A week or so before the full-fledged lockdown began, my mother ordered me to “pack as if I’d never be back” before fleeing to my childhood home in New Jersey. It was well-meaning advice that I ignored entirely. I live in a fourth-floor walk-up with no elevator and would be traveling solo from Brooklyn, so before I headed out, I packed one bag stuffed with what mattered to me most: skin care.
When you’ve spent years of your life trying to find products that work for your perennially problematic skin, you stick to what you know. To say my skin type is “sensitive” is an understatement — I have a rare genetic skin condition known as Netherton Syndrome, which disrupts my skin barrier, leaving it extra vulnerable to elements like pollution and the sun. Sometimes, my complexion can’t even handle products that are specifically made for sensitive skin, so it’s taken a ton of trial-and-error (mostly error) to find formulas that actually do what I want them to: calm, clear, and hydrate. Here’s what works for me.
I spent years trying different milky cleansers, which seemed like the gentlest option on the market, but they never got my skin quite as clean as I wanted, so I eventually switched to gels. The first formula I tried and loved was iS Clinical Cleansing Complex — a recommendation from celebrity aesthetician, Shani Darden. It’s ultra-gentle yet clarifying at the same time, wicking away dead skin and impurities without ever making my skin feel stripped or tight afterward. It combines salicylic acid to lightly exfoliate with vitamins C, A, and E to nourish, hydrate, and fight off free radicals. Additionally, chamomile and camellia leaf extract work to calm and temper redness.
Another gel-based favorite is Renée Rouleau’s Moisture Protecting Cleanser. It turns into a satisfyingly frothy solution once it’s activated with water and features powerhouse soothing agents like allantoin, glycerin, and aloe vera extract. Last year, I brought this on a two-week trip with me to Thailand and it really helped save my skin, which was constantly getting burned — despite diligently applying SPF — due to the intense sun.
Peach & Lily’s Power Calm Hydrating Cleanser does exactly what its name suggests: powerfully calms and hydrates the skin. Infused with a soothing trifecta of cica, chamomile, and camellia, the featherlight gel formula tames redness and leaves my complexion visibly calmer and clearer for hours after use.
I only have two toners worth mentioning, and neither is very traditional. Renée Rouleau’s Elderberry Soothing Toner is an alcohol-free, milky tonic packed with antioxidants that strengthen and protect the skin. I pat a dime-sized amount on my face right after cleansing.
While not technically a toner, I feel compelled to note that I almost always use Youth to the People’s Adaptogen Soothe + Hydrate Activated Mist after washing my face, usually before the aforementioned toner, for an immediate boost of calming hydration.
I never really understood the importance of serums until I stopped using SkinMedica’s HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator and my skin became drier overnight. As soon as I re-incorporated the rich, hyaluronic acid-infused serum into my routine, my skin went back to behaving.
A more recent find that I didn’t expect to love as much as I do is Glossier’s Futuredew, an oil-serum hybrid made with oils like evening primrose, jojoba, grapeseed, and rosehip, as well as plant-based squalane to lock in moisture. It’s so hydrating that I sometimes skip layering moisturizer on top. It also adds a nice glow — even when I’ve had one too many glasses of wine the night before.
Elemis’s Superfood Cica Calm Hydration Juice has a gel-like formula with a lovely cooling effect, while the combination of aloe vera juice, cucumber extract, and cica work wonders on inflamed skin. The first time I used this was after an allergic reaction to a product not worth naming, and I was shocked about how quickly it helped minimize the damage.
When it comes to moisturizer, I rely on the thickest and richest out there: Weleda’s Skin Food. True to its name, my skin seems to literally eat it up — yet it still keeps my complexion hydrated all day. Touted as a do-it-all cream for rough skin on the face, hands, elbows, and feet, this has a thick base of plant oils and beeswax that give it an extra-rich consistency. It seals everything in and leaves behind a sheen that’s earned me more compliments over the years than I can count.
I typically use oil as the last step in my routine to lock everything in place, and I’m less picky about them — because I tend to avoid active ingredients in oils, they’ve never caused allergic reactions for me. I just keep it as simple as possible. Drunk Elephant’s Virgin Marula Oil feels light and silky — never sticky — on the skin and has yet to give me an adverse reaction.