skin care essentials

Skin Care Essentials – What Products Do I Really Need?

We all like to try new products.  They’re fun to play with, to smell and feel and to try on our skin.

But what are the skin care essentials? Which types of products do we really need? With money tight these days, we need to spend it on products that really work.

Here are the skin care products that have been proven over the years with good science to help your skin. You need these for an effective skin care regimen.  In this article, I’m going to tell you about each of these and give you some recommendations:

  • Cleanser
  • Moisturizer
  • Sunscreen
  • Repair or anti-aging products (vitamin-A cousins (like Renova and Retinol), vitamin-C serums (not creams), a few other antioxidants, and cell growth factors)
 All the other stuff out there on the market? Go ahead and play with it—have fun! Talk to your friends about it. Make it a luxury for yourself that is part of your own self-care. Go ahead and dream that you may find the fountain of youth.


But don’t mislead yourself into thinking that your hard-earned cash can get you the facelift in a bottle. And do try only one new product at time. That way you’ll know what causes a reaction if you get one. Even if it is the algae cream that cost you $150!

Now, let’s take these skin care essentials one by one. I’ll tell you what to look for and recommend some products that I and my staff have tried and tested.

Skin Care Essentials


When you think about it, cleansers are on your face for about 15 seconds twice a day, hardly long enough to have any therapeutic effect on your skin.

If you have normal to dry skin, a cleanser that doesn’t dry out or strip oil off your skin is best, and a liquid cleanser, in particular, can be great for this.

Squeaky Clean?

Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t need to feel that squeaky feeling for your skin to be clean (that squeaky feeling is just the soap stripping all your natural oils off of your skin). As long as the product is not overly irritating or drying, it’s fine.

If you have very oily skin, on the other hand, you’re likely best off with a cleanser that’s formulated specifically for acne or your skin type; these do tend to be drying—a good thing for some of us.

Some good cleansers.

Here are some cleansers that I like. Here’s link to some cleansers that I have tested and know to be good:

See Dr. Irwin’s Best Cleanser Recommendations.

Here are some affordable drugstore cleansers that are also good:

  • Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser—for dry or sensitive skin (available at your drugstore)
  • Lancôme Galatée Confort Comforting Milky Creme Cleanser—for dry skin (available at department stores)
  • Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Cleanser—for oily or acne-prone skin (available at your drugstore)
  • Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser for Normal to Oily Skin—for normal to oily skin (available at your drugstore)


These deserve some attention because moisturizers are worth using.

Particularly if you have dry skin, moisturizers will help to prevent fine lines and improve the appearance of your skin over time. We’ve all had the experience of being dry, applying a moisturizer, and having our skin look instantly better.

Here are my tips on how to get the most out of your moisturizer:

  • In general, if you have oily skin, use a moisturizer like a gel that will hydrate (add water to) your skin but won’t add more oil.
  • If you have normal skin, use a lotion or light cream.
  • If you are very dry, use a heavy cream that takes a minute or two to absorb into your skin. Apply it more frequently than once or twice a day.
  • Everyone should use a moisturizer around their eye area and on their necks, because we all have very few oil glands in those areas.
  • If you’re oily through the T-zone area, just use your moisturizer on your eye area, your cheeks, and your neck.

Each of the basic types of skin is both a blessing and a curse. If you have oily skin, you have your own natural moisturizer and less tendency toward wrinkles. But you’ll have more of a tendency toward acne and larger pores.

If you have dry skin, you’ll have a greater tendency toward wrinkles but much less tendency toward acne and large pores. There’s something positive about each skin type.

Some good moisturizers.

Here are some Moisturizer Recommendations I have tested and recommend.

Here are some drugstore and department store options that are really affordable:

  • Cetaphil Moisturizing Lotion—for normal, sensitive skin (available at your drugstore)
  • Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream—for dry, sensitive skin (available at your drugstore)
  • EstéeLauder Clear Difference Advanced Oil-Control Hydrator—for oily and blemish-prone skin (a bit more expensive; available at department stores)
  • Neutrogena Healthy Skin Lotion—for normal to dry skin (available at your drugstore)
  • Olay Total Restoration Lotion—for normal to dry skin (available at your drugstore)


You’ve heard it before, but it’s really true: Sunscreen is the most important product you can use on your skin every day. It should be at the top of your list of skin care essentials.

The more damage to your skin cells from sunlight that you can prevent, the better your skin will be for years to come. If you have pre-teen or teenage children, particularly if you live in a sunny climate, encourage them to start using sunscreen on a daily basis on their faces.

Sunscreens and sun protection are the single best way to prevent prematurely aged skin, age spots, brown spots, leathery-looking skin, skin cancers, and the deadly skin cancer, melanoma. In fact, melanoma is the biggest cause of cancer deaths among kids in their twenties.

There are many types of skin, with different colors, textures, oiliness or dryness, and pore size. Here I’ll focus only on the three main skin types: oily, dry, and normal.

How to choose a sunscreen.

Choose a sunscreen based on your skin type, your climate, and the intensity of your sun exposure.

  • For oily skin, choose a powder or very light lotion for your sunscreen.
  • For normal skin, choose a lotion or a light cream, and for dry skin, a rich cream.
  • For mature and drier skin, look for a sunscreen that adds some repair to it.

All sunscreens that are creams and lotions have a moisturizing base. Many people don’t need an extra moisturizer in addition to their sunscreen.

For example, during the summer in Seattle, when we have about 30 percent humidity, I don’t use a separate moisturizer with my sunscreen. I have a normal skin type with a slightly oily T zone (forehead, nose, and chin).

In the winter, however, when the central heating is on all season, then I use a moisturizer underneath my sunscreen.

