Skincare for beginners: the basics

A few friends were asking Twitter for skincare recommendations the other day. Me being me, I thought hey, sounds like a great excuse to put together a beginner’s guide to skincare. Disclaimer: I’m not a dermatologist and I work on the assumption that most people have oily/combination or dry skin, but everyone’s skin is individual. What works for me might break you out in giant cystic messes; what breaks me out might turn your skin into literal gold.

Morning routine:

  1. Wash with water.
  2. Toner.
  3. Light moisturizer.
  4. Sunscreen.


  1. Remove makeup or sunscreen.
  2. Cleanser.
  3. Toner (optional).
  4. Light moisturizer.
  5. Heavy night cream.

Some general tips.

  • Over-cleansing. A lot of people with oily skin try to compensate for it by cleansing too often, which results in dehydrated skin that produces even more sebum! If your foaming cleanser results in your skin feeling ‘squeaky clean’, that’s a sign it’s drying you out.
  • Over-exfoliating. Similar to over-cleansing,you can dry out your skin this way which results in it producing more oil, thus defeating the purpose. I don’t, personally, find physical exfoliants (microbeads, apricot scrubs, whatever) very effective, but your mileage and all that. Depending on how harsh the exfoliant is, two-three times a week more than suffice. You mightn’t want to do it every day.
  • Sunscreen. Unless you live in underground, put that stuff on, for real, every day. Your motivation? Prevention of early signs of age and prevention of, well, skin cancer.
  • Under-moisturizing. Same drill: if you have oily skin, it may be due to your skin being dehydrated and over-producing sebum to compensate. The solution is to moisturize more, not less. Don’t be scared of oil-based skincare.
  • Pore tightening. Pretty much nothing will shrink the size of your pores, sorry. (I sure have tried!) If your pores are large due to acne, AHA/BHA treatments can unclog your pores and they’ll appear smaller. Otherwise, if pores bother you, use a silicone primer to fill/blur them.

Cleansers: The main factor is the pH value, ideally no higher than 5.5. If it doesn’t come labeled, look it up online. Have a look at this primer on Why the pH of your Cleanser Matters. Otherwise, I’d recommend oil-based or cream cleansers for those with dry skin, foaming cleansers for oily/combination (many foaming cleansers score way too high on the pH strip, but not all!). Try: Hada Labo Tamagohada, Clinique Liquid Facial Soap, Innisfree Jeju Bija Cleansing Gel, Skinfood Black Sugar Deep Cleansing Cream.

Don’t use bar soap, seriously.

Treatments: If you have specific skin concerns like acne, hyperpigmentation, and so on, I won’t be covering treatments for those since the things that really work on them tend to be specialized: you need chemical exfoliants and retinoids, and those can be pretty intimidating to sort through.

One exception? Clay masks. Clay masks are great at dealing with breakouts in my experience, and not only are they much less scary than active treatments, they are cheaper and more widely available. Some picks: Queen Helene’s Mint Julep Masque, Boots Botanics Shine Away Ionic Clay Mask, Origins Active Charcoal Mask, The Face Shop Jeju Volcanic Lava Pore Mud Pack. Put on, let dry for 10-20 minutes, wash off before proceeding with cleansing as usual. Do this whenever you’ve got a breakout and it’s very likely to help calm things down. Note that clay masks will dry your face out, so moisturize well afterward!

Toners: I don’t think anyone agrees on whether toners are necessary. Your average run-of-the-mill toner doesn’t do much other than mild cleansing. My take on it is that toners are, by and large, optional. It can remove stuff your cleanser didn’t get rid off. I like toners for mornings, when I don’t user a cleanser but want something quick and refreshing. I’ve used many, many toners from drugstore to the highest end (thanks, samples) and found them all to be equally indifferent. It’s down to finding out what you are sensitive/allergic to, and avoiding toners with those: alcohol is present in many toners. It’s Paula Begoun’s pet hate. Personally I’m fine with alcohol, but some people evidently aren’t. You can also use plain witch hazel or rosewater for toner. Otherwise, I like Etude House Wonderpore and Dr. Wu Intensive Renewal Toner with Mandelic Acid, both of which are pH-balancing. (Asian brands tend to treat the toner step as a hydrating step, so many Asian toners are actually a very light moisturizer.)

