As we grow older, it’s important to take better care of our skin. In my experience, it took some trial and error to land on the right products for my routine. However, as I tested out more and more serums, lotions, and actives, it became apparent that sequence matters when it comes to skincare. Does the face oil come before or after my moisturiser? When do I apply AHAs? Is it better to put on eye cream first or last? If these questions intrigue you as well, here’s my guide on how to layer skincare so you get the most out of your products.
Why does sequence matter?
It is important that you apply your products in the right sequence. If your skincare isn’t applied in the correct order you will encounter these issues:
- The product does not penetrate your skin properly
Shuffling the steps in your skincare routine will prevent the ingredients from sinking into the skin. For example, it’s best to apply thin, water-based products before thick oil-based ones because oil forms a film that blocks water-based moisturizers and toners. Though oil doesn’t completely impede the absorption of hydrating products, it does significantly affect how much is absorbed.
- The product will be less effective
Not following the right order will affect the absorption of your skin care products. When products aren’t absorbed properly, you won’t get the most out of them, or worse, the effects will be minimal to none. And when you add acids into the mix, you have to be even more careful because certain ingredients can’t be used in conjunction with other products.
- It will cause irritation or damage
Applying products in the wrong order can exacerbate existing skin issues or create new ones. To illustrate, using retinol and benzoyl peroxide on the same night will dry out and irritate your skin, leaving it more vulnerable to flare-ups. You also shouldn’t layer watery serums on top of oils because your skin won’t be getting the hydration it needs due to the occlusive barrier formed by the oil.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Applying Skincare
Morning Skincare Regimen
Always start with a clean slate before going forward with your skincare routine. Double cleansing is an effective way to get rid of grime and makeup. First, start with cleansing oil or balm to rinse away surface dirt and makeup. Follow it up with a water-based cleanser but make sure it isn’t too stripping. Wash the residue thoroughly.
Some people swear by splashing water in the morning and then moving on to the next steps. I recommend this for dry skin but if you tend to wake up with excess oil on your face, it may be beneficial to do a first cleanse.
The next step is exfoliation. For mornings, you can use a physical exfoliator since it tends to be more gentle for the skin than chemical exfoliants early in the day. Use a gentle but effective scrub to slough off dead skin cells. Alternately, you can also use a cleansing brush for a deep clean.
Remember that your mileage may vary so you don’t have to physically exfoliate every day. In fact, once a week is enough to see the benefits of exfoliation. Adjust the steps accordingly depending on your skin type.
Toner is somewhat a controversial product because Western toners have long been debunked as they can be too harsh. Certainly, it might be overkill if you’ve double cleansed and exfoliated prior to this. Depending on your skin type and goals(a recurring theme of this article), you may still want to incorporate a toner to clean up any spots you might have missed. You may also use a hydrating toner which preps the skin for more hydrating steps later on.
Treatment or Antioxidant Serums
This step is completely up to you. Choose a treatment that’s best for your skin. Vitamin C and niacinamide serums are well-loved across all skin types. Vitamin C is a powerful multitasking antioxidant serum because it prevents signs of ageing, fades hyperpigmentation and protects the skin from free radicals. If your skin concerns include acne, oiliness, redness and a lacklustre complexion, you will benefit from a niacinamide serum.
Whatever your skin type, you need hydration. The most potent way to do this is through a hydrating serum that contains hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid holds a thousand times its weight in water, making it a powerful humectant. That means it draws in moisture so your skin looks plump and dewy.
The skin around your eyes also needs hydration. You can use a lightweight moisturizer for this delicate area or use an eye cream or serum that’s specially formulated for the bags under your eyes. Eye creams reduce fine lines and puffiness. They can also thicken the skin on the eyelids so your eyes look more youthful.
This is where you squeeze in your spot treatment, best for calming down active breakouts or hormonal zits. Spot treatments can be drying so be careful not to overuse them. Feel free to skip this if your skin doesn’t need it.
An oil-based cream or moisturizer goes on last so it can lock in all the nutrients you’ve added to your skin. You should apply a moisturizer on slightly damp skin for maximum absorption. Use a pea-sized amount or so, there’s no need to slather it on to get more benefits.
