“Skin streaming,” or cutting down your skin care routine to just the essentials, is having a moment on TikTok. It harkens back to the days of the “three-step routine,” something original Proactiv users will recognize from the cleanser, toner and moisturizer approach of the early 2000s.
Streamlining also feels like a backlash against the 10-step routines that cost so much time and money. While it may seem like more is better, using fewer products can actually result in healthier skin. And a simpler routine saves time too, especially if you take it a step further and trade in single-purpose products for those that multitask.
There’s a reason that a cluttered routine doesn’t often work. Using too many products can occasionally cause harm, since some ingredients can interfere with each other or lead to irritated skin. “When people use too many skin care products, there is the risk that either the products cancel each other out or decrease the efficacy of each other, or the products in combination are too irritating for the skin,” said Dr. Elyse Love, a board-certified dermatologist at GlamDerm in New York City.
Using too many products at once can increase your risk of developing skin allergies as well, typically due to preservatives or fragrance, according to Dr. Aegean Chan, a dual board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist. “There are also many products that contain potentially irritating ingredients, including retinoids, alpha and beta hydroxy acids, niacinamide and L-ascorbic acid, to name a few,” Chan said. “If your skin is exposed to too many irritating ingredients, it can disrupt the skin barrier and cause a skin reaction.”
Then there’s the natural role of skin to consider. “For those that have normal, healthy skin, the skin barrier is self-regulating and can function pretty well without the support of skin care products,” Chan said. But just because skin can function fine on its own doesn’t mean that a little help isn’t useful, she explained — like adding hydration to dry, eczema-prone skin, or using a cleanser to remove excess sebum and bacteria.
Skin streaming gives you the best of both worlds: the reliance on your skin as a system that’s designed to protect you, with a little help from modern wonders. And the dermatologists we spoke with all named the same three products they would recommend as essential: cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen.
Here’s the ideal basic skin care routine.
“The ideal basic skin care routine will include a cleanser to remove dirt/debris/pollution/makeup from the skin twice a day, a moisturizer to re-close the skin barrier and prevent dryness and irritation twice a day, and an SPF 30-plus product to protect the skin against sun damage in the morning,” Love said.
This routine can be customized by, for example, using a cleanser tailored to your specific need. And while you may not have to apply moisturizer every day, depending on your environmental conditions, it might be a good idea. “Moisturizer helps to protect and support the function of the skin barrier, which can be negatively impacted by the environment, especially in low humidity settings,” Chan explained.
It’s no surprise that sunscreen was named as essential, since it’s the one thing that shouldn’t be skipped if you’ll be spending time outside. “Sunscreen is the most important step — it helps protect our skin against damaging UV [ultraviolet] rays that can cause premature aging and skin cancer,” said Dr. Lindsey Zubritsky, a board-certified dermatologist in Pittsburgh.
You can simplify your routine even more.
For those who want to streamline further, look for multiuse products.
“I love using a moisturizer with SPF,” Zubritsky said. “This is a great option for those who want to save money and reduce the amount of steps in their routine. It’s important to note that this combination product should be used correctly for it to be effective. I recommend finding a moisturizer with an SPF of at least 30 and using at least two to three finger lengths when applying to face and neck.”
But you can also include add-ons, with a few considerations.
Those might be the essentials, but there’s still room for a little fun. For this, Zubritsky recommended adding antioxidant serums in the morning and retinol at night.
“Antioxidant serums, particularly ones with vitamin C, help to protect our skin against free-radical damage while also brightening your complexion,” she said. “It works synergistically with sunscreen to protect against environmental aggressors that we experience daily. At nighttime, a retinol or a retinoid is the most powerful anti-aging ingredient you can incorporate.”
Chan also suggested using a retinoid to help with acne, skin texture problems, sun damage and fine lines. “When used long-term, it has been shown to remodel the underlying collagen and improve overall skin quality,” Chan said. Beyond that, adding a product with alpha hydroxy acids, like lactic acid or glycolic acid, can be beneficial. “These acids are chemical exfoliants, so they gently encourage the shedding of superficial dead skin cells, which leads to a smoother complexion within a day or so,” Chan said. “These ingredients also can help with hyperpigmentation.”
Be cautious when continuing to add products to your routine, since that can cause the same problems of using just a few. “It’s still important to make sure the products don’t contradict with each other,” Love said. “For instance, it’s usually not a good idea to use an exfoliating cleanser with an exfoliating serum — that can cause irritation to the skin.”
If you’re used to a long routine with lots of products, going back to basics can feel jolting. But skin streaming taps into what your skin was designed to do, without overwhelming it with potentially irritating ingredients. By sticking to the essentials — and maybe a few extras — you can find yourself spending a lot less in time and money, with a whole lot more benefits.