This Is the Right Order to Apply Your Skin Care Products

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A better complexion starts with applying your skin care products in the right order. This step-by-step guide will get you glowing in no time.

You do so much for your skin, all in the name of achieving and maintaining a youthful, dewy glow. Cleansers and exfoliators? You got ’em. Face serums? You’re fully stocked. Toners, face moisturizers, masks, and eye creams? Let’s just say you’re a business license away from opening your own Sephora. But while you’ve been focusing on using the right products, you may have overlooked an essential element of an effective beauty regimen: following the proper skin care routine order.

If you’re not applying your skin care products in the right order, you may be doing your complexion a disservice, experts say. Applied incorrectly, harsh ingredients might irritate sensitive skin. And layered improperly, your expensive serums could be rendered ineffective. And that’s saying nothing of mixing up daytime and nighttime products. “Morning is about protection, and night is about restoration and rejuvenation,” says Mona Gohara, MD, a dermatologist in the New Haven, Connecticut, area.

It’s time to commit to an expert-approved skin care routine order. Doing so will ensure you get the biggest bang for your buck and help you achieve your skin care goals.

Less is sometimes more

First things first: Don’t stress over using every product type listed below. The order of skin care products matters, but the number of products you use is less important. In fact, you may want to adjust your skin care routine for rosacea, psoriasis, or other skin conditions. And in general, simpler may be better.

“Try to limit layering, as it is difficult to predict if there will be any discordance between ingredients or even the pH of the applied products,” says Adam Friedman, MD, professor and chair of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C. Acids and bases are measured on a scale of 1 to 14, known as the pH level. Balanced skin maintains an ideal pH of 5.5.

One way to avoid any issues is to space out each product by 15 minutes. “This is roughly the time it takes for something to get through the stratum corneum,” he says. Of course, that’s easier said than done. As Dr. Friedman points out, most people don’t have that much time in the a.m.

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Revealed: Your daytime skin care routine order

Yes, you really need a different morning and evening skin care routine. Think about it: When you care for your face in the a.m., your goal is to protect it from the elements you’ll encounter once you walk out of the house. So your morning skin care routine needs to shield your face from bad guys like pollution and UV rays.

Step 1: Cleanser

When you wake each morning, start by washing the sleep, sweat, and overnight grime off your face with a gentle cleanser. It’s the best way to get your skin ready for what comes next, explains Dr. Friedman.

For this step, the American Academy of Dermatology suggests using a gentle, nonabrasive cleanser that does not contain alcohol. Be sure to wash your face with warm water—hot water will dry it out. And don’t be rough in the drying process. Simply pat your skin dry with a clean towel.

If you plan to use a Korean face mask, sheet mask, or other face mask, now’s the time to do it.

Step 2: Toner

Anyone who survived the days of alcohol-based toners might cringe at the thought of adding one to their skin care routine. But toners have undergone a dramatic makeover in recent years, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

“Toners are liquid skin care products designed to deposit a particular active ingredient on the skin,” he says. Traditionally, they were drying, alcohol-based products that led to a lot of flaky, irritated skin. And they were big no-nos for people with dry or sensitive skin. These days, though, toners are free of alcohol and can be used across all skin types (yes, even dry and sensitive skin).

You can certainly skip this step—not everyone needs an exfoliant or toner in their daytime skin care routine. But if you choose to use one, apply it after cleansing. Toners aren’t designed to remove dirt or residue from your skin.

As for which products to use, pick a toner that solves your skin care problems. The latest generation of toners provides benefits like skin hydration, wrinkle reduction, and exfoliation.

That’s right: You can exfoliate your face with a toner instead of a face scrub. Unlike physical exfoliants, which use ingredients like sugar crystals or tiny beads to remove dead skin, chemical exfoliants use acids (including glycolic and salicylic acids) or enzymes to dissolve the glue that holds the dead skin cells together.

If you can’t live without your go-to face scrub, use it as a cleanser, before using a toner. Just don’t double up on exfoliating products. “I do not recommend exfoliating cleansers or scrubs along with an exfoliating toner, as the combination can be too much for the skin and lead to irritation,” says Dr. Zeichner.

Step 3: Serum

Once you’ve smoothed on your toner, it’s time to apply your serums. Whether vitamin C, vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, or another powerhouse product, serums deliver concentrated versions of active ingredients to the skin, explains Julius Few, MD, a Chicago-based plastic surgeon. A hydrating serum with antioxidants will enhance the effects of a daily moisturizer and help reduce free radical damage caused by UV rays.

“The thin, concentrated formula of a serum allows you to give your skin more of what it needs underneath your typical daily products, like sunscreens and moisturizers,” Dr. Few says.

Here’s where skin care routine order matters a whole lot. “A moisturizer may limit active ingredients’ ability to get through to the outermost layer of your skin, the stratum corneum,” Dr. Friedman says. It makes sense if you consider the consistency of serums versus moisturizers. Actives like niacinamide, antioxidants like resveratrol, and vitamin C serums are thinner—some almost watery—compared to thick lotions and creams. If you use more than one serum, apply the thinnest formulas first.

When applying, don’t limit yourself to your face. One oft-forgotten step is to nourish your neck and delicate décolletage. This area often bears the brunt of sun damage and reveals the telltale signs of aging. Serums with active ingredients can help keep this area tight and firm, reduce age spots, and hydrate crepey, dry skin. As with your face, apply actives to these areas after cleansing and before your moisturizer.

