Like a good fall outfit, skincare should be layered with care. “The order in which you apply your skincare products is important in ensuring that you reap all the benefits of each,” explains Y. Claire Chang, MD, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in NYC. The strategy: “In general, apply from lightest to thickest,” she says. “If you apply thicker products first, the lighter or lower molecular weight products will have trouble penetrating through to the skin to deliver its benefits.”
Just as the rules of fashion dictate, it’s all about saving the heavier ‘outerwear’ layers for last. But judging which product is heftier than another just by feel can be tricky — and there are some exceptions to the rule that can make finding your ideal order more difficult. That doesn’t mean you can’t become a skincare recipe master, though. You just need a little know-how. Read on for guidelines of what to apply after that crucial ‘cleanse’ step.
Step 1: Prep With Liquids
Once you’ve washed your face, if you have anything in your routine that feels like a lot like water, it should get swiped on first. These products are generally meant to prep the skin, either by removing dead skin cells (astringents), balancing your pH or oil level (toners), or adding a light but deeply penetrating level of moisture that ups the magic of ingredients to come later in your routine (essences).
It should be noted that this step is completely voluntary — and some derms would even say unnecessary. That is especially true for toners, one of the more controversial skincare steps. “[They] do not provide any benefit to skin except the possibility of dryness and irritation,” says Amy Spizuoco, DO, a board certified dermatologist in New York City. Even so, some do find them beneficial for the right patient. “You do not always need a toner, but it can definitely improve your skin in certain cases,” Dr. Chang says.
Her advice for those who want to use one: “If your skin is feeling dull, choose a toner with brightening ingredients like niacinamide or alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). If your skin is feeling oily and acne-prone, you can choose a toner with ingredients, like tea tree oil, witch hazel, or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs).” But she says to avoid one ingredient at all costs: alcohol. “[It] can dry out your skin and leave it feeling tight.”
Step 2: Treat With Serums, Creams, and Meds
In the second category, you are applying anything that is of ‘medium’ weight, which tends to be the products with active ingredients (think: serums, treatments, and medications). This is not only because of the consistency of the formulas, but as Morgan Rabach, MD, a board certified dermatologist and co-founder of LM Medical in NYC, explains, putting them on next ensures you’re getting the most out of the glow-inducing, age-defying, and nourishing add-ins inside. “I always put the active ingredients on the skin first and then moisturizers to seal in the active ingredients,” she says.
When it comes to serums and medications, people usually use one or the other in a single session. For instance, you might use a photosensitive vitamin C serum at night and an Rx for acne during the day. But if you’re using both at once, Dr. Spizuoco recommends going with the serum first and then the medication on top. Dr. Rabach explains that the key here is to allow each to absorb completely (for a few minutes) before moving on to the next step as not to dilute them.
There are two exceptions to this rule. The first is retinol for those with sensitive skin. In such cases, Dr. Chang says that applying moisturizer can help with dryness and irritation. The second case is bleaching cream (like hydroquinone) used for hyperpigmentation. “It's best to apply the moisturizer first and then the bleaching agent to individual spots, as to not spread to unwanted areas on the skin,” Dr. Spizuoco explains.
Step 3: Moisturize
Next up in your routine: Anything that’s main focus is to keep you from feeling parched. This includes leave-on face masks, eye cream, moisturizer, and face oil. You don’t necessarily need more than one product in this category, but there can be benefits to combining. Some people find their moisturizer works well enough on its own (oily skin types, for example, may only need a face oil), while dry folks might want to combine a cream and oil. If you’re layering, the general advice is to save the oil for last because it “can help lock in moisture to avoid excess dryness,” Dr. Chang says. Her warning: “If you are acne-prone, avoid facial oils that can clog your pores and worsen your breakouts.”
Step 4: Protect
At night, your routine can stop at moisturizer, but there’s one last thing that needs to cap off every daytime regime: sunscreen. Actually, to be clear, it’s sunscreen and then more sunscreen because, as we all know, SPF should be reapplied every few hours to keep your skin protected. Dr. Rabach’s advice: Look for mineral sunscreens that contain titanium and zinc (check out our roundup of the best sunscreens). She explains that, since they act as physical shields from sunlight, they offer more dependable protection — and dependability is exactly what you should be looking for in a sunblock.
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