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 Best Face SPFs For Every Skin Type

You will have heard it a million times before: wearing a face SPF every day is key to healthy – and healthy-looking — skin. A good sunscreen blocks the harmful effects of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays, which wreak havoc on the health of our skin and its cells, leading to decreased collagen and elasticity, fine lines, pigmentation, and an increased risk of skin cancer if an SPF is not used. 

Historically, SPFs have been sticky and greasy, quick to clog pores, and prone to imparting a grey hue over darker skin tones. The good news is that now, thanks to much-improved formulas and innovative technology, there are plenty of facial sunscreens that protect your skin while also being a pleasure to use. Look for formulas that have both UVA and UVB protection (find out more about sun protection here), a minimum of SPF 30, and a formula that suits your skin’s specific needs. 

Another factor to consider in your sunscreen selection is its effect on the environment. While the science around exactly how damaging sunscreen is to our oceans is inconclusive, what ingredients should we be looking out for to make the best choice possible? Here, the marine biologist Professor Cinzia Corinaldesi from the Università Politecnica delle Marche and Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist at Skin55, provides a five-step guide.

Avoid oxybenzone and octinoxate

The main chemicals to watch out for are oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are commonly used in sunscreen to absorb UV light. “We [have] demonstrated that oxybenzone, octinoxate and enzacamene caused complete coral bleaching even at very low concentrations,” says Professor Corinaldesi. Octocrylene is another chemical that’s potentially harmful to marine life, with the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory compiling a handy list of the ingredients we should try to avoid. 

“Certain organic filters have been identified in water sources worldwide and there seems to be a suggestion that they are not easily removed by common wastewater techniques,” adds Dr Mahto. “Many of the filters have also been found in various species of fish worldwide — the impact of this is uncertain on the food chain.” 

Opt for a mineral sunscreen instead

Mineral sunscreens, which typically contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are thought to be less harmful to coral reefs in comparison to their chemical counterparts. “Mineral sunscreens rely on inorganic filters, which form a physical barrier on the skin surface,” explains Dr Mahto. 

It’s worth remembering, though, that some research suggests zinc oxide can also pose a danger to marine life. “Our studies indicate that zinc oxide nanoparticles are very harmful to marine organisms,” says Professor Corinaldesi, but adds that titanium dioxide with surface coatings — as found in Green People’s scent-free SPF 30 — “has a much lower impact on coral reefs”. 

Look for non-nanoparticles 

Particle size matters, too. While nanoparticles can be absorbed by coral reefs, research suggests that larger non-nanoparticles (a label you’ll see on lotions) are better for the environment. Ren’s Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30 uses non-nano zinc oxide, while Stream2Sea’s sunscreens contain non-nano titanium oxide. “Consumers should look out for sunscreens that use non-nanoparticles because nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are expected to be more harmful to marine organisms than non-nanoparticles,” explains Professor Corinaldesi. 

Read beyond the ‘reef-safe’ or ‘ocean-safe’ labels 

The increase in demand for eco-friendly sunscreens means that a lot of brands are now marketing their products as ‘reef-safe’ or ‘ocean-safe’. This usually means they don’t contain oxybenzone and octinoxate — the two chemicals banned in sunscreen by countries such as Hawaii — but they could still contain other chemicals on the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory list that are potentially harmful to the environment. “Consumers should check the ingredients on the label of the products,” Professor Corinaldesi comments. 

Don’t forget the packaging 

Beyond the ingredients in sunscreen, it’s important to consider the packaging as well, with discarded sunscreen bottles contributing, in part, to the 8m tonnes of plastic that end up in our oceans every year. Brands such as Green People are using recyclable plant-based packaging made from sugar cane; a much more eco-friendly option compared to traditional plastic containers.

From barely-there textures to subtly-tinted creams for when you don’t feel like wearing makeup, shop British Vogue’s edit of the 20 best SPFs for your face below.

La Roche-Posay Anthelios Anti-Shine Sun Cream Gel SPF50+

If you suffer from blemishes, you may find that sun protection leaves your skin feeling greasy and prone to breakouts. La Roche-Posay’s Anthelios Anti-Shine Sun Cream Gel is specifically designed for people with those concerns, offering a non-comedogenic, feather-light formula with a velvet finish alongside SPF 50 protection.

£17.50, available at LookFantastic.com.

Kiehl’s Ultra Light Daily Defense SPF 50

Doubling up as both a moisturiser and an SPF 50 sunscreen, Kiehl’s Ultra Light Daily Defense is an industry favourite, perfect for those with sensitive skin thanks to its oil-free, fragrance-free formula. It doesn’t leave a chalky residue either, making it a good choice for darker skin tones.

