Let’s just come out with it straight away: you do not need extra pots and bottles of skincare marked ‘night’ to look after your skin while you sleep. While there are some great night creams out there, many are just richer versions of an existing day cream, and don’t add anything significant to your routine at all.
Having said that, capitalising on skin’s regenerative peak-hours (which happen overnight) with well-chosen skincare is a very clever thing to do. Night-time, as you’ll have heard a thousand times before, is when the skin repairs the day’s damage inflicted by pollution, UV, stress, dirt, etc, and re-builds cells and tissues.
When the body is properly at rest, your skin isn’t: its metabolism increases and cell turnover speeds up. That famous ‘well-rested glow’? That’s your skin having worked overtime to wash away your daytime sins.
Giving it a helping hand with products to supercharge the process makes total sense. It starts with proper prep which means cleansing is followed by a small number of products targeted at your particular skin type or issue. You can use this time to get an extra dose of your ride-or-die actives or introduce ingredients that you can’t use during the day, either because they sensitise the skin in daylight or because you should never pile too many actives on your skin in one go.
Getting it right hinges on what your particular skin needs. To make it super easy, we’ve put together six fail-safe routines and suggested some of the best classic and brand-new products to upgrade your snooze to a proper beauty sleep.
Night-time routine for dry skin
We all suffer from dehydrated skin (i.e. it's gasping for water) at times, but dry skin is a genetic skin type that is deficient in the oils and lipids that keep it supple and maintain the skin’s protective moisture barrier. The important thing here is to replenish both water and oils, especially as moisture loss increases at night. You also want to use nothing that might strip the skin of its own lipids, and you want to increase its chances of absorbing moisture and actives with gentle exfoliation. Here are the steps to take:
Cleanse with an oil-based balm
This skin type benefits from a rich balm; preferably pick one that doesn’t quickly turn into a milk but actually leaves a fine layer of nourishing oils behind. Take your time to massage it into your skin and melt your makeup (that includes eye makeup) before removing the lot with a moist muslin cloth. If you wear a lot of long-lasting makeup, you might want to repeat the process. Try Balance Me Super Berry Cleansing Balm , £35
Tone with a hydrating lotion
21st-century toners are a (very) far cry from the alcohol-based paint stripper toners you may have used as a teen. Modern toners actually infuse moisture with the help of humectants like aloe vera and sometimes a low level of acids that help peel away desiccated cells and bind more moisture to the skin. Apply with a soaked cotton pad or simply pat into the skin – just avoid your eyes if acids are present. We love Gallinee Face Vinegar , £20.80, which quenches with glycerine (a water-binding humectant), barrier-strengthening prebiotics and a low level of lactic acid.
Treat with an oil serum
Very dry skin really benefits from an oil-based serum, applied either under a cream or added to said cream – or, on nights when you don’t feel too parched, used alone. Bakuchiol and THD ascorbate are two skin-regenerating and antioxidant ingredients (one is a non-irritating plant alternative to retinol and the other a type of vitamin C) that are lipid-soluble, meaning they make for potent treatment oils that will assist skin’s regenerative night shift. Try Medik8 Bakuchiol Peptides , £36 or Oio Lab The Future Is Bright Facial Treatment Oil With Vitamin C , £62.
Moisturise with a rich cream
Truly dry skin will drink up the richest of moisturisers and needs them, too. Look for occlusive (moisture-sealing) ingredients such as shea butter and silicones alongside nourishing emollients such as apricot kernel oil, barrier-building lipids such as ceramides, and humectants like glycerine and urea to trap water in the skin. The Seated Queen Cold Cream Evening Cleanser + Night Mask , £39 a rich, lush treat.
Night-time routine for oily and breakout-prone skin
The instinctive thing to want to do is to ‘dry out’ oiliness and spots with satisfyingly de-greasing products, but that’s the last thing your skin needs. Water-based hydration and anti-inflammatory ingredients are key for skin that’s upset and out of balance, as are gentle but effective pore unpluggers. Acids are your friend, but be careful not to double up.
Cleanse with an oil-free gel
Most dermatologists recommend an oil-free cleanser for oily skin, but one that preserves your skin’s moisture levels and lipid barrier. That means a gentle, wash-off gel or foam without stripping sulphates. Look for added calming ingredients such as niacinamide and green tea, and hydrators such as hyaluronic acid and Aloe. We like Typology The Niacinamide 6% + Sage Hydrolate Unifying Cleansing Gel , 17.50.
