The Best Skin Care Routine Order, According to Dermatologists

Jamie Grill

There is no such thing as a single “correct” skin care routine order, but there's definitely an optimal way to apply your products. Whether you're a minimalist who prefers sticking to a three-step routine or the type of person willing to undertake 11 steps daily in pursuit of glass skin, the way you layer your products has a big impact on how well they work. The more product-intense you go, the more important this order becomes.

There's a reason cleansing comes first, serum sits beneath moisturizer, and sunscreen goes on last. Understanding this order will ensure your favorite skin care products work effectively—because no one wants to splurge on a luxury serum only to render it useless because of misapplication. If you've ever looked at a tube of retinol or a bottle of face oil and wondered exactly how (and when) to use it, wonder no more.

The best order to apply skin care products

The easiest way to break it down is to refer to the table below, which lays out the best order for your separate morning and night skin care routines. “The principle behind ordering is to cleanse your skin, open your skin so products can soak in, add actives on, then seal with moisturizing products,” says Morgan Rabach, MD, dermatologist and cofounder of LM Medical NYC. Below, the detailed breakdown of every single step in your daily skin care routine.

As for how that breaks down in terms of product order? “Essentially you want to use cleanser first, then apply your products from thinnest to thickest,” says Lauren Penzi, MD, board-certified dermatologist at New York City's MDCS Dermatology. “And always apply SPF last.”

<h1 class="title">How to Layer Products in Your Skin Care Routine Correctly</h1><cite class="credit">Clara Hendler</cite>

How to Layer Products in Your Skin Care Routine Correctly

Clara Hendler

Why does skin care routine order matter?

It may seem tedious, but the order of application really does impact how well your products work to benefit your skin. “Order is important because the correct order improves penetration of the products and maximizes their efficacy,” Dr. Penzi explains.

Aesthetic physician Gendai Echezona, MD, says the same, breaking it down as follows: “Cleansing sets the stage by removing impurities, while serums and treatments can penetrate deeply when applied before moisturizer. Moisturizer then seals in hydration, and sunscreen provides essential protection against UV damage. This systematic approach maximizes the efficacy of each skin care product.”

How to layer multiple serums in your routine

If your skin care routine consists of multiple serums, you might be wondering in which order to apply them. Fortunately, the same rules apply to serums as they do to skin care overall. “As a rule of thumb, apply serums from thinnest to thickest,” says Dr. Penzi, and Kristin Gunn CLT, LMA, a medical aesthetician and injector, echoes this: “For serums, I prefer to use one at a time. For instance, vitamin C is always daytime; phyto serum or retinol is typically nighttime.” If such is the case for you, simply swap out each serum in the morning and at night, respectively.

That said, lots of people like to use hydrating serums as well. In this case, Gunn suggests applying anything hydrating after serums with active ingredients (think vitamin C or retinol). “Basically, you want the products with the expensive skin-fixing additives to go on first unencumbered by the heavier products,” she says.

<h1 class="title">Best Skin Care Routine Order: How to Layer Products Correctly, According to Dermatologists</h1><cite class="credit">mayrum</cite>

Best Skin Care Routine Order: How to Layer Products Correctly, According to Dermatologists


How to layer skin care products so they don’t irritate your skin

Moisturizer might typically go last, but there are a few exceptions to the rule. For example, when starting a new skin care product like retinol, some pros suggest “sandwiching” the product between layers of moisture to prevent it from initially irritating the skin. This also works for anyone with especially sensitive skin all year round.

The “sandwich method”

“The sandwich method involves applying a moisturizer before an active ingredient like retinol, then reapplying the moisturizer on top of that product,” Dr. Echezona explains. “So the sequence is moisturizer, retinol, moisturizer. This method is used for those who have difficulty tolerating retinols and need a slower acclimation process.” As for why and how this works? “Applying the moisturizer first provides a protective barrier prior to retinol application, minimizing irritation while still allowing some retinol to penetrate,” she adds.

When to use the sandwich method

Dr. Penzi recommends using the sandwich method when you are new to a product like retinol, if you have dry, sensitive skin at baseline, or when using a very a strong retinol or retinoid. It's also a good idea to “sandwich” when increasing the strength of your retinol or retinoid. “You might also want to consider it during cold harsh winter months when skin is more sensitive,” she says.

When to apply makeup and sunscreen

Obviously, sunscreen should always go last. But what about when you're wearing makeup?

“Makeup, and makeup skin hybrids like tinted moisturizers, BB creams, primers, and SPF foundation, should be applied as the final steps in your skin care regimen,” says Dr. Echezona. “It’s best to apply sunscreen separately before these products.” She also recommends using a separate sunscreen even if your makeup contains SPF, because SPF in face makeup typically doesn't contain enough for adequate protection.

The best order to apply skin care products: a step-by-step guide

1. Makeup remover/cleansing oil

Do this step: At night only.

Unless you went to bed with makeup on (please don't), there's no reason to do this step in the morning. But at night it makes your cleanser's job a lot easier.

“Removing all makeup from your skin should always be your first step at the end of the day,” says Loretta Ciraldo, MD, dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta Skincare. Look for formulas that are effective enough to melt away waterproof mascara, but still gentle on your face—like micellar water. You can also double-cleanse with an emulsifying oil, which gets rid of the need to buy cotton rounds. (We like these reusable makeup remover pads too.)

Embryolisse Lotion Micellaire No Rinse Make-Up Remover

$15.00, Dermstore

Neutrogena Oil-Free Eye Makeup Remover

$9.00, iHerb

DHC Deep Cleansing Oil Medium

$21.00, Dermstore

Juice Beauty Stem Cellular Cleansing Oil

$34.00, Credo Beauty

2. Cleanser

Do this step: Morning and night.

Now that your makeup layer is gone, you can proceed with washing your face. “A cleanser gets rid of dead skin, pollutants, oils, dirt, and bacteria,” says Dr. Rabach. Both she and Dr. Ciraldo recommend also doing this step when you first wake up in the morning, in order to prep your skin to absorb the active ingredients in your other products.

The best cleanser for you will depend on your skin type. “It's important to pay attention to what's in your cleanser and what's not in it,” says Dr. Ciraldo. She recommends avoiding sulfates, which can have a harsh, stripping effect on your face, and looking for actives that suit your needs. “For normal or dry skin, I favor a hydrating cleanser with peptides,” she says. “If you're oily or acne-prone, use a mild exfoliating cleanser with salicylic acid, which dislodges the dead cells that can clog pores.”

CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser

$15.00, Dermstore

HoliFrog Tashmoo Water Lily Nourishing Milky Wash

$38.00, Dermstore

IS Clinical Cleansing Complex

$44.00, Violet Grey

SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

$47.00, Dermstore

3. Eye cream

Do this step: Morning and night.

The first product to go on your face? Eye cream. The reason is simple—because you'll probably forget to do it otherwise. Dr. Ciraldo recommends patting eye cream on gently with your ring finger (this way you'll tug less at the delicate skin there) all the way around your eyes, not just underneath them. If you're worried about eye cream causing your concealer or eye makeup to smear, choose a more lightweight option, like a hydrating gel that sinks in quickly and stays put.

For the best results, look for ingredients like peptides, which help tighten your skin and depuff, as well as antioxidants. Dr. Rabach recommends formulas that contain hydrating hyaluronic acid, brightening caffeine, and ceramides (these lock in moisture and help strengthen your skin barrier).

Tatcha The Silk Peony Melting Eye Cream (0.5 fl. oz.)

$67.00, Tatcha

IT Cosmetics Confidence In An Eye Cream

$39.00, Macy's

Paula's Choice Resist Anti-Aging Eye Cream

$34.00, Dermstore

La Roche-Posay Redermic C Eyes Anti-Wrinkle Firming Moisturizing Filler

$45.00, Dermstore

4. Toner/essence

Do this step: Morning and night.

Both toners and essences are meant to help further prime your skin to absorb active ingredients, but the one you choose will depend on your skin type. Old-school toners were meant to balance skin pH and counteract alkaline soaps, before soap-free cleansers became popular. Now toner usually refers to liquid formulations geared toward oily skin that's in need of gentle exfoliation and resurfacing. Dr. Ciraldo says those with oily or acne-prone skin should look for toners with ingredients like glycolic or salicylic acid. (Check out our guide to glycolic acid benefits for more info.)

Essences, on the other hand, tend to be more hydrating. Dr. Rabach recommends looking for actives like hyaluronic acid, which will flood your skin with moisture that you can lock in during subsequent steps. To apply, soak a cotton pad in liquid and gently pat it over your face. Alternatively, you can use your hands to do the same thing.

