While the aim of my skincare and makeup routines during my teenage years and early 20s was always clear—combat breakouts and minimise the appearance of spots—my 30s have been an entirely different ballgame so far. When I turned 30 in April 2019, I was in the very early stages of pregnancy and working full-time in central London. The grind of the daily commute and a busy social life and work calendar combined with first trimester nausea and, later, intense pregnancy exhaustion meant that—hormonal breakouts aside—my beauty aims quickly shifted to finding products that would make me look less tired pronto.
And my quest has pretty much remained the same since. Fast forward nearly three years and we’ve all been through a global pandemic (exhausting to say the least), I’ve discovered what it’s like to live with a tiny human who is still yet to discover the joys of a full, uninterrupted night of sleep, and I’m now pregnant again. The result? My lifelong acne-prone skin is still oily and susceptible to spots, yes, but it now looks eternally dull and is the first thing to give the game away when I’m sleep-deprived.
Luckily, though, I now have the tools in my beauty arsenal to disguise the true depths of my tiredness. And while I might start the day with the kind of sallow complexion that rivals an extra on The Walking Dead, I’ve curated a failsafe assortment of beauty products that will take even the dullest of skin from dreary to dewy in mere minutes. (Although I can’t help with the actual feeling of tiredness—for that, there’s only one solution: copious amounts of coffee.)
Ahead, I share the 5 products that I swear by for dull skin and the brightening ingredients that I always reach for when a full night’s sleep has eluded me.
1. Brightening Gel Cleanser
Generally speaking, I’m a fan of micellar water for my morning cleanse after a dermatologist told me that over cleansing my oily skin could exacerbate oil production. However, on mornings that I feel totally shattered, a proper face wash with water and a cleanser not only provides the perfect opportunity to treat my skin to some energising actives, but the very act of splashing water onto my skin immediately makes me feel more wide-awake. For this step, I reach for lightweight, gel cleansers with radiance-boosting benefits to really prep my skin for the rest of my routine.
Enriched with minerals like magnesium, zinc and copper to leave skin looking well-rested along with a trio of gently exfoliating acids, this skin-brightening cleanser will leave your complexion looking and feeling instantly invigorated.
Pumpkin enzymes are the star ingredient of this cult gel cleanser, thanks to their ability to clear pores and gently resurface the skin for a more luminous appearance post-cleanse. It’s one of my favourite cleansers of all time and has the added benefit of boasting a spa-like rose chamomile fragrance which instantly helps me to feel calmer and more zen.
While Glossier describe this as a “cleanser concentrate”, and its decidedly more watery in texture than the gel cleansers I’ve mentioned above, it still falls into the category of skin-brightening, acid-enriched formulations that dull skin craves. This one contains gentle lactic and malic acids alongside refining niacinamide to reveal glowier skin once rinsed clean.
2. Vitamin C Serum
If there’s one thing in my tired skin routine that’s non-negotiable it’s a good vitamin c serum. It’s one of those ingredients that dermatologists and skin experts consistently recommend that we all include in our skincare routines and, for me, it’s the one ingredient that makes an instantly visible difference to my skin. I have tried hundreds at this point, but these are a few that I always come back to thanks to the way that brighten dull skin, fade dark spots and scarring and generally leave my skin looking healthier.
Formulated to tackle damage and pigmentation caused by pollution and UV lights, this Murad serum might be on the pricier side but it’s worth every penny. It contains glycolic acid which allows the vitamin c to penetrate more deeply into your skin and get to work and the resulting radiance simply can’t be argued with.
My mid-range pick comes courtesy of this newer launch from Caudalie. This is creamier in texture than the Murad serum—it’s almost like a milky moisturiser—and it’s definitely less intense, but it delivers a pleasing glow to the skin while leaving your complexion feeling plump and firm. Plus, I love how well it layers beneath my other products.
The reason that I tend to steer away from affordable vitamin c options is because many of them are really vague when it comes to revealing the potency of their formulations i.e. the amount of active ingredients used is probably negligible. Skin Proud, however, clearly states that this brightening serum contains 2% vitamin c alongside rejuvenating fruit extracts and soothing vitamin b5. It’s impressively glow considering the price tag and I’ve gone through more than a couple of bottles of it.
