Regardless of the number of products in your skincare routine, if you’re not a dermatologist or expert, figuring out how to actually make sure all of these products work involves a little bit of research. Daily skincare routines include several steps, and it can be a little confusing as to what goes on top of what and which ingredients shouldn’t be applied together.
We’re demystifying the proper steps and applications of various products and giving a few basic no-nos when it comes to combining certain ingredients, but we urge you to be mindful of the active ingredients in the products you already own. Should your hydrating serum and vitamin C serum be applied together? Well, that depends on their main ingredients. This article will help you know what to look out for.
Why is how you layer your skincare even important? It all comes down to absorption. “Layering your skin products in the right order helps you get the most out of your routine; you want maximal percutaneous absorption of important active ingredients,” said Cynthia Bailey, M.D., board certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Bailey Skin Care. “Applying a product that blocks others from getting through your skin will be a frustrating waste of time and money.”
When it comes to the proper order of application of products, you typically want to go from thin to thick. “Always apply water-based products before oil-based products and try to layer thinner texture water-based products before thicker/creamier/oily containing products,” Dr. Bailey said. The viscosity of your products determines how they’re absorbed into your skin. If you apply a watery serum after you’ve already layered on a cream or lotion, you are not receiving the full benefits of the thinner product because it’s not able to penetrate the skin with something else so thick underneath. This foundational principle has some exceptions that we’ll cover, namely when it comes to eye creams, eye serums, and retinol.
The proper application of products also differs between night and day applications, as you won’t be using the same products each time. “Ideally you want a twice-a-day AM/PM skincare routine separated by about 12 hours or so,” Dr. Bailey added. While some products are best applied at night (like retinol) or in the morning (antioxidants like vitamin C), your routine will generally look similar, always starting with cleanser.
According to Dr. Bailey, the proper skincare routine involves:
- Correcting products (like retinol, AHA/BHA, and other products meant to improve current skin issues)
- Hydrating products (serums and moisturizer)
- Protecting products (sunscreen)
Here, we’re breaking down just how to organize your routine.
What Order to Apply Your Skincare Products in the Morning
Step 1: Oil Cleanser
Note that if you aren’t using a facial oil in your nighttime routine, then oil cleansing in the morning isn’t always necessary. However, if you have dry skin, using an oil cleanser instead of a gel or milky cleanser in the morning might be a better alternative. It will hydrate your skin while getting rid of any products or sweat from the night before.
Step 2: Micellar Water
Cleanse with either a water-based cleanser or do a micellar water rinse by saturating a cotton pad with pure micellar water and sweeping it all over your face and neck.
Step 3: Hydrating Toner and Essences
To keep your skin supple and hydrated, use a hydrating toner or essence while your skin is still damp from the micellar water. The key to a hydrated, plump complexion is layers of moisture, so we’ll start with this step: Apply your toner or essence with your hands and pat it into the skin.
Step 4: Treatment Serums and Ampoules
The typical treatment serum used in daytime skincare is a vitamin C serum, but no matter what types of serums you use, just make sure that the most potent active ingredient goes on first. To save time, I’d recommend a Vitamin C serum combined with hyaluronic acid so you don’t have to spend time layering in the early morning. But if you do choose to layer serums, always apply the hydrating serum after the treatment serum.
Step 5: Eye Cream or Eye Serums
The skin under your eyes is the thinnest on your face, so your eye-specific products need to go on before any heavier moisturizers.
Step 6: Moisturizer
There’s no such thing as skin that’s too moisturized, but if you struggle with heavy moisturizer under makeup, consider a gel consistency or a light lotion.
Step 7: SPF
“Sunscreen typically sits on top of your skin or penetrates just into the superficial layers of dead cells,” Dr. Bailey said. This is why you always finish your routine with sunscreen between 30 and 50 SPF. Look for a milky essence consistency or a serum style sunscreen to avoid white cast or caking makeup.
What Order to Apply Your Skincare Products at Night
For nighttime skincare, you need to consider whether or not you want to incorporate a retinol in your routine. Retinol can be a little daunting, so read our full rundown on it here. Nighttime skincare is the time for more serious treatments like retinol and other photosensitizing AHAs like glycolic and lactic acids because a lot of these active ingredients break down in sunlight.
If you want to use both an AHA and retinol, it’s best to alternate their application. Use retinol one night and your AHA the next, and so on, but be careful and go slow because these ingredients are known to cause irritation when you first start them. A typical nighttime skincare routine will look relatively similar to a daytime routine with a few minor tweaks.
Step 1: Oil Cleanser
An oil cleanser is always necessary at night, as you will be removing makeup, SPF, environmental pollutants, and the sebum your skin produced during the day. You can use an oil cleanser or a cleansing balm depending on your preferences.
