After about a year's worth of product trial and error on my own, I realized that my particular skin puzzle—which includes excessive dryness, a sometimes-oily T-Zone, discoloration in the form of melasma and old acne scarring, and run-of-the-mill fine lines and wrinkles—needed a bit more brain power to crack.
For help, I consulted Shani Darden—who happens to be one of the most in-demand estheticians in Hollywood, and whose name you might recognize for its association to stars like Shay Mitchell and Jessica Alba—who worked with me to put together the ultimate custom skin-care routine for my particular 30+-year-old concerns.
Check out the video above for her tips on taking care of my "complicated" skin (and watch what happened when I put them into practice for five days straight), then shop her product picks below.
1. Gentle cleanser
No matter what type of skin you have, starting with a gentle cleanser is a surefire way to set yourself up for success. Look for something soap-free and non-stripping to ensure your skin is able to maintain its natural oils (when it isn't, all sorts of issues like dryness, irritation, and breakouts can pop up), and take care to massage it into your skin before washing it with lukewarm (never hot!) water and then patting (never rubbing!) it dry.
This has been my go-to a.m. cleanser for as long as I can remember. Yes, it smells like a spa, but it’s the effective-yet-gentle cleanse it delivers that has made it a permanent staple in my collection for years. Plus, it’s a fan-favorite among my friends and colleagues who have completely different complexions than I do, so I feel confident saying that it’s one of the few products out there that really will work for everyone.
2. Vitamin C serum
When we talk about skin aging, fine lines and wrinkles tend to get all of the attention, but dark spots and hyperpigmentation are also concerns that tend to worsen over time. The older we get, the more sun damage we accumulate, which tends to show up in the form of discoloration. Not only can vitamin C help to even out your skin tone, but it can also protect against future UV damage, thanks to the fact that it's an antioxidant that gobbles up free radicals before they can wreak havoc on your complexion.
"You have to use a vitamin C serum, because that's going to help with the pigmentation, and it's also preventative," says Darden. "It's not going to completely get rid of the pigmentation, but it will help, and it also goes hand-in-hand with your sunscreen because it's going to help protect your skin from environmental stressors like pollution."
Not only does this serum offer the brightening and protective benefits of vitamin C, but it also takes its hyperpigmentation-fighting powers to the next level with the inclusion of kojic acid and alpha arbutin. Plus, though some vitamin C serums can be too aggressive for sensitive skin types, this one is infused with zinc sulfate, which acts as an anti-inflammatory and makes it safe to use on all complexions.
3. SPF moisturizer
In the morning, simplicity is key (who has time to slather on 45 steps before a 9 a.m. meeting?!), which is why Darden recommends using an SPF-moisturizer hybrid. These types of products allow you to hit two critical parts of your routine—hydration and sun protection—in a single step, which will make it less likely for you to skip out on either. Look for a formula that has at least SPF 30 in it (though higher is better!), and apply a peace-sign amount of product (aka make a peace sign with your hand, squeeze out enough product to cover both fingers, then apply it to your face) to ensure you're getting enough protection.
Because this sunscreen was designed to blend easily into darker skin tones, it doesn’t leave behind any sort of chalky, white cast—something that I’d always thought was impossible for a mineral formula. It feels more like a moisturizer than a sunscreen (which, if you’ve literally ever applied sunscreen to your face, you recognize as a plus), and offers the type of high SPF protection that you’ll actually want to put on every day. I know I do.
Cleansing is arguably even more important at night, because you want to make sure you get rid of all of the dirt and debris from the day before you go in with the rest of your routine. You can either repurpose your a.m. cleanser, or (particularly if you're wearing makeup) go in with something stronger, or even opt for a double cleanse.
This “cleansing treatment” serves a few different purposes in my routine. In the morning, I’ll use it on its own whenever my skin is feeling to dry for a full-blown wash, and at night, it’s usually the first step in my double-cleansing routine whenever I’m wearing makeup. Its main ingredient is soap berry peel extract, which works as a natural cleansing agent to remove dirt and impurities, but it’s also got antioxidant-rich kombucha and microbiome-balancing prebiotic inulin.
Foaming cleansers have a reputation for being too harsh for dry skin (older formulas tend to be heavy in skin-stripping surfactants), but this one is gentle and hydrating enough to work on my complexion. It’s got a nice lather that leaves my skin feeling clear but not squeaky clean, and is made with calming cica to reduce irritation.
Darden notes that it's "really important" for someone like me—who's concerned about wrinkles, discoloration, and (sometimes) acne—to work a retinoid into their routine. Retinol works by stimulating cellular turnover, meaning that it brings healthy new cells to the surface of your skin to replace any dead, dull ones. These fresh cells can help mitigate a slew of different skin concerns (including all of the ones I'm worried about), which is why retinol is considered the "gold standard" ingredient for anyone over the age of 30.
“Retinol Reform is what I recommend to all of my clients to keep their skin glowing in-between facials,” Darden previously told Well+Good. “It uses a time-release encapsulated retinol, which helps to minimize irritation that is often experienced with retinol products.” It also contains lactic acid, which brightens and smooths skin to give you instant results while the retinol works its long-term magic.
3. Hyaluronic acid serum
This ultra-luxe serum combines hyaluronic acid with plant stem cells to deliver peak plumping and hydration. While it certainly works (and I loved using it!), my needs have been similarly met by Neutrogena Hydroboost Serum ($15)… which is a quarter of the price and IMO just as good.
Hyaluronic acid serum isn't necessarily a must-have, but if you have super-dry skin, it can make a huge difference in your hydration levels. That's because hyaluronic acid draws water deep into the surface of your skin, allowing your other products (like moisturizers) to penetrate more deeply for a nourished, plumping effect. Because retinoids can be drying, HA serum is great to use after you apply them as a way to boost hydration and reduce irritation (I also like to use it in the morning whenever my skin is feeling extra dry.
Because my skin is technically "combination" (which, by the way, I didn't know until I chatted with Darden), its moisturizer needs differ. On some nights, it's dying of thirst and needs a big gulp of hydration, but on others (particularly during the warmer months of the year) it's slick with grease and looking for something lighter. One pro tip I picked up from Darden? On nights when my skin really can't decide what it wants, my best bet is to mix and match the products with a lighter lotion on the oily bits and a heavier cream everywhere else.
This oil-free moisturizer delivers truly weightless hydration (thanks, hyaluronic acid and red algae), and melts seamlessly into my skin in a way that I am beyond grateful for… particularly on nights that my face can’t decide if it’s greasy or parched.
Packed with three different types of skin-similar lipids (ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids), this creamy formula is so thick it practically looks like marshmallow Fluff. It’ll moisturize your skin while also fortifying its barrier, and is a favorite of Darden’s (and mine!) for extra-dry skin.
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