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How to Build a Minimalist Skincare Routine with Just 5 Essential Products (or Fewer!)

A less-is-more approach to clear, smooth, hydrated skin.
Minimalist skincare routine

Maybe it's the constant stream of new product launches. The ever-changing "shelfies" all over Instagram. Or the temptation to try every active ingredient put out by The Ordinary because hey, it's only $6.

It just feels like our skincare routines might be getting a little too complex!

Dr. Justine Hextall is one dermatologist who agrees. "Fifty percent of people I see in my clinic have too complicated a regimen that is actually damaging the skin barrier and unbalancing the natural acidic pH," she told Look. "The offering of skincare today is bigger than it’s ever been before and people have become a lot more experimental. My advice is find what works and try to stick to it for longer than a week! Products can take at least six weeks to start making a difference... continued use is necessary to maintain the results."

When I shared this quote recently on Instagram, it really struck a chord.

That's why I've put together this tutorial and example routine for you! 

As you may know, I always share my spring, summer, fall and winter routines (and will continue to do so), but those tend to be quite involved. I'm always testing and reviewing different products as part of my job. And I've also got the luxury of being self-employed, so wait times ain't no thang!

But I'd never want you to think that you HAVE to use so much. The more products and ingredients in your routine, the greater the chance of irritation, not to mention repetition.

Below, we'll cover:

  • What to include in a minimalist skincare routine
  • What to exclude from a minimalist skincare routine
  • Wait times in a minimalist skincare routine
  • My minimalist morning skincare routine
  • My minimalist nighttime skincare routine
  • The one extra skincare treatment to invest in

 If you've been wondering how to simplify your skincare steps, read on!

What to Include in a Minimalist Skincare Routine

Minimalist skincare routine

Your minimalist skincare routine should include cleanser, exfoliator, sunscreen, moisturizer and a treatment serum. (Makeup remover and an additional treatment serum are optional.)

There are five key products that belong in every routine:

  • Cleanser: Not everyone needs to cleanse in the morning, but it's a must at night to remove the day's grime, pollution, oil and makeup. If you don't wear a lot of makeup (for example, tubing mascara comes off with only water), you might be able to get away with just one cleanser. You can even use it to double cleanse; simply wash twice with the same product. 
  • Exfoliator: I'm a firm believer in daily gentle exfoliation. It can be as simple as removing your cleanser with a warm, steamy cloth. See my cloth and oil cleansing tutorial for my method, which is perfect for sensitive skin and can be done as often as nightly. Otherwise, I recommend acids, if tolerated, for even more brightening and pigmentation-fading benefits. Ideally, you'd want one that is mild enough to use once or twice a day. If that's not possible, it's fine to use an acid every other day or a few times a week. 
  • Sunscreen: Obviously, you're going to need sun protection. But did you know that sunscreen can replace your daytime moisturizer? So don't feel like you always need to layer a cream or lotion underneath your SPF. Unless your skin is dry, you can probably get away without it!
  • Moisturizer: Include one hydrator that really works for your skin, whether it's a serum, lotion, cream or oil. It can double as eye cream and neck cream, and can be worn day or night depending on your skin's needs. I suggest choosing a product that has both humectant and occlusive properties (i.e. water and oil). That way, you get the best of both worlds—the humectants will bring water to the skin, and the oils will lock in the moisture.
  • Treatment serum: Last but not least, we have your "active" product, and this is going to be completely up to you! It could be vitamin C or another antioxidant, a retinoid, peptides, acne medicine or any other treatment you want to use. I suggest sticking with a serum format, not a cream, as serums have a higher concentration of active ingredients and penetrate more deeply—meaning you'll get more bang for your buck! If you're not sure what to use or if your skin is very intolerant, I always recommend niacinamide. It's non-irritating and is the one ingredient that addresses a multitude of issues, from wrinkles to acne to pigmentation to dryness. 
  • Optional: While I'm sticking to five products each day and each night for this routine, you could swap out the sunscreen for a makeup remover or micellar water at night, if you need it before your face wash. Also, you could include two treatment serums and use one in the morning and the other at night. I've done this in my example routine below!

What to Exclude from a Minimalist Skincare Routine

Minimalist skincare routine

Products like face masks, face mists, essences, toners and cleansing brushes can be excluded from a minimalist skincare routine. 

