My skin journey has gone through hell and back. Growing up, I had terrible acne and never put on sunscreen (I don’t think I even owned face sunscreen), so as I hit my late teens and early 20’s I was left with acne scars, sun damage, enlarged pores, and combination skin. Naively, I figured covering my face with makeup would hide my skin issues which actually made it worse. No one told me that the secret to flawless makeup was healthy skin. It wasn’t until I was turned 21 when I finally learned about the basics along with the best skincare products you need to form a solid skincare routine: cleanser, retinol, vitamin C, and moisturizer/SPF. 

There’s no denying, our 20’s can be an awkward time for skin. A lot of us during this age (myself included) still suffer from regular acne while also trying to correct sun damage and prevent signs of aging—it’s a lot! The retinol and vitamin C combo is a great option because it covers both prevention and correction—just be sure to seal it in with a moisturizer and, of course, wear sunscreen! For me, starting with a small skincare routine felt like an achievable overtaking the 14-step approach that was popular then. As someone who thought St. Ives was skincare, the four must-haves helped me create the right foundation, and give my skin what it actually needed. After integrating those four key products into my skincare routine, I began to layer in toners, exfoliants, boosters, and hydrators.

If you have acne-prone skin, toners and exfoliants are amazing for keeping your oil levels balanced while reducing the appearance of pores. I will also say that one of the biggest game-changers for my skin came from a lifestyle change. After cutting out gluten, dairy, limiting my alcohol, raising my water intake, and ensuring I had enough sleep, my acne disappeared and my skin looked much more youthful and bouncy. (*editors note: please consult with your health physician or doctor before making any major dietary changes but this is what worked for me.)

At 28, I’m finally feeling good in my skin and my goal is still the same: to correct and prevent while improving texture and tone. Thanks to the nature of my job, I’ve tested 1000s of skincare brands and products so I decided to curate the best of the best (in my opinion!). So, keep reading to discover the skincare products that I squeeze and scrape until the very last drop.

*Please note, that while I list all of these products here that I use, you certainly don’t need to buy all of them. When it comes to skincare, all you really need is a quality cleanser, toner/serum, moisturizer, and sunscreen—that’s it! And for me, it’s all about investing in quality over quantity.

Yola Robert
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Yola Robert is a Los Angeles-based freelance lifestyle, fashion, travel, business, and beauty editor and Senior Contributor at Forbes. She is also a podcast host, content creator, public speaker, and editorial consultant with a passion for self-care, everything beauty, and mental health.

Cleanse

Sonya Dakar Silver Clarifying Face Wash

I typically rotate my cleansers depending on my skin concerns. On the days that I have breakouts or my skin is on the oilier side, I love using this Sonya Dakar Silver Clarifying Wash. It has a gel like texture that’s also hydrating for my skin which I love because most salicylic cleansers leave my skin super dry.


Sonya Dakar Silver Clarifying Face Wash

Mara Algae Enzyme Cleansing Oil

This is one of my favorite cleansing oils. I love using it as my second step when triple cleansing after wearing makeup or when I need an extra layer of dirt removed. This cleansing oil brightens, and hydrates with Mara’s signature Moringa and algae blend plus four fruit enzymes. When using other oils, they don’t quite get most of my makeup off—this one does the dirty work! I also like using this for a gentle morning cleanse just to get the overnight oils off my face. Also, if you have oily skin (like I do) using a cleansing oil like this helps remove the excess the excess oil without stripping your skin.


Mara Algae Enzyme Cleansing Oil

OSEA Ocean Cleanser

OSEA’s Ocean Cleanser is a great everyday wash that is gentle on your skin. It’s creamy texture almost feels like a milk wash and it smells absolutely amazing. Using this would be my final step when triple cleansing. This is the cleanser I rotate with the Sonya Dakar Silver Clarifying Face Wash when my skin isn’t breaking out. Pro tip: you can also swap your shaving cream for this cleanser!


OSEA Ocean Cleanser

Farmacy Green Clean Makeup Removing Cleansing Balm

I swear by triple cleansing when wearing makeup. Before I discovered triple cleansing I used to use makeup wipes. Eeeeek! Makeup wipes should be a skincare sin. So when I began triple cleansing I tried all the balms on the market. This is hands down my favorite cleansing balm because it doesn’t irritate my eyes when removing makeup. It also actually removes the makeup as I’m wiping off the balm, so much so, that my sink looks like foundation soup. The combination of papaya enzymes and ginger root help naturally exfoliate pores while hydrating at the same time.


