The Only 4 Skincare Ingredients You Actually Need

Most people would agree that beautiful, healthy skin is #goals. But you’d be hard-pressed to find two people who agree on the best way to achieve it. And that kinda makes sense: There are countless skincare products on the market, and it’s tricky to know which actually live up to their claims.

So how can you cut through the clutter and find the products that will actually give you the complexion you want? According to Lily Talakoub, M.D. of McLean Dermatology, the key is to look for formulas that contain proven ingredients, like the four superstars below. According to Dr. Talakoub, they’re all worth adding into your daily routine.

1. Glycolic Acid

What it is: Glycolic acid, which is derived from sugar cane, is the alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) with the smallest molecules. Like all AHAs, it’s a chemical (rather than a physical) exfoliant. Where physical exfoliants remove the build-up of dead skin through scrubbing, chemical exfoliants like AHAs do so by dissolving, making them gentler on the skin. And since glycolic acid is the tiniest AHA, it’s able to penetrate the skin to deliver the best possible results.

The benefits: Using glycolic acid will leave your skin feeling soft and looking radiant and more youthful, says Dr. Talakoub. “Plus, it loosens clogged pores, so it helps with any blackheads and deeper cystic acne.” It can also diminish the appearance of acne scars and reduce hyperpigmentation and photo-aging, according to a Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology study.

When and how to use it: While most in-office peels contain a 20 to 70 percent concentration of glycolic acid, you can add glycolic acid into your daily routine with low-dose products like L’Oréal Paris’ Revitalift Derm Intensives 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum.

“I use glycolic acid every single day,” Dr. Talakoub says. You can apply it any time of day, following your cleansing routine and before applying a moisturizer. If you use it in the morning, follow up with SPF since glycolic acid can make skin more sensitive to the sun.

2. Vitamin C

What it is: Vitamin C isn’t just found in your morning glass of OJ. This free radical-neutralizing pro is one of the most effective topical antioxidant out there, according to Dr. Talakoub.

The benefits: Not only can it treat and prevent hyperpigmentation, photo-aging, and inflammation, according to UK researchers, applying it daily can also boost collagen production. Another perk: If you live in a metropolitan area where pollution wreaks havoc on your complexion, Vitamin C can help stave off damage, keeping your skin looking radiant.

When and how to use it: Apply it in the morning post-cleansing and follow up with SPF. Slathering on an antioxidant can make your skin slightly more sensitive to UV rays, so protecting yourself is a must!

3. Retinol

What it is: Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A that’s known for its anti-aging benefits.

The benefits: Unlike other anti-aging ingredients that may only target the top-most layer of skin, topical retinol improves the elasticity of the top, middle, and deepest layers of skin by stimulating collagen and elastin formation. Simply put: It will give you amazing results.

“Retinol is the best anti-aging medicine because it speeds up the desquamation—read: dead-cell-shedding—process and helps skin cells turn over faster, which regenerates the skin for a fresher complexion with less dullness and fine lines,” Dr. Talakoub says.

When and how to use it: “Retinol can be bought over the counter or with a prescription, however, prescription formulas work best,” Dr. Talakoub says. There are many different retinol percentages on the market depending on your specific complexion goals. As a rule of thumb, cosmetic scientists recommend 0.4% concentrations for basic anti-aging benefits.

Once you find your ideal formula (either from your derm or OTC), add it into your nighttime routine. If it’s a serum, apply it after cleansing and before moisturizing; if it’s a moisturizer, use it as the last step of your evening regimen.

4. Ceramides

What it is: Ceramides are naturally occurring lipids in the skin that help form the skin’s moisture barrier. When you layer on synthetic ceramides (which are designed to mimic those natural ones) in the form of moisturizers and creams, you help strengthen and support your moisture barrier.

The benefits: While people with clear, healthy skin have over 340 ceramide species within their moisture barrier, those living with skin conditions like psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, acne, and dandruff have lower ceramide levels, which impact how well they can retain moisture, Dr. Talakoub explains. Applying a ceramide-rich skincare product can help combat that.

Other people can benefit from using the ingredient on the daily, too. “Ceramides hold water in the skin, which leads to a more hydrated complexion,” Dr. Talakoub says.

When and how to use it: “Ceramides are almost always in moisturizers, as opposed to cleansers or toners,” Dr. Talakoub says. So adding the superstar ingredient into your routine is as simple as finding a ceramide-rich moisturizer (like this one) and using it morning and night after cleansing and applying any essences, serums, or toners.

When adding these dermatologist-recommended ingredients into your routine, remember to take it slow. While they can absolutely be used daily, Dr. Talakoub points out that since glycolic acid and retinol increase the sloughing of the skin, there’s a chance that they could lead to sensitivity. Ease them into your new routine, applying the ingredients every other day for the first three weeks, before upgrading to daily use.

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