There is no shortage of skin care products and treatments that promise a healthy, glowing complexion. Besides picking the right ones for your skin type, experts say it's equally important to follow the proper skin care routine order rules.
Applying your beauty products in the correct order ensures your skin receives the full benefits of what you're using. Otherwise, you won't get the most out of your routine, says Dr. Shirley Chi, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Los Angeles. "The most important thing about your skin care order is absorption," she tells Bustle. "If, say, you put on an occlusive moisturizer before your serum, your serum won't be absorbed, so you're wasting money. And you don't want to put anything on top of unclean skin or you can experience breakouts." Think of it like getting dressed: You can't exactly put your bra on over your top, or it doesn't get to do its job. Your beauty routine follows the same idea.
The general rule of thumb is to apply your products from thinnest to thickest, says esthetician and Fenty Skin global ambassador Sean Garrette and board-certified dermatologist Dr. Caroline Robinson, M.D. This is the case regardless of your skin type and how many products you're using, though it can differ slightly between your morning and nighttime routines. And, of course, everything starts with a cleanser that primes your skin to absorb the rest of your regimen's hydrating and nourishing goodness.
For the intel, Bustle spoke with skin experts to learn everything you need to know about skin care routine order. And, if you prefer to take the easy route, Garrette suggests turning to skin care collections, aka step-by-step regimens put together by brands.
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The most essential part of any skin care routine is cleansing. "If you skip a cleanser, you're leaving oil and impurities on your skin which will prevent any products from properly absorbing," Garrette tells Bustle. "Then even the best products won't deliver the results they're intended to."
Make sure to thoroughly cleanse your face with either a single or double cleanse (such as with an oil cleanser), but be sure to use products that won't dry out your skin. According to Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City, you don't want a "squeaky-clean" feeling. "This indicates you over-cleansed and stripped your skin of its natural moisture," she tells Bustle. Her tip? "Patting [your face] with a towel is an easy way to ensure that you have removed all of your makeup."
Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology, encourages the use of a gentle cleanser in order to prep your face without disrupting the skin barrier.
Toners tend to be a polarizing beauty product. Levin says she often hears clients ask whether or not this step is optional, and it's really up to you and your skin concerns. "Cleansers are [now] much more gentle and pH-appropriate and do not require a toner after cleansing," she tells Bustle.
Aside from their main purpose of balancing your skin's pH before applying the next products of your routine, toners can hydrate (with hyaluronic acid or glycerin), brighten (with antioxidants like vitamin C), exfoliate (with fruit enzymes or chemical exfoliants), and treat skin issues like acne (with salicylic acid). If you do use a toner, you should apply it on damp skin right after cleansing.
3. Eye Cream
Applying an eye cream is another optional step that varies depending on your preference and skin concerns. These are mainly used to treat conditions like dark circles and puffy eyes, and some work to hydrate the area. Look for ingredients like vitamin C and retinol for dark circles, caffeine and antioxidants to combat puffiness, and skin hydrators like squalane, hyaluronic acid, and ceramides to moisturize.
Levin points out that the skin around the eye is thinner than the skin on the rest of your face, so when you apply it is important. "I recommend my patients to apply their eye creams before other actives as the skin around the eyes are more delicate and prone to irritation," she tells Bustle.
4. Serums & Treatments
After applying an eye cream (if that's in your routine), start applying your serums from the thinnest consistency to the thickest. These are products that contain concentrated amounts of an active ingredient, says Levin, so that can be anything from vitamin C to anti-inflammatory agents, retinol, or peptides. And, depending on your skin's condition and concerns, this step may consist of one or a number of actives — which is why it's important to get the order right.
"It is important for these ingredients to be in contact with the skin so that they can effect change in the way that they need to," says Robinson. "Applying treatment products over layers of moisturizer or over sunscreen for example would blunt their effect and defeat the purpose." If you're using more than one potent ingredient, you may want to space them out in order to prevent overloading your skin (and, consequently, irritation), says Nazarian — so, for example, use a vitamin C in the morning and a chemical exfoliant at night.
If you're using a hyaluronic acid product, Nazarian suggests applying that first. "It will help you tolerate [stronger actives like] retinol, which tends to be more drying," she tells Bustle. If your routine consists of various serums or treatments with active ingredients, you can always consult your dermatologist to make sure you're not using some that shouldn't be mixed.
After applying serums, it's time to seal it in with a moisturizer. Chi notes that your moisturizer can be a water-based formula (which is good for oily skin types), occlusive formulas, which are oil-based, or an emollient formula, aka thicker creams and balms.
"Moisturizers usually have occlusive properties like certain oils in the formula, so applying them before serums can slow the penetration of the active ingredients in your serums," esthetician Tiara Willis tells Bustle. If your skin is feeling extra dry or dehydrated, Robinson recommends going with a thicker cream in the evening to help prevent water loss.
For a daytime routine, a moisturizer should be followed by a sunscreen, or you can combine the two steps by using a moisturizing SPF. Whichever route you choose, this last step is non-negotiable. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and reapplying every two hours.
That said, the order of application varies if you're using a mineral (those with zinc or titanium dioxide-based formulas) or chemical sunscreen. "A chemical SPF should be applied closest to the skin, so after your toner and serum but before your moisturizer," says Chi. "It interacts with the top layer of your skin so it can't be applied over a heavy cream or oil-based moisturizer." If you're using a mineral SPF, it goes on last. "These are like shields, and just block and bounce light away from your face," Chi explains.