Indie Lee CoQ-10 Toner

$34.00, Verishop

CosRx Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence

$23.00, Dermstore

Thayers Alcohol-Free Witch Hazel With Aloe Vera Toner

$24.00, YesStyle

Dermalogica Multi-Active Toner

$41.00, Sephora

5. Serum

Do this step: Morning and night.

This is the step where you'll deliver the bulk of active ingredients to your toner/essence-primed face, and it's important to do it early on in your routine. “Serums are formulated with smaller molecular-weight actives so they penetrate into deeper skin layers,” says Dr. Ciraldo. “If you apply your serum after a thicker formulation, the active ingredients may not penetrate as well.”

While you should apply serum twice a day, you shouldn't be using the same formulation. “Serum actives differ for day and night,” says Dr. Rabach. During the day she likes to choose serums with antioxidants that protect skin from daytime stressors like free radicals (caused by UV rays), pollutants, and blue light. The most popular ingredient for this is vitamin C, which you will have no problem finding in serum form. (Just make sure to choose one that's properly stabilized for maximum effect.) At night, opt for a serum with peptides and growth factors to repair skin.

For both daytime and nighttime serums, Dr. Rabach also has a general list of ingredients she likes to look for across both formulations: Niacinamide to reduce redness, hyaluronic acid to pull moisture into your skin, and alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs), which help boost collagen and even out skin pigmentation. Dr. Ciraldo further splits up her preferred serum ingredients by skin type. “For acne-prone skin, look for stem cells, retinol, and green tea,” she says. “For dehydrated skin, look for lipids, hyaluronic acid, and peptides. And for hyperpigmented skin, look for vitamin C.”

SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Antioxidant Serum

$166.00, SkinCeuticals

Peach & Lily Glass Skin Refining Serum

$39.00, Ulta

SkinMedica TNS Essential Serum

$281.00, Dermstore

Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment

$122.00, Dermstore

6. Retinol

Do this step: At night only.

Retinol truly deserves its own essay, but the short version is this: The vitamin A derivative boosts collagen production and increases the rate of cellular turnover. “Retinol reduces fine lines, reduces pore size, increases collagen and elastin production, takes off dead skin, reduces oil production, unclogs pores, and evens out skin tone,” says Dr. Rabach. Whether you want to clear breakouts or fade fine lines—or basically do anything to your face—retinol is your friend.

On the flip side, this is a strong ingredient, and beginners should proceed with caution when adding to their routines. Potential side effects can include flaking, dryness, retinol burn, and increased sensitivity to the sun, which is why you should stick to applying it at night. Dermatologists often recommend easing into daily application slowly. “Start three times a week for the first week or two,” says Dr. Ciraldo. From there you can gradually increase the frequency of application.

Most will apply their retinol layer after their serums and before moisturizer, but there is one exception. If your skin has trouble tolerating retinol and you want to minimize its side effects, you can buffer it instead. Retinol buffering refers to a technique whereby you mix your retinol with your moisturizer and apply it as a single step. This helps you still get the benefits, but decreases the potential for irritation. To take it a step further, you can also apply retinol over your moisturizer. Experiment with this step, and see where it fits best in your routine.

Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Facial Cream

$29.00, Walmart

SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream

$76.00, SkinCeuticals

Lancôme Visionnaire Skin Solutions 0.2% Retinol Correcting Night Concentrate

$75.00, Macy's

Kate Somerville +Retinol Vitamin C Moisturizer

$90.00, Sephora

7. Moisturizer

Do this step: Morning and night.

Moisturizers are there to simultaneously hydrate and seal in hydration, which is why these formulas tend to be heavier than the layers that go underneath. “You should use moisturizers with humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, which pull in water,” says Dr. Rabach. “I also recommend looking for ceramides, which seal the outer layers of skin.”

Dr. Ciraldo says that many of her patients prefer to use separate formulas for their morning and nighttime routines. This has more to do with how moisturizers feel than anything else. You can use a lightweight formula in the morning that blends better with your makeup and reserve a heavier cream for evening. Dr. Ciraldo's additional tip is to double up on your serum and moisturizer actives. For example, if you use a vitamin C serum in the morning, you can layer a vitamin C moisturizer right on top to boost the benefits.

Glow Recipe Banana Soufflé Moisture Cream

$39.00, Sephora

Dr. Loretta Anti-Aging Repair Moisturizer

$70.00, Dermstore

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Stress Repair Face Cream with Niacinamide

$72.00, Sephora

Tatcha The Dewy Skin Cream

$20.00, Sephora

8. Spot treatment

Do this step: Morning and night.

You need to use spot treatments on active breakouts only, but if you're experiencing acne, you can apply a leave-on spot treatment both morning and night to speed up its healing cycle. According to Dr. Ciraldo, you should spot-treat after you've applied your moisturizer, not before. This helps make sure the product stays on top of the pimple and doesn't go on the rest of your face. “If you're using a strong acid and then smear moisturizer all over your face, you run the risk of the product getting on more sensitive areas,” she says. You'll also dilute its effectiveness. Wait for your a.m./p.m. moisturizer to sink in, then carefully pat over the affected areas.

The two most common over-the-counter ingredients for spot treatments are benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Dr. Rabach differentiates them like this: Benzoyl peroxide helps kill acne-causing bacteria, while salicylic acid gently exfoliates and dries out your oil glands.

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Acne Treatment

$30.00, La Roche-Posay

Eve Lom Dynaspot

$34.00, Sephora

Differin .5 oz. Acne Treatment Gel

$14.00, Bed Bath & Beyond

Indie Lee Blemish Lotion

$26.00, Violet Grey

9. Face oil

Do this step: Morning and night.

If there's one step in your daily skin care routine that surprisingly divides experts, it's face oil. The most common recommendation is to apply it last at night and second to last before sunscreen in the morning. That's because oils are occlusive, says Mona Gohara, MD, dermatologist and associate clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine—which means they help trap moisture in your skin. This is why Renée Rouleau, celebrity esthetician and founder of Renée Rouleau Skin Care, says you should think of face oils as a topcoat. “Oils provide a protective barrier to help prevent moisture from evaporating,” she says. “Anything applied over it may not be offering as much benefit to your skin because it can’t get through.”

However, some derms advise their patients to take this step earlier in their routines (usually before moisturizer), depending on the formulation of the oil they're using. “Some oils are designed with ingredients that hydrate, others to brighten or even to strengthen your skin,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Dr. Ciraldo also says it's okay to mix oils with your moisturizer if you prefer.

Whichever way you land, the important thing is that you don't overdo it—with face oils, a little goes a long way. To apply, warm about two to three drops of oil in your palms and pat lightly over your face.

Pai Skincare Rosehip Bioregenerate Oil

$44.00, Verishop

African Botanics Neroli Infused Marula Oil

$120.00, Violet Grey

Drunk Elephant Virgin Marula Antioxidant Face Oil

$72.00, Sephora

Elemis Superfood Facial Oil

$55.00, Dermstore

10. Sunscreen

Do this step: In the morning only.

What derms unanimously agree on is that you should wear sunscreen every single day to prevent UV damage—whether or not you go outside. Sunscreen needs to go over face oil in order to be most effective. “You do not want anything to stop the sunscreen from working, or making it less effective,” says Dr. Gohara. “Putting an oil on top of your sunscreen can decrease it’s efficacy.”

There are two types of sunscreens to choose from for your final step: physical and chemical. Physical blockers contain minerals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide and work by reflecting light away from your skin. Chemical blockers, on the other hand, work by absorbing light and converting it into heat, preventing it from penetrating into your skin. Rouleau says that mineral formulas are often better for sensitive skin, while chemical formulations tend to be thinner and spread more easily.

Chemical formulas also come with the benefit of not leaving a white cast on darker skin tones. While mineral sunscreens traditionally cast an ashy tone, Dr. Zeichner points out that brands have begun formulating better physical sunscreens to counteract that. “The newest formulation technology has brought us micronized sunscreens that rub in to your skin much better than ever before,” he says. “So using a zinc-based sunscreen no longer necessarily means your face will have that white cast. No matter what your personal preference is, there are sunscreens for every need.”

Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen

$34.00, Dermstore

EltaMD UV Physical Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen

$33.00, Dermstore

Dr. Loretta Urban Antioxidant Sunscreen

$50.00, Dermstore

Suntegrity Skincare Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen

$45.00, Verishop

Sarah Wu is a writer in Berlin. Follow her on Instagram @say.wu.

Originally Appeared on Glamour