If you’ve ever tried your hand at baking, you’ve probably found yourself reading through a recipe and wondering why exactly the butter and sugar have to go before the eggs. But as you likely found out (hopefully not the hard way), the order of the ingredients really does matter if you want them to perform their best individually and collectively. And just like in the kitchen, the order in which you apply your skincare also makes a world of difference.
Whether you like to keep it simple or you spend an hour in the bathroom going through each step of your skincare routine, it can be tough to know when to use each product, especially when there’s so much conflicting information and advice out there. We’re constantly reminded of how important it is to use different ingredients—from retinol to hyaluronic acid to vitamin C to SPF. But in reality, it’s not just what you use that matters; it’s also how and when you use it. You spend a lot of time, energy, and money curating the perfect skincare regimen, and it turns out that layering them incorrectly might actually render your products ineffective in the best case scenario and cause irritation or a strong reaction in the worst.
“In general, the idea is to go from the lightest products that are most absorbed progressively to heavier products,” explains Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. But for all the rules on where each product type should fit into your skincare routine, she notes that not every one of them is required for every person. So, when thinking about the order of your skincare products, consult your dermatologist and keep your skin type and needs in mind. “I don’t think that very many steps are necessary to accomplish a thorough skincare regimen,” Dr. King says. “The key idea is that, in a Marie Kondo sort of way, you are identifying the skincare products that are best for you and cutting out the non-essentials.”
This of course means that everyone’s skincare routine will look a little different, and therefore, its order will too. To make sure that you’re getting the most out of your products (and the money you spend on them), we’ve put together a step-by-step guide to where in your morning and evening regimens each should appear. But remember, not every one of these products will be right for your skin all the time, if at all, so it’s important to speak to your dermatologist to get a custom breakdown of what you should be using—we’re just here to help with the when.
Step 1: Cleanser
This is an obvious first step to any good evening skincare routine, but not everyone thinks to cleanse their skin right after they wake up—in fact, some people actively avoid it. And while there may be some logic to this if you have especially dry skin, the idea that your skin isn’t in need of a good cleaning just because you didn’t put on makeup or walk through pollution outside is bogus.
“Wash off your nighttime routine and the sweat and oil that your skin produces during your sleep with a gentle face wash,” suggests Dr. Deanne Mraz Robinson, a board-certified dermatologist in Westport, Connecticut. Save the more serious cleansers and actives for the evening, and opt for something simple, like a gel-based or foaming cleanser.
Step 1.5: Any topical medications
If you happen to be using any topical prescriptions for acne, rosacea, or another skin condition, and your dermatologist has recommended you apply them in the morning, now is the time to do so. “You want this to go on first so that it can reach the skin without any interruption for maximum efficacy,” Dr. Mraz Robinson says. But remember to check with your prescribing doctor beforehand, as many prescription medications, like retinoids, should be used only at night.
Step 2: Toner
Toner is very much an optional skincare step, but if it’s a part of your routine, you should use it on clean skin, just after cleansing. A few decades ago, toners were harsh, alcohol-based astringents that stripped skin, but today, they’re filled with helpful hydrating ingredients or chemical exfoliants. Using a toner early in your morning routine is in line with Dr. King’s light-to-heavy rule, as it’s incredibly light and serves as a sort of primer for the rest of your skincare.
Step 3: Serum
Serums are typically one of the more confusing categories in skincare, mostly because they contain such a wide range of products. Some are designed for hydration, while others may boast strong antioxidants, but what they all have in common is that “serums contain highly concentrated active ingredients,” says Dr. Mraz Robinson, and skin can benefit from them almost immediately after application.
While totally optional and frequently left out of a skincare routine, serums are actually the heavy lifters doing much of the legwork, particularly in the morning. Dr. Mraz Robinson recommends using an antioxidant serum, like the incredibly common vitamin C, which can target hyperpigmentation and signs of aging and offer protection from sun damage and pollution. “Serums would either replace the above step or directly follow it because the highly concentrated active ingredients need to be able to penetrate skin to function optimally,” she adds.
Step 4: Eye Cream
While it’s not necessarily wrong to apply eye cream after moisturizing, these products tend to be thinner and lighter than the thick creams or face oils you use on the rest of your face, so they should come first. The skin surrounding eyes is extremely delicate, and as such, it’s often one of the first areas to show fine lines and wrinkles (hello, crow’s feet!), so an eye cream should hydrate the under-eye area and address signs of aging.
When applying your eye treatment, Dr. Mraz Robinson says to “gently tap it into the orbital bone with the tip of your ring finger to avoid pulling on the delicate skin.” And while an eye cream may feel like an absolute necessity, for most people, their regular moisturizer will do the trick, so don’t feel obligated to include this step if it doesn’t feel needed.
Step 5: Moisturizer
Before there were peptide complexes, cell-rejuvenating serums, and marine collagen eye creams, there was good, old fashioned, trusty moisturizer. Whether your skin is oily and acne-prone or dry and flaky, moisturizer is simply a must, and if there’s one step you absolutely should not skip, this is it. It’ll keep your skin hydrated and plump, it’ll help fend off wrinkles, and most importantly, it’ll keep your moisture barrier healthy and intact, as well as lock in all of the ingredients beneath it to make them even more effective. Although many people choose to switch up their moisturizers seasonally (a rich, thick option in the cold, dry months and a lighter option in warm, humid weather), it’s always a good idea to opt for a less intense moisturizer or just a smaller amount of your usual one in the morning.