Here are some non-essential products that you can probably get away without:

  • Toners: I don't mean acid toners, which I'd classify as exfoliants. I mean toners that just remove any leftover dirt or cleanser residue. If you're washing your face properly and rinsing thoroughly, they're not necessary. 
  • pH-adjusting toners: These are meant to prep your skin to receive acids by lowering your skin pH. But they can actually push it TOO low, which could lead to irritation. Acids are always going to be formulated for use at a normal skin pH, so I don't think you need this type of product beforehand. 
  • Face mists and essences: I do love my mists, but they're not going to offer you that much in the way of hydration. Ditto for essences, which are usually super-watery and best used for layering. (COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence would be an exception, since it's more emollient and gel-like in texture.)
  • Cleansing brushes: While I'm a huge fan of the Foreo Luna, you can certainly get similar results in a low-tech way, if you do the cloth method.
  • Face masks: They feel great, but their effects are usually just temporary. I think it's better to invest in your day-to-day routine, using gentle actives, rather than relying on a once-per-week treatment to make significant changes.

Wait Times in a Minimalist Skincare Routine

Minimalist skincare routine

When layering active ingredients, be mindful of varying pH levels.

Whenever you are applying products with different pH levels—say, more than 1.0 or so apart—I think you should incorporate a waiting time of roughly 20 to 30 minutes in between layers. That way, your skin pH will have time to return to normal, allowing each product to work as intended. Otherwise, you could inadvertently lower their effectiveness or cause an unwanted chemical reaction!

Here's a rough guideline for average pH levels:

  • Acids: pH 3.0-4.0
  • Retinoids: pH 5.0-6.0
  • Vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid): pH 2.0-3.5
  • Vitamin C derivatives: pH 5.0-7.5
  • Niacinamide: pH 5.0-7.0
  • Moisturizer: pH 6.0-7.0
  • Sunscreen: pH 6.0-8.0

If you want to eliminate wait times, either a) only use products that are close in pH, or b) choose products that are not pH-dependent, such as:

Alright, ready to see how I pare things down? Here's my simplified routine!

My Morning Minimalist Skincare Routine

1. Cleanser:

Indie Lee Brightening Cleanser

Indie Lee Brightening Cleanser

I own so many cleansers, but if I could only choose one to use day and night, it would be the Indie Lee Brightening Cleanser. This is a sulfate-free gel that produces a light foam, but isn't at all drying. My skin never feels tight afterward!

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Note: You could also skip this step and just splash with water, if you find your skin doesn't need a morning cleanse.

2. Exfoliator:

COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

I exfoliate with acids, which due to their low pH require a waiting time before higher-pH products are applied on top (like niacinamide, moisturizer and sunscreen). If I don't have time to wait, I skip the acid!

I use a thin layer of COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid (reviewed here) all over my face, excluding the eye area. This is a Holy Grail product for me that wards away acne and congestion, fades pigmentation and brightens my skin. The active is betaine salicylate, which is similar to salicylic acid but gentler. 

3. Treatment Serum:

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10 Percent Zinc 1 Percent

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%

Next comes my treatment product. I've experimented with vitamin C, vitamin C derivatives and other antioxidants, but I find that niacinamide tends to work best for me. Since it has a neutral pH, I incorporate a waiting time if I want to use it after my acid. When I don't have time to wait, I just use the niacinamide on bare skin.

Currently, I'm on my second bottle of The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% (reviewed here). The main things I've noticed are that it fades post-acne marks and reduces oil production, while keeping my skin barrier nice and healthy. I like that it's water-based, not oily (like so many vitamin C products tend to be!).

Note: If you wanted to use vitamin C after your acid instead, this tutorial explains what you need to know about pH and wait times.

4. Moisturizer/Eye Cream:

OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream

OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream

My new favourite moisturizer is the OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream. It has a light lotion texture and sinks in fast with no greasiness. Yet it's surprisingly SUPER-hydrating, thanks to macadamia oil, shea butter and jojoba oil. I'd recommend it to anyone! 

This goes on straight after my niacinamide has absorbed. I use it around my eyes in place of eye cream, and also take it down my neck rather than using a separate product there. When I'm not getting enough sun exposure to warrant sunscreen, I finish my routine here! 

