BEAUTY BASICS: From toner to serum, here's what every step of a skincare routine actually does.

Knowing what skincare products do, which ones we should be using and whether they actually work can be a bit of a minefield.

Our Beauty Basics series looks at seemingly simple beauty topics and breaks them right down. This time, lifestyle writer Charlotte Begg speaks to a skin expert about the different steps in a skincare routine.

I’ll be the first to admit that I find skincare products and the actual steps that go into a skincare routine seriously confusing.

What type of serum should I be using? Should I be applying an oil too? Do I use them together or separately? The list goes on.

I don’t even want to know how much money I’ve spent on products that I’m still unsure about.

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So I decided to get some expert advice. Dr Michele Squire, a PhD-qualified scientist and owner of Qr8, who has been in the skincare business for over 17 years, shared with me exactly what each skincare step does and whether or not you really need to use them all (hint: you don’t).

So from toner to serum, here’s what every step of a skincare routine actually does.


What is a cleanser and what does it do?

Cleansing is a basic hygiene measure to remove excess oil, makeup, sunscreen, perspiration and the microbes, dirt and skin cells that get stuck in that.

Do you need a cleanser?

Yes. To perform their magic, cleansers contain ingredients called surfactants that allow dirt and oil to be bundled up and washed off with water (water can’t do this alone). Everyone needs to cleanse at least once a day (twice if you’re oily or acne prone).

Toner/face mist/essence

What is a toner and what does it do?

Toner, essence, mist – these are all names for a watery product that you can sandwich somewhere between your cleanser and moisturiser. They can contain just about anything and are often just a way to include another product in overloaded skincare routines.

Do you need a toner?

Nope, but if you want to use one, make sure it doesn’t contain drying alcohol!


What is a serum and what does it do?

Serums are the workhorses of a skincare routine. They contain concentrated ingredients in a light and easily absorbed formulation (so you can layer a few if necessary).

Do you need a serum?

Probably. Because there are so many types of serum, you can mix and match to suit your individual skin concerns.


Face oil

What is face oil and what does it do?

Most plant oils are great at smoothing out the dry cells on the skin’s surface (emollients) and some, like olive, avocado and castor oil are also good at locking in moisture (occlusives). Mineral oils like paraffin and petrolatum are also great occlusives (don’t believe the negative press – they are highly refined, purified and safe when used in cosmetics).

Do you need face oil?

They are a nice add-on if you’re feeling super dry or need to up your glow factor. A few drops in your moisturiser or pressed directly on top of skincare is all you need.


What is a moisturiser and what does it do?

At its most basic, a moisturiser contains ingredients that are emollient, occlusive and humectant (hold water in the skin’s outer layers), which all help your skin barrier stay healthy and function at its best.

Do you need a moisturiser?

In general, yes. What kind of moisturiser, and how often you use it will depend on your skin type, age and season. Many sunscreens come in a moisturising base, so they can double up as your daytime moisturiser (but be sure to use enough!)

Night cream

What is a night cream and what does it do?

This is usually just a moisturiser with a heavier texture, that might not play well with SPF and makeup during the day.

Do you need a night cream?

No, your daytime moisturiser can perform double duty at night, especially if you are layering with serums and oils.

Face mask

What is a face mask and what does it do?

These are specialised formulations that can perform anything from exfoliation to moisturisation to mopping up excess oil. The variety of face masks, and face mask delivery systems, is endless.

Do you need a face mask?

No, unless you want an extra hit of hydration, or to get your glow on before an event. And if you need a bit of self-care R&R, nothing beats a good face masking session!

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Eye cream

What is eye cream and what does it do?

If you look at eye cream formulations, they are often very similar to your serum or moisturiser, just with a lower dose of active ingredients. So even though a product might be marketed as an eye cream, they are essentially designed to perform the same function as a moisturiser or serum.

Do you need eye cream?

If you have sensitive skin and eyes you might benefit from the gentler formulations in specialised eye creams, but otherwise, no. Just take your normal skincare sparingly around the orbital bone (but not onto the eyelid itself).


What is sunscreen and what does it do?

Obviously it filters UV rays to stop them damaging the skin. Why do we care? Because 70-90% of the visible signs of aging are caused by UV damage (not to mention skin cancers and melanoma).

Do you need sunscreen?

YES, YES AND YES (if you do nothing else, just cleanse, moisturise and use sunscreen!)

So there you have it, folks – skincare is important but you absolutely do not need 10 different steps. If you choose your products wisely for your individual skin type, you can easily make it a simple, fuss-free routine. Unless you want to add to your skincare ritual for the pure enjoyment of it, which is A-ok too!

Feature image: Getty.

For more from our BEAUTY BASICS series: