For as long as I can remember, I’ve been someone who saw my face as the primary place I lived. It’s where I feel most comfortable and my full body had just never been that place. (Please tell me someone else knows how that feels?) Maybe I should blame online culture and the way we’re always reduced to tiny floating head avatars. But I think it’s also because taking care of my face and skin has always felt like a small way to indulge in my “I need to control as much of everything in my life as I can” tendency.
I know I can’t control how the world around me unfolds, but in that tiny mirror, it feels like one small patch of life I can tinker around in and feel safe.
So, over the past 15 or so years, I’ve allowed myself one primary indulgence: investing in skincare and all the tiny rituals that come with it. And for someone who doesn’t dare touch the realm of proper beauty bloggers, I think I’ve tested as many skincare products as the people who do this for a living. While some people might spend money on shoes, fancy coffee, massages, clothing or nights out on the town, my indulgences are what Julia likes to call my, “potions and lotions.”
Over the past few years very little about my regimen has changed, and I have a mostly healthy complexion to thank for that. The products I’ve grown to trust and swear by are the same ones I’ve loved since I was 25, with a few rare exceptions. I’ve been posting them here and there on Instagram stories, and the response has been so much more enthusiastic than I ever expected. So today I’m sharing my routine, my Top 20 Trusted Products (that I have a standing re-order for) and why I believe in them. For all of you who love a good face ritual, I hope you’ll enjoy these as much as I do. Here’s to small moments, in whatever form you enjoy most, of self-care. xo, grace
*If you have unused beauty and skincare products you’d like to donate, please check out these organizations that connect those products with those in need.
I have a strict routine I follow for skincare that’s served me well for the past 10 years, so I’m sticking with it. It looks like this:
AM: Wake up. Wash with a gentle cleanser and do my version of a DIY lymphatic massage (this is the most calming practice ever). Tone. Add one to two serums for special issues. Add moisturizer and go.
PM: Double wash with a gentle cleanser. Tone. Add one serum if there’s a spot issue (like a zit or dark spots, etc.). Use 2-3 drops of sleeping oil with retinoids. Top with a thicker brightening night cream.
During the day if I feel grimy after a trip to the city or an intense hike, I’ll use one of these inexpensive coconut cleansing wipes for a quick non-drying cleanse.
Here is my arsenal of beloved skincare products and why I use them — and love them.
Cleansing + Moisturizing
Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser ($8.69): It’s hard to beat the value of this trusty drug store cleanser. It’s gentle, but it works. I have combination skin and like a cleanser that foams, so this one is perfect. I’ve tried fancier and more beloved cult cleansers, but this works just fine. As they say, if it’s not broken…
Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Gel ($27): I’ve been through the ringer with moisturizers over the years and finally switched to a gel version — and it made a HUGE difference. No more mid-day oil slick forehead. I associate Clinique with those tri-fold lighted mirrors all the 80s-era moms had when I was growing up and I don’t love the yellow color, BUT it seriously is the moisturizer I’ve been missing my whole life. It’s light, but does its job. I can layer it in winter and I still don’t get oily or too dry. I have a new steady and it feels great.
Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Oil ($55): This is a new addition to my beauty tools and after I bought it, I immediately felt guilty. It was so much money to spend on OIL (keep in mind, I don’t buy all these products at once and some of them, like oils, can last a whole darn year), but I’d been wanting to work a retinoid into my routine and some omega 3, so this packs in both and sinks into my skin nicely. Most people layer this over moisturizers, but I layer it under — that’s just how it works best for me (I’ve tried both). I’ve been using this every night for two months and it feels great. I’ll definitely re-up this in the mini size when I run out. I’m super sparse with fancy products like this so I’m hoping to get as much of the year out of this tiny bottle as I can.
Belif First Aid Overnight Brightening Mask ($34): I love love love almost everything Belif makes. And this overnight mask (which is really just a thick moisturizer) has been my go-to for over two years now. Belif is a Korean beauty brand (K-Beauty’s famed 10 step process is all the rage on beauty blogs, but it’s a few too many products for me) that has really got the moisturizing/brightening game on lock. I haven’t found any brightening or moisturizing mask that can compare to how this makes my skin look when I wake up in the morning. I love it.