3. Radiance Primer
After applying my usual moisturiser and SPF, it’s time for makeup, and there’s one key addition to my makeup routine on tired mornings—a radiance primer. For me, primer tends to be one of those ‘special occasion’ steps and I tend to only reach for one when I want to increase the longevity of my makeup. When my skin is a bit lacklustre, however, I’ve found that applying light layers of product designeds to brighten is key—and a good primer can be the difference between dewy and dull skin for me.
Unless you are blessed with naturally even, beautifully glowy skin then I’d ignore the mention of ‘CC’ in this product name—it has no coverage at all, but what it does have is a beautifully pearlescent quality and the ability to diffuse dark spots, redness and sallowness. This and concealer were the only products that I had the energy to apply in the weeks post-birth and I fully credit it with helping me to look and feel a little more alive. I’ll be stocking up again before baby number 2 arrives.
Without fail any products that I apply on top of this pearly primer look better than if I hadn’t bothered. It’s multipurpose in the sense that you can apply it beneath foundation or on top (kind of like a sheeny highlighter) and it really helps to make even the most dehydrated of complexions look wonderfully dewy and fresh.
This is a bit of a cult classic face primer and it’s as good today as it was when I first tried it around 8 years ago. Sure, in those days, it likely was the after-effects of a hangover that I was trying to disguise but the premise holds up. A lightweight formulation of coconut water and probioitics quenches skin’s thirst then gets to work brightening, smoothing and disguising all signs of a night spent awake.
4. Under-Eye Concealer
Even if I’m too tired to apply a foundation, tinted moisturiser or skin tint, I always make sure to apply an under-eye concealer. In fact, focusing on brightening up your eye area is one of the fastest and easiest ways to transform dull skin in my opinion. Over the years I’ve learned that despite initially thinking that high-coverage formulas would work best for hiding dark circles, lighter textures with a dewier finish actually look more natural and tend to be more light-reflective with brighter results.
Probably my most-repurchased concealer ever, I recently ran out of this (and had no back-ups left in my stash) and I really noticed how tired I look when I don’t wear this. Suffice to say, I promptly stocked up and continue to be impressed at how bright, wide-awake and fresh my under-eyes look once I’ve applied it.
The name of this concealer really doesn’t lie—it’s pure magic. This is what I reach for when I want to pull out the big guns and my dark circles mean business as it provides much more coverage than the Glossier concealer. However, it never looks cakey or heavy on the skin. In fact, it almost melts in once applied to leave you with no hint of darkness. Plus, it’s enriched with skincare ingredients that help to smooth skin and minimise fine lines at the same time.
This is an impressively versatile concealer that layers up well, so it’s ideal if you want the option of applying just a light wash of coverage or you need something that packs more of a punch. Again, it’s enriched with skincare benefits to care for tired skin at the same time as brightening it, and it contains light-diffusing technology to deliver a really glowy and even finish.
5. Liquid Highlighter
Applying a highlighter might sound like a step too far on mornings that even an intravenous coffee drip wouldn’t energise you, but trust me when I say that it makes an enormous difference to tired complexions. I choose liquid formulations rather than powders as, firstly, you can be more slapdash in your application and because they have that dewy texture that I’m always looking for in brightening products. Just make sure to opt for formulas that are glitter and shimmer-free so you don’t end up looking like a disco ball.
I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve recommended this highlighter, but I stand by it—this is one of my favourite makeup products of all time. It’s available in 12 shades and can be applied all over your skin, over or under foundation, or as a traditional highlighter on the high points of your face. The more tired I look, the more liberal I am with my application, but generally a few dabs over skin—blended in with fingertips—instantly illuminates skin and leaves it with a healthy glow.
This is a little more lotion-like in texture than the Charlotte Tilbury version, but it’s a similar concept. It can pretty much be applied however you like and it contains pearlescent particles that impart that healthy-looking glow without any shimmer or glitter.
A golden liquid highlighter that looks a little scary when you first squeeze it out of the tube, but genuinely takes my skin from bleurgh to bouncy and bright. Not only does it create a gorgeously glowy sheen, but it’s enriched with hydrating squalane and sunflower seed oil to hydrate and soothe inflammation.
Up Next: I Asked a Dermatologist How to De-Puff Eyes, and the Answers Really Work.