks, or buttocks, per the Mayo Clinic. Ackerman uses a glycolic acid wash in the shower to smooth out and rehydrate her skin; a study in the February 2021 Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology suggested that glycolic acid can help rejuvenate skin and boost collagen, too.
Dr. Michalski also adheres to a nighttime skin-care ritual; she opts for a gentle cleanser, followed by a vitamin A–based cream (typically adapalene, a topical retinoid that’s approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat acne, per an article in StatPearls), and then a hyaluronic acid moisturizer.
6. Splash Out on Sun Protection
If you spend a lot of time outdoors, bring your SPF A-game by treating yourself to a wardrobe refresh. Wood is a big fan of clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF — think of it as the SPF of clothes) to protect you from skin-damaging UVA and UVB rays.
“Some of my favorite brands are Cabana Life [CabanaLife.com] and Mott50[Mott50com”shenotes“Youcanbestylishandstillsun-protected”LookforaUPFof50orhigherwhichtheSkinCancerFoundationconsiders“excellent”capableofblocking98percentofthesun’srays(BoththesebrandsensurealltheirclothesofferatleastUPF50)[Mott50com”shenotes“Youcanbestylishandstillsun-protected”LookforaUPFof50orhigherwhichtheSkinCancerFoundationconsiders “excellent”capableofblocking98percentofthesun’srays(BoththesebrandsensurealltheirclothesofferatleastUPF50)
7. Indulge in a Specialty In-Office Treatment
For specialty procedures, treat yourself to a visit to the dermatologist. Even derms see the derm! For example, preventive Botox is one of Ackerman’s skin-care splurges: “Before we have really deep-set wrinkles or lines on the face, it can help prevent those from forming over time.” While there are not many clinical studies on preventive Botox, one frequently cited 2006 study followed two identical twins for 13 years and found that the twin who had undergone regular Botox did not have the same imprinted facial lines the untreated twin had. Another past study suggested that neurotoxins injected over 20 months significantly reduce wrinkles for up to six months after the final injection.
Wood opts for an injectable neurotoxin — Botox, Dysport, or Xeomin — for her face and neck every three to four months to combat wrinkles. Other specialty treatments she swears by? An annual sprinkle of hyaluronic acid filler to keep facial volume, and pulsed dye laser treatments to ease facial redness. Every one to two years, she also indulges in a Fraxel Dual laser treatment to ease hyperpigmentation from sun damage, along with Ultherapy to boost collagen production.
Just keep in mind these splurges are truly that — they’re pricier than the other ideas in this list. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the average cost of injectable neurotoxins like Botox is $466, while the average cost of laser resurfacing treatments like Fraxel ranges from $1,445 to $2,509.