How to Apply Your Skincare Products in the Right Order (And Why It Can Make a Difference for Your Skin)

Learn how to layer like a pro.
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Order of skincare products

Does it really matter if you apply your face oil before your moisturizer? Or if you put on your vitamin C after your retinol?

The answer is YES.

You might have the most amazing skincare products in the world, but if you're applying them in the wrong order, you could be wasting your time and money—without getting the results you want!

In this tutorial, you will learn:

  • Why the order of skincare products matters
  • The general guidelines for product layering
  • How to apply your skincare products in the morning
  • How to apply your skincare products at night
  • When to use optional extras like wipes, mists, masks and tools

Plus, I've got a free cheat sheet for you to download at the end of this article!

Why the Order of Skincare Products Matters

When you don't follow the correct order to apply your skincare products, you can run into three problems:

They may not penetrate: This is a problem if you're putting thin, fluid or water-based products on top of thick, creamy or oily ones. The richer products will form a barrier on your skin that prevents anything else from getting through.

They may be less effective: If certain products aren't able to penetrate your skin properly, you obviously can't get their full benefits. Plus, when certain active ingredients are meant to be applied away from each other, using them together can deactivate them or even create a new, unwanted chemical reaction. In either case, your routine won't be as effective as it should be.

You could harm your skin: Using products out of order could even create new skin issues. For example, applying serums on top of oils could leave your skin dry and dehydrated, since not enough water is reaching your skin. Or, if you're layering your serums, creams and oils on top of your mineral sunscreen, you'll be disturbing the coverage and diluting the protection. This will leave you more vulnerable to skin cancer and premature aging!

The 4 “Rules” of Product Layering

There are four general "rules" to keep in mind when determining what order to apply your skincare products: 

  • Thinnest to thickest texture: Move in the direction of light to heavy. Start with your most watery products, such as toners, serums and essences. Heavier, more moisturizing ones—like lotions, creams and then oils—come next, followed by sunscreen.
  • Water-based before oil-based: Oil and water don't mix, and oil can block water from penetrating. That means water-based products must be applied first. Let them absorb into your skin, and then apply oil-based products on top.
  • Lowest to highest pH: If you're using active ingredients, it's important to know their approximate pH levels, and go from lowest to highest. In other words, acidic products (pH 3.0 to 4.0) should always be applied before more neutral ones (pH 5.0 to 7.0). 
  • Low and high pH products don't mix: If your routine includes products with active ingredients, you can apply them at the same time if their pH levels are similar. But if there's a gap in pH of more than, say, 1.0 to 2.0 (or if you don't know the pH at all), I suggest waiting 30 minutes in between them or using them at different times of day. That way, each product can work at its intended pH.

Sometimes, you'll have a dilemma because the thicker or oilier product will have a lower pH than the lighter, more watery one. In this case, I think it's best to use them at different times of day, rather than risk changing the pH or having the lighter product not penetrate. 

Now, let's discuss each step in more detail (keeping in mind that many of these are completely optional!).

Order of Skincare Products in the Morning

1. Cleanser 

You don't have to wash your face in the morning—some skin does fine with a splash of water alone. But you may want to if your skin type produces a lot of oil or if there's residue left on your skin from the products you used the night before. Choose a non-drying, sulfate-free cleanser. 

2. Physical Exfoliant

If you can't or don't want to use acids to exfoliate, you can manually buff away dead skin cells. Try a silicone cleansing brush (which you can use daily) or a non-abrasive scrub (which you should limit to a few times a week).

3. Toner 

Toner can be helpful if you wash your face at the sink, since it ensures that all traces of cleanser are removed from your skin. (I don't tone in the morning, since I always wash my face in the shower.) I also recommend toning if you used a creamy cleanser that leaves a film on your skin.

4. Chemical Exfoliant

Chemical exfoliants (a.k.a. acids) are the most effective way to remove dead skin cells and can be used as often as daily, if tolerated. Choose from alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic or lactic acid; beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid or betaine salicylate; or a combination. All of them will exfoliate your skin surface, but BHAs have the added bonus of deep-cleaning your pores. 

Also keep in mind that AHAs make skin more sun sensitive, but BHAs have some photoprotective properties (which makes them a better choice in the mornings). 