5. Sunscreen:

Ava Isa Pure Untinted Ultra Matte SPF 45 Sunscreen

Ava Isa Pure Untinted Ultra Matte SPF 45 Sunscreen

If I do plan to be outside for more than 15 minutes before 3pm, I wear sunscreen either in addition to or instead of moisturizer. I've chosen Ava Isa Pure Untinted Ultra Matte SPF 45 Sunscreen for this routine because it's so lightweight and non-whitening. Especially in the colder months, the last thing I want to deal with is rubbing in a greasy white cast! 

My Nighttime Minimalist Skincare Routine

1. Makeup Remover:

Bioderma Sensibio H2O

Bioderma Sensibio H2O

When I need to remove stubborn eyeliner, I rely on my trusty Bioderma Sensibio H2O micellar water (and Shiseido Facial Cotton, of course). It gets everything off without ever irritating my eyes. 

2. Cleanser:

Indie Lee Brightening Cleanser

Indie Lee Brightening Cleanser

Once again, I'll use the Indie Lee Brightening Cleanser. Since I don't wear much makeup most days, and I only use tubing mascara (like the Kevyn Aucoin Volume Mascara), this cleanser is often enough to remove makeup and clean my skin in one step. It's so gentle, it would really suit everyone! 

If I feel really grimy, I can wash twice with the same cleanser. And if I find I need some manual exfoliation, I can lightly steam my face with a warm cloth before gently wiping it off. The steaming softens and loosens dead skin, and the cloth buffs it away.

3. Exfoliator:

COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

Then I do another round of the COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid, which my skin tolerates really well. The reason I like to use it twice a day is because that's what Biologique Recherche recommends with its Lotion P50 exfoliators. I was using P50 before in that way; now, I've discovered I get even better results with a BHA! Find out more about BHA benefits here.

Note: While I use an acid exfoliator twice a day, you may find once is enough, or you may prefer to just exfoliate with a cloth. Totally up to you!

4. Treatment Serum:

Shani Darden Texture Reform Gentle Resurfacing Serum

Shani Darden Texture Reform Gentle Resurfacing Serum

Although I could use the same treatment product here as I did in the morning (niacinamide), I like to do retinol at night. I've just started testing Shani Darden Texture Reform Gentle Resurfacing Serum, which is a retinyl palmitate-based serum that improves skin texture, tone, acne and redness—see my review here. (It's a gentler version of her Retinol Reform, reviewed here.)

Retinoids have a higher pH than acids, but this one is unique because it contains lactic acid. I don't know the pH, but I suspect that makes it a bit more acidic than most. So it MIGHT be okay to apply it straight after your acid (no waiting), but I try to wait 20 minutes, just to be on the safe side. I just want to make sure I'm getting the full benefit of each product at the appropriate pH! 

5. Moisturizer/Eye Cream:

OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream

OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream

Then we have the OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream again. I don't usually like creams and lotions, but I love this one so much! It goes on once my retinoid has fully absorbed, about five minutes later. 

However, if I were using a stronger retinoid, I would probably wait 20 minutes in between it and moisturizer, otherwise the moisturizer could dilute the potency. That can make your routine a little long if you're also using acids (since you'd need to wait twice—in between acid and retinoid, and in between retinoid and moisturizer). So you could always skip acid at night if you only want to deal with one waiting period!

My Minimalist Skin Treatment 

Red Light Therapy:

Red Light Man Red Light Device

Red Light Man Red Light Device

I know I'm always talking about red light, but SERIOUSLY... if you're going to do any extra skin treatments, this is the best use of your time and money!

I use the Red Light Man Red Light Device for overall skin health, and to treat and prevent acne and signs of aging. See my red light series for more info—Part 1 is all about red light benefits, and Part 2 covers how to choose and use a device.


Minimalist skincare routine

My minimalist skincare routine involves just five products morning and night.

I hope this helps if you're interested in streamlining your skincare routine! We all love our products, but it's crucial to understand which ones are TRULY going to make a difference, and which ones are just "fluff." 

On the flip side, don't be tempted to fit in as many actives as possible just because they are "doing something." I would say THREE is the max, especially for a minimalist routine. One acid (if tolerated), one daytime treatment serum, and one nighttime treatment serum. As per my example routine, I limit myself to a BHA, niacinamide and retinol. 

Whether your routine is minimalist or not, my last tip is to be consistent and give your products time to do their jobs. With acids and retinoids, it can take at least six or eight weeks to start seeing a difference. So hang in there!

Shop My Minimalist Skincare Routine

Have you tried a minimalist skincare routine?
Which products are your essentials?