Step 2: Gel or Milky Cleanser
To make sure all of the oily residue from your cleansing oil/balm is removed and that your skin is totally clear of makeup, dirt, and oil, opt for a gel or milky cleanser. Gel is great for combination/oily skin or acne-prone skin, while a milky cleanser will clean skin without stripping away all of the moisture on dry skin types.
Step 3: Hydrating Toner or Liquid Exfoliator
You can use the same toner or essence you used in the morning to hydrate your skin and prepare it for any of the harsh acid ingredients or retinoids you might use next. You can also use a liquid exfoliant with AHA or BHA during this step. Make sure to not use any other acids in your evening routine and follow this step with a hydrating moisturizer.
Step 4: AHA/BHA or Retinol
If you used an exfoliator in the last step, skip this one. This is where retinol and AHAs start to come into play. Using AHAs and BHAs at the same time as retinol can be irritating depending on your skin type, so we recommend alternating nights or using AHA/BHA products in the morning and retinol at night to limit irritation. If you aren’t using retinol, this is where you might opt for a glycolic or lactic acid serum or mask that will exfoliate your skin overnight. If retinol is a little too strong for your skin, try a bakuchiol product instead. Always wait until skin is completely dry before applying retinol—usually wait about 20 minutes and then allow your retinol product to fully absorb before moving on.
If you’re worried about mixing acids yourself, opt for a product that’s already done the ratio for you.
Step 5: Eye Cream
Opt for a heavier formula for nighttime use that focuses on moisturizing and treating the undereye.
Step 6: Moisturizer
“Look for moisturizing creams with ingredients that support your skin barrier such as squalane, ceramides, lipids (oils), glycerin in a cream base matched to your skin type,” Dr. Bailey explained. “This helps to ‘seal the deal’ over your correcting products and helps protect skin from barrier breakdown (irritant dermatitis) and prevent trans-epidermal water loss.” If you have oily skin, you can opt for an oil-free moisturizer (similar to what you used in the daytime), whereas those with dry skin might need a thicker product before bed.
Step 7: Sleeping Mask
Sleeping masks help create a barrier to seal in all of your products and keep your skin optimally hydrated throughout the night. If you like to use a facial oil at night, this would be the step to add it in as well.
Step 8: Spot Treatment
If you have any active breakouts, this is when you would apply a spot treatment or a pimple patch (our editors’ favorite way to get rid of a pesky zit). Do not apply any other skincare over a spot treatment, especially retinol.
What Skincare Ingredients to Use Together and Which to Avoid
When you begin to combine the skincare you already own with new things you want to purchase, you need to be careful about which active ingredients you are layering together. Always check to see what the main ingredients in your products are to avoid irritation.
Retinol + Glycolic Acid = No… or maybe!
If you have sensitive or reactive skin, these two can be problematic when layered together. If you’re going to use any AHA alongside retinol, be sure to start slow to avoid redness and peeling. Opt for a product that combines small percentages of AHA/BHA with retinol already in the formula.
Retinol + Vitamin C = NO!
It’s often debated as to whether or not the pH of L-ascorbic acid destabilizes retinol and therefore renders it ineffective—so far the jury is still out. However, since retinol makes you more sensitive to sunlight and vitamin C is best worn during the day, it’s best to keep these two separate by applying vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night.
Retinol + Benzoyl Peroxide = NO!
This is a combination Dr. Bailey warned against because it can cause dryness and irritation, and the two products can deactivate each other if used together, making them less effective. Retinol is used as an acne treatment (particularly in prescription formulas like tretinoin), but it doesn’t play well with the actives in spot treatments, so be careful if you need to use both. Remember, putting retinol on an active breakout will do nothing to cure it, as retinol works on the deeper layers of skin. Retinol is never to be used as a spot treatment!
Benzoyl Peroxide + AHAs = NO!
These are two exfoliators from different ends of the spectrum, so be careful when combining them, as it’s very easy to stress out your skin by over-exfoliating.
Benzoyl Peroxide + Salicylic Acid = Yes, sometimes.
For acne-prone skin, using these two together once a week can work wonders on active breakouts or congested pores. If you’re not experiencing either, it’s best to leave these two alone.
Vitamin C + Peptides = Yes!
These two go together like champagne and OJ. Peptides are kind of like the hype man of skincare: They’re not that special on their own, but they really rev up the effectiveness of other active ingredients. These short-chain amino acids are the building blocks of the protein that creates collagen and elastin, and they really love antioxidants like vitamin C.
Vitamin C + SPF = Yes!
You have to have sun protection during the day—that’s a given—but your SPF does nothing to protect you from environmental pollution and heat-activated free radicals. For this, you need an effective antioxidant like vitamin C.
Retinol + Hyaluronic Acid = Yes!
You should always replenish moisture after applying retinol, hence why retinol and hyaluronic acid are a dynamic duo in your skincare routine.