How Many Skincare Products Do You Really Need?

From serums to eye creams, a dermatologist and a makeup artist share what to use—and what to ditch.
By Alexandra Ward
How Many Skincare Products Do You Really Need?

Photo: iStock.

Like everything else in life, skincare involves a lot of trial and error⁠—and experimentation in the name of better skin can be costly. With new products being developed and released at an unprecedented rate, it’s harder than ever to know what to use to care for your skin. From double cleansing and essences to oils and SPFs, distinguishing between what works—and what’s just hype and marketing—can be daunting. To help whittle down what you actually need, we talked to a dermatologist and makeup artist.

And the good news? You likely need fewer skincare products than you’re currently using. Armed with a good cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen, you’ve got a solid foundation for a skincare routine that should serve you well.



“A good cleanser is gentle, yet effective. It has to remove dirt, oil, sunscreen and pollution,” says makeup artist Sheri Stroh “It can be cream, it can be foaming, it just has to do the job and not strip your skin.”

Often overlooked, a good cleanser is actually your first line of defence when it comes to taking care of your skin—anything too harsh can actually work against you.

But, what about double cleansing?

Double cleansing starts with massaging an oil-based cleanser into dry skin. Once that’s been removed, you wash your face a second time with a water-based cleanser. The aim of double cleansing is to remove sunscreen, oil and makeup from your skin before you use your regular cleanser. Dr. Afsaneh Alavi, a dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Women's College Hospital and University of Toronto, explains why double cleansing isn’t necessary. “A gentle, non-abrasive cleanser that does not contain alcohol is good enough, and apply it only with your fingertips. Rubbing the skin with anything other than your fingertips, such as a mesh sponge or a washcloth, can irritate the skin,” she says.


Whether it be a cream, lotion or ointment, these emollients trap moisture in your skin and protect it from the elements.


Moisturizing your skin used to be pretty simple, but the arrival of oil as a cure-all added a new layer of confusion to the process. Despite all the marketing, Alavi explains that the two types of products perform different functions. “Moisturizers—including ointments, creams and lotions—trap the existing moisture in skin and work better when applied immediately after a bath or shower,” she says. “Ointments and creams are more effective and less irritating than lotions. Look for moisturizers that contain oil, but not oil alone since it does not have the same efficacy.”


Sunscreen containing a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher is one of the single most important products you can apply to your skin to prevent premature aging. “There are two types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens work like a sponge, absorbing the sun and tend to be easier to rub into the skin without leaving a white residue,” explains Alavi. “Physical sunscreens work like a shield, sitting sit on the surface of the skin and deflecting the sun.”

They’re not fun or sexy, but a good sunscreen is your best defence against the elements. “Sunscreen and moisturizer are the two most-effective anti-aging products that people can buy,” says Alavi. “Making these a habit and using these creams every day can make a noticeable difference.”

When you’re choosing a sunscreen, Stroh has some great advice. “It has to be something that you like. I honestly think that whatever you find that you like applying to your skin, you’ll wear every day,” she says. “You have to be picky—most of the time, people don’t want to wear it because they hate the feel of it. Find one, experiment, try and get samples and find one that you like.”


Eye cream

Moisturizer for the thin skin around your eyes (both upper and lower).


Because the skin around your eyes is so delicate, you’ll want to be extra careful when you moisturize the area. While you could use a standard moisturizer, Alavi cautions against using an anti-aging moisturizer that contains ingredients like tretinoin or alpha hydroxy acids (AHA)—rather than one of those, she would recommend using an eye cream.



A liquid product applied to the skin after cleansing that further cleanses the skin and aims to tighten pores. Toners can be water-based or alcohol-based, and depending on the formulation they can target any number of skin conditions—from dull skin and excessive oil to inflammation.

They’re beautiful and usually smell lovely, but don’t be fooled by the clever marketing. Alavi explains that toners, essences and mists may cause irritation for some skin types.


Serums are lightweight topical products that contain a high concentration of active ingredients (like retinol to exfoliate or hyaluronic acid to boost hydration) and target a specific skin concern.

According to Alavi serums definitely aren’t a requirement when it comes to your daily skincare routine—they aren't emollient. However, they might be a good step to add to your routine if there's a specific concern you'd like to take care of.


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