The beginner’s guide to glowing skin

Disclaimer- I am not a licensed esthetician or dermatologist. My skin type is oily and sensitive. Everyone’s skin is influenced not just by the products they use, but by their nutrition, hormone levels, medication, genetics, etc. What works for me may not work for others.

Like most, puberty hit me hard in middle school, and not in the good way where you suddenly get super hot. I wish I had pictures to validate this, but unfortunately, all the selfies off my iPod 4 were deleted because it fell out of my pocket and into a pile of snow. True story. I have distinct and vivid memories of cystic acne covering my forehead, literal chemical burns from face washes, and scabs the size of my fingertips on my face from popping pimples too often. I was clueless, but slowly, with years of treatment, have managed to not totally hate my face- and have even learned a few tips and tricks along the way.

DO: Keep it simple

For real, your routine does not need to be more than three steps and should vary minimally from day to night.


Step 1- Face wash

Vanicream Gentle Facial Cleanser is the holy grail of face washes, and also super underrated. However, the company is not cruelty free and we’re just not about that life, so some other great alternatives are any of Cerave’s or PanOxyl’s face washes (both recommended by my dermatologist). The key thing to remember here is that, if you’re doing it right, face wash is only on your face for a max of 30 seconds. It’s not necessary to invest in face washes with retinol, green tea, snail essence (it’s a real thing), or any other “fancy,” and therefore expensive, ingredients. Because the wash is on your face for such a short amount of time, there’s not going to be enough time for any of the “luxury” ingredients to sink in enough for you to notice a difference. Keep is unscented, gentle, and cheap (aka no more than $10).

Optional- Acne treatment
Prescription drugs > OTC all day everyday.

After your face has been washed and your skin is dry, it’s time to whip out some active ingredients. Benzoyl peroxide, azelaic acid, sodium sulfacetamide, and clindamyacin gels or creams are all great treatments to use in the morning (not all at once though, pick one to avoid burning your skin off). If you can get a prescription for any of the ingredients instead of buying over the counter (OTC), great!

Step 2- Moisturize
CeraVe’s Daily Moisturizing Lotion works great for you body too!

Lotion has pretty similar rules to face wash, except it’s on your skin for significantly longer. Unless you have super dry skin, avoid any creams and lotions during the day that are overly hydrating, it’ll just make you look sweaty. That being said, don’t skip lotion because you have oily skin- it won’t help. Cerave and Cetaphil both have great inexpensive facial moisturizers, however, because moisturizers are on your skin for so long, if you want to splurge a little on this one you can. I’ll allow it. If you do plan to go a bit rogue, watch out for any ingredients that can irritate your skin, including fragrance, propylene glycol, parabens, and especially any alcohols.

Step 3- Sunscreen

I do not care if there are clouds in the sky or not. I do not care if you don’t burn easily. I do not care if you’re indoors. Without sunscreen, you are exponentially increasing your risk for skin cancer, premature aging, and damage from UV rays. Use a minimum of 30 SPF, but around 50 is where you’ll get the best protection. Ideally try and find one specifically for your face, and when you’re frolicking outside make a serious effort to reapply it every two hours to reap the most benefits. Facial moisturizers with SPF in them are great and can make your morning routine even quicker, but if you’re planning to spend the day outside, reapplying a moisturizer every two hours is just going to leave your face feeling greasy.

Please. Just wear it.
Step 1- Face wash
AMAZING for body acne and also is great at preventing ingrown hairs.

Same rules as the day. As the ancient saying goes, “If you’re buying your face wash at Sephora, you’re doing it wrong.

Step 2- Retinol OR Chemical Exfoliant
OTC (top) and prescription (bottom) versions of retinol.

So, the reason for the “OR”s is because if you use more than one of these ingredients in the same night, your face will feel like it’s on fire. If you ignore that feeling and do it consistently for another week, your skin will become the texture of plastic and you’ll be forced to slather on Aquaphor for a month. How do you think I found out? Also, all of these ingredients should only be used at night because they all increase your skin’s photosensitivity, which is your risk of developing sunburns.


Retinoid, adapalene, Differin, tretinoin, and tazarotene are all slightly different forms of retinol that you can use. Apply a thin layer on clean, dry skin. Retinol is a Vitamin A derivative that increases cell turnover, improves collagen production, and unclogs pores, making it a great option for anyone who wants to treat wrinkles and/or acne. According to most dermatologists, retinol is one of the most reliable acne treatments. That being said, pay attention to the concentration. Prescription products are more concentrated than over the counter, and anything under 0.25% retinol won’t be effective. With retinol, things will get worse before they get better. For me, when I started out with 0.1% retinol every night I developed cystic acne on my cheeks and jawline for a little over a month before I saw any improvements.

