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A Guide To Building Your Skin Care Routine

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The Violet Files

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An expert esthetician demystifies the essentials you need.

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A Guide To Building Your Skin Care Routine

Any woman who’s confronted her complexion in a magnifying mirror knows that every last pore requires—dare we say, deserves—individual attention. From a morning routine that starts with cleansing and clarifying to a nighttime ritual that includes hydrating and reparative must-haves, the diligent and dedicated process of fine-tuning one’s skin care collection from start to finish can be, at best, confusing and, at worst, perilous.

VIOLET GREY enlisted one of L.A.’s most in-demand aestheticians, Vanessa Hernandez, to demystify the when and why of every last skin care step—from the essentials to the complementary additions—you’ve ever pondered. She shares with VIOLET GREY her most sought-after secrets, from how face oils deliver more than just dermal benefits to the rules of SPF, explaining what number/factor to choose and exactly when to use it. (Violet Says: Every day, without exception.) Your own personal skin care collection for your cosmetic wardrobe awaits.



Definition: As the first step in all skin care routines, this soapy ritual gently clarifies pores and removes impurities (makeup, oil buildup, SoulCycle sweat).

Benefits: When you’re really cleaning your skin properly, it will be pH-balanced as nature intended, and in a normal state. Consider this: Hernandez cautions that if your skin isn’t clean enough, what you put on top of it won’t matter—or penetrate properly.

Frequency: “If your skin isn’t clean enough it doesn’t matter what you put on top of it because it won’t penetrate properly,” explains Hernandez of the product she considers to be of the utmost importance. Hernandez considers a cleanser to be the MVP of your skin care routine. “Apply the cleanser in circular motions and count up to 15 while moving your fingers in circular motions across your face; this is my trick to ensuring skin is at its cleanest.” The same rules apply for foaming, creamy, or oil-based cleansers. As the basis of your skin palette, cleanser should be used each morning (to remove sweat and any extra oil buildup) and night (a must for removing makeup and grime from the day).

Order of application: Always step 1.


Definition: Whether mechanical (skin brushes, scrubbing granules) or chemical (acids, enzymes), exfoliators are integral for keeping skin radiant by unclogging pores of dry skin and dirt, stimulating cell turnover, respectively.

Benefits: “Your skin is going to look a little bit rosier and more alive,” says Hernandez. Mechanical formulations deep-clean pores to remove surface-level oil, dirt and dry skin, while chemical exfoliators work on a cellular level to promote collagen production and speed up cell turnover and regeneration. By doing so, exfoliators remove any obstacles that may block active ingredients from reaching deeper layers of the skin, so it’s an effective way to prepare the skin for treatment products.

Frequency: Depending on skin type, mechanical exfoliators are recommended for use two to three times a week, while chemical exfoliators can be used daily (for those with sensitive skin, usage is more limited).

Order of application: Immediately after cleansing in the evenings.


Definition: Packed with active ingredients (antioxidants, vitamins), this formula is often potent and up for the task of protecting complexions from environmental elements (sun, pollution) and delivering luminosity and anti-aging effects to skin. Its texture is thin, gel-like, and quick-absorbing.

Benefits: Over time, depending on the formula, the active ingredients within the serum will allow the skin to appear more radiant and plump due to cellular regeneration and exfoliation. Fine lines and wrinkles will diminish and spots will lighten in color.

Frequency: Every day, though it depends on your skin type to best determine when and what type of serum you should be using. (Violet Says: Applying serum in the morning lets it do its job all day long.) Some serums benefit best from night use, when most cell turnover occurs. For optimal results, apply around eyes, face, neck and chest—don’t stop at the face.

Order of application: After toner, or post-cleansing if toner step is skipped.


Definition: An emollient (cream, oil, gel) that acts as a protective barrier to the skin. While its main purpose is to lock in moisture to smooth and soften the complexion, certain formulations will address other concerns such as anti-aging, pigmentation, and radiance.

Benefits: Hydrated, well-treated skin will appear more luminous and smooth. “Everyone should treat their face, neck, and chest as one, so whatever they’re putting on their face should be applied to the neck, down to at least the collarbone,” encourages Hernandez, who advises treating the fragile neck skin as gently as you do the face.

Frequency: Morning and night, as an essential step in your routine.

Order of application: Follows serum.


Definition: An emollient that hydrates and protects the sensitive ocular region. Under-eye skin does not produce any natural oils, which is why it often is the first area to show fine lines and wrinkles.

Benefits: A smoother, more hydrated, and nourished eye area not only appears more youthful, but it’s also going to help prevent wrinkles, de-puff swollen eyes, and diminish under-eye bags. Use eye cream religiously to maintain skin’s elasticity, which is harder to harness in later years. Added bonus: Makeup will glide onto skin better and not settle into any creases.

Frequency: Morning and night, one should never go without an eye cream. “Many people don’t use it, but it’s the most delicate area on the face,” explains Hernandez of the importance of eye cream. “It needs an extra nourishing cream specifically targeted for that area.”

