The order you apply your skin care products matters. Experts reveal when and how to do it to maximize your results.
In a world of 10-step skin care routines, it can be hard to know when to use all those products cluttering your bathroom counter. Does moisturizer come before oil? And where does serum fit in? “It’s very confusing to know how to apply and layer the variety of skin care products and ingredients that are currently available,” says Sheilagh Maguiness, MD, a pediatric dermatologist and co-founder of Stryke Club, a male-focused skin care company.
You might be thinking, “Who cares?” Well, you should. Your ingredients won’t work as well if you don’t apply them in the proper order, says Natalie Aguilar, a licensed aesthetician and dermatological nurse. “Although the order of our daily skin routine can be confusing, especially in a five-plus step routine, it’s actually quite easy if you follow this simple rule,” she says. “Like a soup before a meal, your products should be applied from thinnest to thickest.” But what happens if you use your products in the wrong order? We spoke with skin care experts to find out.
(Related: The Benefits of a Stripped-Down Skin-Care Routine)
Disorder equals dysfunction
Layering skin care products in the wrong order is a little like wearing your underwear over your clothes. It’s not really doing its job, is it? “Believe it or not, the order that you apply your skin care products in is really important,” says Alexia Wambua, a licensed aesthetician and founder of skin care company Native Atlas.
Add products in the wrong order, and you may not get their full benefits. “If you are doing your skin care routine out of order, you could be diminishing their efficacy,” says Shuting Hu, a cosmetic chemist and founder of skin care company Acaderma. “For example, if you moisturize then use toner, you’ll be taking off the layer of moisturizer that you just applied.” In that case, you may be washing money (and beauty benefits) down the drain with your cleanser, says licensed aesthetician Sonya Dakar, founder of Sonya Dakar Skin Clinic in Beverly Hills. After all, beauty products don’t always come cheap.
“Skin care in the wrong order won’t invalidate the efficacy but will definitely diminish its full potential, thus wasting time and money,” Dakar says. “I believe if you are already investing in your skin care routine, you should get the most out of it. At worst, using products in the wrong order can harm your skin, says Hu.
(Related: 5 Skin Care Ingredients You Should Never Mix—and 4 You Should)
Skin care routine order: The basics
To maximize the benefits of your products, the experts we spoke with agreed on the same general product order: cleanser, toner, serum, moisturizer, and SPF. This is applicable for a basic skin care routine, sans eye cream and spot treatment (more on those later).
Cleansing first is fairly self-explanatory. You need to remove dirt and oil, and prep your skin to drink up the active ingredients in products like, toner, serum, and moisturizer, says Aguilar. Dakar likens cleansing to tooth-brushing: it’s non-negotiable. She advises clients to use detergent-free face cleansers without sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). This strips the skin of its naturals oils and can cause irritation, dry skin, and even allergic reactions in some users.
Dakar also cautions against using hot water. “[Use] lukewarm water only,” she says. “Never hot, as it can deplete, irritate, and dehydrate your skin.” If you’re using a washcloth, swap it out for a fresh one every time. Resist the urge to reuse.
Back in the day, toner was a staple beauty product in every woman’s arsenal, but it slowly fell out of favour. Now, however, toners are back again and bigger than ever. (And renamed, in some cases; you’ll find products called essences, but these are basically toners.) “Toner is a helpful product to use in your skin care routine,” says Hu, who says the versatile product can be used by almost anybody. “After cleansing your skin, use toner to prep your skin for the rest of your skin care routine—serums, moisturizer, etc.—and also smooth the skin’s surface, even and tone your overall complexion.” The liquid helps to balance your skin’s pH while removing any leftover dirt or impurities that your cleanser may have missed. That’s one reason it’s used right after cleansing.