5. Eye Cream

Since the eye area doesn't have oil glands to help keep it moisturized, you'll want to give it some hydration right away—as soon as you're done cleansing and exfoliating. (Since it's not going on top of the areas where you applied acid, you don't need to wait.) Feel free to use either your regular moisturizer, if you tolerate it around your eyes, or a specialized eye cream or eye serum. 

6. Treatment Serum

Now you can treat your individual skin concerns and fight free radicals with a serum containing active ingredients. L-ascorbic acid (the active form of vitamin C) is good for antioxidant protection, brightening, fading dark spots and even building collagen. Vitamin C derivatives can give similar benefits, although they are not as potent. Or consider niacinamide, which is also an antioxidant, and treats pigmentation, wrinkles, acne, redness and dryness. Other options include peptides, alpha arbutin and alpha lipoic acid.

7. Hydrating Serum or Essence 

This step is all about lightweight hydration. Look for serums or essences with humectants—ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin and aloe vera that draw water into the skin. If you're using a cream next, then you don't necessarily need this step, unless your skin is very dry and could use the extra layer of moisture.

8. Moisturizer

Next comes moisturizer, if you need it. Not everyone does! If you're oilier, you may be able to get away with serum, oil and sunscreen alone (or even just sunscreen). Otherwise, look for creams with a blend of humectants and stable emollients, that are low in silicones and fragrance.

9. Face Oil

If you want to use face oil, it should be your last moisturizing step. That's because oils have occlusive properties that lock in the hydrating benefits of your other products and prevent the moisture from escaping. (So, anything you put on top won't get through.) Oil can also act like a barrier to protect your skin from the elements. 

To avoid oxidative damage, just make sure you choose a stable oil with primarily saturated or monounsaturated fatty acids.

10. Physical Sunscreen

Sunscreen is the most important skincare product of all, and needs to be worn every day, year-round. I only recommend physical sunscreens that sit on the skin surface to reflect away the light (which is why they need to be your last skincare step). They don't absorb into the bloodstream to cause hormone disruption, and at high enough concentrations, you're getting the best possible UVA and UVB protection. 

In North America, zinc oxide is the best filter we have available, but elsewhere in the world, you can also look for Tinosorb M and S.

11. Makeup

Finish with makeup, if you feel the need to cover any redness, darkness, blemishes or discolourations. Primer (if you wear it) should go on under your foundation, tinted moisturizer, BB or CC cream, and then concealer on top. Or, you can simply wear concealer alone. A light dusting with translucent powder will help the makeup stay put all day.

Order of Skincare Products at Night

1. Makeup Remover

If you were wearing makeup, sunscreen or any silicone-based products, an evening double cleanse is a must. Your first pass should be with a makeup-removing cleanser, which could be a micellar water, cleansing oil, cleansing balm, cream cleanser or cleansing milk.

2. Cleanser

Once your makeup is off, it's time to actually clean your skin. This step will also ensure that you haven't left any creamy or oily makeup remover residue on your skin (which could lead to irritations or breakouts). Just like in the morning, it's important to use a mild, sulfate-free cleanser. 

3. Physical Exfoliant

If you didn't exfoliate in the morning, you can do it now. Again, a silicone cleansing brush is your best choice for daily use. Otherwise, you can lift off dead skin cells a few times a week with a mild scrub or a warm, wet, soft cloth. (The cloth should be used to gently wipe off your creamy or oily makeup-removing cleanser.) 

These methods will leave your skin smooth and prepped to receive any skincare treatments you'll be applying.

4. Toner

Toner is a good idea as a final nighttime cleansing step, especially if you're washing at the sink. It will take off the last traces of cleansing residue, restore your skin's pH and prep it for the products you're about to put on.

5. Chemical Exfoliant 

If you didn't apply an acid in the morning, consider one here—I'm a big advocate for regular exfoliation with AHAs or BHAs. As long as you're not overdoing it, you'll see such a positive difference with your skin texture, tone and clarity. Plus, this step will help to remove any dead skin cells that can interfere with the absorption of your nightly skin treatments.

6. Eye Cream

As in the morning, put on your eye cream as soon as you're done cleansing, to keep the area nice and supple while you're treating the rest of your face. Most of us like a richer formula at night, but you should apply it sparingly and away from the lash lines so it doesn't seep into your eyes when you lie down (and cause irritation and puffiness).

