Your Guide To Layering Skin Care Serums

Celebrity facialists break it down.

by Kelsey Stewart
Originally Published: 
Celebrity facialists break down how to layer serums for your healthiest glow ever.
Getty Images/Adene Sanchez
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Click on the serum category of any major beauty retailer’s website and you’ll be met with page after page of hundreds of options to pick from (with new launches coming just about every week). Suffice it to say, if the vast number of choices leaves you feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Luckily enough, however, the industry’s top celebrity facialists say you don’t have to limit your routine to just one — you just have to know how to layer serums properly.

First things first: Know that serums are the powerhouses of your skin care routine, and they’re typically targeted towards specific concerns (think hyperpigmentation or acne). These products are meant to be used post-cleansing and before your moisturizer. According to Joanna Vargas, the celebrity esthetician responsible for the glowy complexions of stars like Julianne Moore and Mindy Kaling, serums are meant to penetrate the skin better than a moisturizer, which is intended to sit on top.

“Using multiple serums means you get serums with different ingredients, [therefore] you get all that goodness to penetrate into the skin better [because the size of the molecules are smaller than other products], and it just makes your skin healthier,” Vargas tells Bustle. And, since you can use more than one, you can address multiple issues within your routine, says Shani Darden, a celebrity esthetician and founder of Shani Darden Skin Care.

Read on for your facialist-approved guide on how to layer serums effectively for your best glow ever.

Serum Layering Rules

Before you get too excited and start slathering on every serum that’s sitting on your bathroom shelf, there are a few factors to take into consideration.

Stick with two: First off, as a rule of thumb, Vargas doesn’t recommend layering more than two serums at once. “Any more and you’re just layering a ton of [unnecessary] products on the face,” the esthetician explains. On top of that, Darden says if you layer too many at one time, it can affect their efficacy — if you’ve got, say, six layers of product on, the ones at the top will have a harder time penetrating your skin’s surface.

Use vitamin C and retinol strategically: Not all active serum ingredients play well together when layered — pay special attention if you’re using a vitamin C and a retinol. “If you’re using a retinol-based serum for nighttime, then you would not want to put a vitamin C serum on top of that because vitamin C and retinol are friendly neighbors, but they aren’t friends,” says Vargas. While marrying them won’t necessarily irritate the skin, she says the two ingredients are intended for opposed purposes and work best when used at alternative times of the day — ideally, vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night. The reasoning behind this is that using vitamin C in the morning, as a potent antioxidant, helps protect the skin from the sun and other external elements that cause free radical damage during the day. Alternatively, retinol is best at night as the sun can degrade the ingredient, and in turn, make it less effective. Plus, retinol can make skin more sensitive to the sun.

Pair retinol with hydration: If you do use a retinol serum — which, according to Vargas, you should as it’s great for acne, collagen building, and evening out your complexion — be careful of what you pair it with. “Depending on the formula [of the retinol serum], sometimes people feel like they need a little bit of moisture at night,” says Vargas. Her advice? Layer a simple serum with your retinol — hyaluronic acid is a great choice since it’s hydrating. New to retinol? It can take time for your skin to get used to the strong ingredient (retinization is a thing, and typically entails irritation and redness). And so: “You can also mix hyaluronic acid with vitamin A to dilute and make it milder if you are a beginner,” says Joanna Czech, a celebrity facialist whose clients include Jennifer Aniston and Cate Blanchett.

Be careful with exfoliants: According to Sean Garrette, a celebrity esthetician and Fenty’s global ambassador, you’ll want to avoid layering two types of exfoliating serums — that means any chemical exfoliant, aka your alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids. “You can really irritate your skin [doing this],” he explains. “So if one of your serums has salicylic acid and glycolic acid, you don’t want to layer that with another salicylic acid or your retinol.” Using too many acids can lead to over-exfoliated skin, which means irritation, redness, inflammation, and a damaged barrier.

