This comprehensive guide covers all of the essentials, from cleanser to sunscreen.

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Woman sitting on bed putting on face cream
Credit: Getty / Westend61

Putting together (and sticking to) a skin care regimen becomes much easier once you understand how each product caters to your complexion—especially when you discover how the formulas work in conjunction with all the rest. This information is key, says cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green, who believes that "the first step towards great skin is putting together a skin care routine." To help you do just that, we tapped Dr. Green to share how the most common products work—and what they actually do for your skin.

Cleanser

Morning and night, each and every routine should begin with cleansing. Dr. Green says to choose a formula that drives the main goal of this product: to clean the skin and remove all traces of makeup and bacteria. "Use a cleanser and lukewarm water to wash your face," she adds, noting that balm and cream iterations are best for those with dry, sensitive, and combination types, while gel-based options are best for those with acne-prone skin.

Toner

Once you have removed makeup, dirt, and debris from your complexion's surface, it's time to tone. "Toner sets the pace, as it opens the pores after cleansing," Dr. Green says. "For sensitive skin, select an alcohol-free option with chamomile or green tea. If you are acne-prone, toners with alpha hydroxy, salicylic, or glycolic acid are best." Whichever camp you fall into, the result of these early-routine products are the same: They prepare skin for the next step, says Dr. Green, by opening your pores to fully absorb the formulas that follow.

Essence

While these products are best known for their impressive hydrating abilities, Dr. Green notes that essences can be a powerhouse in any routine, whether your goal is improved moisture or not: "These products are lightweight and packed with antioxidants, peptides, and, occasionally, anti-aging ingredients to help facilitate cell turnover." Like toners, essences help set the stage for the remainder of your routine.

Exfoliant

Day in and day out, skin cells die and new ones develop. While our skin naturally flakes off over time, it needs a little help to shed—especially if you want a radiant complexion. "Exfoliating is an added step to your skin care routine that can improve the efficacy of your products by removing dead skin cells. In turn, products are better able to penetrate the skin, delivering better results," Dr. Green explains, noting that these formulas also fade discoloration, improve fine lines and wrinkles, and banish blemishes. "Chemical exfoliation—as with alpha hydroxy acids, fruit acids (such as papaya), or salicylic acid—is gentler on the skin than mechanical ones, like scrubs, which can cause microscopic tears." The best part? Dr. Green shares that acids do their jobs instantly—so as soon as you're done applying them, you can expect a fresh, radiant glow.

Eye Cream

Ever wonder why you need a specific cream for your under-eye area? According to Dr. Green, this skin is ultra sensitive and can't withstand formulas developed for the rest of the face. "They are also made with specific ingredients to target under-eye concerns, such as puffiness, bags, and hollowness," she explains, adding that these ingredients—think caffeine, peptides, and hyaluronic acid—may or may not be found in your regular face moisturizer. The trick? Their delivery system, which is designed for the delicate area, she adds.

Moisturizer

The second-to-last step of any morning routine—or come nighttime, the last—should be moisturizer, says Dr. Green, whether or not your skin looks hydrated (it likely craves more moisture!). For this reason, our expert recommends working a replenishing cream or gel moisturizer—or hydrating serum before a thicker cream—into your regimen. "A key ingredient to look for is hyaluronic acid, which pulls in water," she says, adding that gel-based or lightweight formulas are better for those with oily, acne-prone skin.

Sunscreen

Last but not least, sunscreen, which is a must every morning—even if it is raining, snowing, or sleeting or you're spending the entire day indoors. "This step is essential and ties it all together," Dr. Green explains. "Sun protection at an early age sets the stage for beautiful skin later on in life. It has anti-aging benefits, but most importantly, protects you from certain skin cancers." To ensure you are as protected as possible, Dr. Green says to look for formulas with physical barriers, like titanium oxide and zinc oxide.

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