How to Layer Products in Your Skin-Care Routine Correctly

There is no such thing as a single “correct” skin-care routine, but there’s definitely an optimal way to apply your products. Whether you’re a minimalist who prefers sticking to a three-step routine or the type of person willing to undertake 11 steps daily in pursuit of glass skin, the way you layer your chosen products has a big impact on how well they work. The more product-intense you go, the more important this order becomes.

There’s a reason cleansing comes first, serum sits beneath moisturizer, and sunscreen goes on last. Understanding this order will ensure your favorite skin-care products work effectively—because no one wants to splurge on a luxury serum only to render it useless because of misapplication. If you’ve ever looked at a tube of retinol or a bottle of face oil and wondered exactly how (and when) to use it, wonder no more. Below, dermatologists and skin-care experts explain the most effective way to apply every single product in your routine.

The Best Order to Apply Skin-Care Products

The easiest way to break it down is to refer to the table above, which lays out the best order for your separate morning and night skin-care routines. “The principle behind ordering is to cleanse your skin, open your skin so products can soak in, add actives on, then seal with moisturizing products,” says Morgan Rabach, M.D., dermatologist and co-founder of LM Medical NYC. Below, the detailed breakdown of every single step in your daily skin care routine.

1. Makeup Remover/Cleansing Oil

Unless you went to bed with makeup on (please don’t), there’s no reason to do this step in the morning. But at night it makes your cleanser’s job a lot easier.

Removing all makeup from your skin should always be your first step at the end of the day,” says Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta Skincare. Look for formulas that are effective enough to melt away waterproof mascara, but still gentle on your face—like micellar water. You can also double-cleanse with an emulsifying oil, which gets rid of the need to buy cotton rounds.

2. Cleanser

Do this step: Morning and night.

Now that your makeup layer is gone, you can proceed with washing your face. “A cleanser gets rid of dead skin, pollutants, oils, dirt, and bacteria,” says Rabach. Both she and Ciraldo recommend also doing this step when you first wake up in the morning, in order to prep your skin to absorb the active ingredients in your other products.

The best cleanser for you will depend on your skin type. “It’s important to pay attention to what’s in your cleanser and what’s not in it,” says Ciraldo. She recommends avoiding sulfates, which can have a harsh, stripping effect on your face, and looking for actives that suit your needs. “For normal or dry skin, I favor a hydrating cleanser with peptides,” she says. “If you’re oily or acne-prone, use a mild exfoliating cleanser with salicylic acid, which dislodges the dead cells that can clog pores.

3. Eye Cream

Do this step: Morning and night.

The first product to go on your face? Eye cream. The reason is simple—because you’ll probably forget to do it otherwise. Ciraldo recommends patting eye cream on gently with your ring finger (this way you’ll tug less at the delicate skin there) all the way around your eyes, not just underneath them. If you’re worried about eye cream causing your concealer or eye makeup to smear, choose a more lightweight option, like a hydrating gel that sinks in quickly and stays put.

For the best results, look for ingredients like peptides—which help tighten your skin and depuff—as well as antioxidants. Rabach recommends formulas that contain hydrating hyaluronic acid, brightening caffeine, and ceramides (these lock in moisture and help strengthen your skin barrier).

4. Toner/Essence

Do this step: Morning and night.

Both toners and essences are meant to help further prime your skin to absorb active ingredients, but the one you choose will depend on your skin type. Old-school toners were meant to balance skin pH and counteract alkaline soaps, before soap-free cleansers became popular. Now toner usually refers to liquid formulations geared toward oily skin that’s in need of gentle exfoliation and resurfacing. Ciraldo says those with oily or acne-prone skin should look for toners with ingredients like glycolic or salicylic acid.

Essences, on the other hand, tend to be more hydrating. Rabach recommends looking for actives like hyaluronic acid, which will flood your skin with moisture that you can lock in during subsequent steps. To apply, soak a cotton pad in liquid and gently pat it over your face. Alternatively, you can use your hands to do the same thing.

