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This Is the Best Skin Care Routine for Men (Even for Beginners)

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Serums, toners, night creams, and more—explained.

a person washing their face in the mirror with hand painted colorful filters over the top

Photograph: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

It’s never too late to start the best skin care routine for men, or to build on the one you’ve got. Doing so is an investment in your health and self-confidence. But as I’ve learned through many conversations, a skin care routine for men often feels like some endless treasure hunt, with a map that is impossible to decode. But here’s the secret: There’s no end goal. It’s like daily exercise for your skin, the same way you eat healthy, stay hydrated, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. After all, it’s a skin care routine, and these are habits you’re building because they’re good for you, not because you’ll magically look like Lee Pace or Henry Golding when all is said and done. (We would all be so lucky.)

Hopefully, I can help you figure out the best skin care routine for you, by explaining the best steps to follow (and in which order), as well as some of the key ingredients to look for along the way. Here, then, is the best skin care routine for men—if such a thing exists. And if it feels like too much for now, there’s always the simplest (3-step) skin care routine, too. If you start there, you’re already miles ahead of most guys. In fact, that’s a great place to begin. 

The Baseline Regimen: Cleanse, Exfoliate, Moisturize

The three core steps of any regimen are cleansing, exfoliating, and moisturizing, but not all 3 at once. Here’s an ideal scenario:

  1. Cleanse twice a day. Use face wash first thing in the morning, to wash away any product applied the night before, as well as any sweat and bacteria you accumulated during the night. Then cleanse in the evening, to begin your bedtime regimen. 
  2. Exfoliate twice a week. This step removes dead skin cells and allows you to keep a brighter, smoother, softer complexion—while also preventing breakouts. For the task, you can choose a physical scrub or a chemical exfoliant. The latter is probably better if you’re dealing with acne and want to dissolve dead skin cells as well as sebum trapped inside the pores (especially a product with salicylic acid). But don’t exfoliate more than suggested by your chosen product (usually twice weekly), since your skin cells don’t really regenerate fast enough to keep up with constant sloughing. Lastly, it’s best to exfoliate in the evening (always after cleansing and before moisturizing), so that skin can recover as you rest. Otherwise you might navigate the day with a reddened mug.
  3. Moisturize morning and night, with SPF as a daytime priority. Moisturizer sounds like a proactive product, but it’s actually less active about hydrating your face as it is about preserving skin’s natural moisture levels, and bouncing away any threats to the skin’s defensive barrier functions. We suggest having one for the morning, with SPF to shield against skin-aging UV rays. This daytime defender will wear slightly lighter than your evening moisturizer, which is more proactive in the nourishment department.

The Intermediate Regimen: Hydrating Serums, Eye Creams, Face Masks, Spot Treatments, and Toners

If you want to graduate from a baseline skin care routine to a more proactive regimen, then there are a few types of products to first bring into the fold. Now, you don’t need to introduce all of these products, but you should at least have a clear understanding of each.

  1. Hydrating Serums: While there are many types of serums out there, the most essential would be a hydrating serum—specifically with skin-plumping hyaluronic acid. You would apply this product after cleansing and before moisturizing. (Ditto for all serums.) Hyaluronic acid seeps deeper into the skin and actively pulls in moisture (up to 1,000 times its own weight) to keep skin nourished from deep within.
  2. Eye Creams: Eye creams are the epitome of ‘big things in small packages’. They’re among the most densely concentrated products, since they are targeting the most delicate, thin skin on your body—that of your eye area. When this delicate skin loses its firmness and thickness, you start to notice things like puffy under eyes, crow’s feet, and dark circles more prominently. So, these eye creams (and serums) help to fortify the skin and keep things tight, bright, and strong. An eye product can work to keep you looking alert during the day, or can feed the skin with a feast of peptides as you sleep. Apply it at least once a day—possibly twice, if you so choose.
  3. Face Masks: There are many types of face masks, but the two most general categories are “deep cleansing” and “deep nourishing”. The former tend to deploy ingredients like charcoal and clay to suck out excess sebum and grime from deep within the pores (thus they are especially common with oily and acne-prone folks). The hydrating masks, on the other hand, pump highly concentrated serum into the skin, to help revive supremely tired, dull, or dry complexion. Typically, each type is designed for once-weekly use at most.
  4. Spot Treatments: Spot treatments are essential for anyone prone to acne, hyperpigmentation, or both. They help disappear angry pimples, heal acne marks, and lessen the likelihood (and longevity) of hyperpigmentation from those blemishes, as well as those from sun or biological factors. You can even use spot treatments proactively, at the first sign of a breakout, to prevent pimples from surfacing at all.
  5. Toners: Toners aren’t for everybody, but they are for anyone with especially oily skin, or anyone who has an overly complicated skin care regimen. Simply put, toners help balance your skin’s pH levels (so that skin never gets overly dry and irritated), while also tempering your natural sebum production (so that skin never gets overly oily). You would use it after cleansing (and after any physical exfoliant), but before applying any chemical exfoliants, other serums, and of course before moisturizing.

