Beauty simplified: your cheat-sheet for choosing the products you really needBelieve it or not, the most frequently asked question that Ayla founder Dara Kennedy gets isn’t which serum to use. It is this one: “Do I need to use products that are all from the same line?”

While understanding the allure of matching products, Dara still offers this answer: “It’s not necessary.” Actually, Ayla’s approach to beauty is one of fluidity in general. Dara emphasizes that what brand to choose from depends on many factors like what someone is eating and drinking, the weather, stress levels, life stage, and more.

“The best results come from really observing your body and treating what you see and feel,” she explained in an interview over email. “It’s tough to do that when you’re confined to a single brand.”

OK, great. So now we get to pick and choose from a garden variety of companies. But how to navigate the confusing world of the type of products we need and when to apply them? What are the absolute musts, the extras, and everything in between?

Once again, Dara’s message empowers the consumer: it’s entirely individual. That said, she follows a definitive skin care protocol that’s results-driven. She starts with the basics and then every person can add on more, as needed. These are her words and what she advises.

Level 1: Begin with a quality cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen

“Everyone should invest in a great cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen that they will actually use every day. Some cleansers that are really loved at Ayla are Medik8’s PoreCleanse Gel, $35, (which is great for acne-prone skin) and M Picaut’s Nourishing Cleanser, $45, (which is gorgeously plush, rich but not residue-y, and seems to calm redness on contact). As far as sunscreen is concerned, we’ve found very few people who don’t like Luzern’s La Defense SPF 30**, $50. It’s full of great anti-aging ingredients, it’s zinc-based, and it smells like Jolly Ranchers.

“Moisturizer is often the trickiest product to pick, since there are so many options that are so different. I’m a fan of oils myself — I usually wear either Vintner’s Daughter**, $185, which is a nice serum/oil combination, or MyHavtorn Facial Oil, $50, which is nice on sensitive and rosacea-prone skin—but we do have a lot of customers who adore their creams. Laxmi’s Nilotica Creme**, $72, has a unique texture that’s great for spring and summer.”

Level 2: Add a serum to boost your routine

“Treatment serums can add oomph to your routine. Choose one that does something you’re looking for (line-plumping, brightening, etc.) and has a texture that feels good on your skin (not overly heavy if you’re oily, or active if you’re sensitive). Wait a beat or a few before applying your moisturizer on top of it.

“Some of our customers’ favorites are Luzern’s Firming Collagen Booster, $140—which is packed with peptides, marine algae, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin—and Medik8’s CE-Tetra, $115, which is a cleaner and more sensitive skin-friendly version of SkinCeuticals vitamin C serums. Instead of ascorbic acid, which degrades fairly quickly, it uses Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate, which has up to four times the potency of L-ascorbic acid and other forms of Vitamin C without the irritation typically found with Vitamin C products.

“No need to time yourself or stress over whether or not it’s absorbed; just choose that time to look quickly for a stray bobby pin or something. Gels and serums should go on before creams. But there are always exceptions: The Organic Pharmacy’s Antioxidant Gel, $110, and Serum, $160, for example, is this wonderful duo of products that can be mixed together with more gel and less of the oil-based serum for oilier-skinned individuals, or more serum and less gel for dry-skinned people. They smell and feel fabulous, and people buy them over and over because they work beautifully on the skin. But you apply the gel and oil at the same time: they’re sort of like a serum +moisturizer in two products, but mixed together, which is unusual and doesn’t really fit the typical mold.”

Level 3: Exfoliate to increase cell-turnover and enhance efficacy and absorption of other products

“Exfoliation is important but, again, totally individual. Pick an exfoliating mask, serum, or scrub based on what your skin needs and what you’ll actually enjoy using. If acne is an issue for you, pick a mask or serum instead of a scrub. The Organic Pharmacy’s Enzyme Peel Mask, $79, is one of our best sellers and it really leaves you feeling as though something major (in a good way) happened to your complexion. But if the last time you used a mask was sometime in 2013, pick an exfoliating serum that you can wear at night. I am a huge fan of Luzern’s Serum Absolut Au Vin**, $95. I use it every other night and love it so much that I am actually really excited when it’s one of my ‘on nights.’ I often suggest using oils at night and creams during the day, but that’s really a matter of preference (many people love the feeling of a thick, rich night cream, so I’d rather find them a great night cream, like BioRecept BioStrata, $82, or Booster Bio, $51, that they’ll happily use than force them into using an oil they’re not thrilled about).”

Level 4: Keep a balm on hand for extra TLC

Pommade Divine via Ayla “I think balms are wonderful to keep on hand for moments and areas of irritation. Two that we carry—M Picaut’s Calming Cocoon Cream, $110, and Pommade Divine Nature’s Remedy Balm**, $35,—are wonderful for different reasons. Cocoon Cream is more of a face balm that heals red, irritated, dry, winter-ravaged skin, and Pommade Divine is something that your whole family can use. One of our customers recently told us, ‘We are a family of dreadful skin issues (psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, and keratosis pilaris). For the first time ever, we are going through the winter with skin that actually looks and feels ‘normal.’’ That’s a great testimonial.”

Ultimately, your beauty routine is entirely up to you. It can be as simple or as layered as you wish, but consulting with a pro always proves worthwhile.

“We love working with our customers individually to find a routine that works for them and their skin (and their hair, too),” Dara said. “We encourage emails and phone calls because we want people to get the most out of the products they buy from us, and everyone is so different.”

*Post contains affiliate links for products I feel comfortable sharing.

**Products that I’ve tried and love

***Luzern Force De Vie Nuit** is an effective retinol treatment meant to be used at night that’s going to win you over! It will be available on the site starting Sunday.

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