5. Serum

Do this step: Morning and night.

This is the step where you’ll deliver the bulk of active ingredients to your toner/essence-primed face, and it’s important to do it early on in your routine. “Serums are formulated with smaller molecular-weight actives so they penetrate into deeper skin layers,” says Ciraldo. “If you apply your serum after a thicker formulation, the active ingredients may not penetrate as well.

While you should apply serum twice a day, you shouldn’t be using the same formulation. “Serum actives differ for day and night,” says Rabach. During the day, she likes to choose serums with antioxidants that protect skin from daytime stressors like free radicals (caused by UV rays), pollutants, and blue light. The most popular ingredient for this is vitamin C, which you will have no problem finding in serum form. (Just make sure to choose one that’s properly stabilized for maximum effect.) At night, opt for a serum with peptides and growth factors to repair skin.

For both daytime and nighttime serums, Rabach also has a general list of ingredients she likes to look for across both formulations: Niacinamide to reduce redness, hyaluronic acid to pull moisture into your skin, and alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs), which help boost collagen and even out skin pigmentation. Ciraldo further splits up her preferred serum ingredients by skin type. “For acne-prone skin, look for stem cells, retinol, and green tea,” she says. “For dehydrated skin, look for lipids, hyaluronic acid, and peptides. And for hyperpigmented skin, look for vitamin C.”

6. Retinol

Do this step: At night only.

Retinol truly deserves its own essay, but the short version is this: The vitamin A derivative boosts collagen production and increases the rate of cellular turnover. “Retinol reduces fine lines, reduces pore size, increases collagen and elastin production, takes off dead skin, reduces oil production, unclogs pores, and evens out skin tone,” says Rabach. Whether you want to clear breakouts or fade fine lines—or basically do anything to your face—retinol is your friend.

On the flip side, this is a strong ingredient, and beginners should proceed with caution when adding to their routines. Potential side effects can include flaking, dryness, retinol burn, and increased sensitivity to the sun, which is why you should stick to applying it at night. Dermatologists often recommend easing into daily application slowly. “Start three times a week for the first week or two,” says Ciraldo. From there, you can gradually increase the frequency of application.

Most will apply their retinol layer after their serums and before moisturizer, but there is one exception. If your skin has trouble tolerating retinol and you want to minimize its side effects, you can buffer it instead. Retinol buffering refers to a technique whereby you mix your retinol with your moisturizer and apply it as a single step. This helps you still get the benefits, but decreases the potential for irritation. To take it a step further, you can also apply retinol over your moisturizer. Experiment with this step, and see where it fits best in your routine.

7. Moisturizer

Do this step: Morning and night.

Moisturizers are there to simultaneously hydrate and seal in hydration, which is why these formulas tend to be heavier than the layers that go underneath. “You should use moisturizers with humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, which pull in water,” says Rabach. “I also recommend looking for ceramides, which seal the outer layers of skin.”

Ciraldo says that many of her patients prefer to use separate formulas for their morning and nighttime routines. This has more to do with how moisturizers feel than anything else. You can use a lightweight formula in the morning that blends better with your makeup and reserve a heavier cream for evening. Ciraldo’s additional tip is to double up on your serum and moisturizer actives. For example, if you use a vitamin C serum in the morning, you can layer a vitamin C moisturizer right on top to boost the benefits.

8. Spot Treatment

Do this step: Morning and night.

You need to use spot treatments on active breakouts only, but if you’re experiencing acne, you can apply a leave-on spot treatment both morning and night to speed up its healing cycle. According to Ciraldo, you should spot-treat after you’ve applied your moisturizer, not before. This helps make sure the product stays on top of the pimple, and doesn’t go on the rest of your face. “If you’re using a strong acid and then smear moisturizer all over your face, you run the risk of the product getting on more sensitive areas,” she says. You’ll also dilute its effectiveness. Wait for your a.m./p.m. moisturizer to sink in, then carefully pat over the affected areas.