Always, always use sunscreen, I cannot stress this enough. If there’s only one thing you have time for in the morning before heading out the door, make it SPF. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen religiously, one that’s at least SPF 30, even on cloudy days, and you will thank yourself years from now because you will look like a smoke show who doesn’t age.
There are two types of sunscreen: physical and chemical.
- Chemical sunscreen contains avobenzone, octinoxate, and/or oxybenzone. It’s absorbed into the skin and works by transforming UV rays into heat and releasing them away from the body.
- Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, contain minerals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. It sits on top of the skin so the UV rays bounce off of it instead of being absorbed into the skin.
These have their own pros and cons. Physical sunscreens are less irritating but are more likely to leave a white cast. Chemical sunscreen is quick-absorbing and usually water-resistant but some people experience burning or reactions to it.
Evening Skincare Regimen
It’s important to remove all traces of makeup and sunscreen on your face every night using a double cleanse. For your first cleanse, you can use micellar water, a cleansing balm or oil, or a cream cleanser or lotion. Apply on dry skin and swirl the product on your face, making sure to cover your entire face. Rinse off the cleanser well until the residue has lifted and the water runs clear.
After your first cleanser has removed most of the makeup and pollutants, it’s time for your second cleanse. For oily skin, it’s best to use a gel-based cleanser. If you have dry or sensitive skin, you need a moisturizing cleanser to prevent overdrying your moisture barrier. If you have oily skin, you can opt for a gentle foaming cleanser. This second cleansing step in your evening routine removes the dirt that has lingered on your face, as well as oils and residue from the first cleanse.
The third step is physical exfoliation. If you’re sensitive to chemical exfoliants, use a grainy scrub or cleansing brush to remove dead skin cells. It’s not recommended to exfoliate twice a day. Skip this step if you’ve exfoliated in the morning. Physical exfoliation should be done weekly or when your skin feels extra rough.
Toners, Essences, or Boosters
After you’ve thoroughly cleansed and exfoliated, it’s time to bring back moisture to your skin. You can do this by using a hydrating toner, an essence, or a booster.
A toner is a liquid that balances your skin’s pH and gets rid of dirt and oils left on the skin after cleansing. It can lightly exfoliate or replenish moisture into the skin.
After using a toner, you can then apply an essence. This step has origins in Asia. An essence is a watery version of a serum and it’s meant to hydrate and nourish the skin. You should use it on bare hands and pat it until it’s fully absorbed.
Boosters are less popular so it can be slightly confusing to integrate into a skincare routine. Boosters are concentrated versions of a single ingredient such as peptides, niacinamide, or hyaluronic acid. This is where you can customize your skincare routine even more by using a booster for your skin concerns. You can use more than one booster and it works like a skincare wardrobe where you mix and match depending on how your skin feels for the day.
If you’ve used a physical exfoliant in your morning routine, you may skip this step in the evening. Chemical exfoliants like beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are best applied at night so they can work as you sleep.
Use a cotton pad or drizzle the exfoliant on your bare hands and pat on the skin gently. Remember to insert an acid exfoliant after astringent toners (or cleansing toners) but before hydrating products like essences and boosters. If you are sensitive to salicylic acid or glycolic acid, you can layer them on top of a moisturizer which serves as a buffer to lessen irritation.
Eye cream is important for preventing crow’s feet and other signs of ageing. Don’t neglect the area around your eyes because they tend to thin out as we age and they need every drop of moisture they can get. Dab a pea-sized amount of cream and tap gently using your ring fingers. Do not tug or pull on the delicate eye area. Let it absorb fully.
Spot treatments are best applied at night when the body is repairing itself. However, if you’re using a BHA or retinol at night, it’s better to spot treat in the morning. Apply a thin layer before moisturizing so you the active ingredients can seep in and work their magic.
Retinol, a vitamin A derivative, is the gold standard for anti-ageing. It’s recommended to use it at night and sparingly. Depending on how your skin tolerates retinol and what percentage of retinol you’re using, you should start slowly and apply it a few times per week, scaling up as needed when you’re skin has adjusted. Wait for fifteen to thirty minutes before applying moisturizer so the retinol can fully absorb into the skin.
