Layering skincare products in the correct order helps your skin absorb more active ingredients, giving you a better chance of seeing results from your products.1

First rule of thumb is to layer your products from thinnest to thickest consistency, to ensure that lightweight formulations are absorbed first, followed by richer and thicker products. This helps promote better product absorption and prevent occlusion (when ingredients are blocked from absorbing into your skin due to thicker products that form a barrier), Mitchel P. Goldman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Cosmetic Laser Dermatology, told Health. Occlusive products seal in the skin to trap hydration, but they’ll keep out active ingredients you want to absorb.

You don’t absolutely need a fancy 10-step skincare routine. The most basic skincare routine includes a cleanser, moisturizer, and SPF. This keeps your skin clean, hydrated, and protected from the sun—plus fewer products can decrease your risk of irritation and reactions.1 But if you want to add more products to your routine to treat certain skin concerns, here’s the best order to apply everything.

Step 1: Cleanser

Washing your face is always the first step in your skincare routine. Cleansing gives you a clean slate for products to absorb into your skin, and it washes away any dirt, oil, and muck accumulating in and around your pores.2

When choosing a cleanser, go for one that’s gentle, alcohol-free, and non-abrasive. These cleansers won’t strip away too many skin oils that help you maintain a balanced skin barrier.3 However, different skin types may require more hydrating or oil-reducing ingredients.

Key ingredients: A cleanser with ceramides, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, or aloe vera help hydrate and moisturize dry skin.4 Goldman recommends also looking for niacinamide, green tea extract, or chamomile to soothe skin without stripping or over-moisturizing. Other ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and tea tree oil can help control excess oil, unclog pores, and reduce acne breakouts.5

How to apply: Splash your face with lukewarm water and gently rub your cleanser into your skin using your fingertips. Pat dry with a towel. Wash your face morning and night—plus after a lot of sweating.

Step 2: Toner

A toner is not always necessary, but they can add some oomph to your skincare routine. Toners can help remove additional oil and dirt after cleansing, which helps better prep your skin for other products. Toners can also hydrate dry skin and promote good skin pH, which may help prevent acne.6

Key ingredients: Choose hydrating hyaluronic acid or rose water toners if you have dry or sensitive skin, said Goldman. Oily and acne-prone skin types may want toners with astringent properties—ingredients that remove excess oil—like salicylic acid or witch hazel.78

How to apply: Soak a cotton pad or ball with toner, then gently pat the product onto your face.

Step 3: Spot Treatment

If you’re trying to zap a pimple or fade dark patches, spot treatments should be applied right after cleansing or toning. These products target small areas of skin and contain different active ingredients depending on what you’re treating. Applying spot treatments directly to your fresh, prepped skin maximizes the active ingredients penetrating your skin.

Key ingredients: “Look for spot treatments containing ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid for acne, and hydroquinone or kojic acid for dark spots. These ingredients help target specific concerns effectively,” said Goldman.

How to apply: After cleansing (and toning), apply a small amount of spot treatment with clean fingers to the affected area. Use these products as needed, but follow any product manufacturer’s instructions regarding application. If you’re using other serums or treatments after your spot treatment, avoid applying them to areas with spot treatment.

Step 4: Serums

Serums are absorbed quickly and should be applied directly to the skin’s surface after a cleanser or toner. Serums are a generic term for skin care products containing a high concentration of an active ingredient.

These products are typically lightweight and water-based to help them penetrate the skin and improve hydration, brightening, or other targeting specific skin issues, said Goldman. Popular serums include Vitamin C, niacinamide, anti-aging, and hydrating serums.

Key ingredients: Vitamin C helps brighten skin, soften wrinkles, and fade hyperpigmentation.9 Niacinimide help smooth fine lines, reduce acne, shrink pores, balance oil production, and brighten skin.10 Vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, peptides, ceramides, and glycerin help hydrate and lock in moisture.41112 Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid and lactic acid also help hydrate the skin, exfoliate and smooth fine lines.13 Serums with salicylic acid and azelaic acid can help acne by clearing out pores and reducing inflammation.5

How to apply: Apply a pea-sized amount, or the product manufacturer recommended amount, to your face with clean fingers. Then, gently rub the product in a light tapping motion into your face and neck.

Mixing Active Ingredients

If you are using multiple treatments or serums, the order of the active ingredients also matters. “It is generally advised to avoid combining retinol with alpha or beta hydroxy acids, as this can cause excessive dryness or irritation,” said Goldman. “Additionally, mixing vitamin C with niacinamide may reduce its effectiveness.”

When in doubt about layering active ingredients, ask your dermatologist.