The two most common over-the-counter ingredients for spot treatments are benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Rabach differentiates them like this: Benzoyl peroxide helps kill acne-causing bacteria, while salicylic acid gently exfoliates and dries out your oil glands.

9. Face Oil

Do this step: Morning and night.

If there’s one step in your daily skin-care routine that surprisingly divides experts, it’s face oil. The most common recommendation is to apply it last at night and second-to-last before sunscreen in the morning. That’s because oils are occlusive, says Mona Gohara, M.D., dermatologist and associate clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine. Meaning, they help trap moisture in your skin. This is why Renée Rouleau, celebrity esthetician and founder of Renée Rouleau Skin Care, says you should think of face oils as a topcoat. “Oils provide a protective barrier to help prevent moisture from evaporating,” she says. “Anything applied over it may not be offering as much benefit to your skin because it can’t get through.”

However, some derms advise their patients to take this step earlier in their routines (usually before moisturizer), depending on the formulation of the oil they’re using. “Some oils are designed with ingredients that hydrate, others to brighten or even to strengthen your skin,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Ciraldo also says it’s okay to mix oils with your moisturizer if you prefer.

Whichever way you land, the important thing is that you don’t overdo it—with face oils, a little goes a long way. To apply, warm about two to three drops of oil in your palms and pat lightly over your face.

10. Sunscreen

Do this step: In the morning only.

What derms unanimously agree on is that you should wear sunscreen every single day to prevent UV damage—whether or not you go outside. Sunscreen needs to go over face oil in order to be most effective. “You do not want anything to stop the sunscreen from working, or making it less effective,” says Gohara. “Putting an oil on top of your sunscreen can decrease it’s efficacy.”

There are two types of sunscreens to choose from for your final step: physical and chemical. Physical blockers contain minerals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide and work by reflecting light away from your skin. Chemical blockers, on the other hand, work by absorbing light and converting it into heat, preventing it from penetrating into your skin. Rouleau says that mineral formulas are often better for sensitive skin, while chemical formulations tend to be thinner and spread more easily.

Chemical formulas also come with the benefit of not leaving a white cast on darker skin tones. While mineral sunscreens traditionally cast an ashy tone, Zeichner points out that brands have begun formulating better physical sunscreens to counteract that. “The newest formulation technology has brought us micronized sunscreens that rub in to your skin much better than ever before,” he says. “So using a zinc-based sunscreen no longer necessarily means your face will have that white cast. No matter what your personal preference is, there are sunscreens for every need.”

GLAMOUR

The Most Exciting New Skincare Products From March

As we say “so long!” to the winter and enter the spring, it’s time to switch up our skincare routine because when the months change, your regimen should too. So, to help you out, I’m going to keep on sharing the newness that I know you’ll love so much. 

SK-II Skinpower Airy Milky Lotion

SK-II’s Skinpower Airy Milky Lotion is an airy, lightweight moisturizer that will plump up your skin as it’s hydrating it. Inside the little red jar, you’ll find a formula filled with calla lily extract, dokudami extract, and peony extract, which work together to give skin a bouncy, healthy look and feel.  

$160 (Shop Now

Versed Auto-Save Advanced Restoring Serum

If your skin is looking tired or dull, try the Versed Auto-Save Advanced Restoring Serum. Its formula has ferulic acid to diminish dark spots and shea butter to moisturize. Not to mention, there’s also microalgae in the mix, which will assist in brightening.  

$25 (Shop Now)  

Elizabeth Arden Visible Brightening CicaGlow Concentrate

Ready to glow? Elizabeth Arden has you covered with the new Visible Brightening CicaGlow Concentrate. This treatment is made with niacinamide and cica to help diminish hyperpigmentation and soothe skin. The top green liquid is loaded with vitamin C to brighten, while the orangey bottom has all the exfoliants in it, like chestnut extract. Shake them together, and say hello luminosity. 

