How to Use Skincare Actives

Howdy! In my last post, we talked about the importance of SPF and moisturizing, different types of skincare actives, and why the pH of your skincare products is important. Before we jump into part 2, I want to remind you that I’m not a dermatologist or esthetician, and you should talk to your doctor or a skincare expert if you have specific questions about your skin.

Adding actives to my skincare routine was time-consuming and full of learning experiences, but my new routine has made my skin extremely stable. I get fewer breakouts, my skin feels more comfortable and moisturized, and I’m much more comfortable wearing light or no foundation. My skin glows.

My bare face
My skin just after applying retinol

I can’t promise that your skin will be perfect if you follow these steps (mine certainly isn’t!), but if you use this post to start some research into your own skin type and incorporate actives into your skin slowly and safely, you may see some improvements just like I have.

Now, this isn’t going to be a post about drinking more water and changing your pillow cases. Yes, those tips work, but we’re talking about heavy-duty, real-deal skincare products that require a lifestyle change if you want to commit.

Ready to learn more? In this post, we’ll cover:

  • The basic skincare routine (pre-actives)
  • How to incorporate actives into your routine safely
  • How to add actives to your routine
  • How to safely pause your routine if you need to


You’re probably tempted to skip this section, but it’s vital to setting yourself (and your skin) up right.

First off, you need to make sure you can take on a consistent skincare routine. It’s easier and cheaper to figure out that your life is too hectic or you’re forgetful with skincare before you invest in fancy skincare products.

Additionally, this routine will help make sure your skin’s moisture barrier is doing well and you’re fully SPF-protected. Take a look back at my last post if you need a refresher on why these are so important.

Finally, this routine resets your skincare with mild products to help you find any potential irritants. Sometimes we get so used to a routine or we want to try out a bunch of products, and we don’t pay attention to what might be bothering our skin. Starting from basic means that when you build up again, you’ll know right away if something doesn’t sit well with your skin.

When I say this routine is basic, I mean bare-bones basic.

Morning routine:

  • Rinse with water and pat dry
  • Moisturizer
  • SPF 40 or higher

Night routine:

  • Remove makeup and sunscreen with wipes or an oil cleanser
  • Wash with mild cleanser
  • Moisturizer
  • (Optional) Spot treatment
  • (Optional) Eye cream

You’re probably wondering why the basic routine doesn’t include cleanser in the morning. The only real benefit to washing your face in the morning is to get last night’s skincare off and prepare your skin for your morning skincare products. A cleanser does more than you need here, and over-using your cleanser could strip the oils from your face and dry your skin out. I like to massage my face a bit with the water to help with cleaning, but I don’t use soap unless my skin got sweaty overnight or if some nighttime products won’t budge.

I know you might be tempted to jump in with some chemical exfoliation, but try to get through this routine for at least two weeks, but preferably a month or longer. The longer you stick with the basic routine, the more preparation you’re giving your skin.


There are a couple enhancements to the basic routine that I highly recommend: hydrating serum and an oil cleanser.

I talked about hydrating serums in my last post. I’m addicted. They contain hyaluronic acid and other water-loving ingredients that help draw moisture into your skin. When you add a moisturizer or night cream on top, the lotion acts as a barrier that locks it all in. A moisturizer alone only helps your skin retain the moisture it already has, so adding a hydrating serum can boost the amount of moisture deep in your skin. I started using a hydrating serum at night or as needed during the basic routine phase and increased my use as I added actives that dry out my skin a bit.

Another enhancement is an oil cleanser, which lets you use a “double cleanse” method at night. The idea is the oil cleanser removes your makeup and sunscreen, and your regular face cleanser takes away any leftover residue and prepares your skin for the rest of your skincare. I’ve found that oil cleansing has really helped with removing dry skin and grits (which I talk about in a recent video). The only downside is you need to rub the oil around for a good few minutes to actually get your makeup off. When I get lazy, my white washcloth turns beige from my foundation and other makeup that doesn’t get fully removed.

“But what if my skin is oily?”

Good question. Don’t be scared away from these products if you have oily skin. The more moisturized your skin is, the less likely it will get stressed out and produce more oil. And adding oil to oily skin doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll end up with an oily mess. Your skin will likely get used to it and even itself out. And if for some reason your skin doesn’t want to adjust, you can try other methods for moisturizing and removing makeup.

I highly recommend adding these to your routine before your actives. These become staples and help to further prepare your skin for incorporating more advanced products into your routine.


My next step in this process was adding chemical exfoliation, both a BHA and AHA. Assuming you want to do the same, you have a couple options. As I mentioned in my last post, some people suggest layering your BHA underneath your AHA with a 20-30 minute rest period after each, but if that’s too time-consuming you can use your BHA in the morning and your AHA at night. AHAs should be used at night, so make sure that whatever timing you choose, your AHA isn’t going on in the morning.

