The Hierarchy of Skincare Needs

People who are new to skincare and have a variety of skin problems often find themselves overwhelmed by the massive amount of available skincare items. There are products for hydration, for acne, for discoloration, for brightening, for aging, and every single blog review seems to be a rave about the Greatest Product of All Time, so it can be tempting to rush headlong into a full skincare "routine" with no experience.

However, when you introduce more than 1 product at 1 time, there's a high likelihood you can cause a skin reaction and have no clue what the source was. In addition, while many skincare items are gentle and non-irritating, a skincare newbie is unlikely to be able to identify gentle from harsh, and as a result will often cause greater damage with a new routine than if they had not started a skincare regimen in the first place. Those people who charge full steam ahead into skincare like this tend to tap out within a few months, rife with new problems and increased issues from using products they're not physically or mentally ready for.

I like to think about the optimal way to build a routine in a manner inspired by Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. This diagram is a visual representation of escalating needs (or "goals") from the base physiological to the most elevated psychological.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs:

The hierarchy places our most fundamental needs at the base. As you go up the pyramid, you get to increasingly fine points and priorities, until you reach "self-actualization" at the top. You can't skip steps and build without a solid foundation. The point is that you can progressively scale the pyramid and attain the most exciting goals, but you can't hope to get there without the unglamorous basics. If you asked someone today what their greatest dream was, maybe it would be the recognition of their peers or self-acceptance. But if you took away their food and water, pretty quickly that would become the focus of their "dream." Nobody begins at the top or jumps around levels, as each progressive level provides the base to climb to the next level.

I think of skincare, and building a skincare routine from scratch, in a similar manner. People always get so excited about the end goals- treating aggravated acne, zapping scarring, erasing wrinkles, but they often find it hard to accept that these goals cannot be achieved without building a strong foundation of boring stuff first.

Faceonomics Hierarchy of Skincare Needs:

  • At the bottom comes SUN PROTECTION. The least sexy and most important of all skincare, if you aren't willing to put in the effort to find yourself a sunscreen that works, you can't hope to tackle the stuff upstream. Whether your concerns are acne or aging, your other skincare simply won't work for your long-term skin health or appearance without this step.
  • Next comes MOISTURE. A lot of people are familiar with this concept but there are many misconceptions- dry skinned people need lots, oily skinned people don't need any, or they need "oil-free" formulations. The only form of moisturizing comes from heavy, uncomfortable creams, etc. The truth is there is basically no limit to the vehicles for moisture delivery. There are types for every skin type and need.
  • Then we have our GENTLE CLEANSE. I call this "gentle cleanse" not plain "cleanse" because harsh cleansing is worse than none at all. If you grew up in the United States, chances are your poor teenage acne-riddled face was addressed with minty, soapy, painful scrub cleansers found in your local drugstore skincare aisle. Sure your grandma used a gentle cold cream to wash her face, but what does she know? She's old! In fact, every single skin type needs to be gently cleansed. There is not a single skin type that does better with harsh cleansing than with gentle. Listen to your grandma and have some respect, dammit.
  • After that is HYDRATION. Oh yeah, hydrating and moisturizing can actually be separate solutions for separate problems. While some of us fare well with the standard cream moisturizers, others who have more specific skincare needs need some supplementation in the hydration department. Dry skin lacks oil, dehydrated skin lacks water. Basically every skintype has the potential to become dehydrated- from overzealous cleansing, active use, hormones, or weather. Think of this as the padding under the bulletproof vest that is your moisturizing routine to keep your nipples from getting chafed.
  • Finally we get to TARGETED TREATMENT. Here we have retinol, acids, spot treatments, and masks. I bet some of you wanted to start at this point, unfortunately it's impossible to go top-down. Without the fundamentals, it's not possible to treat "high-level" skin issues such as hyperpigmentation, aggravated acne, and wrinkles. Most targeted treatments can fall under the umbrella of potentially irritating and drying because they are formulated to be intense and reactive. If you dip your toe into these specialized treatments without a strong base of moisture and sun protection, your problems will usually worsen. 
I'm sure there will always be people who don't follow this common sense, safe approach to healing their skin. Those people will inevitably suffer a lot of frustration and physical discomfort. Skin cannot heal and repair itself if not properly nourished and protected, and you can never achieve the lofty skin goals you set if you can't first commit to the simple, boring basics. There is no logical or sensible progression if you begin with targeted treatments and try to back out a hydrating routine at a later date. It simply doesn't work. In fact, the more you try to tackle top-down measures, the weaker your skin will become, and the more it will resist the gentle, easily-introduced fundamentals. Sun damage and dehydration, two problems that are addressed with the bottom 4 tiers of the hierarchy, will never be undone if you start at the top of the pyramid. They will be 80% taken care of by the time you reach the top, making your targeted treatment plan less expensive, less harsh, and more easy to incorporate by the time you get there.

If you find yourself saying, "I just started this routine last week..." you are on a dangerous path already. Ideally you will introduce one new product at a time, each tested for as long as it takes to ensure no breakouts or allergic reactions occur, before you introduce anything new or move up the pyramid. Nobody starts a routine right away- they build a routine over the course of several months.

Hopefully this post can serve as a starting point for new folks who have no clue what to prioritize. You should not feel the need to take on all aspects of skincare at once. Instead, it will make your overall routine more comprehensive and effective if you choose to move from the most pressing needs to the least. Whether you have flawless skin or horribly troubled skin, you cannot go wrong starting from the bottom.

I'll cover realistic timelines for the above stages/priorities in another post. 


  1. Lena, I am a fan of yours on reddit (we're always in the same subs, I'm KobenstyleMama, a pretty lowkey redditor). I just discovered you had this blog and the quality of writing is excellent (as usual). Keep it up--I love how you've adapted Maslow's hierarchy of needs for skincare.

    1. Joy, thank you for your support and kind words! Please do let me know if there's a topic you'd like me to cover in the future :)

  2. I just found your blog through reddit! I can't wait for more of your blog posts, they're so intriguing! ♡

    1. Thank you Taro Queen. Let me know if you have a specific topic you want to see me discuss <3