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The Beginner’s Guide to Product Types, Explained by Dermatologists


Intro to skin care products

Most of us already know that good skin care involves more than just washing your face, but once you get past exfoliators and moisturizers, you might begin to feel a little lost. There are so many types of products out there, and there’s no way to craft the right routine for yourself if you don’t even know what these products do.

If you’re scratching your head wondering what the difference is between face oil and serum—and how the heck you use either of them—stress no more. Dermatologists Dr. Margarita Lolis and Dr. Debra Jaliman are here to give you the rundown on all the types of products for skin health, so you know what they are, what they do and how to properly use them.

1. Cleanser

Most dermatologists agree it is important to cleanse the face twice daily to get bacteria, dirt and pollutants off your skin. However, there are different types of cleansers that are more ideal for certain types of skin.

“The common mistakes people make are using the same product in the morning and at night and not getting a product that is ideal for their skin type,” says Dr. Lolis. “For example, someone prone to breakouts may use a cleanser with salicylic acid only to find it has a reverse effect. When skin is dried out, it increases oil production, which can only make a breakout more prevalent. The best approach would be to see a dermatologist for a skin assessment and a product recommendation that is most suitable for your skin type.”

Related: The Different Types of Face Cleansers, Decoded

2. Exfoliator 

Exfoliation is a crucial part of any skin care routine, but it can also be intimidating for those who are just starting their beauty regimen and are unsure of what exactly an exfoliator does. To put it simply, any product or device used on the skin to remove dead skin cells is an exfoliator, which can then be classified as either chemical or physical.

Physical or manual exfoliators slough away dead skin cells on the surface layer using mechanical force. On the other hand, “Chemical exfoliators (like salicylic acid or glycolic acid) chemically breaks or dissolves bonds between dead skin cells,” explains board-certified dermatologist Viseslav Tonkovic-Capin, MD. “The dead skin cells become loose and shed off, making the skin look [more] radiant and youthful. They also open the pores, enabling their contents to discharge on the surface to prevent acne and inflammation. Given that exfoliators are mild acids, they also lower the pH of the skin, killing the harmful bacteria,” he explains.

When choosing an exfoliator to add to your skin care routine, Dr. Tonkovic-Capin says it’s important to first consider your skin type. “Oily and acne-prone skin would benefit greatly from daily use of facial pads pre soaked with salicylic acid because they will treat and prevent acne breakouts,” he suggests. For combination skin, he recommends slow exfoliation that can be done as often or as less frequently as your skin sensitivities would allow. For those with mature skin, he suggests choosing an exfoliator with anti-aging ingredients like resveratrol for their skin-rejuvenating properties.

“I do not recommend any exfoliation for dry and sensitive skin because such skin has already exfoliated itself and any additional exfoliation would be damaging,” he adds.

Related: What Is Exfoliation and Why Your Skin Needs It

3. Treatment

Treatment products are used to address specific skin concerns such as acne, dark spots, hyperpigmentation, fine lines and inflammation. “Skin treatment products are all regulated and have to be approved by the FDA. They can be in the forms of creams, gels, lotions, solutions, serums and medicated facial pads,” explains dr. Tonkovic-Capin.

The type of treatment you need and the benefits it delivers to your skin largely depends on the concern you’re dealing with.  The most common active ingredients in treatments are retinoids like tretinoin and adapalene to address fine lines and wrinkles, topical steroids for skin allergies and inflammation and salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide to treat acne. Vitamin C and growth factors are also found in anti-aging treatment formulas.

“As soon as you develop some skin condition, you should start treating it before it gets worse. You should continue the treatment until the condition resolves. If it persists for more than one to two weeks, you should consult your healthcare provider,” says Dr. Tonkovic-Capin.