Beyond that, consider toner’s consistency. It’s super thin—similar to water—so if you use it over heavier products it won’t penetrate all the way to the skin. Or, in Hu’s example above, it’ll wipe some of the other product off. But put it onto clean skin and you could help your other products work better. “Serums and moisturizers will absorb better in hydrated skin,” Wambua says. “Some toners are made for hydration.” Not everyone will use toner. People with sensitive skin may find them too irritating, Dr. Maguiness. If that’s the case for you, skip this step and move on to serums.
(Related: 8 Face Mist Sprays That Can Help Hydrate Skin)
Put down the moisturizer. The next step in your skin care process is serum. They’re typically packed with active ingredients—vitamin C and resveratrol, for instance—so you want them to reach the skin without a barrier of lotion or cream. “There are a few reasons you’ll want to apply your serums before your moisturizer,” Hu says. “The purpose of a serum is to deliver powerful ingredients to your skin. Since serums are thinner and lighter than moisturizers, they can deeply penetrate the skin if applied first. Second, serums are packed with potent, active ingredients that you’ll want to apply directly to a clean face for maximum efficiency.”
Ingredients in serums are often full of antioxidants, which is why they’re good for daytime use and should be applied before sunscreen, says dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD, assistant professor of dermatology Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and author of Skin Rules.
(Related: How to Find the Right Vitamin C Serum for You)
Moisturizer and serum may seem the same, but they have distinct differences. “While the two may use similar ingredients, serums and moisturizers are not the same things, nor do they target the same skin concerns,” says Wambua. “A serum is designed to target a specific skin concern, while moisturizers strengthen and protect your face’s protective barrier.”
Moisturizer is a sealant, so putting it on first defeats the purpose of serum or toner. “Applying serum over a moisturizer prevents the active ingredients from reaching their target because it won’t get through the moisturizer,” says Aguilar. Instead, use a moisturizer to seal in all that skin care goodness you just added to your face.
While sunscreen isn’t necessary at night, it’s a must during the day. Aguilar recommends using face sunscreen with SPF as the cherry on top of your skin care routine. There are good reasons you don’t start with sunscreen. For starters, it’s thick, so any products you layer on top of it aren’t going to reach your skin. Worse, layering other products on top of SPF might diminish its effectiveness.
(Related: The Best Mineral Sunscreen to Reflect the Sun’s Harsh Rays)
How to layer with multi-step routines
If you’re working your way through an intensive skin care regimen with numerous steps, such as in Korean beauty, Dakar advises her clients to layer in the following order:
- Treatment lotion
- Eye cream
- Face oil
- Face balm
- SPF during the day.
What about retinol?
Aguilar considers retinol a serum for the purposes of application. That’s because it’s a treatment. She recommends applying it prior to moisturizer, “even if it has a similar consistency.”
“Most importantly, never forget your sunblock,” says Dr. Maguiness. That’s a must when you’re on a retinol regimen. “A mineral-based sunblock applied in the a.m., and reapplied throughout the day if you are outdoors, is literally the most important step in any skin care routine.” As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of (beauty) cure.
(Related: Bakuchiol—Why You Should Try This Retinol Alternative)
Skin care routine at night
Experts are divided on whether to wash the face twice daily, once in the morning and once at night. Hu falls in the twice-a-day camp, recommending both morning and night. “At night, you are removing all of the dirt and impurities from the day, and you won’t want to go to bed with this sitting on your face,” she says. “Washing your face in the morning helps to remove any excess sweat or oil from the night before but isn’t as necessary as washing your face in the evening.”
Aguilar often advises clients to wash twice daily but finds the night wash particularly important, calling it “critical.” “At night, our skin rejuvenates and repairs itself, making it extremely important to thoroughly and properly wash our makeup off before bed,” she says. Wearing makeup to bed prevents the skin from renewal and can result in collagen breakdown, inflammation, and clogged pores.
For a basic skin care routine at night, follow these steps:
- Remove makeup
- Use spot treatments
- Use retinol
Next: Everything You Need to Know About Acids for Skin Care