$70 (Shop Now

Clark’s Botanical Jasmine Vital Oil

Clark’s Botanical Jasmine Vital Oil is made with a fast-drying, non-greasy formula that features virgin hemp and cottonseed oils to give skin a dewy, hydrated finish. Pat on a dropper-full of this oil before makeup, and you’ll have that glow-from-within vibe within seconds of applying.  

$99 (Shop Now)  

Dermalogica PowerBright Dark Spot Serum

Pimples can be a pain, but let’s not forget the dark spots that come after a breakout, too. With Dermalogica’s PowerBright Dark Spot Serum, you can diminish that hyperpigmentation in no time. Its ingredient list features niacinamide and shiitake mushroom, which will help brighten that unwanted discoloration (while simultaneously hydrating it) in no time.    

$95 (Shop Now)  

Chapstick Total Hydration Sea Minerals Exfoliator Lip Balm

Chapstick’s Total Hydration Sea Minerals Exfoliator Lip Balm features shea butter to moisturize and sea salt extract to buff away dead skin. This stick formula is also super convenient — the sleek, compact tube is tiny enough to go just about anywhere with you.

$8 (Shop Now

Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Butter

When you apply Isle of Paradise’s Self-Tanning Butter before you go to bed, you’ll wake up with the most natural-looking tan. The gradual formula has a faint green hue that works as a color corrector, so not only will you look bronze, but your tone will be nice and even.    

$25 (Shop Now)  

Dial Clean Gentle Body Wash

Dial’s Clean Gentle Body Wash comes in three scents: Fragrance-Free, Waterlily, and Aloe. It’s a vegan formula that leaves skin feeling hydrated, soft, and silky (thanks to the flower oil on the ingredient list) as it cleanses.   

$4 (Shop Now

Philosophy Purity Made Simple One-Step Facial Cleanser With Goji Berry Extract

If you love Philosophy’s Purity Made Simple One-Step Facial Cleanser, you’re going to adore this limited-edition version. Like the original, this wash has meadowfoam seed oil, which melts away leftover debris and makeup, as well as goji berry extract, a Chinese fruit known to be a powerful antioxidant that reduces inflammation. 

$25 (Shop Now)  

Ole Henriksen Wrinkle Blur Bakuchiol Eye Gel es Créme 

Ole Henriksen’s latest eye cream, Wrinkle Blur Bakuchiol Eye Gel Créme, is — you guessed it — made with bakuchiol, a natural alternative to retinol. The pretty lavender formula also has orchid stem cell to reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles.

$49 (Shop Now

Curél Makeup Cleansing Oil

When you mix one pump of Curél’s Makeup Cleansing Oil with water you get a milky texture that instantly lifts makeup and even stubborn waterproof mascara. For that, you can thank the castor oil in the formula, which also leaves the skin feeling soft and looking dewy. 

$20 (Shop Now)  

Covey First of All Cleanser

Founded by model Emily DiDonato, new skincare brand Covey launched with three products in its collection, including the First of All Cleanser. It’s made with hydrating ingredients like aloe leaf juice and babassu oil to remove all dirt and makeup effortlessly without stripping skin.  

$29 (Shop Now

First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Firming Collagen Cream

Made with colloidal oatmeal to calm the skin and niacinamide to reduce redness, First Aid Beauty’s Ultra Repair Firming Collagen Cream is a dream for eczema- and acne-prone skin. Not to mention its thick texture is perfect for what’s left of these dry, winter days. 

$42 (Shop Now)  

Elemis Pro-Collagen Marine Moisture Essence

Elemis just launched its first-ever essence: the Pro-Collagen Marine Moisture. It’s made a hydrating blend of hyaluronic acid and sea spring water to plump skin and diminish dryness. Gently pat the treatment into your skin after cleansing and instantly reveal glowiness.  