£30, available at Kiehls.co.uk.

Skinceuticals Advanced Brightening UV Defense SPF 50

With tranexamic acid and niacinamide, this is a supercharged SPF that’s as good at protecting skin from the sun as it is preventing and reducing discolouration. Put simply, it’s an excellent choice if you want an SPF that works really, really hard. 

£45, available at LookFantastic.com.

Shiseido Clear Suncare Stick SPF50+

Utilising Shiseido’s WetForce technology, which makes the formula work harder when it comes into contact with water or sweat, this Clear Suncare Stick is particularly brilliant for holidays, humid environments, or when playing outdoor sports. The handy stick packaging means it slots easily into your bag and can be rolled onto areas of the face and body as and when needed. 

£28, available at Cultbeauty.co.uk.

Supergoop! Glowscreen SPF 30

Making great SPFs its speciality, Supergoop’s latest launch is the Glowscreen SPF 30, a formula that offers the dewiest, most luminous glow, as well as an SPF of 30. With hyaluronic acid, vitamin B5, niacinamide, and protective cocoa peptides, it doubles up as a skincare staple too – and you’ll actively look forward to applying it each day.

£15, available at Cultbeauty.co.uk.

Avene Intense Protect SPF 50

Especially good for those with sensitive or reactive skin types, Avène’s Intense Protect is as light as silk and ultra-gentle. Not only does it contain the brand’s soothing thermal spring water and pre-tocopheryl, a powerful antioxidant, but it also houses TriAsorB, the first organic sun filter that absorbs and reflects UVA, UVB, and blue light. A must-try.

£20, available at Lookfantastic.com.

Heliocare 360 Gel Oil-Free SPF 50

Drying perfectly matte, making it a great base for make-up, Heliocare’s 360 Gel Oil-Free SPF 50 is a cult classic loved by those in the know. Ideal for acne-prone and sensitive skins, it protects against UVB, UVA, infrared­‐A and visible light.

£29.45, available at Dermacaredirect.co.uk.

Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defence SPF 30

Non-toxic to marine life, this formula protects skin from UVA and UVB while offsetting free radical damage from the environment, thanks to potent antioxidants grape juice, sunflower shoot extract, and astaxanthin. 

£29, available at Cultbeauty.co.uk.

Kate Somerville UncompliKated SPF 50

Facialist to the stars, Kate Somerville also has this easy-to-use spray-on SPF in her product repertoire. Not only will it protect skin from the sun, but thanks to a light-diffusing silicone powder and hyaluronic acid in the formula, it helps to set make-up, mattify and hydrate skin. What’s not to love?

£32, available at Cultbeauty.co.uk.

Dr Barbara Sturm Sun Drops SPF 50

Offering a customisable approach to sun protection, Dr Barbara Sturm’s Sun Drops can be worn undiluted as a serum or a few drops can be added to your regular skincare for lightweight SPF 50 protection. It’s a high price point, but it goes a long way, and works well on all skin tones. 

£110, available at Cultbeauty.co.uk.

Ren Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30 Broad Spectrum Face Sunscreen

A silicone-free formula that protects against all forms of light, Ren’s SPF offering is kind to the environment and forms a non-comedogenic barrier that fends off external aggressors. 

£30, available at LookFantastic.com.

Clarins UV Plus Anti-Pollution SPF 50

From blue and UV light to pollen and indoor pollution, this intelligent formula is packed full of antioxidants to protect the skin from all manner of external aggressors. Using organic mango leaf extract, it is delightfully lightweight in texture and promises eight hours of hydration while doing its protective thing.

£44, available at Selfridges.com.

Sisley Paris Tinted Sun Care Stick SPF 50

A formula just as luxurious as its packaging, this Sisley number comes in a stick applicator to make applying your sun care a breeze (and will prevent SPF spillages while travelling). With a slight tint to it, expect a little complexion perk up, while ingredients like shea, camellia oil and mango butter hydrate and smooth skin. 

£78, available at Spacenk.com.

Ultra Violette Supreme Screen Hydrating Facial Skinscreen SPF 50+

A multitasking formula, Ultra Violette’s Supreme Screen Hydrating Facial Skinscreen offers factor 50 protection, and contains an array of skincare ingredients – from peptides to vitamin C-rich kakadu plum – to combat free radicals. It is clear (so won’t leave a white cast) and helps to protect from blue light, while also leaving skin primed and ready for make-up. Put simply: it’s excellent.

£34, available at Spacenk.com.

