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Skincare Routine Order 101: Your Official Guide To Applying Products


“Am I layering my skincare correctly?” It’s a question we ask ourselves more often than we’d like to admit. Like us, you may have an arsenal of skincare products on your beauty shelf that you reach for daily, and that make up your go-to skincare routine. And like us, you’ve probably wondered if the order in which you apply them actually matters (Spoiler Alert: It does!). To get the facts, we chatted with skincare pros about layering products in your morning and nighttime skincare routines.

“If products aren’t used in the correct order and are not able to be absorbed, it may decrease the benefits,” says Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, dermatologist at MDCS: Medical Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in NYC. While you may swear by your elaborate, multi-step routine, the reality is that your skin can only absorb so much.

“There is a limit to the amount of ingredients (and product in general) that your skin can truly absorb and make proper use of, so make sure to start with the most important products first,” says Ali Tobia, licensed aesthetician. And when in doubt, apply products in order of consistency, starting with the thinnest and working toward the thickest—always leaving oil for last.

“If thicker or oily products are applied first, it will prevent thinner products from being absorbed,” says Dr. Garshick. On top of that, in order to reap the best results from your routine, you’ll want to make sure the ingredients in your routine play well with one another, but don’t worry, we’ll get to that in a bit. Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t worry, once you make it a habit it’ll become second nature, and trust us—your skin will thank you for it. Keep scrolling for everything you need to know about your skincare routine order.

Infographic on morning and nighttime skincare routine

How to layer your skincare products

Your Step-By-Step Morning Routine

1. Cleanser

Before you can even think about applying products, you must wash your face—yes, even if you cleansed before bed the night before. That way, you can ensure you don’t have any product leftover from the night before and that your skin is ready to absorb products. Depending on your skin type and needs, you can opt for gentle, clarifying, hydrating, or clearing cleansers. A great option that works well for most skin types is the KORRES Greek Yoghurt Foaming Cream Cleanser which is packed with nourishing prebiotics, probiotics, and essential vitamins and minerals.

2. Toner

When we think of toner, we’re often taken back to the skin-drying formulas we used in our teens—but not all toners are harsh and irritating. The toners of today are made up of gentle formulas designed to target specific skincare issues, from dry skin to acne, and it should be the first thing you apply after washing your face. 

“Toner helps remove any residual dirt, oil, and/or makeup on your skin,” says Tobia. Plus, it’s a great way to prep your skin for the product you’re about to slather on. “Toner is designed to be used after cleansing your skin as it is often water-based and thin so it absorbs into the skin quickly,” says Dr. Garshick. If you have dull, acne-prone, or oily skin and you’re looking for an easy way to balance your complexion, try the BONAJOUR Eggplant Daily BHA Toner. The formula contains salicylic acid and clarifying eggplant extract to sweep away pore-clogging dead skin cells and excess sebum.

3. Serum

Think of serums like superfood-packed smoothies for your skin, delivering a highly concentrated dose of active ingredients deep into your pores where they’re absorbed and really work their magic. “Immediately after you tone your skin, your pores are as clean and receptive as possible, so it’s the perfect time to apply a facial serum so that your skin can soak it all up and absorb it,” says Tobia.

Serums are typically more concentrated than toner, but not as thick as moisturizer or oil, making them the natural next step in your skincare routine. When it comes to selecting the right serum, look for one that can protect your skin from pollution and UV rays, like a vitamin C serum. “Antioxidants such as vitamin C can provide protection during the day to help fight free radical damage that can occur from environmental stressors,” says Dr. Garshick.

Our fave? The VITABRID C12 Vitamin C Dual Drop Serum is packed with a stable form of vitamin C, a powerhouse antioxidant that helps brighten and even your complexion, while protecting against aging free-radical damage.

4. Eye Cream

Since eye creams are typically lighter than moisturizer, you should apply them first so they can be properly absorbed by your skin. “Because the eyelid skin is thin, it is important to avoid getting some of the products designed for the face too close to the eye as it can be irritating, while eye creams are often designed to be tolerable even for the delicate eyelid skin,” says Dr. Garshick. If you want to bid goodbye to dark circles and puffiness the HANALEI COMPANY Kona Peptide Eye Cream is bound to be your new best friend, thanks to an ample dose of peptides, caffeine, and hyaluronic acid.

5. Moisturizer & SPF

The last step in your morning skincare routine should always be a moisturizer that contains SPF to hydrate and protect your complexion. “Daytime products that you would typically apply in the morning should have SPF to protect you from UVA/UVB rays, and ingredients (like vitamin C, for example) that protect you from free radicals and environmental pollutants,” says Tobia.

Not only will your moisturizer protect against harmful UV rays, but it also works to lock in the products you applied during your skincare routine, sealing them in and increasing their effectiveness. MURAD Essential-C Day Moisture Broad Spectrum SPF 30 | PA+++ offers SPF protection and is made with vitamin C to protect against free radical damage caused by the sun and pollution, leaving you with a brighter, glowing complexion.

Your Step-By-Step Night Routine

1. Double Cleanse

After a long day, there’s nothing more satisfying than melting away all of your makeup, along with dirt and oils that settle on your skin and can penetrate your pores. The most effective way to do this is through double cleansing (instead of cleansing once or using a makeup remover) with both a cleansing oil and water-based cleanser to ensure your face is totally clean and ready for your nighttime skincare routine.

