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
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.
- S.W. Basics Cleanser is an all-natural cleansing water (swipe it on with a cotton pad, and then rinse off).
- First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser (reviewed here) has a light, creamy texture.
- Glossier Milky Jelly Cleanser and Lano Face Base Gelcream Cleanser are gel-creams, so they're more hydrating and mild than a cleansing gel.
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).
- PMD Clean works in conjunction with your cleanser, and has sonic vibrations to clean and gently exfoliate.
- Peet Rivko Exfoliator, Omorovicza Refining Facial Polisher and Odacité Jojoba Beads Exfoliant are the best scrubs that won't irritate your skin.
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.
- Pyunkang Yul Acne Toner is an astringent toner that I recommend if you're going to chemically exfoliate next. (I've found that most other toners are incompatible with acids, and produce temporary redness and flushing.)
- Indie Lee CoQ-10 Toner (reviewed here), Herbivore Jasmine Green Tea Balancing Toner and First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Wild Oat Hydrating Toner are fine if you're not using acids.
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).
- COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid (reviewed here) is the Holy Grail of BHAs.
- Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant is even stronger, for oily skin.
- The Inkey List Lactic Acid and Luzern L'Essentials Au Vin Exfoliating Treatment are gentler options with AHAs.
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.
- Drunk Elephant Shaba Complex Eye Serum (reviewed here) and Indie Lee I-Waken Eye Serum (reviewed here) are eye serums that sink in fast for light moisture.
- Caudalie Resveratrol Lift Eye Lifting Balm and Derma E Hydrating Eye Cream are nourishing but non-greasy eye creams.
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.
- SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic is the OG vitamin C serum with L-ascorbic acid.
- Skin Inc Supplement Bar Vitamin C Serum contains magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, a vitamin C derivative.
- Paula's Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster is a personal favourite, and layers well under other products without pilling.
- Summer Fridays CC Me Serum, with vitamin C and niacinamide, is a good choice if you're looking for multiple actives.
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.
- Consonant HydrExtreme (reviewed here) is my all-time favourite hydrating serum.
- Timeless Hyaluronic Acid Pure is my top pick for hyaluronic acid, since it uses a high-molecular weight form.
- SK-II Facial Treatment Essence and Omorovicza Omoressence are two of the best hydrating essences.
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.
- Indie Lee Active Oil-Free Moisturizer (reviewed here) and The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA (reviewed here) are suitable for normal to oily skin.
- OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream has a fluid texture but is surprisingly hydrating—I think all skin will love it.
- Dr Roebuck's No Worries Hydrating Face Moisturizer is a little richer, and ideal for normal to dry skin.
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.
- The Inkey List Squalane and Timeless Squalane Pure (both reviewed here) use squalane, which sinks in fast and is well-tolerated by most skin.
- Odacité Jojoba-Lavender Serum Concentrate contains jojoba oil, a slightly heavier oil that moisturizes and balances sebum levels.
- Herbivore Orchid Facial Oil is a blend of fractionated coconut, camellia, jojoba and squalane oils.
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.
- EleVen by Venus Unrivaled Sun Serum SPF 35 and On-the-Defense Sunscreen SPF 30 (reviewed here) are my top recommendations, since they give superior protection from the UVA rays that cause skin cancer and premature aging. At the same time, they're unbelievably lightweight and completely invisible on all skin tones.
- Kinship Self Reflect Probiotic Moisturizing Sunscreen SPF 32, Ghost Democracy Invisible Lightweight Daily Face Sunscreen SPF 33 and REN Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30 are also good choices (all and more reviewed here).
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.
- REN Perfect Canvas Clean Primer is a silicone-free primer to help makeup last longer.
- Omorovicza Complexion Perfector is a clean tinted moisturizer for sheer coverage.
- RMS Beauty "Un" Cover-Up works as both foundation and concealer.
- ILIA Soft Focus Finishing Powder is the best non-drying translucent powder.
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.
- Bioderma Sensibio H2O and BIOeffect Micellar Cleansing Water are two of the best micellar waters.
- Kopari Coconut Melt, a pure coconut oil, is just as effective as any cleansing oil or balm (and more economical).
- The Ordinary Squalane Cleanser (reviewed here) is a cream-to-oil cleanser that traps and dissolves makeup—just make sure you apply it to dry skin.
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.
- Youth to the People Superfood Cleanser and Glow Recipe Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser are non-drying cleansing gels that cut through any leftover dirt and grime.