Tan-Luxe Super Gloss Serum

For those who still want to look like they’ve spent an optimal time in the sun (even if that’s not the case), this serum delivers an immediate sun-kissed bronze glow while deeply hydrating skin (thanks to hyaluronic acid and squalane) and protects skin from the sun.

£35, available at Cultbeauty.co.uk.

Lancer Sheer Fluid Sun Shield SPF 30

A formula that is packed with skin-saving ingredients, Dr Lancer’s SPF will improve skin texture, boost glow, and prime skin ready for make-up – all while doing its main job of fending off UVA and UVB. A brilliant option and great for all skin tones. 

£45, available at Net-a-porter.com.

Medik8 Advanced Day Total Protect

Great for all skin types, especially those prone to breakouts, this SPF feels like a moisturiser but acts as an all-bases-covered skin-protecting formula. From blue light to pollution, it’s got your skin covered for every eventuality, plus it contains multi-weight hyaluronic acid and skin-softening emollients to leave skin in excellent nick in its wake. 

£55, available at Feelunique.com.

Chanel UV Essentiel Multi-Protection Daily Defender SPF 30

When you live in a city, the effects of pollution on your skin are as much a threat as sun damage. Luckily Chanel has the solution in the form of the brand’s UV Essentiel Multi-Protection Daily Defender, which gives broad-spectrum SPF 30 or 50 protection as well as creating a barrier against pollution and free radicals.

£46, available at Allbeauty.com.

VOGUE article

The 7 Best Hyaluronic Acid Serums Dermatologists Love for Hydrated Skin

When it comes to moisturizing your skin, it can be challenging to achieve the perfect balance between hydrated and greasy, especially on hot, humid summer days. To the rescue: hyaluronic acid serums. Hyaluronic acid is a powerful skincare ingredient that can help retain moisture. “It’s a humectant that attracts water, hydrating the skin without making it oily,” explains William Kwan, MD, a San Francisco-based dermatologist. For this reason, serums that contain hyaluronic acid are ideal for those with oily skin. “Many moisturizers are too heavy or can cause acne [for people with oily skin], which is why I love hyaluronic acid gels,” he says.

What’s more, hyaluronic acid can deliver serious anti-aging benefits—whether or not your skin shows signs of aging. “Millennials should consider including hyaluronic acid to ensure their skin is adequately moisturized and stave off dryness and irritation,” says Ted Lain, MD, a dermatologist from Austin, Texas. “Older people need hyaluronic acid not only to help moisturize, but also to delay skin thinning, itching, and the overall aging process.”

La Roche-Posay Redermic C Anti-Wrinkle Firming Moisturizing Filler for Sensitive Skin

Ted Lain, MD, a dermatologist from Austin, Texas, loves this hydrating serum, which he says delivers both short- and long-term benefits. “I look for products that can give an immediate plumping due to short chain hyaluronic acid, and a longer term moisturizing ability with the longer chain hyaluronic acid and other humectants,” he explains.

Buy at Dermstore $50

SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator

It’s not cheap, but this product is “the most consistent” over-the-counter hyaluronic acid serum New Jersey-based dermatologist Jeanine Downie, MD, has found. “It has five different types of hyaluronic acid in it,” she says. “And it hydrates the skin without making it sticky.”

Buy at Dermstore $178

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hydrating Serum

New York City-based dermatologistDebra Jaliman, MD, recommends this Neutrogena serum. “It contains hyaluronic acid, it’s non-comedogenic, and it’s incredibly hydrating,” she says. Plus, it’s wallet-friendly.

Buy on Amazon $15

Skinceuticals Hyaluronic Acid Intensifier

Dr. Kwan’s top pick is this Skinceuticals serum, which he says is perfect for aging skin, since hyaluronic acid can help revive the skin’s natural elasticity. “It also has 2% licorice extract, which can help lighten and brighten the skin,” he adds.

Buy at Dermstore $100

The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5

It’s tough to beat the price (or user reviews) of The Ordinary’s hyaluronic acid serum, but you won’t be sacrificing quality either.

Buy on Amazon $14

CeraVe Hyaluronic Acid Face Serum

Dermatologists love this brand, which is formulated with ultra gentle ingredients that won’t irritate even the most sensitive skin. And of course, their hyaluronic acid serum is no different. We love that the formula layers beautifully under their classic Moisturizing Cream.

Buy on Amazon $16

Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench Hyaluronic Cloud Serum

A whopping 75% hyaluronic acid, along with other top ingredients like silk proteins and good-for-skin minerals, help make this serum a bestseller. Plus: It’s free of sulfates and phthalates.

Buy at Sephora $86

HEALTH article