We asked skin experts the question we wonder every time we buy a new skin care product or add a step to our routine: In what order should I apply my skin care products, and does it matter? Turns out, it does!
According to Dr. Heather Rogers, a board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon, applying your skin care products in the proper order ensures that your skin receives the full benefits of each product.
“The order of application is incredibly important,” says Dr. Rogers. “The skin’s job is to keep things out, but many of the skin care products we use have ingredients we want to get in. Only a very small amount of these key ingredients can penetrate the skin, even when perfectly formulated and perfectly applied. If you don’t apply products in the correct order, you will not see the best results from your skin care regimen.”
How to Layer Your Skin Care Products: A Step-by-Step Guide
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 cream. “In general, think thin-to-thick, but you also want to first use the products with the ingredients that are most important to penetrate into the skin (like antioxidants in serums) and finish with the products that need to sit on top of the skin (like emollients and humectants in moisturizers),” says Dr. Rogers.
Your Daytime Regimen
The morning routine is all about protection from the sun, pollution and the elements, according to Dr. Rogers, so leave your peel pads and treatment products, like retinol, for night.
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 purposes, 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.
However, if you have lived all your life without using a toner and your skin looks healthy, Dr. Rogers says there is no need to start using one. “Toners were created to help return the skin’s pH after it became too basic from harsh soaps,” explains Dr. Rogers. “Face cleansers are now so much better balanced that toners are not a required step for me.” That said, if you have a toner that you like using, there’s no harm in sticking with it.
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. There are various serums available on the market today, but for daytime, Dr. Rogers recommends antioxidant serums, which provide a variety of benefits—from blunting your skin’s inflammatory response to neutralizing damage from UV rays and environmental pollutants.
According to Dr. Annie Chiu, a board-certified dermatologist, 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.
According to Dr. Diane De Fiori, a dermatologist at Rosacea Treatment Clinic, prescription medications and acne spot treatments need to be applied as close to the skin as possible to maximize their benefits.
As acne spot treatments differ in active ingredients, check your product packaging or consult your dermatologist for the best way to apply it. Prescription-strength benzoyl peroxide, a common acne spot treatment ingredient, has a one- to three-hour working time, according to esthetician and acne specialist Ashley Wiley. “Any cream that comes in contact with it before it has completed its work will likely inhibit the active ingredient from working properly.”
Remember that acne spot treatments can dry out your skin, so always apply only on spots where you need it.
Yes, everyone needs a moisturizer, even if you have oily skin. “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,” explains Dr. Sandra Kopp, a board-certified dermatologist.
Most experts recommend that the best time to apply a moisturizer is while the skin is still damp, so the sooner you go through applying your serum and treatment, the sooner you’re able to lock in much-needed hydration with your moisturizer.
If you’re using an acne spot treatment, you may want to skip those areas when applying your moisturizer to make sure the ingredients in it won’t interfere with the active ingredients in your spot treatment.
Sunscreen should be the last step in your daytime skin care routine if you’re using a physical or mineral sunscreen, which works by physically blocking UV rays. This step becomes tricky when you’re using a chemical sunscreen.
Dr. Rogers explains: “Chemical sunscreens have to be absorbed into the skin to be effective, so applying after your moisturizer will delay and hinder that. However, if you apply your chemical sunscreen before your moisturizer, your moisturizer will not work as well either because the skin is coated with chemical sunscreen.”
To get around this, Dr. Rogers recommends using a physical sunscreen with zinc and to apply it after your moisturizer. “Zinc is safe, effective and provides the broadest protection against UVA and UVB rays.”
As for those who like using chemical sunscreens, try to look for a formula that offers moisturizing benefits, so you can get your daily hydration needs while protecting your skin.