- Graydon Face Foam is a foaming cleanser that even sensitive skin can use.
- Dr Roebuck's Noosa Nourishing Creme Cleanser hydrates dry and sensitive skin, and rinses away clean.
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.
- Foreo Luna for Combination Skin is what I use every night to exfoliate and deep-clean.
- Tatcha The Rice Polish and Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant are non-abrasive, enzyme-based exfoliating powders.
- Eve Lom Muslin Cleansing Cloths are durable but soft on skin.
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.
- Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner works beautifully before chemical exfoliation.
- Dr Roebuck's Lifesaver Skin Brightening Toner, Caudalie Moisturizing Toner and COSRX Centella Water Alcohol-Free Toner are all suitable if you're not using acids.
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.
- COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid is one of the best glycolic acid formulas.
- First Aid Beauty Skin Rescue Acne Clearing Pads use salicylic acid, but aren't too drying (and they're not just for breakouts!).
- Tarte Knockout Tingling Treatment and Arcona Tabula Rasa Pads exfoliate with lactic and salicylic acid.
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).
- Drunk Elephant C-Tango Multivitamin Eye Cream (reviewed here) treats the signs of aging with peptides and vitamin C.
- The Inkey List Retinol Eye Cream targets fine lines and wrinkles with retinol.
- Dr Roebuck's Down Under Collagen Boosting Eye Treatment is super moisturizing and made with clean ingredients.
- Sisley Sisleÿa L'Intégral Anti-Age Eye & Lip Contour Cream is a splurge, but you'll love the buttery texture and accompanying massage tool.
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.)
- Indie Lee Blemish Lotion (reviewed here), Kate Somerville EradiKate Acne Treatment and Mario Badescu Drying Lotion are similar spot treatment formulas and not overly drying.
- COSRX Acne Pimple Master Patch (you get a set of 24) is widely considered the best acne patch.
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!
- Timeless 20% Vitamin C Ferulic Acid Vitamin E is one of the highest-dose L-ascorbic acid serums.
- The Ordinary Ethylated Ascorbic Acid 15% Solution (reviewed here) uses a more stable form of vitamin C with similar brightening and collagen-boosting benefits.
- SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense contains not just niacinamide but also tranexamic acid, kojic acid and HEPES to fade dark spots.
- Dr. Roebuck's Ningaloo Firming Serum firms with copper peptides (and has only six ingredients in total).
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.
- Shani Darden Retinol Reform delivers equal parts encapsulated retinol and lactic acid.
- African Botanics Retinal Night Cream stars retinaldehyde, which is the direct precursor to retinoic acid (and more active than retinol).
- Sobel Skin Rx 4.5% Retinol Night Treatment contains retinol and hydroxypinacolone retinoate, a non-irritating, next-gen retinoic acid ester.
- A313 Vitamin A Pommade (reviewed here) is a cult-favourite blend of retinol esters, but in a high concentration that is comparable to a mild Retin-A!
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.
- COSRX Propolis Light Ampoule is a soothing, propolis-based serum with a silky texture.
- Indie Lee Stem Cell Serum (reviewed here) is both hydrating and firming, thanks to plant-derived stem cells.
- Omorovicza Instant Perfection Serum and StackedSkincare HA Hydrating Serum are good hyaluronic acid formulas for all skin.
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.
- Augustinus Bader The Cream is a lightweight lotion spiked with ceramides, vitamins and amino acids.
- LXMI Crème du Nil Pore-Refining Moisture Veil (reviewed here) is nourishing but doesn't block pores, and a little goes a long way.
- Derma E Firming DMAE Moisturizer is (like all the brand's moisturizers) clean, effective and affordable.
- Pyunkang Yul Balancing Gel has a unique sleeping mask texture to seal in hydration.
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.
- Drunk Elephant Virgin Marula Luxury Face Oil is a rich oil for dry skin that isn't acne-prone.
- RMS Beauty Raw Coconut Cream is the highest-quality coconut oil.
- Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil and Biossance 100% Squalane Oil (both and more reviewed here) are pure squalane oils, which most people seem to tolerate best.
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!
- Lanolips 101 Ointment Multipurpose Superbalm and Lansinoh Lanolin Cream (technically a nipple cream!) are made with 100 percent medical-grade lanolin and nothing else.
- LXMI Pure Nilotica Melt (shea butter) and The Ordinary 100% Plant-Derived Squalane (squalane oil) are also highly effective as lip treatments.
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!)
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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Do you apply your skincare products in this order?
Or do you switch around some of these steps?