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The clueless man’s manual for building a skincare routine

When quizzed about their skincare routines, some men act as if it’ll be easier to crack the Rosetta Stone than to engage in the pursuit of clear complexions. Some fault the sheer volume of products on the market and the confusion that it causes, while others dig themselves deeper into a world where blackheads and excessive sebum reign supreme just because they think self-care is too feminine.

Well, if you are in the former camp, there is hope. Personal grooming may be a big, threatening universe to trawl through, but we are here to demystify men’s skincare for you and set you on the path to the light. Glass skin, even, if that is where you want to be.

In this guide, we talk about why a grooming regimen matters, and how exactly you should begin to build your own. To ease the process, everything has been structured into bite-sized informative nuggets free of jargon. There may be some pink, or products that smell like raspberries, but it is all in the name of your own good.

men's skincare guide
Serums can be confusing, we know.

What is your skin type?

This should be pretty self-explanatory, but our skin behaves differently according to certain conditions. There are three basic types: Dry, oily, and combination. The simplest way to discern which you have is to wash your face with a gentle cleanser you are accustomed to, then balance your skin with a toner, and wait to see how your skin reacts.

If it remains dry and feels slightly taut, then you have dry skin. If a thin veneer of oil begins to show up all over, you have oily skin, and if oil only shows up in the certain areas, most commonly the T-zone (chin, nose, forehead), then you are of the combination type.

Now you’ve got your skin type down pat, figure out the concerns you want to alleviate. These include breakouts, enlarged pores, blackheads, dry patches, fine lines, and the list goes on. Narrowing down these concerns helps you to streamline your shopping.

Finally, ascertain whether you have sensitive skin. Some are gifted with skin that can withstand exfoliating with sandpaper, but there is a significant group who react to products that contain astringents and other harsh ingredients, not just on the face, but the body too.

Once you have these three points down, you can move on to isolating the ingredients that will fortify your skin.

What works for what skin type?

Most of the navy blue, silver and black vials that stock the men’s skincare section are not as forward with the key ingredients within as the paler vials in the woman’s section. As a general rule of thumb, try to avoid anything that smells or looks a little too much like perfume.

Now that you’ve culled 90 percent of the “for men’s” division at the shops from your scope, it is time to let ingredients that are of service to your skin’s needs guide your endeavour.

men's skincare guide
Smouldering as you put on moisturiser always makes things easier.

What ingredients work for my skin?

These are some quick rules, but feel free to go against them based on skin sensitivities: Ceramides, aloe vera, urea and hyaluronic acid are lifesavers for dry, dehydrated skin; clay, niacinamide, salicylic acid and charcoal are ideal if you are oily.

If you have combination skin, it is best to shop for products that help maintain your skin’s moisture levels. The ingredients that work for dry skin apply here too.

Even if you are lazy to read through the ingredients list, just be sure to look out for labels that spotlight these elements, or ask a sales representative.

What products do I start with?

You just need four products to lay down the foundations for your skincare routine. These indispensable goodies are a gentle low pH foaming cleanser, a toner, a moisturiser, and finally, sunscreen.

men's skincare guide
Smile through the break up with your harsh facial cleansers after reading this guide.

What kind of cleanser do I need?

The foaming cleanser you buy must have a low pH, and that is not debatable. Alkaline cleansers pull the water out of your skin. They are the cause of that “squeaky clean” sensation you get after a face wash, where your skin feels like it has gone through twelve rounds of Botox in the time it took to get the foam off. Your skin is not supposed to feel that way after a wash at all.

Alkaline cleansers also destabilise the naturally acidic pH of your skin, and this increases your skin’s susceptibility to irritation and bacteria that causes breakouts.

men's skincare guide
Sulwhasoo’s Snowise Brightening Cleansing Foam and First Aid Beauty’s Facial Cleanser

We don’t expect you to conduct a litmus test with every cleanser sample out there. A peerless low pH cleanser is the Sulwhasoo Snowise Brightening Cleansing Foam, a soothing herbal medley with anti-inflammatory ingredients like panax ginseng, liquorice root and honey. But if you have sensitivities to herbs, try First Aid Beauty’s Face Cleanser, a gentle formula enhanced with hydrating aloe vera and white tea extract.

Why do I need a toner?

Toners are secret powerhouses. These clear, cooling liquids seem like a superfluous step in your skincare routine, but a simple swab around your face after a wash imparts a pyramid of benefits that you are worse off without.