Chemical Exfoliant
This, Mario Badescu’s Glycolic Acid Toner, and Glossier’s Solution are all great chemical exfoliants to try.

Repeat after me. I will not use a physical exfoliant. I will throw away my bottle of St. Ive’s Apricot Scrub. I will understand that while physical exfoliants are effective on the body, they are too harsh for my face. Anything that has the word “scrub” in it is almost certainly a physical exfoliant. These types of exfoliators easily irritate and can cause microtears in the skin. Chemical exfoliators, such as AHAs, BHAs, or PHAs, are much gentler to the skin and can help reduce scarring and hyperpigmentation, and on top of all of that are able to penetrate more deeply into the dermis than physical exfoliators. Most come in liquid form and can be applied using a cotton round.

Optional- Toners/Serums
If you have daddy’s money, feel free to go crazy on serums and other unecessary products. It boosts the economy!

These are not necessary for clear skin, and unlike most skincare products, you’ll actually need to spend some coin in order to see good results. If you really feel the need to, hylauronic acid and niacinamide are your safest bets. Always remember to try a product for at least 4-6 weeks in order to see the full results.

Step 3- Moisturize
Regardless of if you’re using this on your face, this is a must for any bathroom this winter.

You can definitely use the same moisturizer that you use during the day, but if you have dry skin you’ll likely benefit more from using a thicker moisturizer or a cream at night to hydrate your skin. Differin Restorative Night Moisturizer and Cerave’s Moisturizing Cream are both great options for extra, gentle, hydration. If you want to go one step further, slather a thin layer of Aquaphor or Vaseline as the cherry on top of your delicious sundae of skincare products. Both are staples for dry skin during the winter on any part of the body, and when used on the face help “lock in” product by creating an occlusive film that prevents water from evaporating off your face overnight. So no, it will not make you greasy.

DON’T: Neglect your body

In my opinion, the order of plant milk deliciousness goes coconut, almond, oat, soy.

Your body needs eight to ten hours of sleep per night to fully function and be happy. Of course, it’s not the end of the world if you’re out here averaging seven hours per night, but make sleep a consistent goal (sleeping in on weekends to “average it out” is not the same as eight hours every night).

Nutrition is also a huge one that many teens can forget to consider. Certain foods, like sugar, gluten, or even protein powder can cause you to flare up. Most people recommend cutting a certain food out for a few weeks to see how your acne reacts, but that’s unrealistic. Instead, try to keep a log of the food you eat every day and your skin. Over time, you might notice patterns and can go from there. Personally, I noticed that dairy used to trigger my worst breakouts and made the switch to almond milk three years ago.

When our bodies are being neglected proper sleep and nutrition, the compensation it has to do distracts it from its usual job of keeping acne in check. At best, your skin sees no improvements. At worst, you look twice your age.

DO: Get a dermatologist asap

I understand the privilege that comes with that sentence. Healthcare in the United States is a joke compared to most other MDCs, and, even if your insurance covers it, the cost of visits and medication can still be out of budget. However, if you do have access to a dermatologist and aren’t already going, I highly recommend talking to your parents about it. You don’t have to pay for your own health insurance until you turn 26 (thanks, Obama!), so use it to your advantage and get all the medical work you can done now!

Prescription medications for most skin-related concerns are essentially five times stronger and ten times cheaper (with insurance) than over the counter treatments, in my experience. Without a dermatologist, your access to the good stuff is moot, and don’t even think about buying prescription meds from anyone other than a pharmacy, or even nicely asking your friend to give you their leftovers. That’s illegal and also basically drug dealing.

DON’T: Waste your money

There are countless brands that spend their budget disproportionately on marketing and packaging, and therefore neglect the product’s ingredients and quality. Be cynical of Glossier, Clinique, Glamglow, Boscia, Bioré, Clean & Clear, Mario Badescu, Murad, Lush, Drunk Elephant, Tatcha, Sunday Riley, Herbivore, Caudalie, Philosophy, Estée Lauder, The Body Shop, Pacifica, Orgins, Proactiv, Clarisonic, and more. Most of these brands’ products aren’t necessarily bad- just overpriced. For an even better chance at making sure your products are working for you, copy and paste the ingredients (usually can be found on the brand’s website) into Skincarisma’s ingredient analyzer and go from there.

DO: Be kind to yourself

Life is hard and skin sucks and perfect skin does not exist because perfection in and of itself is a set of standards dictated by our environment, beliefs, and culture that are constantly fluctuating (and this applies to beauty in general, especially for women).