Exfoliate with salicylic acid
Salicylic acid is the only oil-soluble exfoliating acid, which means it can burrow into your pores and clear out the excess sebum in that, alongside clogging dead skin cells. It’s no wonder it’s the gold standard for spot-prone skin. You can find it in cleansers, but applying it with a cotton pad after cleansing is more effective. It will both clear away any filth still left and infuse skin with this antibacterial and anti-inflammatory active. Try The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid Face Exfoliant , £9.99.
Treat with oil-balancing agents
A two per cent (the highest level allowed in Europe) salicylic acid serum such as The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Anhydrous Solution , £5.60 is very effective overnight at beating back oil and spots, as is a 10% (again, the highest level allowed) azelaic acid serum Garden Of Wisdom Azelaic Acid , £14.
But if you’ve already used a salicylic acid exfoliating lotion or toner skip these – two doses of acids would be too much. If you use an exfoliant, follow it instead with a niacinamide serum such as Alpha-H Vitamin B Serum , £44.95: it balances oil production, calms inflammation and fights post-blemish pigmentation.
Moisturise with gel hydrators
You need hydration, not a lot of oil. Very light oils such as jojoba and squalane are helpful ingredients for you in moisturisers, but you could also opt for an oil-free gel moisturiser or even just a hydrating serum, applied over your treatment serum.
If you have oily skin, what should your moisturiser have in it? Anything with niacinamide (see above) is always a good idea; it’s hard to overdose on that skin-pampering all-rounder. Retinol, meanwhile, is a go-to for oil and spot-control and a night-time staple (it is unstable in daylight). But avoid layering it over salicylic or azelaic acid, as that might cause irritation.
To recap: oily skin can benefit from acids and retinol but keep them apart, use on alternate nights. After cleansing, alternate the following:
Night 1: Acid exfoliator OR treatment serum + relatively neutral hydrating moisturiser or serum with oil-balancing ingredients such as niacinamide or zinc. Try Q+A Zinc PCA Daily Moisturiser , £8.50.
Night 2: A gentle niacinamide serum + retinol moisturiser such as L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Laser Retinol + Niacinamide Pressed Night Cream , £27.99.
Night-time routine for combination skin
Combination skin is most commonly a mix of an oily T-zone and a dry, sensitive cheek area, but it can also manifest as dehydrated, tight-feeling skin all over, only with a layer of oil on top. It’s important to treat this skin type as dehydrated and sensitive first, with localised and gentle treatment for spot-prone areas.
Cleanse with a jelly
A gentle, barrier-supporting jelly cleanser that turns into a milk and rinses off clean is great for this skin type; to get all your makeup off alongside the day’s dirt, it’s best to double-cleanse with this type of product. Byoma Creamy Jelly Cleanser , £9.99 is a good one.
Overdoing acids can upset combination skin, but the right ones, employed judiciously, can re-balance it. Polyhydroxy acids buff away clogging cells without any irritation while hydrating skin at the same time; a leave-on liquid gel such as Trinny London Tiptoe In PHA Exfoliant , £34, can be used all over before bedtime twice a week. Alternatively, treat just the T-zone with oil-controlling salicylic acid: Cosrx One Step Original Clear Pads , £25 can be used every night.
Treat with a balanced serum
A well-formulated serum with synergistic active ingredients to soothe, hydrate, purify and balance (look for these words on the pack) skin is important; it’s a careful balancing act best left to the professionals. Dr Sam Flawless Nightly Serum , £44, is a good choice: it combines de-clogging azelaic acid, balancing niacinamide, brightening vitamin c and retinol alt bakuchiol in a hydrating base.
Go for lightweight but intense moisture
Both dry and oily patches need humectants and barrier repair lipids. Go for a deeply quenching moisturiser with a gel or milky texture that helps build moisture reserves for long-term comfortable skin, like Goodhabit Rest + Reset Mask & Moisturizer , £38 with ceramides and plant-derived humectants.
Night-time routine for sensitive skin
When skin is red, flaky and upset, either for short periods of time (dermatitis, allergic reactions) or consistently (rosacea, eczema, psoriasis), night-time is for calming, not stimulating. Ease off on active, regenerating ingredients and limit yourself to moisturisation and soothing actives. The most important thing is to avoid irritants: any fragrance, sulphates, alcohol, acids and retinoids are out until the skin calms down.
Nourish while you cleanse
A fragrance-free, oil-based cleanser with soothing plant compounds is best for dislodging dirt without taking any protective lipids away from the skin. Created with sensitive skin in mind, Harborist The Balm-Gel Cleanser , £27, has camellia and avocado oils to calm and turns into a milk that rinses off easily.