Patch test: Before you start cocktailing your skin care serums, Vargas suggests being extra-cautious and doing a patch test first. “If you bring two new serums home, you want to try them individually first to make sure that your skin likes them and that you don’t have any irritation before you try layering them,” she explains. Vargas recommends testing one serum for two weeks, and then the other for the following two weeks to see how your complexion reacts to both. It takes some time, but will help prevent any adverse reactions on your skin.

Now that you’ve received a crash course on the dos and don’ts of layering serums, below, find the best step-by-step approach to pairing your products.

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Layer 1: A Water-Based Serum

For starters, Vargas says that the order in which you apply your serums matters. “You should always go lightest to heaviest,” she tells Bustle. Czech says to first apply a water-based formula, which typically has a gel-like consistency.

For water-based, both Vargas and Czech recommend a hyaluronic acid serum as your first layer. “Hyaluronic acid is a very handy serum because it helps to moisturize the skin and it’s a light formula that doesn't tend to clog the pores,” Vargas explains. “If you tend to breakout, hyaluronic acid serums are really helpful in giving your skin a nice dose of great ingredients without being too heavy on the skin.” According to Vargas, you can use hyaluronic acid during the day or at night — the choice is up to you.

In addition to hyaluronic acid, Czech says vitamin A (aka your retinol) sometimes comes in a water-based serum. For instance, the esthetician recommends Environ’s Vita-Antioxidant AVST Gel, which she says contains a very mild form of vitamin A. This ingredient works to stimulate collagen production and provide anti-aging benefits.

You could also get your antioxidants in a water-based serum — whether it’s your vitamin C or a botanical or fruit extract that is rich in antioxidants (think hibiscus and green tea extract). There’s also niacinamide, aka vitamin B3, which is an antioxidant that smooths, quashes inflammation, and fights redness.

If you’re looking to incorporate a chemical exfoliant in serum form, Vargas notes you can find these in both water-based and oil-based formulas. In this case, follow the specific directions of the product you’re using. “Just remember to always wear sunscreen when using these types of exfoliants,” says Vargas. That’s because, like retinol, AHAs and BHAs can make your complexion more prone to sun damage.

Layer 2: An Oil-Based Serum

After your water-based serum has been absorbed into the skin for about 10 to 15 seconds (as recommended by Czech), the next step is to layer a thicker oil-based serum over it. You’ll know it’s oil-based if the first ingredient on the product label is an oil, explains Czech.

For this, consider serums infused with antioxidants (for instance, argan oil and rosehip). “[Antioxidants] are very good at protecting the skin against sun damage and pollution damage, and they reduce the skin’s inflammation,” says Vargas. Additionally, Czech says an antioxidant oil-based serum could include vitamins, such as A, C, and E. Your vitamin A (retinol) could also come in an oil-based serum, which brings you anti-aging perks. And when it comes to vitamin C, Czech says it acts as an antioxidant, helping to protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals. Lastly, vitamin E is an anti-inflammatory that assists in cellular restoration from sun damage, scars, and burns, while also providing hydration.

Since many star skin care ingredients come in both forms, it all comes down to personal preference — just be sure to follow the serum layering rule of applying your products from thinnest to thickest consistency.

Layer 3: Your Moisturizer

Once you’re done layering your serums, Czech says your moisturizer should always be the final step to hydrate the skin and seal everything in. “You can layer a moisturizer after your serums or mix a few drops of oil into your moisturizer,” she explains. And there you have it — you’re basically a celebrity esthetician.

Studies referenced:

Dayan, N. (2005). Skin Penetration. Delivery System Handbook for Personal Care and Cosmetic Products.

Draelos, Z. (2006). Facilitating facial retinization through barrier improvement. Cutis.

Jegasothy, S. (2014). Efficacy of a New Topical Nano-hyaluronic Acid in Humans. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology.

Kafi, R. (2007). Improvement of naturally aged skin with vitamin A (retinol). Arch Dermatol.

Telang, P. (2013). Vitamin C in dermatology. Indian Dermatology Online Journal.

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