Toners + Serums
Biologique Recherche P50 PIGM 400 ($30): Okay, let’s start with this game-changing product. This is an exfoliating toner with lactic acid. I’d read about this on every beauty blog ever and when I saw Anna from Door Sixteen pen an ode to it (she has stunning skin) I decided to try the trial size. I didn’t end up liking the classic version everyone else uses (“1970”), but I did end up loving the one for pigmentation called PIGM 400 and have reordered it ever since. Exfoliation is KEY for my skin (congestion, blah) and this took away my need for ANY other exfoliation. I stopped using peels, scrubs and electronic brush thingies. All out the window and I have not had a breakout in almost 8 months now. I use it twice a day and apply it right onto my skin so I don’t waste any product on a cotton pad, etc.
Glossier Super Bounce Serum ($28): Glossier’s products have a lot of hype. A lot. Some feels accurate, some not. Though I have to admit I love the simplicity of their hot pink bubble mailer bags. I get it, though — they’re literally selling me pink packaging material and I’m falling for it. Anyway, back to the serum. Hype and packaging aside, I love this hyaluronic acid serum. People have told me to switch to The Ordinary’s version of this, but it works well that I’m sticking with it for now. This is what I use under my moisturizer morning and night and it feels like it softens everything and really helps pull in the moisturizer and keep everything dewy — but not oily.
Glossier Super Glow Serum ($28): This is Glossier’s Vitamin C serum and I use it every morning. It feels like it really wakes up and brightens up my face. I use it in small amounts under the Bounce Serum and that combo (plus the Clinique lotion) has gotten me through summer and fall without any major oil moments and without any dry patches. Score!
Masks + Specialities
Mario Badescu Azulene Calming Mask ($18): I discovered this mask in a tiny travel size form when I was out on the road for our first 37-city book tour. The tour was a nightmare in terms of travel and stress and getting sick, so the only time I had to myself was often spent in a hotel bathroom doing face masks and trying to recenter a bit. This mask had the most powerful real-time change I’ve ever seen in my face for an over-the-counter style product. I steamed my face, put this on and in 20 minutes it was like a new person was in the mirror. Well, maybe not a new person, but a much more well-rested person than had been there before. I’ve reordered this consistently for six years now and use it twice a month.
T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial ($80): This was another product that came with a lot of hype and honestly I didn’t want to like it. But then I got a trial size from Sephora and it was like reliving my favorite mask moment (above) all over again. This mask has a large dose of AHA/BHA exfoliants and you can feel them at work. I don’t ever feel the “stinging tingly” feeling most masks like this say will happen, but with this I do. Which I like. It makes a noticeable instant difference and that’s what I like in a mask like this, which I use once a week.
Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum ($65): I ignored every rule my grandmother told me about my skin when I was younger. I picked at it, poked at it and ended up leaving a ton of darker spots from all the times I took matters into my own hands (and sometimes still do). But then again, this was the same woman who wore coconut oil to the beach instead of SPF, so who knew she’d be right about the first one? Anyway, I now use this twice a day on sun spots, dark spots (am I old enough for age spots now?) and any other spots that stand out when you’re super duper pale like I am year-round. I noticed a difference after only a few days so I’m sticking with it.
Aveda Intensive Hydrating Mask ($25): Aveda!! My forever skincare bestie. I didn’t know what a facial was until my first NYC roommate took me to get the discount facials at the Aveda School where they train students. I had never felt so relaxed in my life. I’ve used this mask twice a month for 13 years now and it’s excellent. It’s a clear gel consistency (they recently changed the packaging) and it smells lovely and botanical.
Ok, let me get real for a second. I strongly dislike makeup. Except for the three super sheer lip conditioners below, I feel most unlike myself when I’m wearing any makeup. I wish I didn’t feel that way because I see how fun and happy it seems for some people. But for me, makeup is mainly about something I feel like I should wear when I go to meetings or have to represent Design*Sponge in some way. My goal with skincare has always been to keep my skin healthy enough that I don’t need makeup to “hide” anything, so when I turn to makeup, it’s with extreme unease. So when I say that I stick with things I trust here, I really mean it. I’ve had all of these products (except for two new additions) for almost seven years and don’t think I’ll ever change them.
Ilia Beauty Lip Conditioner in Arabian Knights and Pink Moon ($26 each): Ilia is the only brand that’s ever designed a piece of makeup I’ll wear when I don’t “have” to. I literally own 4 tubes of Ilia’s Arabian Knights lip conditioner and have one in the bathroom, on my dresser, in my purse, and in my suitcase. It’s so perfectly light and sheer but it’s beyond buttery and soft and it leaves your lips feeling better than they did before you put it on. And I feel like a million bucks in it. I love Ilia so much that I reached out to Sasha, Ilia’s founder, and we collaborated together on a new color, Pink Moon, two years ago. It’s a pinker version of my favorite, Arabian Knights, but with the same rich cocoa butter base.