Another benefit of the double cleanse? The second round gives you another opportunity to treat your individual skincare needs. “An effective double cleanse should include an oil cleanser as the first step, which helps to dissolve the makeup and/or sunscreen on top of your skin,” says Tobia. If you’ve never used an oil-based cleanser before, try the RODIAL Pink Diamond Cleansing Balm which contains vitamin E, sweet almond oil, and rice germ oil to nourish skin and dissolve impurities.

2. Toner

Choose a toner based on your skin type and any skincare issues you want to address. We especially love the way the MAMONDE Rose Water Toner gently lifts away dead skin cells with lactic acid.

3. Essences, Serums, or Concentrates

Our skin’s regeneration process is most active at night, which is why it’s so important to use products with highly concentrated ingredients that maximize your skin’s healing process. The Barrier Serum from EVENPRIME is formulated specifically to help repair your skin’s natural barrier with hyaluronic acid, antioxidants, and ceramides.

Similar in consistency to a serum, an essence or a concentrate will pack a potent punch and deliver much-needed nutrients to your skin. If you’re using all three, be sure to use them in the order of toner, essence, and then serum for the best results.

4. Eye Cream

Apply a hydrating eye cream before you apply your evening moisturizer so it can penetrate below the surface (nighttime moisturizers tend to be thicker than eye creams). A good choice is the YENSA BEAUTY PINK LOTUS Peptide Renewal Eye Cream, which contains a powerful combination of antioxidant-rich pink lotus extract and firming peptides to boost collagen production while still being gentle enough for your eye area.

5. Treatments or Retinol

This fifth step in your evening routine is crucial for addressing specific skin concerns (like breakouts or fine lines) by delivering active ingredients to repair and restore your complexion. Whether you reach for an exfoliating multitasker with lactic acid or glycolic acid, retinol, or an acne-fighting spot treatment, it’s important not to overdo it. Instead, adopt a less-is-more approach. “If retinol is used with benzoyl peroxide, the retinol is canceled out and vice versa, so you don’t get the best of both worlds; you get neither,” says Tobia.

Instead of layering on multiple treatments, alternate products on a nightly basis to address one skincare concern per night. This will increase the effectiveness of your routine and eliminate the risk of irritation. If you’re going to exfoliate with AHAs or BHAs (like glycolic acid or salicylic acid), opt for a retinol treatment the next night instead. “Retinols and acids, physical exfoliators, or AHAs/BHAs are generally best to avoid using together, because exfoliants remove a layer of dead skin cells, making the skin more vulnerable to irritation from the retinoid,” says Dr. Garshick.

Retinol increases cell turnover, encourages collagen production, and minimizes fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots, making it the anti-aging superhero in your skincare routine—and (like a superhero) it works best at night. “Some retinol formulations are thought to become unstable in the sunlight, leaving them less effective, which is why many products containing retinols or retinoids will suggest nighttime use,” says Dr. Garshick. You also need to build up a tolerance when you first introduce retinol into your routine. (Learn all about it in our beginner’s guide to retinol.)

A targeted spot treatment is a quick overnight fix that’s especially useful for acne-prone skin. If you notice a pimple, a good spot treatment to incorporate into your evening skincare routine is the TULA SKINCARE Go Away Acne Spot Treatment, which contains acne-fighting ingredients (like five percent benzoyl peroxide!) to target blackheads, cysts, and whiteheads while you sleep. Apply your nighttime moisturizer after. “The moisturizer then locks in the spot treatment for maximum effectiveness,” says Tobia.

6. Moisturizer or Night Cream.

Your skin repairs itself at night, so go for a thicker moisturizing lotion that contains fortifying ingredients like hyaluronic acid, peptides, or proteins. “Nighttime moisturizers can be much thicker, since you’re leaning into your skin’s natural overnight restorative and repair cycle,” Tobia tells us.

While during the day the focus is on antioxidants and SPF, your nighttime routine is the perfect time to reach for active ingredients that might otherwise increase your sensitivity to the sun. “Some moisturizers also include other ingredients to help repair overnight, such as retinoids,” adds Dr. Garshick. These formulas are ideal for sensitive skin or newcomers to the retinol game. If you’re looking for a moisturizing addition to add to your evening skincare routine, look no further than ONEKIND Dream Cream Nighttime Moisturizer—it locks in hydration thanks to moisture-binding squalane and repairs damaged skin cells with healing rosehip oil.

7. Face Oil

A facial oil should be the last thing you apply to your skin to seal in all your products, including your moisturizer. “They are what we refer to as “occlusive” products, which just means that they block the flow. By doing that, they can enhance the moisturizing properties of the rest of your routine,” explains Tobia.

8. Lip Balm

While this last step is often overlooked, it’s time to stop neglecting your lips when it comes to your skincare routine. Instead, restore moisture overnight and treat your lips to a nourishing balm, like MENTED COSMETICS’ Balms Away Coconut Lip Treatment which is packed with moisturizing shea butter to repair your lips while you get your beauty rest.

A Final Word...

With so many beauty products to try, it can be tempting to pile them on—but resist the urge to continuously add to your routine and focus on the order in which you apply your holy grail products. This will allow you to make the most of your products and maximize their effectiveness. Give it a try and let us know if you saw a skin transformation by switching up the order of your skincare routine!

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About the author
Katrina Mitzeliotis Lanza
Katrina is a freelance writer and on-air correspondent with over a decade of experience covering beauty, fashion, and entertainment. When she isn't freelancing, you can catch her on QVC or chasing after her two-year-old son.
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Article Last Updated June 21, 2021 12:00 AM