These Are the Only 3 Skincare Products a Dermatologist Says We All Need

Whether you're strapped for cash or overwhelmed by how complicated skincare can seem, these dermatologists simplify the steps to give you affordable options at your fingertips.

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Skincare has always been a big industry, but these days it seems like there’s an influencer around every corner offering products that promise to do whatever we need—clear acne, reduce wrinkles, eliminate dark spots, etc. After an early pandemic lull in the industry, when the focus shifted to sanitizing, people are back out and they want to look better than ever. The proof is, literally, in the skincare spending. According to one report, the global skincare market was valued at $130.50 billion in 2021 and expected to grow 4.6% annually between 2022 and 2030. 

If you’ve ever gone down the Instagram or TikTok rabbit hole watching influencers share their hundred-step skincare routine, trust us: you’re not alone. It’s mesmerizing to watch someone with flawless skin slather on ten or 20 different products—cleansers, toners, masks, and serums— but by the end of their routine it’s easy to feel completely overwhelmed about where to even start with our own skincare. Despite all the steps we see people doing, Harvard Medical School says we only have to clean, moisturize, and protect our skin from the sun.

Dr. Nazanin Saedi, a dermatologist, associate professor, and co-chair of the Laser and Aesthetics Surgery Center at Dermatology Associates of Plymouth Meeting in Pennsylvania, shares a simple, three-step skincare routine with The Healthy @Reader’s Digest that doesn’t look like you buying a million expensive products to achieve dewy, glowing, healthy skin.

Step one: Gentle cleanser

“Every good skincare routine starts with a clean face,” says Dr. Naz. “Your cleanser doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to be gentle.” To start, Dr. Naz recommends cleansing once or twice a day. Use a gentle cleanser with warm water, and gently wash with your fingers.

“If your skin feels dry or irritated after you cleanse, you are either scrubbing too much or you haven’t picked the right gentle cleanser for your skin,” she says.

“Choosing a cleanser that is gentle on your skin barrier and is appropriate for your skin type is essential,” adds Dr. Carmen Castilla, a New York City-based, board-certified dermatologist. 

Dr. Fayne Frey, board-certified dermatologist and graduate of Weill Cornell Medical College, disagrees. Backed by 30 years as a dermatologist, Frey is the author of The Skincare Hoax: How You’re Being Tricked into Buying Lotions, Potions & Wrinkle Cream and she doesn’t think we need most of what the skincare industry tells us we need. “There is no science that proves that a person with healthy skin needs to wash their face daily with a cleanser,” Dr. Frey says, “Though there is valid science that shows individuals with inflammatory skin conditions, like acne, may benefit from using a mild facial cleanser twice daily.”

“Although it is culturally very acceptable to use a facial cleanser, especially for women who wear makeup and don’t want to soil their pillowcases at night, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that cleansing a healthy face with a cleanser is necessary,” Dr. Frey says, “Plain water will do.”

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Step two: Anti-aging serum

Once the cleansing part is done, Dr. Naz recommends using retinol and vitamin C in order to diminish fine lines, erase any discoloration, and restore that healthy glow!

After cleansing in the mornings, use a Vitamin C serum. “Vitamin C is an important antioxidant that fights photo-aging. It helps protect our skin from the free radicals that form when we are outside. It also helps with existing hyperpigmentation, which is dark areas in our skin caused by sun damage and aging,” Dr. Naz says. 

Based on her comment about cleansers, it’s no surprise that Dr. Frey doesn’t think we need serums. “First of all, anti-aging is a brilliant marketing term as science has not yet figured out what caused aging yet alone how to reverse it,” Dr. Frey says, “As a matter of fact, science hasn’t yet discovered a single ingredient or product that can revere the aging process.”

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After cleansing at night, use retinol. “Retinoids increase your cell turnover to reveal fresher skin. Prescription-strength retinol, prescribed by your dermatologist, is most effective. However, if you are just getting started with retinoids, prescription strength can be a little harsh on your skin. I recommend anyone new to retinoids start with something over the counter,” Dr. Naz says.

While over-the-counter retinoids are gentler and may take a little longer to work, Dr. Naz recommends you stay patient—they will work over time. “Rest assured, with regular use, you will see a more youthful glow.”

“A serum with a retinol, retinoid or retinol alternative is essential, Castilla confirms, “These products help stimulate collagen production- an important support molecule of the skin. They act as great anti-aging products but also help clear out blackheads and help to improve skin discoloration. They are multipurpose and can fit into anyone’s skin care routine.”

Step three: Sunscreen

Sunscreen is something all the dermatologists we spoke to recommend. “If there is one anti-aging skincare item to splurge on, it’s sunscreen,” says Dr. Naz. “Remember, sunscreen should be used every day, rain or shine. It should have broad-spectrum protection and be SPF 30 or higher.”

Sunscreen is vital for protecting your face (and the rest of your skin) from ultraviolet light rays. When your skin is exposed to these rays without proper protection, you’re at an increased risk of developing skin cancer. Sunscreen also helps to prevent premature aging including wrinkles, sagging skin, and age spots.

But what kind of sunscreen is best for your face? Dr. Naz says there are plenty of options to choose from that are packed with anti-aging ingredients that will improve fine lines and wrinkles, brighten your skin, and protect your face. Two of her favorites include Alastin’s Hyrdratint and Revision’s Intellishade.

However, Dr. Naz says that no matter what, the best sunscreen is the one you will use. “I’ve found that my patients are most compliant when they find a sunscreen that feels nice on their skin and doesn’t make them break out.”

Dr. Castilla points out that ultraviolet radiation from the sun accelerates collagen breakdown. “There is good scientific support that sunscreen helps prevent collagen breakdown from ultraviolet radiation thus preserving your collagen and youthful skin,” Castilla says. 

Dr. Frey agrees that sunscreen is a must-have product, but she doesn’t think it needs to be expensive. “There is plenty of evidence that the daily application of sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher protects the skin from sun damage (fine wrinkles, discoloration and blood vessel formation) as well as from skin cancer,” Frey says, “But since sunscreen should be applied daily, you’re going to go through it, so there’s no need to purchase expensive boutique brands.”

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What products should I use?

Keep in mind that lifestyle choices and what you put into your body have as much, if not more, impact on how your skin looks than what you put on it. For example, quitting alcohol improves the health of your liver as well as your skin and most aspects of your health. Lifewise, Salmon is full of omega-3s and other nutrients that are beneficial for skin health mostly because of anti-inflammatory properties, so eating salmon is likely to benefit the appearance of your skin. 

That said, most people want to use skincare products, and with so many skincare options on the market, choosing the right one can seem overwhelming at first. Dr Naz’s advice is simple and straightforward: “Find products you love that work well on your skin and stick with it!”

As we know from advertising and social media, there are thousands of skincare products to choose from in a variety of price points, and if you’re not sure where to begin,  CeraVe products are a good start, since they’re affordable, accessible, and recommended by many dermatologists. CeraVe offers a range of products to address all the three steps listed above:

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Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.