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Skin Care Routines | Understanding the Basics

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

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Photo credit: Techei

What exactly is a skincare routine?

The answer is not as simple as you think.

This is a question I have spent the past 20 years as a Dermatologist trying to find a uniform answer for and here is what I have decided the answer is:

A skincare routine can be defined as skin care steps and/or skin care products used with some level of consistency that serves the purpose of maintaining and protecting your skin and potentially addressing particular skin challenges, concerns, or needs.

Most people think the answer is simple because we have had so much marketing thrown at us giving us a general sense that a skin care routine is something we are just supposed to be doing with our skin. After 20 years and having evaluated the skin of over 100,000 patients of every age from premature infants through >100 years of age, I had to reflect on the reality of the wide range of “routines”, outcomes of these routines, and the challenges my patients face in answering this question. There are skin care products made by so many different skincare brands - some focused on actually addressing particular skin concerns and others just focused on marketing buzz trying to capture the attention of Google and Social Media platforms. But do we actually need any of these products? The answer is likely no.


Let’s start with skincare basics: Is there anything I have to do with my skin routinely to care for it?

To really look closer at this question, defining skincare basics is one part and defining the word “routinely” is also important to address.

Skin care basics start right after birth. The basics include :
  1. Cleanse

  2. Protect

  3. Restore/Repair/Treat if needed

“Routinely” when it comes to skincare can be defined as consistently for maintenance. To further define routinely, frequency of skin care product use could be considered. However, the frequency of skin care product use can vary widely from person to person based on their particular skin needs and skin experience. It is important to avoid assumptions that frequencies such as daily, twice daily, or multiple times daily are “mandatory”. This just is not the case.

Cleansing skin care routines: Can you define the steps for cleansing and frequency needed routinely?

The word cleanses simply means to clean or remove impurities, dirt, and debris. In skin care, cleansing is assumed to mean with soap or other cleaning agents or skin care cleansing products. The reality is that this is not always necessary.

Water is effective at removing or cleaning superficial dirt and water soluble debris from the skin. Soap or cleansers are added in to remove oil soluble dirt and accumulations on the skin from sebum and natural oils as well as products we may use such as moisturizers, makeup, etc.

In terms of a routine, using water to clean the face can be achieved by splashing water on the face from the sink or simply allowing shower water to flush the facial skin with water. That qualifies. Setting aside time before and/or after the shower to wash the face again can overdo it.

Increasingly we have learned in the past couple of decades that even for babies washing too frequently and/or using cleansers too frequently will clean dirt and debris but, if used too often, will start to break down our skin’s natural barrier and predispose us to the risk of excessively dry skin called xerosis, and potentially eczema and risk of skin sensitivities.




Related: Dr. Erum Ilyas discusses skincare routines with Oprah Daily


If using skin care products and/or makeup, adding soap or cleanser to your routine can help reduce product buildup on the skin. Natural oils on our skin in addition to oil and sebum can start to accumulate as well. This requires soaps or cleansers as these tend to be oil soluble and water alone may not effectively remove them. That being said, every time you use water on your skin do not require soap or cleansers to be present. From a routine perspective, soaps or cleansers can be used daily if your skin can tolerate them, however, use every other day or every third day to the overall skin while still using water on a daily basis can reduce the chances of excess dryness. Targeted routine use of soaps or cleansers for areas of the skin that may need added attention include:

  • Areas of the skin with potential for product accumulation such as the face, underarms, and hands

  • Areas of skin based on product accumulation or a higher tendency to accumulate bacteria or yeast such as skin folds

  • Areas of the skin exposed to environmental dirt, debris, and/or pollution

To summarize, cleansing the skin involves:

  • Using water on a daily basis on the skin removes superficial dirt, and debris, and reduces the accumulation of microorganisms on the skin.

  • Using soaps or cleansers on a routine basis routine defined by your particular skin needs based on skin challenges or experiences with daily use of soaps or cleansers to targeted areas of concern based on product use, skin folds at higher risk for microbe accumulation, and environmental exposures.

Protecting skin care routines: Can you define the steps for protecting the skin and the frequency needed routinely?