Whichever method you choose, make sure to add one product to your routine at a time. Again, I know you’re eager, but you absolutely need to incorporate new products slowly to make sure your skin doesn’t have a reaction. The recommended wait time before adding the next product is two weeks, but I’ve been known to wait only one week.

I recommend starting with your BHA a couple times a week. If you have sensitive skin or you’re nervous, 1-2 times a week should be fine, but don’t use it more than 3 times a week. After about 2 weeks, add your AHA. And the entire time, make sure you’re keeping up with the basic routine, especially the SPF. These exfoliants make your skin photosensitive and it will burn more easily. I learned that the hard way: my boyfriend and I decided to take a walk and sit outside for about 30 minutes on an overcast day that didn’t stay overcast. I had a light burn by the time I got home! If this happens to you, lay off the exfoliants for a few days to a week, depending on the severity of the burn. I also made sure to use my hydrating serum twice a day to help my skin rest and recover.

I started out using my BHA 3 times a week for a week or so. Then, I added my AHA after my BHA because my schedule tends to be stable and I had time in the evenings for the long wait times. I kept this routine for about 2 months before adding anything else. My skin cleared up quickly, but these products are drying, so I used a hydrating serum every night and on mornings when my skin felt a bit dry.


If you want to include more than chemical exfoliation, and you’re set in your new routine, do some research to see how other actives react with AHAs and BHAs. I wanted to try adding retinol, and I learned that you shouldn’t use it with chemical exfoliants. I used it one night a week when I wasn’t using any exfoliation, and after a couple weeks realized my skin would be happier if I scaled back my exfoliation to 2 nights a week instead of 3. My skin felt soft but looked a bit tired and dull, except the morning after I’d used retinol.

This was difficult for me because I’d done so much research and planning that I was sure I’d formulated the perfect routine. But as it played out in real life, I had to make adjustments. I even realized that it made sense to adjust my routine even further—I moved my BHA to the morning and kept the AHA at night. I had an AHA toner that I wanted to use every morning, but after using it a few times I noticed it felt a bit sticky on my skin. It made sense to only use it after my AHA to prep my skin for moisturizing. These changes weren’t planned, but I had to go with how my skin looked and felt over what made sense in theory.

I had to stop my skincare entirely for a while (more on that in a bit), but I made sure to get back into the routine I was using before adding anything else. I only added Vitamin C a couple months ago and I think it’s helped make my skin look brighter. I’m not planning to add anything else for a while!

The more products you add to your routine, the more likely there will be a complication. If you break out, it’s harder to know whether it was from one of your skincare products, makeup, or something environmental. Remember to incorporate new products slowly and listen to your skin. If something isn’t working right, like my using exfoliation 3 times a week after adding retinol, be ready to move things around a bit.


There may be times when you need to pause your skincare routine for a certain amount of time. I experienced this when I got LASIK a couple months ago. Leading up to and right after surgery, you can’t use any soaps, lotions, or other skincare. I was getting the surgery right before a beach vacation, and not being able to use sunscreen was a scary thought.

Because some of these products make your skin photosensitive, you have to be careful going on and off them. I first stopped the retinol about 10 days before surgery, which was easiest to adjust to because I only use it once a week. The other product to worry about was the AHA, which I stopped a week before surgery, as it takes about a week for the photosensitivity to go away. A couple days later, I stopped the BHA too. I kept up the basic routine until the morning of the surgery, when I couldn’t put anything on my skin at all. My skin was fine during vacation, no sunburns, and it actually looked quite good until I tried to wear makeup one evening. It turns out one of my favorite powder foundations might be breaking me out…

I added back my skincare by basically rebuilding from doing nothing at all. If you want to double-check that your products aren’t causing any irritation, take it more slowly than I did. But I went quickly: I added soap, hydrating serum, and lotion at the end of the first week after surgery (I got the go-ahead from my eye doctor at my checkup). About a week to ten days after surgery, I added my AHA and BHA back into the routine twice a week.

Eventually, over two weeks after surgery, I added the retinol back. I wanted to make sure I was happy with the AHA and BHA, and I was curious to see if the retinol was helping or harming my skin. It turns out my skin really loves the retinol product I’m using!


Was this whole post more than you asked for? Probably. But I hope that you found it helpful as you start your skincare journey. Remember to do your own research and listen to your skin!

Running out and buying products is exciting, but make sure you’re following the golden rules of skincare:

  • Start basic and build out
  • Moisturizing and SPF are way more important than anything else you do
  • Incorporate new products slowly (recommended 2 weeks) to make sure they don’t irritate your skin
  • Listen to your skin and adjust your routine as you go
  • Plan ahead if you need to pause your routine to make sure you don’t leave your skin parched or photosensitive with no protection

Remember the resources I included in my last post. Start there!

My updated skincare routine is coming up this weekend, and I’ll share my current favorite products and the ones I’m still looking for cruelty-free versions of.

Until then,

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