Farmacy Green Clean Makeup Removing Cleansing Balm

Tone

Paula’s Choice SKIN BALANCING Pore-Reducing Toner

I never used to use toners, but now I can’t go without it. Morning and night I incorporate Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Pore-Reducing Toner after cleansing and before my serums and moisturizer. If you have enlarged pores or oily combination skin like me, you are going to be obsessed with this toner. Within a week of using, I noticed smaller pore and less oil in my t-zone area. As per my usual rule of thumb, everything I use also needs to hydrate while controlling my oily areas. A lot of toners are extremely stringent but this toner has hydrating ceramides so my skin still feels hydrated. Most impressively the price point is on the lower end. IMO this is the best bang for your buck toner.


Paula’s Choice SKIN BALANCING Pore-Reducing Toner

Sonya Dakar Green Energy Clarifying Toner

I pair this toner with the Sonya Dakar’s Silver Clarifying wash when I’m experiencing breakouts. Although it does have salicylic acid, it also has niacinamide, eucalyptus. and rosemary to nourish the skin. I love the smell, so often times I spray it during a hot steam shower.


Sonya Dakar Green Energy Clarifying Toner

Caudalie Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Pore Minimizing Toner

Caudalie’s Vinopure toner was the first toner I ever used. I personally think this is a great toner for maintenance. Even though it does have salicylic acid, I don’t see an immediate change with my breakouts or acne. All Caudalie products are known for being made with their own grapes so this toner has grape water, rosemary, lemongrass, and lavender. The biggest difference I notice after using this product is more of a mattified look (which I love when my skin is feeling oilier than usual).


Caudalie Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Pore Minimizing Toner

Exfoliate

Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

You’ve probably heard about this toner after it went crazy viral on TikTok but I can confirm it’s worth the hype. We often don’t think of exfoliators in liquid form, rather as a scrub like texture. But the BHA’s (beta hydroxy acid) and AHA’s (alpha hydroxy acid) in this actually exfoliate dead skin cells and remove excess sebum. If you have more acne prone or oily skin-using a BHA based toner is your best bet.


Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

Stacked Skincare TCA Lactic & Glycolic Face Peel

Again, we usually don’t think of exfoliants in liquid form but this is a super-thin, gentle peel from Stacked Skincare you can use every day after toning. I usually layer this on after I dermaplane my skin. It tingles a little as it contains lactic and glycolic acids but it’s actually very gentle to the skin. Using peels as exfoliants is a great way to go deeper without compromising the skin. Beyond clearing out my pores, I notice more even texture, tone, and brightening of dark spots.


Stacked Skincare TCA Lactic & Glycolic Face Peel

Cosmedix Detox Activated Charcoal Mask

While I use a gentle peel or liquid exfoliant daily, I use this mask once or twice a week to detox my skin. It feels like a magnet is literally pulling out all of the dirt from. my skin. I always apply a rich moisturizer afterward though because they can tend to dry out your skin.


Cosmedix Detox Activated Charcoal Mask

Correct

Alastin Restorative Neck Complex

Most of us experience tech neck to some degree these days but we often forget to treat it. This product is hyper-focused on repairing elastin and collagen with peptides and their TriHex technology. I notice a big difference in the appearance of lines and tightness in my neck if I don’t use it.


Alastin Restorative Neck Complex

111 Skin Y Theorem Repair Serum

Although it’s on the pricier side, this serum is an investment especially if you regularly get peels or micro-needling. It was originally created to treat trauma after surgery, so if you ever damage your skin with treatments (in a bid to create more collagen, of course!), this serum will aid in healing and repairing your dermis even more.


111 Skin Y Theorem Repair Serum

U Beauty Resurfacing Compound

The resurfacing compound from U Beauty is exactly what it sounds like. I use this after toning before layering on other serums because it’s very thin. It acts as a nice base serum for other products, helping them to seep in even deeper. I do notice that my pores and skin texture look more evened out when using this regularly.


U Beauty Resurfacing Compound

Sonya Dakar Ultima C Serum

I love this Vitamin C because of the hyaluronic acid combo. It leaves my skin super glowy and hydrated, which I feel is rare for a Vitamin C serum (often they leave me feeling dry). Although this product is geared more towards anti-aging and reversing sun damage, it also helps with my acne because of its nutrient-dense ingredient list—goji berry, green tea, Kakadu plum, Marunga, and hibiscus flower.


Sonya Dakar Ultima C Serum

MUTHA Cell Rejuvenating Essence

This new fermented serum not only plumps your skin but it also helps to repair the dermis (and it smells amazing!) I use it in the mornings after applying my Vitamin C and immediately notice the difference in my skin texture after application.


MUTHA Cell Rejuvenating Essence

Youth To The People 15% Vitamin C + Clean Caffeine Energy Serum

I use this serum when I’m feeling puffy in the mornings because the caffeine helps to instantly brighten and depuff. I am always puffy in the morning so finding a serum that can help is a winner for me.


