Everything You Need to Know About a Minimalist Skin-Care Routine
Feeling bogged down by your daily regimen? It could be time to streamline your arsenal of products in favor of a simpler approach.
With countless cleansers, serums, moisturizers, exfoliators, and peels available on the market, it’s understandable if your bathroom sink has become overwhelmed with products.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Enter the minimalist approach to skin care, which involves cutting the number of products in your routine down to the bare essentials.
“Minimalist skin care is exactly what it sounds like: It's a skin-care routine that is simple and easy to follow,” says Michele Green, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
Instead of incorporating a wide variety of products across a number of different steps, “a minimalist skin-care routine focuses on the key steps and ingredients needed to keep your skin healthy and vibrant,” says Susan Massick, MD, a dermatologist in Gahanna, Ohio, and an associate professor of dermatology at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
The minimalist movement is gaining momentum now — perhaps in response to the pandemic, as people try to simplify their lives. “What people really want and what they need is a simple yet effective routine that they can follow on a consistent basis, that won’t break the bank, and that will still give them the desired results without the irritation,” Dr. Massick says.
Massick likens this approach to a preference for athleisure over formal outfits. These days, “people are embracing a more casual lifestyle,” she says. “Some are going makeup-free for days on end and focusing on the essentials.”
And while plenty of people enjoy the process of creating a personalized, comprehensive skin-care routine, many people have determined that more doesn’t always mean better. “Benefits can’t be measured by the number of steps in a routine,” Massick says.
Who Should Try Minimalist Skin Care?
This approach isn’t just for people with naturally dewy, blemish-free skin. “It really is for everyone,” Massick says.
It may be particularly beneficial if your skin hasn’t responded well to a complicated routine. “It’s time to simplify when your skin is more irritated than when you started your regimen,” Massick says, adding that time-consuming, multistep systems can result in skin irritation, redness, and breakouts.
There are a few reasons why your skin might not jibe with certain skin-care products. You may have an underlying skin condition (rosacea, for instance) or you may be allergic to an ingredient in the product, Massick says. But reactions can also be caused when certain ingredients mix, such as if you’re doubling up on products with an exfoliant effect, like salicylic acid, lactic acid, and retinols. “It can overstrip natural skin oils, leading to dryness, irritation, and redness,” Massick says.
RELATED: Skin-Care Ingredient Combinations That Don’t Mix
Moreover, “When people have reams of products cluttering their bathrooms, they’ll find that it’s too cumbersome to do every day,” Massick says. If you find yourself skipping steps in your skin-care routine because you don’t have the time for them, take that as a sign it’s time to streamline.
It’s important to note, however, that those intense, multi-step routines do work for some people. A study published in December 2019 in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found that an advanced, multistep routine (which involved a cleanser, toner, eye cream, serum, and day and night cream) led to greater improvements in skin hydration levels and wrinkle depth than a simple routine involving just a cleanser and day cream.
Maybe your skin thrives on more involved attention, and maybe you enjoy the self-care aspect of pampering your skin with all your favorite products — in that case, stick with what works for you! But if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the number of products on your bathroom counter or by how long it takes to get ready for bed, consider giving the minimalist approach a try. Here’s how to get started.
RELATED: Are ‘Natural’ Skin-Care Products Actually Better for You?
How to Get Started With a Minimalist Skin-Care Routine
According to a review published in Dermatologic Clinics in January 2019, the backbone of every skin-care regimen is facial cleansing and moisturizing.
That said, a minimalist skin-care routine will mean something different depending on whom you ask. Massick and Dr. Green go one step further than the authors of the aforementioned review. They recommend starting with three essential products:
- Cleanser If you have oily, acne-prone skin, look for a gentle cleanser with glycolic or salicylic acid, Massick says. And if you have sensitive skin, choose one that does not contain alcohol. Green says, “Products containing alcohol can irritate, sting, and burn the skin.” Alcohol appears in the ingredients list as ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol (alcohol denat), isopropyl alcohol, methyl alcohol or methanol, benzyl alcohol, and cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl, or lanolin alcohol.
- Moisturizer A light cream should work well with normal skin types, Massick says. People with oily skin types should seek out a light, hydrating moisturizer such as one with hyaluronic acid, while those with dry or sensitive skin may do better with a thicker emollient base. The AAD says those with dry or sensitive skin should look for an ointment or cream, as these are less irritating than lotions. The product label will likely identify whether the moisturizer qualifies as an ointment or a cream. Creams are generally thicker than lotions, and ointments typically do not contain preservatives, which may help minimize allergic reactions, according to DermNet NZ.
- Facial sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher “This step is essential and ties it all together,” Green says. “Sun protection at an early age sets the stage for beautiful skin later on in life.” Not only does SPF help protect you from sunburn and skin cancer, it’ll also delay premature skin aging, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
In addition to the three essentials listed above, Massick recommends retinol as an optional fourth product. This ingredient promotes collagen production, which can help reduce fine lines and wrinkles and minimize age spots, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Participants who used a retinol and an exfoliating alpha hydroxy product for 12 weeks reduced their fine lines and wrinkles by about 33 percent, according to one small study published in August 2017 in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology.
RELATED: Potential Health Benefits of Collagen
Green advises consulting your dermatologist to determine which active ingredients will be best for your skin. “The skin type makes a difference in terms of the types of product, because they serve different purposes,” Massick says. “What a person with an acne-prone oily complexion may need will be different from a sensitive-skin rosacea patient.”
The final step in the process? Once you determine which products will make up your new skin-care routine, commit to it. “Your skin-care regimen and products should be consistent in order for you to reap the full benefits,” Green says. “Switching your skin-care products too frequently most definitely reduces the overall benefits, because you’re not allowing the product to work on your skin cells to maintain or reach the full, maximum effect.”
RELATED: A Comprehensive Guide to Clean Beauty
Products You Can Skip in Your Minimalist Skin-Care Routine
Not ready to ditch all your products? Start by clearing out the ones that aren’t doing much for you.
Astringents are one group of products Massick says to skip. They tend to cause irritation and dryness for some people and don’t offer much benefit, she says. “Also try to avoid the popular DIY face masks and in-home chemical peels, because of potential skin irritation,” she says.
Green notes that you can skip toners, eye creams, neck creams, exfoliants, and serums if the products in your minimalist routine contain ingredients that will address the issues these products typically target. For instance, if your toner lists chamomile, aloe vera, and salicylic acid as active ingredients, you may be able to find these same ingredients in a cleanser — and skip the toner. Another example: “You can also find moisturizers with ingredients such as caffeine and retinol that will target under-eye concerns such as puffiness, fine lines, and dark circles,” Green says. Apply it to your eye area and you don’t need to buy a dedicated eye cream.
RELATED: How to Smooth, Tighten, and Brighten Your Skin (Without Seeing a Dermatologist)
A Final Word on Minimalist Skin-Care Routines
No matter your reasons for seeking a simpler approach to skin care, chances are it’ll be a worthwhile change — not only can it save you time and money, but it also reduces the potential irritation that can result from a more complex skin-care routine. Cleansing, moisturizing, and applying SPF diligently are three essential steps to include; add a retinol for anti-aging concerns, and look for cleansers, moisturizers, or products with SPF that double up on certain benefits.
“I have long been a proponent of a pared-down routine for myself and for my patients,” Massick says. “Keep it simple, focus on the essentials, and you’ll have the same — if not better — results.”