One of the questions I get asked the most about skincare is, “how am I supposed to use all this stuff?” Multi-step regimens can seem daunting and you may be tempted just to apply things whimsically with no particular order in mind.
Don’t. The order does matter. Here’s why.
Regimens with multiple steps are incredibly effective, however, different skincare products have different weights, textures, and concentrations of actives. The more layers you apply, the harder it becomes for each layer to penetrate the skin and give you the benefits promised. To get the most out of the products you’re using, it’s best to apply them in a specific order to make sure the most lightweight and concentrated products are applied first, with heavier and more humectant products applied later in the regimen. Here’s each step broken down, with a handy infographic at the end.
This step obviously wouldn’t apply if you weren’t wearing makeup, but if you are it’s important you remove it prior to cleansing. The reason is, if you cleanse your skin while your makeup is still on, essentially you are just massaging soggy foundations, creams, and waxes all over your skin, then rinsing. Your skin will not get completely clean, and it won’t absorb any of the actives in your cleanser. So using your makeup remover of choice and a cotton pad (or makeup removing wipe), gently remove your eye and face makeup first.
Oil cleanser is typically the first step to an effective double cleanse but can be skipped during your AM regimen since you presumably won’t have makeup on. At the end of the day, however, you want to use an oil cleanser to gently break up stubborn oils, impurities and leftover makeup on the surface of the skin, then rinse away.
Whether it’s the first step in an AM regimen, or the second half of a double cleanse in the PM, cleansing your skin with a gentle, sulfate-free facial wash will remove lingering impurities, and ensure your skin is clean and prepped to it can best absorb your more concentrative, multi-active skincare products.
An exfoliant wouldn’t be an everyday step of your regimen, but on the days you do exfoliate, you’d do so after cleansing. For a chemical exfoliant, such as a BHA/AHA Peel, you shouldn’t exceed once a week. For a physical exfoliant, like a scrub, 1-2x a week would be sufficient depending on your individual skin type.
Masking is another step that may or may not be an everyday part of your regimen, but if you are choosing to use a mask, apply it to freshly cleansed or exfoliated skin to ensure the ultimate absorption of active ingredients.
Cleansers, exfoliants, and masks can throw off skin’s pH balance (I go into detail on the importance of toner here) so follow up cleansing/exfoliating/masking with an alcohol-free toner to refresh and balance your skin.
Whether it’s over the counter or prescription, you’ll want to apply your Retinoid/Retinol first, prior to any other serums, treatments or moisturizers. Since Retinoid products have powerful active ingredients, you’ll want to make sure they’re closest to the skin. Pat onto the skin until fully absorbed, then proceed to the next step. Never mix retinoid/retinol products, only use them at night and make sure you use SPF during the day since retinol/retinoid products make your skin very photosensitive.
Water-based serums are lightweight and concentrated with actives so you can layer them next. Depending on your skin and preference, you may layer 2-3 different serums in the AM or PM, and serums are designed for this purpose so layer to your heart’s content. As a rule of thumb I apply serums with the lowest viscosity first, then more thick/tacky serums after. Make sure to read your labels since not all serums are meant for day and night use, and if you’re using acids, always use an SPF to avoid sun damage.
Suspensions are essentially serums that are in a thicker, gel/cream format. These would be applied after water-based serums since they are denser, and if applied first would make it more difficult for water-based products to be absorbed. Make sure to read your labels since not all serums are meant for day and night use, and if you’re using acids, always use an SPF to avoid sun damage.
Eye creams are applied to the entire eye contour (from under eye to brow bone) and will give you the best results if applied directly after serums and suspensions.
Moisturizer is usually the heaviest product you’ll apply to this should go on near the end to lock in hydration while still allowing actives to penetrate the skin. You may have a different moisturizer for day and night, and that’s perfectly fine since night creams usually are thicker and more concentrated, since most cell turnover happens while we sleep.
Obviously, you wouldn’t need to apply SPF at night, but during the day it’s mandatory. If your moisturizer contains a physical SPF of 15+ you can combine this step with moisturizer, otherwise apply liberally afterward to ensure you protect your skin from sun damage and free radicals.
Beauty oils are incredibly nourishing and packed with skin loving ingredients, but by nature they will create a “barrier” on your skin, so unless you want to render all your other products useless, make sure this step is last. Extremely dry skin types may combine oils with their moisturizers to boost their effectiveness, but for normal or oily/acne prone skin, keep oils a part of your PM regimen, exclusively.