Related: How to Get Clear Skin Overnight: The Best Overnight Treatments for Every Skin Issue

4. Serum

“Serums usually contain antioxidants, which help fight free radical damage,” says Dr. Jaliman. “They can also contain anti-aging ingredients such as retinols and peptides, which stimulate collagen production.” Because they penetrate deep into the skin, these products are great for hydrating dry skin. They are best used after your cleanser, and they can be used underneath moisturizer to treat the skin while sleeping.

Related: What Are Face Serums and How to Choose the Right One for You

5. Face Oil

Nutrient-filled face oils help to build a resilient layer for your skin, no matter your skin type. They can be very hydrating, which makes them especially useful for those with dry skin. “Argan oil and vitamin E are great for pretty much every skin type and issue,” says Lolis. “Ideally, add two or three drops to a moisturizer or serum. For acne-prone skin, tea tree oil will work very well and vitamin C oil will help with any scarring.”

Related: How to Use Face Oils Correctly

6. Sunscreen

Sunscreens are essential for protecting your skin from UV damage, no matter the season. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to apply sunscreen beyond just the typical bottle. “Everyone should be using a moisturizer with SPF even in winter,” says Lolis. “If you’re outside or live in warmer climates, it’s even more important to protect your face. The key is to know your skin type and use sunscreen that is a suitable fit. Some sunscreens are greasy and may clog pores. This is why it’s best to use a moisturizer formulated to address a particular skin issue that has sunscreen built in.”

Related: 10 Best Sunscreens for Year-Round Protection

7. Moisturizer

To help keep your skin looking younger, Lolis recommends using moisturizer from head to toe. “The face, neck and décolletage should get moisturizer twice daily as should elbows, knees and feet,” she says. There are many kinds of moisturizers available for different skin types, but if you really want to keep your skin hydrated, look for moisturizers that contain glycerin or hyaluronic acid, suggests Jaliman.

Related: The Best Moisturizers for Your Skin Type and Budget

8. Chemical Peel

Chemical peels remove the outer layer of the skin, which means they tend to go deeper to remove excess dead skin cells than exfoliators. They usually contain glycolic, salicylic or lactic acids. “Use it once every two weeks, but avoid these if you are prone to rosacea and eczema,” says Jaliman. Chemical peels tend to be more intense and typically are done by a professional, but there are also at-home DIY peels available to address things such as acne scars, wrinkles, sun damage and hyperpigmentation.

Related: What to Expect Before, During and After a Chemical Peel

9. Toner

Toner can be used after a cleanser twice a day to remove excess traces of makeup or other residue from the skin. “Toners shrink pores and restore skin to its natural pH balance,” says Lolis. “This is important because when our pH levels are thrown out of whack due to soaps and chemicals in cleansers, oil production increases, causing a cycle of breakouts.” Those with sensitive skin should use an alcohol-free toner.

Related: What Is a Toner Used For? Plus, the Best Pick for Your Skin Type

10. Face Mask

There are many different types of masks on the market, ranging from hydrating, to drying and even brightening, which makes them useful for all skin types. “Done weekly, you’ll see a change to skin, and breakouts will have a chance to dry up and heal,” says Lolis. “I am also a fan of using soothing masks on the cheeks and then a clarifying mask on the forehead, chin and jawline. It’s okay to mix it up. The key is to apply a mask to clean, exfoliated skin so there isn’t anything blocking it from penetrating the skin.”

Related: Face Masks 101: What Are the Types and Which One Is Best for You

11. Eye Cream

Eye creams tend to be formulated for specific eye area issues such as puffiness, wrinkles and dark circles. “There are some creams that tackle several issues at once, and these contain things like caffeine, glycerine, chamomile, hyaluronic acid, antioxidants and peptides,” says Lolis. “Eye creams are specially formulated to penetrate the finer skin around the eyes.” They can be used once or twice a day, but look for retinol or peptide eye creams to use at night, as they stimulate collagen production, suggests Jaliman.

Related: The Best Eye Creams for Your Under-Eye Woes and Budget



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