The Advanced Regimen: Ingredient-Focused Remedies

This is where things get serious. The advanced folks are the ones who book out their dermatologist twice a year,. The advanced level adds an ingredient-focused approach to any new products. Typically, these will be deployed as serums or night creams, or even as prescriptions from the dermo themselves. These individuals might also regularly get facials or be faithful to a single top-tier brand. But don’t let any of that scare you away from adding an ‘advanced’ element to your regimen. 

  1. Retinol and Bakuchiol: Retinol is a vitamin A derivative, and one of the best products that actually reverses signs of aging (and can stop acne in its tracks, too). Bakuchiol is its natural alternative for more sensitive skin. Talk to your doc about a prescription-grade retinol, if you want some serious oomph in your regimen.
  2. Vitamin C: Vitamin C is used to boost skin brightness and reduce discoloration and hyperpigmentation. This is a volatile ingredient, too, so it’s worth investing coin in a top-tier serum. You’ll often see ‘ascorbic acid’ listed in place of vitamin C; the former is the purest form of the latter.
  3. Niacinamide: Smoothing and soothing. Niacinamide is also common in many everyday moisturizers, and for good reason.
  4. Alpha Hydroxy Acids: You’ll find both lactic and glycolic acid in many exfoliating serums (like the ones addressed in the basic regimen), but you’ll also find these popular AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) at the core of many at-home face peels. Proceed with caution! Also increasing in popularity is mandelic acid, which particularly targets hyperpigmentation, like acne scars.
  5. Beta Hydroxy Acid: There is really only one BHA (beta hydroxy acid) that is out there, which is salicylic acid. It’s derived from willow bark extract, and like we mentioned with the exfoliating serums in the first section of this article, this ingredient seeps into the pores and helps break down dead skin cells as well as dissolve excess oil. Salicylic acid can even temper oil production to prevent overproduction. It’s common in acne-centric products and many peels.
  6. Polyhydroxy Acids: Whereas AHAs and BHAs can be irritating on sensitive skin, PHAs (that is, polyhydroxy acids) have bigger molecules and thus gently exfoliate just the topmost layer of skin, since they can’t seep any deeper. The most common polyhydroxy acids have complicated names (can you commit gluconolactone, galactose, and lactobionic acid to memory?)—thus they tend to simply be advertised as ‘PHAs’.
  7. Ceramides and Collagen: These two are lumped together, since they’re often packages together. In short, ceramides are fatty acids and collagen is protein. As we age, our skin loses its elasticity, due to a slowed production of these exact two things—hence why people seek them out in skin care to supplement said loss.
  8. Pre- and Probiotics: Along with having balanced pH levels in your skin, many people also like to ensure that their ‘good bacteria’ stays balanced, too. Getting pre- and probiotics in skin care can help fight off the bad bacteria (which can cause acne), while also boosting wound healing, as well as defenses against UV rays, inflammation, eczema, and more. (Prebiotics feed the 
  9. Ferulic Acid: Antioxidants are imperative for your skin to keep its defenses high. They can prevent accelerated photo-aging (like fine lines, wrinkles, rough skin, etc) and aggressive cell damage. Ferulic acid is the antioxidant of all antioxidants, almost like a multiplier for all the other defenses in your cells. Use it in the morning, so it can power skin through the day.

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