Moisturizers: This isn’t an official classification, but I personally separate moisturizing products into three kinds. (Technically we are supposed to think of emollients, humectants and occlusives, but it’s a rabbit hole and skincare salespeople will probably not really… understand if you walk up to them asking for an occlusive.)

  1. Day moisturizer.
  2. Night moisturizer.
  3. Occlusive.

Day moisturizers are light gels or watery lotions. It should go under your makeup or sunscreen without causing your foundation to slide off or leaving you a greasy mess. Try: Hada Labo Gokujyun Milk, Sulwhasoo Essential Balancing Water, Benton Aloe Propolis Soothing Gel. (I’ve used Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Gel. It sat on top of my skin without absorbing, pilled up, and didn’t hydrate any better than a spray of water. Most Clinique skincare is troublingly mediocre, there’s much better stuff for much cheaper.)

Night moisturizers are thicker creams, richer, and oilier. Try: Nivea Cream, Sisley Ecological Compound. Alternatively, gel creams are also very nice but may not suffice to hydrate dry skin: Etude House Pure Water Baobab Moist Cream.

Occlusives. These lock in the hydration from your prior skincare steps. Vaseline serves very well: smear it on top of your moisturizer before you go to bed. Your skin doesn’t like Vaseline? There’s medical-grade lanolin or Aquaphor. Otherwise, try Laneige Water Sleeping Pack EX or Too Cool for School Pumpkin Sleeping Pack.

Mineral oil, another ingredient about which there’s much scare-mongering, is present in all kinds of skincare products – cleansing oil, cleansing balm, night moisturizers – but it’s noncomedogenic and less likely to cause issues than coconut, olive or argan oil. Skin and Tonics offers a better explanation.

There’s all kinds of trash talk about mineral oil floating around, but the truth is, mineral oil is a safe, fantastic skin care ingredient, and there’s plenty of scientific evidence to support this. Mineral oil is actually an amazing cleansing ingredient, especially for those who are prone to blackheads. Mineral oil molecules are too large to enter pores, so it’s noncomedogenic, and massaging into the skin as a cleansing agent on a daily basis actually helps dislodge stubborn blackheads. Additionally, it provides emollient moisturizing benefits, even when used as a wash-off product. I’m a fan!

If you’re interested in reading more about the efficacy of mineral oil, check out this spectacularly detailed study from the International Journal of Cosmetic Science: A Review on the Extensive Skin Benefits of Mineral Oil (Rawlings, A. V. and Lombard, K. J.)

Yep. So while you do get shortchanged buying high-end products that include mineral oil (it’s a cheaper oil), it’s probably not going to give you literal face tumors or something. It’s occlusive and great for dry skin.

If you have dehydrated skin and/or winter is harsh and windy where you are (like, say, Hong Kong) I do recommend layering at least two kinds of moisturizers at night, with some minutes between them to wait for one to dry before you add another.

Sunscreen: The short version? Don’t bother with western sunscreens.

The long version? I’ve tried a lot of western sunscreens and found them to be mediocre to outright bad: greasy, messy, low SPF, lacking in broad-spectrum protection. Yes, even Paula’s Choice was like that for me. Alpha-H Daily Essential Moisturiser SPF30 is terrible, thick, and leaves my face an oily mess.

Shiseido sunscreens (including their sub-brands, like Anessa) are categorically good. So’s Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence and Hada Labo UV Creamy Gel. My favorite right now is The Face Shop Sebum Control Moisture Sun SPF 40. If Asian sunscreens aren’t easily accessible to you, it’s worth getting it online (they are pretty gentle to the wallet).

Whew, that got longer than I thought. I’ll probably cover active treatments some other time, plus oil cleansing, which IMO is really great, effective, gentle and friendly to skin.