As a beauty editor, I get asked questions daily: “What products are best for acne?”, “Do I really need toner?”, “How do I get beach waves to stay in my hair?” All valid questions, by the way, but by far the most asked is: “What order should I apply skin care products in — and does it even matter?” And I don’t blame you, figuring out the right order of your skin care products when you don’t have a deep understanding of what each one does is overwhelming. Of course it doesn’t help that the internet is jam-packed with misinformation and bad advice from people who aren’t professionals.
But, whether you have a 10-step or 3-step regimen, the order in which you apply your products makes a drastic difference to how your skin looks and feels. Plus, no matter how expensive or active ingredient-filled a product is, if you’re not using it correctly, you’re wasting time and money. And worst of all, the wrong order could severely irritate your skin.
And because everyone can benefit from a little skin care 101, TZR reached out to top estheticians to finally put the matter to bed. Below, they answer all questions you might have about product order, how to layer, and what to use in the mornings and evenings.
Why Does The Order Matter?
Product order during application is extremely important. “If the order is not followed then you might not have the highest efficacy of the products,” Christina Tewfik, physicians assistant at SkinSpirit tells TZR. For example, moisturizer is a sealant, whereas serums contain active ingredients that need to penetrate into the skin in order to work. “Applying a serum over a moisturizer prevents the active ingredients from reaching their target because they won’t get through the moisturizer,” says Natalie Aguilar, celebrity esthetician and dermatological nurse. Not to mention, some active serums are best in the day to protect from environmental aggressors (pollution, debris, and sun), while others are more suited for nighttime routines as the formulas become unstable in the sun, and can make your skin more vulnerable to sun damage.
So what product goes first? According to the experts, a good rule of thumb is to apply products in order of formula consistency, from thin to thick. “Light products should be applied first so they can completely absorb into the skin,” says Darya Rzaca, celebrity master esthetician and co-founder of facial spa Atelier Beaute. “Their molecular formula is made to get deep into the skin tissue.” Once thinner products are applied, you can move onto richer and heavier texture products like creams and oils. “If the order is reverse, lightweight products might not break through the skin barrier, and fail to do their job.”
Taylor Worden, celebrity esthetician, likes to think of it like getting dressed. “You wouldn’t put your bra on over your jacket, would you?” she shares. “No. You’d start with your undergarments (bra, panties, socks) and then a tank, pants, a blouse, and jacket. Your skin care order should be thought of as the same.”
Now for the expert-approved order. It should be noted that the below steps are optional and to your preference. Meaning, if you don’t feel like one product fits your routine, skip it.
Your Morning Skin Care Routine
The order: cleanser, toner, serum, eye cream, moisturizer, face oil, and SPF.
Step 1: Cleanser (AM & PM)
Put simply, skin care treatments and products will not work if you don’t start with a clean canvas. Cleansing your skin is the key to a healthy barrier and the only way to completely get rid of any sunscreen or makeup residue. “Cleansing will ensure all active ingredients are given the chance at effectiveness and reach therapeutic levels without premature removal of occluding the skin,” Aguilar tells TZR. The expert likes to massage in her cleanser (her favorite: Graydon Face Foam) for at least a minute to provide the deepest clean and effectively remove heavy makeup or thicker sunscreen.
Those with dry skin should look for face wash with ingredients like ceramides and glycerin to boost hydration and strengthen the skin barrier. If you are prone to acne, Tewfik recommends a chemical exfoliant option like a salicylic or glycolic cleanser. “If you wear lots of makeup, try a micellar water that is oil-free and non-comedogenic to avoid clogging pores,” she shares. And although washing twice a day is ideal, the most important time is at night to properly remove the dirt, oil, makeup, and pollution accumulated throughout the day.
Step 2: Toner (AM & PM)
“Toners are used to balance the pH of your skin,” Sarah Akram, celebrity master esthetician and owner of Sarah Akram Skincare, tells TZR. “They prep the skin for maximum product penetration and allow serums and moisturizers to absorb better.” If your skin tends to get dehydrated, some toners can provide extra hydration (an essence could also fill in for this step). Aneta Zuraw, celebrity master esthetician and co-founder of Atelier Beaute, suggests acne-prone and extra-oily skin to incorporate a toner like Down to Tone Toner for another level of defense against shine. Whatever you do, make sure it’s alcohol-free as an alcohol toner can cause irritation and dry out the skin.