Moisturiser or Night Cream
A moisturiser or night cream seals in all the previous steps into the skin. Heavy creams can be applied at night. Be cautious with emollient and thick formulas if you have oily and acne-prone skin because it can clog your pores.
Facial oil is the last step. Oils are occlusive ingredients, which means they trap moisture in the skin and prevent water loss. They’re always applied last even though they have a thin consistency because they can penetrate moisturizers and lotions. There are a plethora of oils for every skin type so choose one that’s best for your skincare goals.
Skincare Application Tips
Adapt your skincare products with seasonal and skin changes.
Your skin care routine should evolve throughout the year to fit the seasons and how your skin is feeling. Starting with an examination of skincare concerns and reaction to changes in weather will set you on a good path. For example, in summers when skin gets oilier, you can use lightweight moisturizers instead of heavy creams.
Layer from lightest products to the heaviest.
As a rule of thumb when it comes to skincare layering, use products from the thinnest to thickest consistency. During the day, the last thing to apply is sunscreen, followed by makeup. At night, it could be a face oil or occlusive moisturizer.
Never skip sunscreen.
UV rays age the skin like nothing else can. No matter how many expensive products you put on your face, you won’t be protected unless you use sunscreen. Apply a broad-spectrum SPF daily, even when it’s not sunny.
Apply moisturiser before serums if you have sensitive skin.
Make sure you adjust your routine if you have sensitivities to certain actives or retinoids. There are no hard and fast rules to skincare so it’s perfectly acceptable to use a moisturizer before a serum if your skin doesn’t tolerate it. The moisturizer acts as a buffer that protects your skin from irritation so you still get benefits from your serum without the irritation.
Allow for absorption
Skincare takes time so be patient. Allow products to absorb fully before you move on to the next step. For example, retinol needs a few minutes to dry for the best efficacy.
Use water-based before oil-based products.
Water-based skincare products such as gels, toners and light lotions should go before oily and occlusive products like thick creams. This is because oil forms a barrier that prevents water from absorbing into the skin.
Go from the lowest to highest pH.
Products are formulated at a certain pH which helps them work the way to their maximum potential. However, mixing low and high pH products tends to cancel out these benefits. If the difference in pH in products applied next to each other exceeds 1 or 2, wait for 30 minutes before applying the second one. You can safely apply products of a similar pH without a grace period.
When to Use Tools, Cosmetic Treatments, Wipes, and Masks
Now that we’ve covered the basics, here are some tips on including additional skincare tools and treatments into your regimen.
Limit your use of facial wipes to an as-needed basis when you don’t have access to flowing water such as when you’re on a plane. Wipes are also handy when you’re in a rush like before or after a workout at the gym when you need to remove sweat and makeup.
Slather on a face mask on clean, dry skin that’s been exfoliated. That helps the nutrients of the mask work into the skin without a barrier of dirt or a film of oil disrupting absorption. Make sure to wash off the mask well before using the next product in your routine.
Use a microneedle face roller on a clean face only. You should wait until after dermarolling to apply hydrating or moisturizing products. Sanitize your roller well before using. Avoid applying active ingredients such as retinol or vitamin C after microneedling because it may irritate raw skin. You can use a moisturizing product such as hyaluronic acid serums after microneedling.
At-home microdermabrasion treatments should only be done weekly on a clean, bare face. Do not apply actives such as vitamin C serums, salicylic acid, and retinol two days before or after microdermabrasion.
Red light therapy
Red light therapy treats scars, wrinkles, and other skin conditions. It’s safe to use at any time, day or night. Consult your dermatologist before performing red light therapy at home. Protect your eyes if you’re sensitive to bright light.
Layering skincare in the right order seems daunting at first but it’s easy to get the hang of it once you know the basic principles and tricks. Always consider your skincare concerns and goals and make sure your products are absorbed properly so you get the best results from your regimen. After you’ve nailed down the order of your skincare routine, make it a habit to stick to it every day to keep your skin looking fresh and glowy.
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