Treat with anti-inflammatories and anti-oxidants
Your serum should hydrate, heal and quell inflammation, fast. A blend of protective antioxidants, which shield skin from harm while letting it do its own regenerative work in peace, is a winner as well. You can either choose an oil-based serum such as Ren Evercalm Barrier Support Elixir, £44 (out 30 March), with anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant camellia japonica and omega-rich inca inchi oil, or a water-based one such as La Roche Posay Toleriane Dermallergo Serum , £28 which has a proprietary compound that settles itchy flare-ups quickly.
Sensitised skin suffers from a lipid barrier in crisis, so you need to focus on barrier-boosting ingredients to stop moisture evaporating and irritants from invading. Again, the formula needs to be plain and simple, apart from anti-inflammatories and anti-oxidants to help your skin heave a sigh of relief. Avène Tolerance Control Soothing Skin Recovery Cream for Sensitive Skin , £17.50 and Glossier After Baume Moisture Barrier Recovery Cream , £25 will allow your skin to rest while you sleep.
Night-time routine for mature or hyperpigmented skin
Tackling signs of ageing – lines, dark spots, sagging – is most efficient at night, when skin is not preoccupied with fighting off UV radiation, pollution and stress. Some of the most effective age-fighting ingredients, including retinoids and many acids, should only be used at night as they can sensitise the skin to the sun, so dusk is when you want to bring out the big skin-regenerating guns.
Cleanse without stripping
Choose whichever cleanser texture you like as long as it’s free from alcohol and stripping sulphates. To help anti-ageing actives penetrate, insiders like to double-cleanse: first with an oil or balm to melt makeup and rid skin of lipid-soluble contaminants, then with a gel or foam to wash away water-soluble pollutants and any leftover grime. We love Time Bomb Peace + Quiet Coconut Cleansing Oil , £25 followed by Zelens Glacier Foam Renewing Cleanser , £45.
Use an exfoliating toner
As skin ages, it becomes less adept at shedding the dead cells building up on its surface, exacerbating rough texture, wrinkles and pigmentation. So regular exfoliation is important. How much of it depends on how delicate your skin is; start twice-weekly before bedtime and build up to once-nightly at most. Use an acid or acid blend that’s not too aggressive; don’t fall for ‘amazing’ high acid percentages and avoid glycolic acid, which is too much for every day. We like Bybi Day Glow Brightening AHA Tonic , £16, with lactic acid, calming agents and brightening mushroom extracts.
Treat with cell-regenerating actives
Retinoids (vitamin A compounds) are the gold standard for tackling all the signs of ageing so are definitely worth considering as a night-time treatment. To minimise the chances of irritation, opt for a well-formulated retinol serum with lipids and anti-inflammatories to off-set any potential irritation; we rate Neostrata Retinol Repair Complex , £42.40. Or choose the retinoid retinyl retinoate, which has all the potency without the irritation and can be found in Verso Super Facial Oil , £100.
If hyperpigmentation is your main focus, retinoids are still a top treatment choice, but you might want to opt instead for a brown spot-busting serum that concentrates on addressing the many stages of the pigmentation process. It’ll combine tyrosinase inhibitors (which suppress the transfer of melanin to the skin surface) such as tranexamic acid with exfoliating acids such as glycolic and brightening agents such as vitamin c. Murad Rapid Dark Spot Correcting Serum , £75 is a good one. Just don’t double up an acid-containing serum like this and an acid toner.
Use a power moisturiser
You don’t want to top a potent serum with an equally potent moisturiser. So either go for a barrier-boosting, skin-calming (both properties are essential for improving any skin issue) cream such as Kiehl’s Midnight Recovery Omega Rich Cloud Cream , £41 or pick a ‘power’ moisturiser with cell-regenerating ingredients that are unlikely to irritate, such as peptides or epidermal growth factors. We love Bioeffect EGF Power Cream , £165.
The bottom line
Whatever skin issue you’re dealing with, the basics of a great night routine are the same: scrupulous but gentle cleansing and exfoliation, targeted skincare actives that are powerful but always stop short of irritating your skin, and moisture that is tailored to your skin type. Whether your pot says ‘night’ or not is immaterial, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t loads of great night creams and serums out there. Just, as with any skincare choice, check their ingredients before you buy.
And what of normal skin, so rudely ignored in the preceding categories? Well, you can pick what you like in terms of textures and ingredients as long as you stick to the rules outlined just now. Great skin is a result of consistent care, effective hydration, gentle stimulation and absolutely no aggression. If you’re lucky to have skin with no issues, those three principles, applied morning and night, will keep it that way.