Step 5: Retinol and Other Retinoid Treatments 

Retinol and other retinoid treatments should be applied after serums because they are often thicker and more occlusive. “By applying the retinol cream after the serum, you ensure that the active ingredients in the serum have already penetrated the skin. This allows the retinol to reach deeper layers of the skin, maximizing its benefits,” said Goldman.

Retinol (technically a type of retinoid) and other retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that help stimulate cell turnover, promote collagen production, and improve overall skin texture to benefit anti-aging and acne.1415

Key ingredients: Retinol, retinyl palmitate, and retinaldehyde are available over-the-counter (OTC) and are less potent than other retinoids–making them ideal for people with sensitive skin, minimal wrinkles, and milder cases of acne, uneven skin tone, and hyperpigmentation.

To treat more severe acne and reduce wrinkles, dermatologists prescribe retinoid treatments like Differin (adapalene), Retin-A (tretinoin), Tazorac (tazarotene), and Aklief (trifarotene).15 OTC Differin (adapalene) is also available and is FDA-approved to treat acne.

How to apply: Start small and apply a pea-sized amount of retinol or retinoid treatment every other night until your skin acclimates. Retinol and retinoids make the

Step 6: Eye CreamIf you use an eye cream, apply it after any treatments to help it absorb better since it has a thick texture. While you don’t need an eye cream, it can help add more moisture and hydration to the delicate skinof your undereye, which is prone to wrinkles and sun damage.

Key ingredients: “For day creams, look for ingredients like peptides, antioxidants (such as vitamin C or green tea extract), and SPF to protect against sun damage,” said Goldman. “Night creams can benefit from ingredients like retinol, niacinamide, or hyaluronic acid to promote repair and hydration.”

How to: Use your ring finger to lightly dab eye cream on your undereye after you apply your serum or retinol. This delicate skin should be handled with care, not pulled or rubbed.

Step 7: Moisturizer

Moisturizers usually have a thicker consistency and should be used after lighter-weight serums or treatments. If you’re using the bare-minimum skincare routine, use moisturizer after cleansing. Moisturizers are designed to increase the water in your skin and repair your skin barrier, but they also seal your skin and can prevent thinner products from fully absorbing.16

Key ingredients: “People with dry skin should look for moisturizers with ingredients like ceramides, glycerin, or shea butter for intense hydration,” said Goldman. “Oily or acne-prone skin types can benefit from oil-free, non-comedogenic moisturizers with ingredients such as hyaluronic acid or lightweight gel formulations.”

How to apply: Gently massage your moisturizer onto your entire face and neck—including the under eyes, if you didn’t use an eye cream.

Step 8: Fae Oils

Face oils provide additional moisture and hydration to your skin. Face oils should always be applied after your moisturizer. “This is because face oils are typically thicker and heavier than moisturizers and can create a barrier that prevents the moisturizer from fully penetrating the skin,” said Goldman

Key ingredients: Face oils high in fatty acids like argancoconut, or avocado oil can help nourish and hydrate skin, said Goldman. He also suggests chamomile and rosehip oil to help soothe irritated skin, while lighter oils like jojoba and grapeseed oil can help regulate oil production.

How to apply: Add a few drops of face oil to your fingers after moisturizing. You can also drop oil directly onto your forehead and cheeks. Then, gently massage the oil into your facial skin and neck.

Step 9: Sunscreen 

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreen that has broad-spectrum coverage and a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.17 You can also use cosmetics and moisturizers with SPF, but they may not offer enough coverage for extended sun exposure, said Goldman.

How to: Gently apply sunscreen onto your face, neck, chest, and ears. You should use about 2 milligrams of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin—roughly a nickel-sized amount of sunscreen.18

 Chemical sunscreens take about 15 minutes to absorb, while mineral sunscreens work immediately. For both, you should reapply every 2 hours.17

Why Order Matters

The main reason skincare product order matters are absorption, consistency, and pH said Goldman.

Only so much product can penetrate your skin, and applying skincare in the incorrect order makes your skin absorb even less active ingredients. Likewise, using thicker products (like moisturizers) before thinner products(like serums) prevents the absorption of active ingredients.

Layering skincare correctly also helps your skin maintain its pH balance so your products work. “Some products, such as chemical exfoliants or pH-dependent actives, require a specific pH range to function optimally,” said Goldman.

A Quick Review

Layering your skincare in the correct order ensures your pricey products and much-needed treatments work their best. A good rule is to always apply your skincare from thinnest to thickest consistency to help all your products absorb.

At a minimum, your skincare routine should include cleansing, moisturizer, and sunscreen. If you need additional help treating acne, fine lines, or other skin concerns, reach for a spot treatment, serum, and retinol.

Consult with your dermatologist if you need help finding the best active ingredients and products for your skin type.

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