As your skin naturally repairs itself at night, your nighttime routine should be all about treatment and giving your skin what it needs, says Dr. Rogers. “If your skin is looking dull, exfoliate. If it is irritated, hydrate and protect.” Here’s the best order of skin care products to make sure you get the most out of them:
To get rid of the day’s grime, dirt, oil and makeup, some experts recommend removing your makeup first with a dedicated makeup remover before washing your face with a gentle cleanser. Better yet, try 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 Kathleen Funk, a cosmetic acupuncturist and herbalist. “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.”
TIP: If you’re using a physical exfoliant, like a facial scrub, use it in place of your cleanser after removing your makeup.
If you use a toner, apply it as you would in the morning.
At night, some people also like to layer various types of skin care boosters, which you’ll see as either mists, essences, beauty waters or hydrating (hyaluronic acid) serums. These are infused with different active ingredients, but for the most part, the purpose is mainly to hydrate and nourish skin.
Since these are lightweight, almost water-like formulas, apply them after washing your face as you would a toner. “If using both, apply toner then essence,” says Dr. Rogers. “Toner is more to clean and essence is more about delivering a treatment.” If using multiple boosters, the same rules apply: apply from thinnest to thickest.
Like the rest of the body, skin does the bulk of its repairing, restoring and regenerating as we sleep. This is why most targeted skin care treatments—like prescription meds (tretinoin, acne and rosacea creams), retinol creams, exfoliating treatments (peel pads and masks) and anti-aging serums (infused with peptides, growth factors and other biologically active ingredients)—are better used at night. However, instead of layering up all your treatment serums and creams, Dr. Rogers suggests choosing your evening treatment depending on your skin’s of-the-moment needs.
“Too many steps just increase the risk of irritation and decrease the likelihood of the desired result,” says Dr. Rogers. “Pick your evening treatment based on what your skin needs that night, not based on what you have in your medicine cabinet. Some nights, it may be just wash, moisturize and bed. There is always tomorrow to give your skin more love.”
Here are other considerations:
Choose between prescription meds (for acne or rosacea) OR exfoliative treatments (like AHA/BHA pads, peels or detoxifying masks). “If you use both on the same night, you significantly increase your risk of irritating your skin,” warns Dr. Rogers.
Don’t use retinol creams (over the counter or prescription) on the same night as exfoliative treatments, either.
Exfoliative treatments: Use these sparingly, one to three times a week.
Some people use the same moisturizer for day and night. However, night moisturizers or night creams are generally thicker and heavier and designed to be absorbed over the course of several hours.
“Moisturizer, particularly the heavier ones used at night, create a protective coating on the skin to prevent water evaporation while you sleep,” says Dr. Rogers. “Maintaining a high water content in the skin is key for healing and maintaining healthy skin. If you are using the right moisturizer, it should be your last step because nothing is going to get through it.” If your skin is on the dry side, you may want to add a face oil before applying your night cream.
Aside from the order of application, some experts believe it’s also important to consider the time it takes for your skin to absorb your products. However, since most of us are often in a rush to get somewhere (or hit the sack), Dr. Rogers understands that this isn’t always possible. Her advice? Keep your skin care routine simple.
“Many products say you have to wait anywhere from five to 30 minutes before the next step to ensure proper absorption, but who has time for that? If you make it too complicated, you just won’t do it,” says Dr. Rogers. “If you have many steps, pause for a bit (a minute) to allow each product time to react with the skin. For example, at night, after I wash my face and apply my serum or evening treatment, I just wrap up my day and get into bed. I keep my moisturizer on my bedside table and apply it right before I go to sleep to give these typically expensive, specialty treatments a touch more time to penetrate the skin before I seal them in with my cream.”
Another piece of advice? Listen to your skin. Remember that you are unique and that nobody else has your skin. No matter what experts say, it’s important to find what works for you and to always be kind to your skin.
Need a quick reference on how to go about your skin care routine? Check out our ultimate cheat sheet below.
Gracee Tolentino is the former managing editor of the Dermstore Blog. After spending 10 years of her writing and editing career working in the travel and food industries, she finally found her true calling: beauty, health and wellness. In her spar... Read More >