And if you need a spot treatment to target blemishes, now’s the time to use it.

Step 4: Eye cream

If you’re concerned about the signs of aging around your eyes, eye creams and serums may help. Many of these products have active ingredients, which means that they should be applied after cleansing, too, Dr. Gohara says.

When picking an eye cream, look for a product that targets your biggest needs, whether that’s hydration or antiaging.

Step 5: Moisturizer

This is an important step, Dr. Gohara says. Moisturizer relieves dry skin, locks in moisture, protects and supports your skin’s barrier, and minimizes some signs of aging. It also creates the perfect canvas for applying makeup and is key to creating a natural makeup look.

There’s no single best moisturizer out there. The key is to pick one that best fits your skin type. You might need a moisturizer for oily skin, while your best friend slathers on a super-rich moisturizer for dry skin and your sister stocks up on anti-aging creams.

Speaking of lotioning up, don’t forget to spread the moisturizer over your neck and chest!

Step 6: Sunscreen

If moisturizer is important, then sunscreen is downright critical. Not only will it prevent premature aging, but it can help you avoid skin cancer.

You should apply sunscreen every day, not just when you’re purposefully basking in the sun’s glow. Judicious use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher is the last in your morning skin routine order—think of it like the armor you add before greeting your greatest foe: UV rays.

If using sunscreen and moisturizer together seems like a lot of work, you’re in luck. There are many effective moisturizers with SPF that can help cut down on the number of steps in your skin care routine, Dr. Friedman says.

Finish by showing love to your hands! Regularly applying hand cream can revive your dry skin, and using sunscreen can help you avoid age spots and skin cancer there.

Demystified: Your nighttime skin care routine order

They call it beauty sleep for a reason. “Nighttime is when skin cells rejuvenate themselves naturally, and the order of your skin care products can help maximize results,” says Dr. Gohara.

Step 1: Cleanser

Your nighttime face routine order starts the same way your daytime routine does, says Dr. Gohara. And that’s with a good face-cleaning. Nighttime cleansing helps take off makeup and all the dirt, grime, and residue that accumulated on your face throughout the day.

This can be a single-step process—squirt on some cleanser, lather it over your face, and rinse—but double cleansing can be a really good idea. To do it, wash first with an oil-based cleanser (a cleansing oil or balm) and then with a water-based one. The two-step process can be especially helpful if you have makeup or heavy soiling on your face, Dr. Zeichner says.

“The oil cleanser dissolves dirt, and the water-based second-step cleanser finishes the job,” he says. “The latest generation of cleansers do a great job on their own, so you don’t necessarily need to double cleanse unless there is a significant amount of residue on the face.”

Step 2: Exfoliator and toner

Not everyone needs to use an exfoliating agent and/or toner in the evening, Dr. Gohara says. But if you do, use it after your cleanser and before any actives.

Keep your skin type in mind too. “If someone is dry, it may be wise to skip,” she says. “But more oil may make this step worth it.”

Step 3: Serum and treatment

Next up are your actives: a vitamin A derivative like retinol, a retinol alternative such as bakuchiol, peptides, or a heavy-hitting antioxidant serum, all of which help skin cells regenerate. Some actives help boost the production of collagen and elastin under the skin’s surface. These proteins are the building blocks of healthy, youthful skin, and our supply tends to dwindle with advancing age.

Dr. Gohara’s number one rule for an effective nighttime skin care routine order is pretty easy to follow: “Actives always come before moisturizer,” she says. “The actives just may not penetrate the skin as well or be as effective if something is blocking it from penetrating where it needs to be.”

Don’t worry, though. Nothing terrible will happen if you screw up the order. In fact, some people may want a buffer between their skin and certain active ingredients. Dr. Friedman points to acne medications like topical retinoids, which may cause less irritation if they are applied after a facial moisturizer.

You may need to tweak your skin care routine order as you progress with your retinol serum, layering it on top of your moisturizer as your skin adapts and eventually applying it before moisturizer once the product stops causing dryness or irritation.

Like your morning skin routine, this nighttime regimen should see you spreading active ingredients over your neck and décolletage. And if needed, you can layer a spot treatment on top of your serums and under your moisturizer. (If you’re using retinol, use a spot treatment in the morning; doubling up could irritate your skin.)

Step 4: Eye cream

Don’t leave your eyes until last. “Cleanse, apply eye cream with active ingredients, and then moisturize,” Dr. Gohara explains.

Step 5: Moisturizer

Yep, you need to use a moisturizer at night, too, Dr. Gohara says. You may want to use a thicker moisturizer at night than you do during the day, especially if you have dry skin.

Step 6: Face oil or balm

Some people may benefit from doubling down on moisturizers. “If you are in your 40s, 50s, or 60s, consider using a hyaluronic acid–based moisturizer and then a heavier moisturizer, such as a petroleum-based occlusive on top of that to seal it all in,” she says.

Using a thick balm like Vaseline on top of your moisturizer is sometimes called slugging, and it is the final step in your nighttime skin care routine.

If you don’t want something quite so thick on your face, top your moisturizer with a face oil, which will lock in all of the moisture you added to your face.

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Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in Reader’s Digest. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors; and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu, and rescue chihuahua-pitbull, Thomas.