Why the Foundation of Your Routine Should Be Cleanser, Serum, and Moisturizer

Paring down your skincare to the essentials.

Dylan Mustapich

Esthetician at Atolla

Dylan Mustapich

Dylan Mustapich is a NYC-based lead esthetician who has been featured in New Beauty, Teen Vogue, Wired, and The Huffington Post. With a lifelong love of all things skin, he is incredibly knowledgeable about skincare ingredients, routine refinement, and personalized skincare, and follows emerging technology closely.



When it comes to building a skincare routine, the choices are endless. Should you use a foaming or milky cleanser? Is a toner really necessary? What’s the difference between a moisturizer and a night treatment (mask)? 

It’s so easy to get lured into thinking that you need all of these different types of products, but the truth is that you only need 3-4 for a good daily routine: a pH-balancing cleanser, a serum formulated with ingredients for your skin’s needs, and a moisturizer to lock in everything and maintain the delicate skin barrier. (If your moisturizer doesn’t have SPF, you’ll want to add it to protect your skin from the sun year-round.) Here’s why these three products should be the foundation of your skincare routine. 

Cleanser: An Essential First Step

Cleansing, the first step in any skincare routine, sets the stage for the rest of your routine by removing environmental debris, excess oil, and makeup. Often overlooked, cleansers perform the key role of providing a clean slate, allowing all of your other products to effectively absorb into the skin. Many people just use what’s in the shower that morning, but choosing the wrong cleanser for your skin may leave behind debris or strip it of essential lipids that keep our skin lubricated and prevent dryness.

Something you may not consider when choosing a cleanser is its pH, a measure of its acidity. Healthy skin has a pH around 5.5, meaning it’s slightly acidic. When your skin’s pH is too high, its protective barrier (called the acid mantle) is compromised, leaving our skin less protected from potential irritants. A good cleanser can “balance” our skin’s pH, returning it to its sweet spot when it gets out of whack. 

At Atolla, we regularly measure your skin’s pH as part of our monthly (Re)Assessment using our at-home Skin Test. Using this data, we custom formulate your cleanser to be pH balancing, meaning it will return your skin to its ideal acidity. Our skin’s acidity changes regularly depending on various environmental factors, so it’s important to stay vigilant to keep your skin barrier healthy.

Cleansers sometimes include mild exfoliating ingredients such as AHA/BHA exfoliating acids and/or fruit derived enzymes. This allows them to remove dead skin cell buildup as they clean the surface of the skin. Lightly exfoliating cleansers are a great alternative to more intense exfoliants designed to be used only once or twice a week, as there is less potential for irritation.

Serum: Skincare’s Secret Weapon

A serum is designed to efficiently deliver skincare ingredients deep into the skin for maximum efficacy. Their lightweight consistency compared to moisturizers allow them to easily penetrate your skin, where their ingredients are most effective. 

Serums come in many different forms: some are designed to treat excess pigmentation with brightening ingredients like Vitamin C, while others feature pro-aging ingredients such as Retinol and Peptides to treat the appearance of fine lines. They also vary in terms of consistency and texture, ranging from almost water-like to emollient oils.

Over the last decade, layering multiple serums has become increasingly popular, with some people including up to three or more in their daily routine. Unsurprisingly, many also experience negative ingredient interactions, texture issues such as pilling, and clogged pores. The desire to include multiple potent ingredients in your routine makes sense, but there are too many variables when layering serums on top of serums. A custom serum formulated to include several key ingredients removes the uncertainty of combining separate products, and often leads to a more pleasing texture. Saving money and streamlining your routine is just an added bonus!

Moisturizer: Seal and Support

The final step in your routine (before sunscreen, of course) is a moisturizer to lock in all the ingredients in your serums while helping support the fragile skin barrier. Most moisturizers are designed to be occlusive, meaning they create a seal that helps your skin retain moisture as well as the products layered beneath it. This is especially important in dry climates that literally pull moisture from the skin.

Moisturizers sometimes include potent ingredients as well and are a great way to add ingredients into your routine that complement the ones found in your serum. For example, if you observe your skin to be a bit dry after using a Retinol serum, adding a moisturizer containing Ceramides could help bolster your skin barrier and mitigate some of these side effects.

The “back-to-basics” skincare routine has become popular recently, as people discover they don’t need dozens of products to achieve healthy glowing skin. For some, highly elaborate routines have led to additional skin concerns ranging from irritation to dryness, and even aggravated skin conditions like acne and rosacea. A well formulated product is able to contain multiple key ingredients designed to work together without conflict. 

Atolla takes it a step further by custom formulating an entire three-step routine based on your current skin health and goals. This allows you to simplify your at-home skincare routine while receiving the best ingredients for your skin. Less really is more sometimes!

Simplify your skincare with a custom, complementary routine.