Burt’s Bees Moisturizing Tinted Lip Oil in Showering Sunset ($5.12): I’ve literally never worn a lipstick or lip gloss that wasn’t Ilia until this year. I picked up this “tinted lip oil” in a pale pink while buying a new bottle of Cetaphil and I’m so glad for this impulse buy. I now have two (two!) colors to choose from when I need to get dressed up for a meeting. It’s a little glossy, but not too sticky, which I like.
Nars Cream Blush in Cactus Flower ($29.50): I bought this blush 11 years ago when I got my first job working at Condé Nast. I thought I needed to look grown-up, so I bought makeup in a harried rush. I ended up never using the rest of it except for this. It’s the perfect vivid shade (that feels light and sheer on) and it’s creamy. I didn’t buy a second container of it until two years ago when someone on a photo shoot set pointed out that it was gross that I still used the same container from almost a decade ago.
Fenty Beauty Invisimatte Blotting Powder ($32): I was so excited about the Fenty Beauty launch and wanted to buy something right away, but I knew that it needed to be practical since I don’t do regular makeup on a well, regular basis. Since I’m prone to shininess, I picked up this blotting powder and not only does it work well (yay!), but it comes with a really nice brush as well. I’m just happy to support any business that Rihanna creates, especially one like this with such an important goal.
Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer ($44): Oldie but a goodie. I buy a new tube of this maybe every other year? Mainly because, like the blush, I’ve been told it’s not super sanitary to keep using the same tube for 10 years straight. I love this moisturizer because it evens out my skin tone and makes me feel a little bit more pulled together. Now that I top it with the Fenty Beauty powder it really helps the whole “look” come together when I need to up things a notch for a special event.
Eyes + Brows
Neubrow Eyebrow Enhancer ($66): Ok, I need to confess something: I’m one of those people who’s fallen hard for the “big bold brow” moment that’s happening right now. Of course I’m also one of those people who over-plucked my brows in the 90s so they were sharp little angry lines above my eyes. “Just like Guinevere Van Seenus!” I told myself. Sure, Grace…
Now I’m trying to grow them back big-time. I got a good kickstart with a session at Jimena Garcia‘s studio where she dyed my tiny still-growing-back eyebrow hairs with vegetable dyes to help me find the natural shape and grow into it. Now my mission is to NOT TOUCH THEM except to add this eyebrow serum that helps with regrowth. Note: this stuff works. Almost too well. I guess I got sloppy with my application (because if a little is good, a lot must be great!) and started growing small hairs on the sides of my eyelids and under the lower lid, too. (I think it combined with my face oil and spread south) It was a little bit Teen Wolf for a moment but it’s back to normal now and my goal is to never need a pencil to fill in sparse patches again.
Anastasia Brow Wiz in Soft Brown ($21): Speaking of pencils, this is the only one I swear by. Tiny, soft and easy to use, it works for eyebrow tails and for sparse patches. Also, everyone says to get the same color or darker for your pencils, but I always go a few shades lighter and I prefer that softer look.
Pacifica Dream Big Lash Extending Mascara ($13.14): I got a sample of this product in a Target press kit when they were promoting natural beauty products (this one is vegan) and I ended up loving it. It’s light, doesn’t make my eyes itchy and teary (like most mascara) and it makes your lashes feel natural, just a bit longer and more defined.
Glossier Haloscope in Moon Stone ($22): I don’t wear blush very often, but sometimes I wear this as an alternative when I don’t feel like adding any color. It’s such a nice soft glimmer — rather than glitter. This makes me feel how I think other people feel with a tan. The tiny bit of shimmer makes me feel summery, which is always a good way to feel, in my book.
**Note, thanks to readers who pointed out I didn’t include an SPF recommendation. I’m sorry for the oversight. I do use SPF (it’s a must) every day, but the brands I’m testing now aren’t ones I’m loving 100%, so I didn’t feel comfortable recommending them. I’m currently using both this one and this one, but they’re pricey and I don’t love them (too oily and too thick for me) so I don’t stand by them as something someone should invest in. That said, SPF is absolutely something we should all be using to protect our skin, so here are some recommended by blogs I trust.