While a skincare routine doesn’t have to be outrageously expensive, there’s no doubt that it’s an investment — especially if you want a healthy, glowing complexion. Even so, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re not applying your products in the correct order — believe it or not, it does make a difference.
But with so many formulas and viral TikTok trends within reach, the definition of “routine” can be a bit confusing. If you’re wondering how to layer skincare, we’ve assembled a regimen to take the guesswork out of which products go on when.
Skincare Layering 101
One easy way to remember your skincare routine order is by considering texture. You want to apply the lightest products and work up to the heaviest — here’s why. Using a rich cream before a serum, for example, will create an occlusive barrier that essentially blocks all of the active ingredients in your serum from reaching your skin.
Also, consider that many moisturizers contain water, which can dilute a product layered on top of it. There is an exception to this rule — face oils, but they’re still a product that’s up for debate regarding their order. Generally speaking, a face oil should be applied last but before SPF during the day.
Essentially, “lightest to heaviest” means water-based products are applied first because they need to be close to the skin to penetrate. Oil-dominant products should be used last to seal in moisture.
Timing is Everything
While we’re not suggesting you spend an hour in front of the mirror, you shouldn’t wholly rush your skincare routine either. Generally speaking, you should wait approximately 30-60 seconds between each step to ensure the active ingredients penetrate the skin effectively.
Remember that retinol and more potent prescription-strength retinoids — ingredients used to stimulate collagen production and target fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and numerous forms of acne — increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun. So, to prevent burning, apply them at night.Acne medications and products containing acids like glycolic or salicylic are also subject to the same rule.
What Order to Apply Skincare
Step 1: Cleanser
A.M.: Unless you didn’t wash your face before you hit the sheets, you don’t necessarily need a deep cleanse in the morning. Still, cleansing is essential for removing products from the night before and any bacteria you may have encountered from your pillowcase or subconsciously touching your face. Opt for a gentle cleanser or sweep a cotton pad saturated with a gentle toner or micellar water to prevent stripping your skin of its natural oils.
P.M.: You must be more thorough at night to remove all traces of sweat, dirt, excess oils, makeup, and sunscreen. Be sure you’re cleansing long enough — and effectively. Studies revealed that most Americans don’t wash their faces correctly and use harsh surfactants such as shower gel versus a proper face cleanser. Tip: If you wear a lot of makeup, a double cleanse is a good idea
Step 2: Toner
A.M. and P.M.: Many people skip toners because they think they’re too harsh and aggressive — especially for sensitive skin. While this may have been true in the past, today's toners are formulated to address various skin types and concerns, from oiliness and acne to dryness and sensitivity. Toners help restore the skin’s pH balance after cleansing while prepping it for the remaining products in your routine. Tip: Always make sure you’re applying a toner to a dry face.
Step 3: Eye Cream
A.M. and P.M.: The skin around the eyes is thinner and more delicate than the rest of your face because it lacks sebaceous (oil) glands, which is why fine lines, wrinkles, and puffiness are common woes. That said, an eye cream is an essential step in your routine. Tip: If morning puffiness is a concern, keep a gel formula in the fridge for extra de-puffing power. Switch to a cream-based product at night.
Step 4: Serum
A.M. and P.M.:
A serum is the heavy lifter in your skincare routine because it’s more concentrated than other products like a moisturizer due to its smaller molecular composition. That said, it can penetrate the skin more profoundly and more effectively. The goal of a serum is to target specific skincare concerns, whether that’s loss of radiance, fine lines, wrinkles, acne, or hyperpigmentation — you name it. Tip: Create a custom "cocktail" of serums to address multiple needs. Just remember to apply the thinnest (and/or water-based) formulas first.
Step 5: Moisturize and Protect
A.M.: During the day, our skin is in defense mode warding off harmful UV rays, environmental factors like pollution, and bacterial growth. So, it’s vital you use an antioxidant-rich day cream and sunscreen. Tip: If you’re short on time, use a two-in-one day cream with an SPF of at least 30.
P.M.: Your skin becomes reparative when you’re asleep, working hard to regenerate damage precipitated by daily activities and habits. So, nighttime is the optimal time to restore your skin with a night cream to address your skin type and concerns. Tip: Can you layer moisturizers? Yes, as long as you follow the lightest to heaviest mode.
Step 6: Face Oil
P.M.: A face oil is not necessarily a replacement for your moisturizer. However, both products help fight dryness and dehydration. To be clear, dry skin lacks oil, dehydrated skin lacks water, and we lose both with age. Tip: The ultimate solution is to restore moisture with a moisturizer containing a water-binding humectant like hyaluronic acid and then seal in moisture while providing other nutritive benefits with a face oil. Can you layer face oils? Yes, if you feel your skin requires two different treatments.
Remember that while you can technically wear a face oil in the A.M., too, many people find it hinders their makeup application.
Step 7: The Weekly Extras
A.M. or P.M.: Exfoliating and masking don’t need to be a part of your daily routine, but they should be incorporated into your weekly regimen — morning or night, whatever time works for your schedule. Exfoliating is vital because it removes dead skin cells, which helps your products work more effectively while giving your skin a healthy glow. Ideally, exfoliate one to three times a week, depending on your skin type.
Many people forgo masking because “it takes too much time,” but everyone has a spare ten to twenty minutes during the week. Pick a time when you’re reading, taking a bath, cooking dinner, or Netflix and chilling — whenever you can fit it in. To make it even easier, keep in mind that several mask delivery systems are available these days, such as sheet and sleeping/overnight masks.
An effective skincare routine can be a simple process. The most important takeaway is to use the core essential products for your skin type (that simultaneously address your concerns) and layer them in the correct order, from lightest to heaviest.