Step 6: Sunscreen
Deeming one skincare product the most important feels a bit like choosing a favorite child, but if ever there were one to fit the bill, it’s sunscreen. We know you’ve heard it all before, but it’s impossible to stress just how critical SPF is. Regardless of age, skin type, or lifestyle, everyone everywhere should be wearing sunscreen every single day, and because mineral sunscreen sits atop skin rather than penetrating it, it should be the last step of your morning routine.
“I steer almost all of my patients towards mineral SPFs,” Dr. Mraz Robinson explains. “I find them well tolerated by even the most sensitive skin types, highly effective, and very safe since they don’t absorb into the skin to function. Bonus: They’re the easiest to reapply since they sit at the skin’s surface to do their job.” If you do prefer a chemical sunscreen, though, the dermatologist suggests applying earlier in your routine, before serum, since it needs to be absorbed into the skin to function. And no matter what kind you choose, remember to reach for at least SPF 30 and to reapply throughout the day!
Step 1: Cleanser
Starting your evening skincare regimen with a good cleanse is hardly a secret, but it’s also a truly unmissable step. You spend a lot of time and money on the products in your nighttime routine, and the truth is, skin won’t be able to absorb them properly or effectively unless it’s clean. First and foremost, you should remove the day’s makeup, oil, and grime—ideally with a cleansing oil, which gets the job done without stripping your skin—then reach for your more serious cleanser. “Unless you have very sensitive skin, I will often recommend a cleanser with a little more impact that is tailored to your skin (for example, a chemically-based exfoliating cleanser or an acne-tailored one),” Dr. Mraz Robinson says.
Step 2: Toner
Just like in your morning routine, you want to layer your evening skincare thinnest to thickest, so that means if you use a toner, it should be the first thing to go on your freshly cleansed skin. This is a great opportunity to help balance your skin’s pH level, which will ensure all of your other skincare will perform its best. Go for the same toner you use in the AM, or try something a little more exfoliating.
Step 3: Retinoids
You’ve likely heard a lot about retinoids and the importance of having them in your skincare routine, and frankly, there’s a reason. The umbrella terms for vitamin A derivatives, including over-the-counter retinol, retinoids are the ultimate power ingredient and have the ability to treat acne, fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation, brighten skin, and fight signs of aging. “Retinols and retinoids function by accelerating the rate at which your skin cells turn over and regenerate,” Dr. Mraz Robinson explains. “And they need to reach skin with minimum interference to work their best.”
If you’re new to retinoids, it’s a good idea to start off slow and build up your skin’s tolerance, as they can be quite harsh and drying. Work up from applying it one night a week to two nights, then three, and so on until you’re using it every night or every other night. A little bit goes a long way here, so Dr. Mraz Robinson suggests using about a pea-sized amount for your entire face. And remember, retinoids make your skin significantly more photo-sensitive, so if you’re using one, you’d better be diligent about applying your SPF in the morning.
Step 4: Serum
Remember how broad the serums category can be? Well, that means they can absolutely have a place in your evening skincare too, but you may want to opt for something different from your morning choice. “For PM, I generally advise for a peptide-rich serum versus vitamin C, which is more necessary for daytime,” Dr. Mraz Robinson says. Try a hydrating serum, like one with hyaluronic acid, which will keep your skin plump and moisturized overnight, an especially important aim if you’re using a retinoid or another drying active treatment.
Step 5: Eye Cream
If an eye cream is a part of your skincare routine, now is a great time to use it. You can use the same product that’s in your morning regimen, or you can opt for something harder working with an active ingredient. Just be careful not to irritate the delicate skin around your eyes with anything too harsh and keep Dr. Mraz Robinson’s gentle tapping application in mind.
Step 6: Moisturizer
If you’re using an incredibly hydrating serum, you may not necessarily need to double up with a moisturizer, but since skin goes into repair mode while we sleep, this is your chance to infuse it with helpful ingredients. Dr. Mraz Robinson likes an oil-free moisturizer, but the type you choose will depend on your skin’s individual needs. “Hyaluronic acid is a great source of oil-free hydration and can be layered over your retinoid to avoid excessive dryness,” she says.
Just like your morning moisturizer, you’ll likely want to switch this up each season to address your skin’s changing needs, but since sleeping doesn’t typically include a lot of moving around or sweating off your skincare (we hope!), you could very well use this time to try a thicker option. And if you go all the way to an occlusive product, like petroleum or beeswax, Dr. King says it really needs to be the last thing on your skin, noting that they “form an inert layer on skin and physically block transepidermal water loss.”
Step 7: Sleep
You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again, but just in case we need to spell it out for you, sleep is a crucial part of any good nighttime skincare routine. Your skin uses the downtime to repair itself and produce new collagen, so even the difference of a few hours can wreak havoc on your complexion. There are certain tips and tricks to enhance this process—like using a silk or satin pillowcase that won’t absorb all of the products on your face—but at the end of the day, your body knows what it’s doing, and you just need to give it the time to do it.
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