Order of application: Follows moisturizer application. (Violet Says: Gently apply with the pad of your ring finger, lightly tapping product along the orbital bone.)


Definition: A spray, cream, gel or powder that provides protection against the sun’s harmful ultra-violet A (UVA) radiation, which causes cellular-level damage, and ultra-violet B (UVB) radiation, which causes surface-layer sunburns and pigment changes. Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays while mineral-based blockers reflect the rays away from the skin. To measure the amount of protection from UVB rays a sunscreen can offer, formulas are labeled with a sun protection factor (SPF) number, which determines the length of time someone can stay in the sun without sunscreen before receiving a sunburn. However, in 2012, the FDA mandated that all sunscreens go through reformulation to receive a broad-spectrum label that declares its ability to protect against UVA and UVB rays.

Benefits: All experts would agree with Hernandez, who says, “The sun is the number-one aging element in the world.” Once sun damage occurs at the cellular level, it’s incredibly hard to reverse, so prevention is key. And since sun damage from earlier years doesn’t present until late 30s and 40s, it’s always the right time to protect against future damage.

Frequency: To be applied each morning only. (Violet Says: Sunblock only lasts two to three hours, after which your skin becomes more prone to UVA and UVB sun damage. Reapply accordingly.)

Order of application: If your daily moisturizer does not include an SPF of 30 or higher, add on an extra layer of sunscreen following your face cream.



Definition: A blend of essential or hydrating plant oils to nourish the skin. Oils are best used at night since they’re a bit greasier and their molecular structure allows them to fully penetrate, versus simply sitting atop, skin.

Benefits: Skin will benefit from deeper hydration if you’re using an oil, but contrary to a common myth, it won’t make oily skin more oily. The most frequent cause of increased oil production is dry, dehydrated skin; however, when skin is properly hydrated (in this instance, by a face oil) the pores will remain well balanced.

Frequency: Hernandez warns that application depends on skin type, and can vary as much as one time per day to one time per week.

Order of application: In place of moisturizer, follows serum.


Definition: Responsible for delivering astringent and/or hydrating properties to skin (depending on its ingredient formulation) this silky, water-like texture lends itself to instant absorption into skin.

Benefits: Toner can help remove any leftover residue from cleanser, act as a mild exfoliator or an antiseptic, add an extra dose of moisture, or restore skin to its proper pH level. While most experts agree that a toner is not a mandatory step, it’s entirely a personal preference.

Frequency: Applied with a cotton pad morning or night.

Order of Application: Follows cleanser.


Definition: While day creams often include SPF, night creams offer targeted anti-aging ingredients designed to work in tandem with a cell’s regenerative period, which occurs when the body is at rest.

Benefits: By increasing collagen production and reversing cellular damage by free radicals, night creams can make skin appear more supple. Hernandez recommends using one with a gentle retinol for anti-aging and anti-acne effects or antioxidants to fight environmental aggressors and hyaluronic acid for visible hydration.

Frequency: Every night, on face, neck, and chest.

Order of application: The last step at the end of the day.



Definition: Acting as a precursory cleanser, these water- or oil-based (ideal for waterproof mascaras) formulas will wipe away foundation, lipstick, and the most stubborn eye makeup.

Benefits: Not only does it help keep bath linens pristine and makeup-free, it can make it easier to concentrate on cleaning the skin without any remnants of the day’s or night’s makeup application, and keep you from tugging or aggravating skin to remove persistent cosmetics.

Frequency: If your cleanser is proven to remove both makeup and grime, a makeup-removing pre-step is unnecessary but recommended for days when extra makeup or waterproof formulations are required.

Order of application: Prior to cleanser.


Definition: From detoxifying clay-based formulations that draw out impurities to serum-soaked sheet masks that deliver radiance-boosting properties to complexions, masks can offer an array of quick-fix treatment solutions.

Benefits: “It’s like a power boost for the skin,” says Hernandez of mask treatments, although she advises that all masks are not created equal, and results depend on its ingredient composition, be they clarifying to hydrating. “It’s a way to super-charge your skin that you can’t get with your daily routine.”

Frequency: At least once a week, depending on skin type. (Violet Says: If you have a special event, a hydrating mask can—and should—be applied more than once during the week.)

Order of application: After cleansing, prior to moisturizer. The serum step is skipped if a hydrating mask is used.


Definition: Focused treatment for the banishment of blemishes.

Benefits: Most acne spot treatments boast sulfur or benzoyl-peroxide as their main ingredient, which dries out the micro-infections that exist inside inflamed pores. Most effective when applied directly onto a blemish at its onset, and consistently until it vanishes.

Frequency: When using product as a spot treatment, best to use only once (or once a day), otherwise it can have the unintended effect of burning the good skin around the spot, prolonging healing time.

Order of application: After cleansing, prior to moisturizer.