Here's What Each Product In Your Skin Routine Does

We all know that we're supposed to be putting ourselves through a multi-step skincare routine every morning and night — it's been ingrained in us since puberty — but most of us (myself included) don't necessarily know what the heck we're rubbing on our faces. Sure, cleanser is for cleaning, moisturizer is for moisturizing, and toning is for "toning" (whatever that means). But beyond that, it gets pretty confusing trying to figure out what each of our skincare products actually do.

As we get older, it's important that we start to understand what our skin actually needs. Gone are the days of wiping our makeup off with a cleansing towelette and calling it a night (as my own dermatologist recently told me, that is not ok) and of (gasp) skipping out on daily sunscreen. Our skin is going to be ours for our entire lives, so we need to learn how to treat it now so we don't have to pay the price later. And yes, that means a multi-step skincare routine.

In order to help understand why each step in a multi-step skincare routine is actually necessary, I consulted NYC-based dermatologist Michele J. Farber who explained to me what each product does for our skin, and how we should be using them. Your 65-year-old self will be grateful, I promise.

1. Soap Is For Cleaning

Caudalie Gentle Cleansing Milk, $14,

This one seems pretty obvious, but the most important step in taking care of your skin is keeping it clean. Soap, or cleanser, is necessary for wiping away all of the dirt and oil from the environment that lands on your skin and clogs your pores. It's important to choose the right soap, though, which differs based on your skin type. "If your skin is dry and sensitive, a lipid-free cleanser with ingredients like glycerin is gentle and hydrating. Acne-prone skin can benefit from soap with sulfur, resorcinol, salicylic or glycolic acid," says Dr. Farber.

2. Toner Is For Smoothing

The other day, I was rubbing toner on my face and realized I had no idea what it was actually doing for my skin. As it turns out, "toning" is actually exactly what it sounds like — a way to even out your skin tone. "Toner can help to smooth out the appearance of the skin, clear off excess dead skin cells, and reduce the size of pores," says Dr. Farber. Toner may not be necessary if you don't have super oily skin, but it can help even out the surface of your skin to make creams and makeup go on more smoothly. This one from Pixi Glo will quite literally leave you glowing.

3. Serum Is For Locking In Moisture

C-Firma Day Serum, $82,

If your skin is super dry (hands up, ladies) serum helps your skin absorb and lock in the moisture from your moisturizer. There are different kinds of serum, and each have a different effect on your face depending on their base ingredient. "Vitamin C and green tea extract in these products can be great anti-oxidants," says Dr. Farber. "Glycolic acid and salicylic acid can also help exfoliate for acne-prone skin." It's best to steer clear of the exfoliating ingredients if you have sensitive skin, and everyone should beware of thicker oils that can clog pores. This Vitamin C Serum from Drunk Elephant is all natural and goes on super smoothly to help your skin stay hydrated all day.

4. Moisturizer Is For Hydration

Kiehl's 1851 Ultra Facial Cream, $27.50,

This one may seem pretty obvious, especially considering how quickly your face sucks up moisturizer when you put it on dry skin, but this step is meant to help keep your skin hydrated. It's important to note that not all moisturizers are created equal. Thick creams (rather than runny lotions) are better for dry or sensitive skin, and should include ingredients such as ceramides, dimethicone, and hyaluronic acid, which can help to lock in moisture in a gentle way. Skip any products that have petroleum — even though it can be hydrating, it's also a major pore clogger — and make sure anything you use is non-comedogenic (doesn't clog pores) to prevent acne flares.

5. Sunscreen Is For Skin Protection

TizO3 Tinted Facial Mineral Sunscreen SPF40, $39.50,

Yup — sunscreen should be part of your skincare routine all year round. "Your final step before makeup is sunscreen; keeping your skin shielded from the sun will help maintain a youthful glow and delay aging," says Dr. Farber. For ease of application, she suggests finding a moisturizer or makeup with sunscreen already in it so you don't have to double apply. I started using this tinted moisturizer from TizO3 because Kylie Jenner recommended it, and I am officially obsessed.

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