The List Survey: Which Step In Your Skincare Routine Will You Never Skip?

In many ways, the skincare industry is like the ocean; once you dip your toes in, you're signing up for a deep dive into the unknown. In the shallow end, you'll find basic ceramide moisturizers and drugstore cleansers. But, potions and serums with active ingredients are only a step away, as are chemical and physical exfoliators. For the seasoned junkie, the 10-step Korean skincare routine is the standard — their vanities are populated by oil cleansers, toners, and essences. Regardless of where you stand in the skincare pool, there are some products that are lifelines and others you'll only see on YouTube "Get ready with me" videos.

Among the lot, "Some of the most common and sought-after active ingredients include retinol, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, zinc oxide, vitamin C and ceramides," board-certified dermatologist Dr. Lauren Ploch told NBC's "Today." These ingredients help in different ways, whether it's exfoliation, hydration, or brightening. According to your skin type and needs, one (or a few) of these may become your skincare mainstay. The List decided to survey 558 people and find out what active ingredient in their skincare routines were they never willing to skip.

Most of us would never skip vitamin C

The results are in! In an exclusive survey conducted by The List, the most important step in a skincare routine for respondents is the vitamin C serum. A precise 39.43% chose this versatile serum as the product that they'd use and restock constantly. And we understand why — vitamin C is an antioxidant that fights free radicals and aging from external causes like the sun or pollution. One study even showed that using a vitamin C formulation consistently can visibly improve overall skin texture and reduce the appearance of wrinkles (via National Library of Medicine).

"Because of its antioxidant properties, vitamin C aids in your skin's natural regeneration process, which helps your body repair damaged skin cells," board-certified dermatologist Patricia Wexler told Allure. Dermatologist Howard Sobel further explained to the publication that because of the acidic quality of vitamin C, "The skin is triggered to heal itself by accelerating the production of collagen and elastin." "It's a superior brightening agent that works to fade brown spots without altering normal skin pigmentation," Sobel added.

However, a very popular ingredient came in at a close second.

Retinol is one of the most popular skincare ingredients

An overwhelming 119 people out of 558 (21.33%) chose retinol to be the step they would never skip. Because of its numerous anti-aging and anti-acne benefits, retinol (a derivative of vitamin A) is akin to an A-list celebrity in the skincare world. In fact, it was declared as one of the most searched ingredients of 2022: 1.2 billion TikTok views and 9.276 million Google searches, to be precise (via Professional Beauty UK).

The prescription version of retinol is Retin-A and both are in a class of ingredients known as retinoids. "Both can help with promoting faster skin cell turnover, and both are proven options for helping reverse signs of skin aging," esthetician Renée Rouleau told Byrdie. As we age, our collagen production reduces and "using a well-formulated and stable product with retinol will visibly reduce the appearance of sun damage, brown spots, lines, wrinkles, and large pores. It can stimulate the metabolism of skin cells and encourage collagen production," Rouleau continued.

Turns out, this might be the right answer to pick according to dermatologist Maryann Mikhail, who said, "I often tell patients that if they do nothing else, they should use retinol and sunscreen." 

Your routine depends on your skin type

If you're using these star ingredients in your skincare routine, there are only a few others you can use to supplement them. Hyaluronic acid, which came in at a close third (20.79%), is an humectant that can be beneficial to those with parched skin. "It is a superstar at alleviating dry skin ... Hyaluronic acid is a moisture binder, which means that it will attach itself to the water in the cells making them 'plump,'" board-certified dermatologist Ava Shamban told Byrdie.

But if your skin concerns are redness and sensitivity, ingredients like niacinamide might help cool them down. Over 30 respondents chose the ingredient, which is also known as nicotinamide. "Nicotinamide helps restore cellular energy, repair damaged DNA, and reduce the immunosuppressive effects of sun-induced UV rays," dermatologist Jennifer Herrmann told Byrdie.

The last ingredient in the survey was glycolic acid, an AHA that is used for exfoliation and improving skin tone. Since there are many other exfoliating agents, it makes sense that 12.01% of the respondents chose this as their un-skippable step. If you're unsure what your favorite step of the routine is, refer to advice from dermatologist Macrene Alexiades. "Protect your barrier...with barrier repair ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, plant-derived fatty acids, and healing ceramides," she told The List.