SELF’s Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide to Skin Care

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Depending on who you ask, having a skin-care routine could mean a million different things. Is it putting on the occasional acne-fighting sheet mask? Lining up all 18 of your expensive serums for the perfect #shelfie? Reading and somehow understanding the textbook of an ingredients list on every product? Or is it carefully applying juuust the right amount of prescription cream to calm down a patch of psoriasis without feeling too greasy?

The truth is, of course, that it can be all of the above—and each skin-care routine is necessarily as unique and individual as the person following it (or attempting to, anyway). But as skin care has become trendier and its definition has become wider in scope, it’s also gotten a little more intimidating and confusing for a beginner to get started.

That’s where we come in. As you begin your skin-care quest, we hope to answer here in this skin-care 101 guide as many of your questions as we can—with the help of research and experts rather than hype.

Here’s how to use this guide: If you’re brand-new to the idea of a skin-care routine, it helps to start at the very beginning, where we answer your most basic questions about skin care—even the ones you may be too embarrassed to ask all your skin-care-savvy friends. If you’ve dabbled in skin care and just really want to know what ingredients might be right for you, we’ve got you. Scroll down to learn more about the actual elements in a skin-care routine and an overview of active ingredients that work best for certain skin conditions. We also have specific sections for skin of color, what to do if you’re pregnant, and what to keep in mind if you have a diagnosed condition that affects your skin. Plus we break down some often confusing aspects about the skin-care industry, such as whether or not the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates skin-care ingredients and what exactly manufacturers mean when they call their products “clean.”

In each section, you’ll find links to all our coverage on that topic, so make sure you click on anything that piques your interest if you want to learn even more.

And last, don’t forget to check out our glossary of popular skin-care terms, which can help clear up any lingering confusion you have.

What do you really mean when you say “skin care”?

We mean the basic care and keeping of your largest organ—your skin! It plays an important role in protecting you from outside pathogens and, you know, holds all your internal organs in place. And in the same way that you regularly brush your teeth, your skin requires at least some attention to keep it functioning properly.

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