Does it really matter when and in what order you apply your skin care products? We asked because we never felt the need to worry about the order in which we eat our food. Everything goes through the same digestive tract and gets absorbed in exactly the same way, regardless of which food got eaten first. (Case in point: We absorb the same amount of sugar in sweets even if we eat them last.) So we asked the skin experts the same question we ask ourselves every time we buy a new skin care product or add another step to our routine: In what order should I apply my skin care products and why?
According to Kate Tart, lead esthetician for Derma E, applying your skin care products in the proper order ensures that your skin receives the full benefits of each product. “For example, if you applied a cream-based product first followed by a serum, the cream’s emolliency would prevent the serum from reaching the skin,” she said. “Many moisturizers also contain water, and if you apply a moisturizer over a sunscreen, you would in effect be watering down your sunscreen and diluting its efficacy.”
Aside from the order of application, it’s also important to consider the time it takes for your skin to absorb your products. “Order is important, but timing is more crucial,” says esthetician and acne specialist Ashley Wiley. “Take benzoyl peroxide, for example. This ingredient, which is commonly found in acne-treatment regimens, has a one- to three-hour working time, and any cream that comes in contact with it before it has completed its work will likely inhibit the active ingredient from working properly.”
So which product goes on top of what, you ask? An easy rule of thumb to follow is to apply your products with the thinnest consistency to thickest, or from liquid to oil. During the day, most experts recommend a simple cleanser-toner-light moisturizer/day cream-sunscreen routine. At night, that’s when you load up on skin care actives. Here’s what experts recommend:
Start by removing dirt and oil buildup with your facial cleanser. Some experts recommend double cleansing, which involves using a cleansing oil first to dissolve your makeup and then washing your face again with your regular cleanser. “The first step is to take off your makeup. This is the step where you would typically use a cleansing oil,” explains cosmetic acupuncturist and herbalist Kathleen Funk. “The second step is to use a face wash to remove all the excess sebum, dirt and makeup you loosened up on the first step. This leaves your skin fresh and perfectly prepped to absorb your skin regimen.”
But why use cleansing oil, you ask. The answer can actually be explained by simple science. “Oil attracts oil and is therefore more effective at removing it,” says Cynthia Beadle, makeup artist and esthetician for DHC. “Oil is also a gentle way to thoroughly cleanse your skin without having to scrub harshly or strip it of its natural oils,” adds Funk
For a thorough cleanse, exfoliate with a physical or chemical exfoliant at least once or twice a week.
Most people choose to skip toners, partly because there’s a lingering assumption that most toners are harsh and irritate the skin. Fortunately, that’s not the case anymore. While they don’t physically “shrink” pores, the new breed of toners can serve multiple purpose, like act as a delivery system for antioxidants, vitamin B derivatives and even toning acids. Additionally, each type of toner is intended for a different skin issue, so it’s important to use the right kind for your skin concern.
According to Dr. Diane De Fiori, dermatologist at Rosacea Treatment Clinic, prescription medications and spot treatments need to be applied as close to the skin as possible to maximize their benefits. In the case of acne treatments, this dries up excess oil and kills bacteria in your problem spots. For best results, allow at least five minutes before layering on your next product to ensure it doesn’t knock out the benefits of the medication. Better yet, opt for spot-treatment patches, like Peter Thomas Roth Acne-Clear Invisible Dots, so you don’t have to worry about layering the rest of your skin care products.
When it comes to serums, there are a wide range of available ingredients, so most of your selection process will come down to your specific needs. One of the most common ingredients, though, is vitamin C. “Vitamin C performs a variety of functions within the skin, including stimulating new collagen, reducing fine lines and wrinkles, protecting the skin from environmental pollutants with its antioxidant properties, helping reduce visible discolorations on the skin and providing enhanced protection against UV exposure,” says board-certified dermatologist Jennifer Linder, M.D., founder of Linder Dermatology and Skin Cancer Center. “Plus, since your skin doesn’t produce vitamin C on it’s own, you’ll need a topically applied method of delivery for optimal skin health.”
Serums are super-concentrated, nutrient-dense treatments that address specific concerns, so it’s better to keep them as close to the skin as possible. Some people apply multiple serums that cater to different skin concerns. If an all-in-one serum isn’t possible, apply the ones with the thinnest consistency first.
According to board-certified dermatologist Annie Chiu, it’s vital to apply an eye cream at least every night, if not twice a day, starting in your 20s. “It’s about maintaining the health and thickness of the eyelid skin. Improving the skin quality in this area early on ensures that the eyelid skin does not easily lose laxity and its smooth appearance later on.”
For best results, consistency is key. “Regular use of eye cream over time will keep the eyelid skin elastic and can improve or prevent against some fine lines or collagen loss. Remember: Nothing is magic. Results don’t occur overnight,” Dr. Chiu adds. “You can further protect the delicate skin around your eyes by choosing an eye cream with SPF or applying sunscreen every day.” Dr. Chiu also advises people to remember to wear sunglasses when outside to protect against UV-light damage and lines that can creep up around the corners of your eyes from squinting.
Like the rest of the body, skin does the bulk of its repairing, restoring and regenerating as we sleep. This is why night creams are generally thicker and heavier, designed to be absorbed over the course of several hours.
But what if you have oily skin? According to board-certified dermatologist Sandra Kopp, even those with oily skin could still use a moisturizer. “Even though your body has its own natural lubricating system consisting of glands that secrete oil (or sebum) to maintain a protective coating against harsh outside conditions and infections, most of us do need extra hydration after the havoc that sun, weather and harsh chemicals wreak on our skin.”
When choosing a moisturizer, look for key ingredients like glycerin (or glycerol), hyaluronic acid, ceramides, coconut oil and other plant-based oils and shea butter. The best time to apply a moisturizer is when the skin is still moist. After using a gentle cleanser, lightly pat your face damp, apply your treatments and serums and then immediately apply a layer of moisturizer to lock in the hydration.
While following this routine allows for greater absorption of nutrients, Tart advises that it’s still better to listen to your skin and find out what really works for you. “It’s important to remember that you are unique and that nobody else has your skin. What may work wonders for your best friend may not be ideally suited for you. My best advice is to find what works for you and be kind to your skin,” says Tart.
Need a quick reference? Check out our ultimate cheat sheet below.
READERS—Do you agree with this sequence? Are you applying your skin care products in this order, or are you following another sequence? Share it with us on the comments section below.