Youth To The People 15% Vitamin C + Clean Caffeine Energy Serum

Mara Universal Face Oil

We all need a go-to oil in our beauty cabinets. And before you ask, no, applying oil won’t make your face oilier. On the contrary, it can actually help regulate sebum production and balance the skin. Oily skin can often be a sign your skin is dehydrated. As a result, it can over-produce sebum to compensate for the lack of moisture. Mara’s Universal Face Oil is high in essential fatty acids to plump up the skin and fight free radicals while improving the appearance of skin tone, texture, and firmness. I usually apply this before my gua sha routine or as a last step at night. I also use it to hydrate my brow hairs and on my hairline when it gets dry in the winter.


Mara Universal Face Oil

Shani Darden Retinol Reform

This retinol is unique because of the encapsulated retinol/AHA combo—meaning you will see exfoliating results alongside the anti-aging benefits. With most retinol, you may experience dry, flaky skin to begin with (which is totally normal) but I have never had any peeling or dryness with this product. I only use retinol at night and, of course, ensure I am wearing SPF during the day to protect my skin after using it.


Shani Darden Retinol Reform

Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream

If I feel like ramping up my retinol use (usually during the fall and winter) I add in this night cream to act as a buffer. It uses a fast-acting retinoid, time-released retinol, and retinol booster that helps fight lines and deep wrinkles. I had my fiance use this too and he saw results with his forehead lines in just three days!


Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream

Moisturize

Agustinus Bader Rich Cream

This is the holy grail in my beauty closet. When I was first introduced to the brand, I didn’t expect the Rich Cream to blow me away. In fact, I was worried a heavier cream would make me break out. Instead, my skin soaked every ounce of it and feels immediately hydrated. In the winter months, I cannot live without it. Besides hydration, you may notice smaller pores, even texture, and the appearance of fewer wrinkles, too thanks to its ability to prevent transepidermal water loss.


Agustinus Bader Rich Cream

OSEA Blemish Balm

This sheer, fast-absorbing moisturizer is another great option for when I’m breaking out. It’s also a great spot treatment. For being a blemish balm it doesn’t completely dry you out thanks to the seaweed and essential oils that leave you with a balanced shine. I just wouldn’t use this if you have super dry skin because you may want something richer. But it’s great for acne-prone or combination skin.


OSEA Blemish Balm

Sonya Dakar Blue Butterfly Balm

This balm is like magic to me. It provides instant relief and gives you a radiant glow when used on dry, rough, or irritated skin. But it’s the texture of this balm that’s so dreamy—it literally melts into your skin like an oil. Packed with blue butterfly flower and Kalahari melon along with natural soothing oils such as macadamia, cupuaçu, and evening primrose, I use this balm after micro-needling to heal the skin while reducing visible redness and irritation. It’s also a great winter skin savior because it protects the skin lipid barrier from extreme or dry weather, and smooths away dehydration lines. Trust me on this one!


Sonya Dakar Blue Butterfly Balm

Cosmedix Peptide-Rich Defense Moisturizer

This moisturizer is my go-to for the daytime as it contains SPF 50—the quicker I can get out the door, the better! I also love that this product targets anti-aging while hydrating and protecting. Plus, it doesn’t leave a white cast like other SPF moisturizers—just a dewy glow.


Cosmedix Peptide-Rich Defense Moisturizer

Protect

U Beauty Multimodal Defender Broad Spectrum SPF 30

I am a huge fan of this recent launch from U Beauty because it corrects as it protects. Translation: it helps to combat discoloration before it happens while correcting damage that’s already occurred. Most SPF’s only target UVA and/or UVB but U Beauty’s targets IR (infrared) and HEV (blue light exposure) which is huge because we are constantly staring at our screens. Yes, you can get sun damage from your phone or laptop! So don’t forget to wear this around the house.


U Beauty Multimodal Defender Broad Spectrum SPF 30

Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench Broad Spectrum SPF 45 Hyaluronic Cloud Moisturizer

I used this moisturizer all summer long. It has zero white cast and hydrates my skin like a serum thanks to the hyaluronic acid—which coincidentally is what makes it a great primer for makeup because it provides a hydrated base. In addition to that, it contains a game-changing ingredient called pentavitin which provides up to 72 hours of hydration. I think this is what helped my skin stay supple and plump even after hours in the sun. Other SPF’s would become crackly and flake off over time. This is definitely a staple SPF in my beach bag.


Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench Broad Spectrum SPF 45 Hyaluronic Cloud Moisturizer

Alastin HydraTint Pro Mineral Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 36

This is my favorite “no-makeup” makeup, tinted sunscreen because it leaves a super dewy finish. When I do wear foundation this also works as a great primer. As with all Alastin products, this tinted sunscreen never dries my skin—just a hydrated glow.


Alastin HydraTint Pro Mineral Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 36

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