Here are some of my favorite sunscreen products, which I have tested and recommend to my own patients: recommended sunscreens.

Here are some good sunscreens available at drugstores and department stores:

  • Clinique City Block Sheer Oil-Free Daily Face Protector –SPF 15—normal/oily (available at department stores)
  • Lancôme UV Expert 20 with Mexoryl SX—SPF 20 (available at department stores)
  • Neutrogena Healthy Defense SPF 30 Daily Moisturizer (available at drugstores)
  • Blue Lizard Face Sunscreen SPF 30 (available at many drugstores)
  • Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer SPF 15 with Parsol 1789 (available at many drugstores)

Why You Need to Take Vitamin D

What about Vitamin D and sunscreens?

Vitamin D is made in our skin in response to sunlight on skin. Vitamin D is critical for bone strength and now, from a recent study, seems to help prevent several different types of cancer. Many of us in northern climates and those of us who use sunscreen don’t get enough.

Find out if you have enough with a simple blood test. Ask your doctor to add a 25-OH vitamin D test at your next appointment. You need between 400 and 1,000 IU of vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), depending on your age and level of nutrition.

If you are deficient, your doctor will prescribe more. Vitamin D3 is also found in milk—four glasses will give you most of what you need if you’re not deficient already.

Repair Products

The only products that have been proven to work to reduce wrinkles at this point in time are the vitamin-A cousin tretinoin (in products like Retin-A and Renova), some antioxidants like Vitamin C serums, some hydroxy acids, and possibly creams containing cell-growth factors or peptides.

See Dr. Irwin’s Best Repair and Anti-Aging Skin Care Product Recommendations

Vitamin-A creams

Vitamin-A creams are still the gold standard for repair of sun-damaged and aging skin. They also help to prevent precancerous lesions and skin cancer. There’s nothing better available in a cream form. A true skin care essential – everyone who can tolerate them should be using one!

The Vitamin-A creams go by all sorts of names like Renova, Retin-A, Tazorac, tretinoin (generic Renova and Retin-A), and Retin-A Micro (all available by prescription only). Retinol is a weaker form available without a prescription. But there is one Retinol product—the SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0—which is almost as strong as the prescription form.

Some women may experience irritation when using a vitamin-A cream, but if you have problems, first try washing with a gentle cleanser, applying a light moisturizer and then letting your skin dry for 10 to 15 minutes; then, use a pea-sized amount for your entire face.

Renova is the best for dry or over-40-skin because it has a moisturizing base. Apply these products at night because light inactivates them. You must use a daily sunscreen if you’re using Vitamin-A creams.

What are antioxidants?

It seems as if almost every skin care product now has an added “antioxidant,” and many women want to know if they really work.

An antioxidant is any substance that slows or stops free-radical damage to cells. What is free-radical damage to cells?

When natural light damages skin cells, extra electrons (now we’re talking molecules) start floating around looking for a home. When those extra electrons find a home (often a cell), they usually damage those cells when latching on. This then triggers inflammation and cell injury. Anything that slows the injury process down is referred to as an “antioxidant.”

Antioxidants in skin creams

Many vitamins, such as Vitamins A, C, and E have antioxidant properties. Coenzymes, such as alpha-lipoic acid and coenzyme Q10, also contain antioxidants as do many plant-derived compounds.

Not surprisingly, more and more creams and cosmetics feature these antioxidants. In fact, there is good evidence to suggest that some antioxidants, like vitamins C and E in a serum form, have significant preventive and repairing effects for sun damage. Specifically, we know that SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic lasts about twenty-four hours on the skin.

But while we think antioxidants may help to reduce the damage to skin cells by natural light, a number of questions remain:

  • Does sun exposure or air pollution change the amount of time that antioxidants last on our skin?
  • How much is needed of these different antioxidants?
  • What happens when they’re combined (as they often are), and do they even get to where they would help (the skin is a good barrier)?
  • Since free-radical damage to the skin is constant and extensive, how much antioxidant is needed to stop it?
  • Do internal antioxidants taken in pill form help skin in the same way and, if so, in what doses?

Unfortunately, we really don’t have answers to these questions at this point.

Still, even with these questions, it’s a good idea to use a repair cream that contains the important vitamins A, C, and E along with your other skin care essentials. Here are some products I have tested and recommend:

See Dr. Irwin’s Repair and Anti-Aging Skin Product Recommendations.

Here are some affordable choices, but remember that anti-aging and repair products are more expensive than other types of skin care products:

  • Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream—with Retinol for dry to normal skin (available at your drugstore)
  • Neutrogena Visibly Firm Eyecream, Active Copper Formula (available at your drugstore)
  • SkinWithin EyeBright—with peptides (available at salons and online stores)

Cell Growth Factors

SkinMedica and now several other companies have pioneered topical serums and lotions that use cell growth factors.  The best way to understand this is to imagine a fertilizer for your skin.

Cell growth factors come from fibroblasts (the cells that make collagen) of young skin cells grown in the lab.  These fibroblasts make potent growth factors that fuel growth of healthy, young skin. Including collagen and elastic fibers which give the skin its softness and suppleness. The theory is that applying these cell growth factors is like fertilizing your skin.

Cell growth factor skin care products like the TNS Recovery Complex takes 3-6 months to work, so be patient.  And it is quite expensive. While not a skin care essential, this can be a great addition to a skin care regimen that already includes sunscreen and Vitamin A creams with an antioxidant.

That’s a lot of info, but I hope it helps you to spend your skin care dollars wisely!

Dr. Brandith Irwin

See Dr. Irwin’s expert answers to other readers’ questions on what products you really need:
How can I get the most out of my products?