These are the only 3 products you really need in your skincare routine

Posted by
Lucy Partington
The 3 skin heroes you need

Forget having a cupboard overflowing with products. This scientifically proven trio is all you need to get the best skin of your life.

Have you ever counted how many skincare products are on your shelves? Or bothered to add up how many steps your routine actually has? The serums, oils and essences, maybe there’s a face mask or two thrown in for good measure. 

But what if we said you don’t need a shelf (or, more likely, shelves) bursting with products to keep your skin healthy and looking its best? What if, actually, you only really needed three incredible hero products?

If you speak to any dermatologist or skincare expert, they’ll agree that vitamin C, SPF and retinol (a form of vitamin A) are the ‘magic three’ – and are the only scientifically proven ingredients that can impact how skin ages. 

That’s not to say masks or oils are redundant – you can use them if you enjoy them – but they categorically will not affect your skin in the same way using active ingredients will. 

“SPF, vitamin C and retinol really are the three most important items to incorporate into your routine,” says consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk.

“There’s a strong track record for their benefits in medical literature, confirmed by multiple studies.” Harley Street’s Dr Sam Bunting concurs, adding, “If you have no specific issues (such as eczema), those ingredients are the Holy Trinity.”

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You’ve heard it before, but a minimum of SPF30 with UVA and UVB protection should be worn all year. “UV rays account for 90% of skin ageing, and studies show sunscreen alone doesn’t protect against all of the free radicals caused by UV radiation,” says Victoria Hiscock, product and education specialist at cosmeceutical brand AlumierMD. 

It’s for this reason that a powerhouse antioxidant, such as vitamin C, should be applied beforehand. “Vitamin C helps shield skin from free radical damage caused by pollution and sun exposure,” explains Dan Isaacs, formulation and development director at Medik8. But ensure the vitamin C you’re using is effective. It’s notoriously unstable and oxidises when exposed to light and air. When this happens it’ll turn a brownish colour and is no longer beneficial for skin. 

There are different types of vitamin C, but the most effective is L-ascorbic acid. Usually found in serums, it’s the most potent form. It’s also Bunting’s favourite: “Products containing it can be more expensive, but are a worthwhile investment,” she says.

Then, in the evening, use retinol. It has a bad reputation thanks to temporary dryness and potential irritation while skin adjusts, but, as Isaacs explains, it’s worth it. “Retinol is hailed as the gold standard of anti-ageing and works by stimulating collagen production,” he says. “It helps to accelerate skin cell turnover which smooths out fine lines, enhances skin texture and corrects pigmentation.”

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Retinol can make skin more sensitive to sunlight (another reason why SPF is vital) and as skin needs to adjust, you should incorporate it into your routine slowly. Start using it every few days, building up to every other day until skin can tolerate it nightly. “A gentle cleanser should be used AM and PM, and a simple moisturiser can be applied at night 15 minutes after retinol if skin feels dry or taut,” adds Kluk.

Here are the skincare products you need to add to your routine:

The best daily Vitamin C products

  • AlumierMD EverActive C&E


    Premixed formulas can oxidise quite quickly, but unique technology (that took four years to perfect) means the 15% L-ascorbic acid is only released into the serum when you’re ready to use it. Each pack contains three bottles which you open and use one at a time. 

  • Clinique Fresh Pressed Daily Booster With Pure Vitamin C 10%


    10% L-ascorbic acid is housed in special ‘stay fresh’ packaging that isolates the pure vitamin C until it’s activated. Add a couple of drops to moisturiser or use it alone. Each set comes with four bottles, which last around a week once opened. 

  • Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum


    Combined with ferulic acid and vitamin E, two ingredients that work in conjunction with vitamin C, Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson told Stylist she stores her day serum in the fridge to help keep the active ingredients fresh for longer. 

  • Garden of Wisdom Vitamin C Serum 23% + Ferulic Acid


    Ferulic acid helps protect vitamin C from oxidisation. Combined with the airless pump that dispenses the formula, it means that this is a total antioxidant powerhouse. Plus, it’s free from alcohol, silicones and fragrance. 

  • Lixir Vitamin C Paste

    lixir vitamin c paste

    A one-of-a-kind formula, apply a layer of Vitamin C Paste in the morning, leave it on for a few minutes, then rinse it off. This morning mask will brighten dull skin by neutralising oxidised sebum, as well as working as a shield against UVA and UVB rays (use SPF too, though). 

The best daily SPF products

  • Fresh Peony Brightening UV Shield Sunscreen SPF 50+


    Dry skin will benefit from this three-in-one formula that works to brighten and hydrate skin while still protecting against the sun’s UV rays and pollution. Shea extract helps to smooth skin while hyaluronic acid injects moisture. 

  • La Roche-Posay Anthelios XL Ultra-Light Fluid SPF 50


    A common SPF complaint is that it’s too heavy and greasy for sensitive skin. If that sounds familiar, try this. A seriously lightweight lotion with an invisible finish, it sits well under make-up, is kind to skin and will not block pores. 

  • Murad Essential-C Day Moisture SPF 30


    This antioxidant-rich SPF moisturiser defends against free radicals as well as preventing UVA and UVB damage. It’ll help improve your skin’s radiance, too, and repairs existing damage while keeping it hydrated. A veritable multitasker. 

  • Shiseido Urban Environment UV Protection Cream SPF 30


    A super light sunscreen that gives skin a serious hydration boost while effectively protecting it from both UVA and UVB rays. It’ll help even out your complexion, and it’s also virtually invisible so it works well as a base for your foundation, too. 

  • Skinceuticals Mineral Matte UV Defense SPF 30


    Perfect for oily skin types, this 100% mineral, oil-absorbing mousseprotects against both UVA and UVB rays while smoothing out skin and helping to reduce the appearance of pores. It also dries down to a soft, powder finish. 

The best retinol serums

  • Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum


    Elizabeth Arden has upgraded its best-loved ceramide capsules by adding retinol. Each pod is individually sealed for optimal freshness and potency, making them perfect for travelling. 

  • inkey-list-retinol-tube-30ml1

    1% retinol has been paired with 0.5% granactive retinoid (a slightly stronger form of vitamin A) and has been formulated with squalene, which hydrates skin and helps to prevent further moisture loss. 

  • Medik8 Retinol 3 TR Advanced Night Serum


    A good choice for anybody new to using retinol, this serum is gentle on skin and has clever time release technology that helps prevent irritation. Use four drops of retinol serum each evening on cleansed skin to help speed up the natural exfoliation process.

  • Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment


    Best for seasoned retinol users, this lightweight cream will absorb quickly and is made with nourishing ingredients like licorice and oat extract that help calm skin. Limit initial usage to three times a week and gradually increase. 

  • REN Bio Retinoid Anti-Ageing Concentrate


    If you prefer the luxury of oils over creams, try this seriously concentrated, all-natural formula. Warm a few drops in your hands each evening and gently massage into skin to help lock in moisture and improve its texture. 

Images: Harry Pedersen / courtesy of brands


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Lucy Partington

Lucy Partington is Stylist’s beauty editor. She’s obsessed with all things skincare, collecting eyeshadow palettes that she’ll probably never use, and is constantly on the hunt for the ultimate glowy foundation.

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