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My skincare obsession began in middle school. I started with a simple three-step routine: cleansing, toning, and moisturizing, and stuck to this routine through college. In my mid-20s, though, my skin started to change and I was experiencing unpredictable breakouts and, as a result, acne scars that lingered on my fair tone. That’s when I adopted an extensive Korean beauty routine that consisted of 14 different products — it was pretty intense.

After five weeks, my skin had changed for the better. Breakouts were banished, dark circles were lightened, and discolored spots disappeared. I was hooked — but unsure how long I could realistically keep up this in-depth, costly routine. Sure enough, constant product testing for work, traveling, and life in general got in the way of me keeping up with my extensive regimen consistently and it started showing on my skin.

I decided it was time for a routine reset. I took note of what was happening with my skin — hormonal breakouts, dark spots, and overall dullness — and decided I wanted to try something completely different. Read on to learn how I went from using 14 products to just three (!) and how the abbreviated lineup works.

Step 1: Remove makeup and cleanse with a gentle, sulfate-free cleanser. I used to do the double cleansing method, which involved starting with an oil cleanser and following up with a foaming option, but the Garnier SkinActive The Gentle Sulfate-Free Cleanser ($13) works better for my combination skin. “The role of a cleanser is to not disrupt the pH of the skin, and a very gentle, non-foaming, sulfate-free option is ideal,” says New York City-based dermatologist Rachel Nazarian. It’s gentle enough to not strip my complexion of healthy, natural oils, but still easily cuts through everything from waterproof makeup to lip stains to lash glue. I have very sensitive skin and it’s an absolute dream to use. It also saves me time, since it’s just one step. I am permanently hooked on this drugstore must-have.

Step 2: Tone and exfoliate with an alcohol-free, glycolic toner. The second step in my new routine centers on The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution ($9). It’s affordable and comes in a big 240ml bottle that lasts forever. But beyond the value, it gives my skin just the right amount of non-irritating chemical exfoliation. I use it every night and instantly notice that, after sweeping it over my skin with a cotton pad, my face is brighter and smoother. “This is a great product because it’s not too abrasive, and it’s alcohol-free,” explains Nazarian. “Using a glycolic acid toner does have the benefit of removing dead skin cells and makes the serum more effective overall, but I would caution against using the toner daily if you have sensitive skin.” While I definitely fit the bill for having sensitive skin, the aloe vera and Tasmanian pepperberry in the formula seem to keep even my delicate complexion calm when using this.

Step 3: Treat and moisturize with an active botanical oil serum. My final step involves a face serum that has been nothing short of a game-changer — so much so that for the first time ever, I skipped face makeup entirely for work. I started using Vintner’s Daughter Active Botanical Serum ($185) in mid-October and was hooked within the first couple of days. The admittedly pricey serum is made of 22 active oils including anti-inflammatories, antioxidants, and antibacterials, which lets this step replace several others in my previous routine. It takes care of treating (and preventing) breakouts, adds a noticeable glow, evens out my skin tone, and moisturizes, and all these results were visible within one week of using five drops of this magical serum twice a day. “The serum has a low molecular weight which means it has smaller particle sizes that can penetrate dermal layers more fully,” explains founder April Gargiulo. “It also contains nutrients that serve to open up the dermal layer upon contact, allowing our serum to penetrate more deeply.” This serum has become such a non-negotiable in my routine that I can’t miss a single day (and I notice when I do). Using it twice a day is something I look forward to because of its instant results and lovely earthy smell, which feels like a mini aromatherapy session.

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