By ALEXANDRA MATZKO

I’ve gone through several different skincare routines over the years, and my current routine is still evolving.

I’ve had easily irritable skin prone to breakouts in my teens and early twenties (and still do), but now I’m in that transitional phase between my late twenties and thirties when I’m starting to think about anti-aging and protecting my skin for the future.

So, how do I keep my skin balanced, clear, and happy in a simple way that won’t break the bank? Good question.

I’ve been following this easy routine for the past two months to great effect. Though I’m known to indulge in all-natural skincare products that don’t have any real science to back up their efficacy, this routine and the recommendations below are the real deal backed by science as the only ways to reduce and prevent the signs of aging and to keep skin clear.

If nothing else, try to incorporate these five steps into your skincare routine every day.

1. Cleanser. This step is non-negotiable, but there’s a lot of flexibility to the type of cleanser you can choose. You can go the traditional foaming cleanser route, but I dropped that practice years ago. For both dry and oily skin types, the stripping nature of traditional foaming cleanser, though it gives you that “clean” feeling, often worsens the issues your skin is dealing with such as redness, flaking, or excess oil. In the case of excess oil, the stripping of the cleanser prompts your skin to overproduce oil to compensate. I wouldn’t recommend it.

You can go the oil cleanser route, but that alone doesn’t work for my skin. Oil and cream cleansers developed from the school of thought that “like attracts like” meaning that oil attracts oil, dirt, and other things that you want to remove from your skin. Some people use straight up-oil like jojoba or coconut and others use oil and cream cleanser formulations from the biggest brands. I like using an oil-based cleanser in the evening to remove makeup, but I cannot use it alone.

I am a big advocate of the double cleanse. That means you start with an oil-based cleanser to break down all the gunk on your face and then wipe off what you can with a warm, moist washcloth, and then you use a second cleanser to fully remove the rest of the oil. I can never remove all of the oil-based cleanser without some sort of second cleanse. If I skip the second cleanse, the remaining oil sits on my skin and causes me to break out. In the morning, however, I don’t need that deep of a clean, so I use an oil free, non-foaming cleanser to wash my face. Here are my recommendations.

Gentle/morning: I really like gentle, non-foaming cleansers whether that be something like Cetaphil or this Eclipse cleaner from Stark Skincare for a more natural alternative.

Eclipse is full of beneficial ingredients like charcoal to really cleanse the skin without stripping it.

Serious/makeup removal: Honestly, you can use any high quality oil (think organic and cold-pressed) as an oil cleanser, but I’ve had better luck with those that are part of a formulation. People love the Oskia Renaissance cleanser, but I’ve never tried it. I’m really enjoying the Plie cleanser from Jordan Samuel Skincare at the moment for getting deep into pores and dislodging gunk and buildup.

Extra pampering: I do this in the evenings 2-3 times a week. I do my usual double cleanse and follow up with a clay based mask. Clay helps pull dirt from skin and clear out any larger breakout issues. My favorite, though pricey, mask is The Clean Dirt by May Lindstrom Skincare.

2. Water-based hydrator. After cleansing, a toner or water-based serum replenishes skin with moisture. Skip the formulations full of irritating ingredients like alcohol and go for one with a soothing base of aloe or a hydrosol water. This product should rebalance your skin’s ph and hydrate. On the budget-friendly end, I love the Heritage Store Rosewater & Glycerin spray that you can find on Amazon or in most stores. Glycerin is one of the best ingredients for retaining in moisture. Also, I love rubbing pure (and organic if possible) aloe into my skin. George’s Aloe is a great product that you can find on websites like Vitacost at a great price. On the luxury end, I adore the Hydrating Accelerator by Josh Rosebrook and the Hydrate Facial Serum by Jordan Samuel Skincare.

Serums and hydrators with a water base help return needed moisture to skin. However, alone they aren’t enough to lock in hydration. That’s why you need to follow them up with this next step.

3. Oil-based hydrator. Water hydrates the skin and oil will keeps that moisture in place.

Now, I know that oil can seem scary, and a lot of oil newbies have bad reactions to oils, but that’s probably because they’re using them incorrectly. I know that I definitely was!

The key with oils is in the type and the application. Overall, I don’t recommend coconut oil for people with acneic skin. Go for something lighter. I love the City Recalibrating Oil by Stark Skincare because it’s so light in texture and designed for all skin types. I steer clear of formulations geared toward people with extremely dehydrated skin.

My other number one tip – use a LIGHT hand. Most people use way too much oil when applying it to skin. Start with 1-2 drops, rub them onto the palms of your hands, and press your palms and the product into your face, neck, and décolletage. Don’t rub – press. Oils shouldn’t leave a shine or residue on your skin. If they do, you are using too much product. If 1-2 drops truly aren’t enough, I caution using more than 4 if you do decide to amp up the amount. Skincare is all about balance. If your skin is too stripped, your body will overproduce oil. If you turn your face into an oil slick, it will become congested and even dry and flaky as your body tries to balance things out!

Oil applied on top of a water-based hydrator is a moisture-filled paradise for your skin, but be sure to steer clear of those fatal application flaws.

4. SPF. We all know we’re supposed to wear sunscreen every day, but we’re all probably guilty of foregoing this important rule more often than not. Well, I am here to tell you that you can no longer afford to skip this step if you care about preserving your skin’s youthful appearance. Sunscreen is a non-negotiable. It is the only thing scientifically proven to prevent aging.

Find one that you love and slather that sucker on every day. No excuses. I love the offerings from La Roche Posay, especially they’re mineral-based options. One other thing – your sunscreen lotion isn’t effective for a full day’s wear. How can you top up over makeup? Invest in a powder with spf or a powdered spf. The powders are not meant to be used alone, but applied or reapplied over your normal sunscreen, these products will help you stay protected all day long.

5. Retinol. Want to help treat wrinkles or breakouts? There are so many products claiming to be breakthrough anti-agers, but only one has stood up to research, and it’s retinol. With about 12 weeks of consistent use, you will begin to see improvements in the texture and youthful appearance of your skin. There are tons of retinol products on the market, even those available with prescription, and the stuff ain’t cheap, but it is worth it. I highly recommend the Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 for retinol newbies. Be sure you buy it from the official website – there are tons of unauthorized sellers trying to sell you fake stuff at a seemingly bargain price!

The important rules for retinol application are only at night and as many times a week as you are decades of years old i.e. if you’re in your twenties, apply the retinol 2 times per week. I’m 28, so I cheat a bit and go for the 3 times per week. Retinol is no joke. It can be drying and leave skin red; that’s why it’s so important to start with a weaker strength and apply it only at night as it also leaves skin extra sun sensitive. Also, you want to apply it to clean skin without anything getting in the way. On nights I use retinol, I do not use my water-based or oil-based hydrators. I alternate nights between retinol application and water/oil application. Consistent retinol use makes my skin more even, bright, and clear. I love it!

These 5 easy steps will get you some beautiful, youthful, and glowing skin. Start doing them every day and remember not to skip that sunscreen!