Step 3: Serums (AM & PM)
Serums help target any skin concerns you might have, be it dryness, dark spots, dullness, or acne. “Serums are the actives in a skin care routine,” Aguilar shares. “Helping to change the skin, some are designed to be used daily, and others just once a week.” Shamara Bondaroff, founder of facial spa SB Skin, recommends using a formula with vitamin C in the morning to help prevent environmental damage caused by free radicals. “I use the BL+ The Serum, which I am absolutely loving,” the pro shares. “It gives the perfect amount of hydration and skin love for a Miami winter. If you are in a city, I definitely recommend following your serum with a balm.” In the evenings, she suggests a hyaluronic acid based serum to help pull the moisture from the air into the skin while you sleep.
Step 4: Eye Cream (AM & PM)
It’s paramount that you apply eye cream prior to any other active treatment products to avoid potent ingredients like retinol and glycolic acid accidentally pulling into the eye area. When working with eye creams in the morning, make sure you select a lightweight formula, like Crème Contour de Yeux Biosensible, as heavier creams can pill under concealer and foundation, especially when layered with SPF.
The evenings, however, are a great time to lather on a thick nourishing eye cream. In terms of what eye cream to select: If your lids are on the oily side, opt for a gel-based formula, says Bondaroff. You could also look for a hydrating formula for dry skin or a caffeine-infused option to lessen the appearance of under-eye bags. Regardless of what you choose, apply it by gently tapping onto the thin, delicate skin.
Step 5: Moisturizer (AM & PM)
Moisturizers are a type of emollient that help seal all the hydration from the previous steps and soften the skin. “For skin to properly function, it needs to maintain healthy hydration levels to avoid cracking and a compromised external barrier,” Aguilar tells TZR. If dryness is your biggest concern, make sure to purchase a moisturizer packed with ceramides, like Transformation Face Cream, as it will help reinforce the skin’s natural moisture barrier.
Step 6: Face Oil (AM before SPF, PM after retinol)
Face oils are occlusive, in that they seal in all the ingredients and moisture from steps one through five, to keep them from evaporating quickly. On their own, they don’t moisturize the skin as well compared to when you layering them over other humectant and emollient ingredients. Aguilar recommends Rosehip Oil as it’s packed with essential fatty acids (omega 3, 6, and 9) and vitamins A and E that work hard to revitalize, combat premature signs of aging, and brighten the skin.
Step 7: Sunscreen (AM only)
Because sunscreen’s goal is not to penetrate but instead act as a barrier, it should be the last product applied in every routine, no matter how many steps you have. And yes, you should use it even if it’s not sunny outside.
Your Evening Skin Care Routine
The order: cleanser, toner, serum, eye cream, treatment, retinol, moisturizer, and face oil.
Step 5: Spot Treatments (PM only)
In the evenings, after steps one through four — cleanser, toner, serum, eye cream — you can start applying treatments that are suitable for overnight. Treatments for breakouts, dark spots, scars, and other spot treatments will work to repair, restore, and regenerate the skin, according to Worden. However, they tend to be sensitive to the sun so the experts recommend applying them at night only. Pro tip: Avoid mixing a treatment with other active ingredients in your nighttime regimen. Applying too many harsh ingredients could result in over-exfoliation, sensitivity, dryness, and potentially more breakouts.
Step 7: Retinol (PM only)
Once treatments are applied and moisturizers are lathered, you can begin with a retinol. “Retinols work to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, while also increasing collagen and elastin,” says Worden who recommends Environ Retinol Serum 1. The experts all suggest alternating between retinol and an AHA like glycolic or lactic acid to help turn skin cells over for more even-toned and plump skin (don’t use them together as that can be extremely irritating). And remember, a little bit goes a long way. Use a pea-sized amount and apply on your face and then neck and hands if there is left over. If you feel as if your skin needs a bit more hydration after you apply your moisturizer, top off with a facial oil.