Simply washing your face isn’t enough to remove all the microscopic grime, so toning takes care of that. Also, it causes any redness to subside, gives you a small dose of moisture, and most importantly, preps your skin for the rest of the products you will layer on.

men's skincare guide
Dr Jart’s Water Fuse Hydro Toner and Fresh’s Rose Deep Hydration Facial Toner

Purchase a toner without astringents — witch hazel or alcohol, for example — as these turn your skin into the Sahara desert. Gentle plant-based ones are ideal, like Fresh’s Rose Deep Hydration Facial Toner, which softens the skin with rosewater. If you need a toner that goes above and beyond, then Dr Jart’s Water Fuse Hydro Toner is one that also sloughs off the build-up of dead skin cells.

Why is moisturising important?

Most men would just stop at the cleanse-and-tone combination, but moisturisers are crucial, no matter if you have dry or oily skin.

Moisturisers don’t just hydrate, but it helps your skin retain water, which is imperative if you don’t want your face to look or feel like the Cryptkeeper took over. Keeping moisturised also staves off visible signs of ageing, and diminishes the size of your pores. Adjust the type of moisturiser to suit your skin type.

men's skincare guide
Lab Series’ Age Rescue Water-Charged Gel Cream

Lotions and gel creams are best for oily skin, as they are thin and water-based, so it doesn’t create an uncomfortable film over your face as the day wears on. The Age Rescue+ Water-Charged Gel Cream from Lab Series is a clear winner, as it contains a high concentration of soothing botanical extracts and anti-aging ingredients.

men's skincare guide
Clinique For Men’s Maximum Hydrator

Dry skin demands richer moisturisers, so zone in on creams. The Clinique Maximum Hydrator, with its fitting name, is a nourishing blend of various oils like jojoba and shea butter. It feels like silk on the skin and remedies dry patches straight away.

men's skincare guide
Tom Ford Oil-Free Daily Moisturizer

Combination skin is tricky business, as you’d want a moisturiser with a consistency that is somewhere in the middle and has shine-control properties for your slicker spots. Tom Ford has a champion for this skin category — the Oil-Free Daily Moisturiser. A combination of jojoba and shea butters help plumpen the skin without being too oily, while other boosters like caffeine and cucumber perk up the skin. It also effectively controls your shine.

Do I really need to use sunscreen?

Unless you want to sigh over the wrinkles that spider across your face in your early forties, then yes. A resounding, unquestionable yes.

Living in a country assaulted by vicious sunlight demands that you protect your skin from its rays daily. We won’t go as far as to say that skin cancer is on the cards, but cosmetic woes like deepening lines and an uneven skin tone are all fair game.

UV rays are like an energy drink for your skin’s natural ageing process, and as time ticks by, you ought to do everything you can to slow it down. We won’t belabour you with hard facts but click here if you need more convincing on the importance of sunscreen, direct from a proper dermatologist.

men's skincare guide
Aesop Protective Facial Lotion SPF30

The problem with most sunscreens is the greasy coat they leave on the skin, but thankfully, many brands have come forth with barely-there formulas. Aesop’s latest Protective Facial Lotion comes with broad spectrum SPF30 protection, so all your bases are covered. It smells divine and feels like a deep drink of water for your complexion when applied, so, during the daytime, this can double up as a moisturiser.

men's skincare guide
Shiseido Global Suncare Perfect UV Protector HydroFresh

For highly active men who can’t survive without outdoor sports, you basically need a sun shield. The Shiseido Global Suncare Perfect UV Protector Hydrofresh comes with SPF50 protection and is designed for all manner of sports, whether on land or sea. It is also comfortable on the skin and doesn’t leave an odd white cast like those sunblocks you smear on when at the beach.

How do I put it all together?

You take a bath twice a day, so the same goes for your skin. You can choose to just wash your face with water in the morning, but using your handy foaming cleanser at night is a must. Follow up with toner, applied with a cotton pad or your bare hands (please make sure they are sanitised beforehand), then finish off with a moisturiser. Simple.

Sunscreen should only be used during the daytime, of course.

What if I have other products I want to use? Like masks, exfoliants, serums and such?

If you want to take your routine above the four-step essentials, then always remember this cardinal order: Anything that needs to be washed off goes first, including things like a clay mask. Then tone.

After that, organise all the products you want according to this rule: Always start with the thin, water-based products, and move up to the thick, oilier ones. An extensive skincare routine would be in this order:

  1. Cleanser
  2. Wash-off mask or exfoliant
  3. Toner
  4. Chemical exfoliant or actives (we decode what this is all about here, but in sum, it helps deal with breakouts and pores)
  5. Serum
  6. Sheet mask (you do not have to do this if you’ve already used one in step 2)
  7. Moisturiser
  8. Eye cream
  9. Face oil
  10. Sunscreen or sleeping mask (depending on the time of the day)

Repeat to yourself that it is all worth it.

Beatrice Bowers
Features Editor
Beatrice Bowers writes about beauty, drinks, and other nice things. When not bound to her keyboard, she moonlights as a Niffler for novels and can be found en route to bankruptcy at your nearest bookstore. Don't tell her boss.