7. Acne Spot Treatment or Patch

Anyone dealing with acne can apply a spot treatment next, with ingredients like sulfur, zinc oxide and salicylic acid. Alternatively, you can stick on a hydrocolloid patch, which is usually even more effective at bringing the pimple to a head overnight. I would avoid benzoyl peroxide, which is not only extremely drying but also an oxidizing agent. (And whatever you choose, make sure you're using an all-over BHA, too—it's the best way to prevent breakouts, rather than trying to target them as they crop up.)

8. Treatment Serum

Did you know you can apply vitamin C at night? Some dermatologists think it's even more effective at that time, so you can incorporate it here if that fits better with your routine. If anti-aging is your main goal, I'd go with L-ascorbic acid, ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate, ethyl ascorbic acid or magnesium ascorbyl phosphate. Niacinamide and copper peptides are excellent choices, too.

I would always recommend seeking out serums for these ingredients rather than creams, because you'll get a higher concentration of actives and they'll penetrate more readily. Alternatively, you can skip this step completely and head straight to the next one—retinoids!

9. Retinoid

I firmly believe (no pun intended!) that most people will benefit from a nightly retinoid as their main skin treatment. "Retinoid" is an umbrella term referring to the family of vitamin A derivatives—which includes retinol, retinol esters, retinaldehyde, retinoic acid esters and prescription treatments like tretinoin. These ingredients are best applied at night, away from UV light.

10. Hydrating Serum or Essence

Just like in the morning, you can apply a hydrating serum or essence here. But make sure the treatment serum or retinoid you have on underneath is light and water-based, to allow your serum or essence penetrate.

11. Moisturizer

Some retinoids have a thicker texture that allows you to skip night cream. But if not, you can layer on your favourite moisturizer now. Most people can go for a richer formula than in the daytime (since you don't have to worry about looking shiny!). However, acne-prone skin should always be cautious with heavy creams. 

12. Face Oil

A final layer of face oil will lock in all that goodness and help to prevent overnight moisture loss. Again, you want to look for oils comprised of primarily saturated or monounsaturated fatty acids. The polyunsaturated fatty acids are too unstable and prone to rapid oxidation.

13. Lip Balm

Last but not least, apply a slick of lip balm to repair chapped lips and dryness caused by either the environment or your daytime lip products. I can't say enough good things about lanolin in particular—nothing I've tried heals lips faster!

When to Use Wipes, Mists, Masks and Tools

Now, what about all the optional extras like wipes, mists, masks and tools? Here's where to fit them in.

  • Face wipes: Save these for when you're on-the-go and can't wash your face at the sink—like post-gym or during airplane travel.
  • Face mists: They can go on over or under your hydrators and makeup. See my face mist tutorial for all the ways you can use them.
  • Face masks: Unless they're specifically formulated to be left on, apply masks to clean, freshly exfoliated skin and then rinse off before proceeding with the rest of your routine.
  • Microcurrent: Treatments require a generous layer of conductive gel or aloe vera that most people will want to wash off afterwards (especially if you're acne-prone). Usually, I do a light cleanse before microcurrent, and when I'm done, I use a foaming cleanser and do the rest of my routine.
  • Microneedling: You should only ever needle on clean, bare skin. Since it increases the absorption of topical products, ingredients like acids, retinoids and even snail mucin are to be avoided post-needling. I suggest applying a high-molecular weight hyaluronic acid serum, and doing treatments at night so your skin has time to recover.
  • Microdermabrasion: Home microdermabrasion systems are meant to be used only once a week, on clean skin. You'll need to avoid any peeling products like acids or retinoids for at least 48 hours before and after treatments.
  • Red light therapy: Red and infrared light is extremely safe, and treatments can be performed at any time. Wearing skincare products or makeup will not affect the penetration of the light.

Conclusion + Free Cheat Sheet

Now you know how to apply your skincare products in the right order.

If you're new to building a skincare routine, it can get confusing—which is why I created the Skincare Routine Order Cheat Sheet. Just click below to download it so you can remember all the steps, and which products to apply when. (It's FREE!)

Skincare Routine Order Download

Personally, what I find most helpful is to think about my skincare goals and which treatment is most essential. I always try to apply that one on bare skin, before I add any hydrators or sunscreen. That way, it has the best chance of doing its job, without having to penetrate through layers of other products.

Let me know if these tips work for you!

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