In a culture that is unequivocally obsessed with youth, I can’t deny that I feel absolutely tickled when an esthetician, or total stranger, assumes that I’m 25 or 26. But as a solidly 30-something beauty editor, I’m much more concerned with how my skin is feeling on a given day, or rather how it is reacting to the frenetic combination of environment (hello, freezing temps), stress levels (I need a nap), and new products that I’m testing (have you seen the TZR Beauty Awards?). My hydrating skin care routine is what I return to in the winter when my complexion is the most vulnerable to inflammation, which can appear in the form of breakouts, dryness, redness, itchiness, or just general irritation.
So what have I learned in my near decade as a bonafide skin care nerd? Well, to keep your moisture barrier strong (that’s the top layer of skin that prevents trans-epidermal water loss and keeps out bad bacteria) you have to find the right cocktail of products that agrees with your unique skin needs. But in the winter, the common thread for an effective skin care routine is usually this: some humectants to attract and hold water in your skin and an emollient to soften the skin and lock in all of that moisturizing goodness. If you’re someone who suffers from eczema (I have it on my hands and wrists, no shame), throw in an occlusive ingredient, which is a stronger moisture seal for extreme dryness (but is often comedogenic, meaning it can clog your pores, and should be used sparingly).
Did I lose you? Don’t worry — I’m sharing my step by step routine below. If you’re also concerned about maintaining skin hydration all the way until spring, without losing a single speck of glow, these products have my whole-hearted endorsement to make that happen.
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1. Gentle Face Cleanser
I know that cleansers with active ingredients (particularly acids) are all the rage right now, but I’m a big proponent of a non-stripping formula year-round, and especially in the winter. Even if you don’t have dry skin like me, you want to preserve those natural oils as much as you can this time of year, which is why gentle ingredients (like chamomile and colloidal oatmeal) are so exceptional.
I cleanse morning and night, but if you have a lot of irritation, a splash of water in the AM will suffice. And if you’re wearing makeup, I’d go in first with a makeup remover, like micellar water, or an oil cleanser (this Pai option is my ride-or-die) and then follow up with a 60 second cleanse and face massage. These four formulas are my absolute favorites.
2. Hydrating Essence
With an essence, some people can take it or leave it, but I consider it non-negotiable for adding in much-needed hydration back into my skin. After cleansing and lightly drying with a towel, I add 2-3 shakes into my palm and gently tap it into my face, neck, and chest. If you follow with an HA serum (we’re getting there, I promise), this will help to pull in that water and leave you with a dewy, bouncy glow. I rotate between these options year-round, but add an extra shake or two in the winter to really baby my parched skin.
3. Eye Cream
Yes, I believe in eye cream, and I have since I was in my late teens. Even without the frigid winter temps, that thin, delicate skin needs a little extra love and attention, both to keep it moisturized and to help ward off premature fine lines and wrinkles. That’s where my trusty eye creams come in. I promise you, it’s worth the extra step to keep irritation at bay.
4. Brightening Vitamin C Serum
For a concentrated dose of powerful skin care ingredients, a serum is your best bet. I’m still fighting the effects of summer sun exposure (read: dark spots) and melasma from a hormonal IUD, so a vitamin C is my go-to to even out skin tone. I tend to stick with one option in this category to see how well it really works, but I’ve reached the bottom of all of these formulas and can vouch for their efficacy.
5. Hydrating Treatment Serum
In the winter, adding in plenty of hydrating ingredients, like hyaluronic acid, squalane, and glycerin, via a serum not only leaves my skin soft and soothed, but also helps to reduce inflammation. If you’re budgeting out your beauty purchases, a serum is where I would splurge a bit — but you don’t have to break the bank to find an effective formula, either. These four have been in my routine for years and I always keep them close by when the weather turns cold.
6. Creamy Moisturizer
Even if you’re not in the mood for multiple steps after cleansing (I get it — skin care is a commitment), a quality moisturizer is a must in the winter. I’ve tested dozens upon dozens of options and trust me, not all face creams are created equal. Added moisturizing ingredients like shea butter, argan oil, and omega-6 make these formulas thicker (but not greasy or too heavy) and better suited to combatting the elements — like frigid wind and radiators sapping your apartment of humidity. I return to these six options season after season for both morning and night (some luxe, some more affordable, all high quality).
If you feel like you want or need another layer of moisture, I often top whichever formula I’m using with my favorite Le Prunier Plum Oil (the occlusive ingredient helps to lock in that hydration).
Hopefully by now, you’ve accepted that daily SPF is crucial to your skin’s health. Not only is it your best defense against skin cancer, but it also is the single most effective anti-aging product in your beauty arsenal. There is absolutely no point in shilling out top dollar for products that claim to prevent premature aging if you’re not willing to apply sunscreen every single day. Harsh but true, y’all. Take the time to find a formula that agrees with your skin, applies smooth under makeup, and leaves your face, neck, and chest feeling comfortable — never sticky or irritated. Yes, there is a lot of chatter about the benefits of physical versus chemical sunscreens, but at the end of the day the best SPF is the one you’re willing to wear — period.