You’ve got all the ingredients for the perfect skin care routine: serums, oils, moisturizers, cleansers, exfoliators, acid peels and masks. Now that you’ve bought all the essential products for your skin type, is there a right and wrong order to apply them all? We reached out to experts to get some answers.
Is the order of application important?
“The way skin care is layered [on your face] is important,” said Shereene Idriss, board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Derm in New York and clinical instructor in dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine.
You might have heard people recommending “thinner to thicker” in terms of textures, and this isn’t a myth. “You should always apply product from thinnest to thickest, to get the most efficacy out of each,” Idriss told HuffPost.
We need to layer products to suit everyone’s skin type and target specific concerns, Kate Kerr, clinical aesthetician and founder of Kate Kerr London, told HuffPost. “In the morning we layer products that will prevent damage and protect skin from the environment and pollution,” she said. “In the evening … we layer on more. For acne sufferers or those with pigmentation, however, we do need to be targeting those things in the morning and throughout the day to help with [skin] correction. Prevention, protection and correction is what I prescribe to my clients.”
Pamela Marshall, clinical aesthetician and founder of U.K. facial skin clinic Mortar & Milk, agrees that layering is important, but said it’s not the whole story.
“Skin care products purchased in beauty stores are considered a cosmetic, and this means their formulations aren’t allowed to pass the outer dead layer of skin, our stratum corneum,” Marshall told HuffPost. “They have very little efficacy in changing our skin’s function. Keeping this in mind, when using clinical skin care (using low molecular weight ingredients formulated at a lower pH), we then have the ability to create functional change in the skin. If we are using these types of products, then all we need to do is cleanse, serum, hydrate and then protect if it’s daytime. With clinical skincare, there’s very little need to layer multiple serums and products.”
Here’s what a routine should look like
Here’s how to properly construct your routine for morning and night. Keeping in mind that everyone’s skin care needs are different, these are general guidelines. Consult your dermatologist if you have questions about your specific needs.
A typical morning routine
A typical nighttime routine
Cleanser (double cleanse at night)
Acid pad, toner or chemical exfoliant
Retinol, if using (but not on the same night as an acid)
Moisturizer or oil
The Products And How To Use Them
Kerr recommends to always double cleanse, starting with a gel-based cleanser for oily/normal skin and a moisturizing gentle cleanser for drier skin, and then incorporating an acid-based cleanser in your routine. “Cleanse daily with an acid-based cleanser. This helps to increase the rate at which the cells turn over and removes the dead skin cells on the surface of the skin,” she said. In the morning, Kerr recommends a lightweight cleanser, which will also be your second cleanse at night.
Mists aren’t always mentioned as essential in one’s routine, but studies have found a fine water mist can help with moisture loss (transepidermal water loss, or TEWL) in situations including air-conditioned rooms that dry the skin out. Rhea Cartwright, skin care education trainer and aesthetician, said to look out for hyaluronic acid, glycerin or aloe vera for your mists to be hydrating.
Toner, acid pads or chemical exfoliants
Acids, chemical exfoliants and toners should be used directly after cleansing as the “prep” step, Kerr said. “Acid pads help stimulate skin turnover and prep skin to receive other ingredients. For somebody starting out with acids, I would recommend lactic acid for those with no real skin issues.”
Chemical exfoliants can be liquid or in a pad form and are separated into Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA), Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA) and fruit-enzyme derived Polyhydroxy Acids (PHA). Marshall recommends PHAs for everyone, as they are gentlest.
Toners are used to prepare the skin for the next steps, as well as balancing the pH mantle of the skin. Find one suitable for your skin type. But if you suffer from a condition like rosacea you should avoid toners, as those will irritate the skin.
Studies have found toners to be beneficial for other skin conditions, like acne. “Toners are essential but we need to scrap the idea of old-school, alcohol-based toners that we were taught removed the last traces of makeup,” Cartwright said.
Vitamin A, or retinoids, is the number one ingredient experts recommend to address aging, discoloration and acne. The by-products of vitamin A can be available in many different forms, usually in a serum or cream. Retinol is under the wider category of retinoids/vitamin A.
Kerr said: “It helps to stimulate a large percentage of the different cells within the skin to behave as fresher, healthier and younger versions of themselves. This not only improves collagen and hyaluronic acid production but also speeds up cell turnover to improve skin function, hydration and to smooth and brighten.”
“Gel [and water] serums need to go last in a regime [just before the moisturizer], as they have large molecules that take longer to penetrate into the skin,” Kerr said. “So you put your quick-penetrating products and ingredients first, and then you put the ones that take longer on top, so they can feed their way into the skin as they need to. However, you cannot tell by solely looking at the consistency of the product, and the general rule is lightest to thickest.”
Moisturizers tend to be thicker and will be used as the last step in your routine, as the products need to be layered from thinner to thicker as mentioned.
“A well-formulated moisturizer will only require a green pea-sized amount. Thickness does not equate to efficacy, nor does using too much. If a formulation is going to work, it will be able to do it without being extraordinarily heavy,” Marshall suggests.
Mahto recommends facial oils for people with dry or very dry skin, so choosing to use an oil depends on your skin type.
A broad-spectrum sunscreen should always be applied last, every single day, winter or summer. Marshall recommends an SPF 30 or SPF 50: “UVA [Ultra Violet A, the strongest wavelength] is out every day, so it’s important to protect our skin regardless of the weather. I will always recommend putting a pea size on each section of your face and then spreading around.”
Building your routine has to happen slowly and carefully. Get to know your skin first and foremost, and understand what you need. Remember that brands need to sell their products, but use your common sense as to what can actually work for you. Just because something is trendy doesn’t mean you have to use it. Wash your face properly, don’t over-exfoliate and use SPF daily!