$90 (Shop Now

Peace Out Blemish Balm 

Join me in welcoming Peace Out’s first cleanser: the Blemish Balm. Work this exfoliating formula into your skin in the morning and at night, and you’ll start to notice a clearer complexion, thanks to its salicylic acid. Plus, this jar also has hydrating hyaluronic acid in it, so don’t worry about drying your skin out. 

$22 (Shop Now)

Kate Somerville Kateceuticals Total Repair Cream

Kate Somerville’s Kateceuticals Total Repair Cream is formulated with hyaluronic acid and squalane to hydrate and a powerful blend of ceramides and peptides to smooth out any fine lines. Consider it a one-stop shop for softer, plumper skin.  

$120 (Shop Now)  

Thrive Causemetics Smart Microdermabrasion 2-in-1 Instant Facial

Get ready to scrub all of your skin concerns away with Thrive Causemetics’ Smart Microdermabrasion 2-in-1 Instant Facial. It’s made with a blend of alpha hydroxy acids to exfoliate and beta hydroxy acids to reduce the appearance of acne and enlarged pores. Use this treatment twice a week to reveal your softest, brightest skin.   

$44 (Shop Now)

ALLURE article

This Cult-Favourite Cleansing Oil Is So Popular, Over 77 Million Bottles Have Been Sold Worldwide

Deep cleaning skincare is having a moment right now. Seemingly everybody is looking for the next best skincare hack — whether it’s a pore-eliminating mousse or a gentle gel exfoliator — to keep their complexion squeaky clean and blackhead-free (while still maintaining a glow, of course). If the hot weather has you browsing for something to help with clogged pores and oily skin, this Japanese face cleanser comes highly recommended by thousands of shoppers.

You may already recognize the DHC Deep Cleansing Oil. Not only is it Amazon’s third best-selling makeup remover, but it has also garnered a cult-following worldwide. According to a brand representative, over 77 million bottles of the cleanser have been sold to date — and at one point, it was so popular that a bottle was flying off shelves every 10 seconds. Its simple formula, which includes olive oil, rosemary oil, and vitamin E, combined with powerful results are what makes it so popular. Shoppers say it’s helped their skin “tremendously” and is “incredible” at removing blackheads, reducing the appearance of pores, and even fighting acne.

Buy It DHC Deep Cleansing Oil, 6.1 oz, $28; amazon.com; DHC Deep Cleansing Oil, 4.1 oz; $21; amazon.com

If you’ve never used a cleansing oil before, the directions are a little different from traditional face wash. It’s meant to be applied on dry skin (don’t wet your hands or face prior), massaged for about 30 seconds, and then rinsed off with water. You can follow up with a gel or foam cleanser if you’re following a Japanese or Korean beauty routine (Amazon shoppers often purchase this CeraVe face wash to use after the DHC oil), or simply move on to the next step in your skincare regimen.

“Nothing compares to this at all. This is such a holy grail product sent from the gods,” one shopper wrote. “No crappy fillers, chemicals, additives, etc. Just simple, super effective and straight to the point. I have used this for years and have tried many others… Shu Uemura, Eclos, Josie Maran, Julep, Origins, Boscia, Burt’s Bees, Neutrogena [and] none of them are as great as this. This leaves no residue on the skin and my makeup routine used to be quite intense. Acne prone/oily/combination/sensitive/eczema prone skin people, this should be the only cleansing oil to use.”

If you don’t want to commit to a full-sized bottle right away, DHC also has travel-sized options of the oil that come in a kit with other products, like a makeup primer and the brand’s best-selling lip balm.

Buy It DHC Travel Essentials, $21; amazon.com

Whether your skin’s been stuck in a rut or you just want to try something new, the DHC Cleansing Oil might offer that nourishing deep clean you’ve been looking for.

PEOPLE article