In the grand scheme of things in life, figuring out the correct skin-care routine order shouldn't be all that complicated. But with a growing number (i.e. hundreds of thousands) of product options on the market, including cleansers, serums, moisturizers, and more, figuring out when — and how — to use your 10-step skin-care routine can get confusing.
That said, instead of just slapping on five creams — then washing your face because, seriously, that stuff is heavy — follow the lead of the pros. (And don't be surprised if your products suddenly seem to work all the better for it.) So whether you're a newbie and need the basics of a beginner's skin-care routine or you're ready to go pro-level status and see what a dermatologist's go-to lineup might entail, you're in the right place.
1. Start light.
A basic rule of thumb when layering skin-care the right way is to go by the order of your products' consistencies. That means your lightweight liquids will be the products you start with, and your heavier and thicker creams are the ones you end with.
So after you cleanse, start with a toner; with its water-like formula, it is going to be the thinnest consistency of all your skin-care products. Even in the most basic routine, a toner helps remove dead skin cells so your moisturizer can penetrate better (there are hydrating toners and oil-absorbing ones), says Marnie Nussbaum, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
You can also opt for toners with exfoliating ingredients. Neda Mehr, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in California, explains that both salicylic and glycolic acids act as exfoliants to loosen dead skin cells and keep pores clear. Dr. Mehr adds that this step should go before putting on a serum so that the serum can penetrate deeper.
If you want a deeper exfoliation, she suggests using peel pads like DermBx peel pillows as your very first step before toning. Since peels tend to be on the harsher side, this is something you shouldn't do every day.
2. Work in serums.
One common beauty question when it comes to nailing the correct skin-care routine order: serum or moisturizer? The definitive answer is serum. Serums deliver active ingredients into the skin most efficiently, says Boston-based board-certified dermatologist Ranella Hirsch, M.D. Plus, they're easy to customize.
Pick two or three serums that each treat one of your concerns. Try formulas with peptides for wrinkles (we like Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair or Olay Wrinkle Correction Serum with Vitamin B3+Collagen Peptides), salicylic acid for oily skin (we love The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Masque), and licorice or aloe to calm redness (like First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Hydrating Serum or E.L.F. Cosmetics Hydrating Serum).
3. Add an antioxidant.
Vitamin C is one key ingredient every skin type needs. "It brightens, protects against sun damage, and promotes collagen production," says cosmetic chemist Ni'Kita Wilson, who recommends using a potent serum such as Obagi Professional-C Serum 15%. We also like Pixi Skintreats Vitamin-C Serum.
One caveat: Don't pair it with a toner or moisturizer that contains an alpha hydroxy acid (such as glycolic), which destabilizes vitamin C. If you're using an acid, opt for antioxidant green tea or resveratrol instead.
4. Treat Those Blemishes
Exfoliating the skin and keeping pores clear of dirt debris is key for acne-prone skin. But when breakouts do happen, Dr. Mehr suggests reaching for an acne spot cream that contains benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide is a chemical compound that destroys bacteria and has anti-inflammatory properties, which makes it one of those hero ingredients ideal to treat acne. Put this on after a serum as it will have a thicker consistency, but before a moisturizer.
5. Lock in moisture.
Moisturizer does more than just add hydration and lock in moisture. It is key to any layering routine because "it seals in serums on your skin, which can make them more effective," says Wilson. Feel free to keep it basic: Try Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel Face Moisturizer or Kiehl's Ultra Facial Cream if you have normal to oily skin. For dry skin, we like bareMinerals Butter Drench Restorative Rich Cream or Cetaphil Daily Hydrating Lotion.
5. Know when to go in reverse.
If your sensitive skin reddens with the thought of using even one treatment product, try putting on a simple, fragrance-free moisturizer first and then serums on top. "The cream will reduce the potency of the serums," says Dr. Hirsch, "but they'll also be less likely to cause irritation."
6. Add an oil.
In small doses, oils make skin radiant. Put them on dry areas after creams — as a rule, oils can penetrate moisturizers, but not vice versa. We like Rodin Luxury Face Oil, with sunflower seed and jojoba oils, and Burt's Bees Facial Oil, with rosehip seed extract. Skip the oil if you're wearing more than two serums under your moisturizer, though — at some point, you can't avoid looking greasy.
7. Don't forget protection.
The last step in your daytime skin-care routine order involves protecting skin from the sun's harmful UV rays. "Sunscreen is your last step in the morning," says Jeannette Graf, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Great Neck, New York. "It sits on top of your skin, so if it goes on first, it prevents other ingredients from penetrating." Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen and Alba Botanica Fast Fix Sun Stick are lightweight enough to layer over multiple products.
And remember: Even if you use another product (moisturizer, foundation) with SPF 15, the effect is not additive (as in, you can't layer it with an SPF 30 to get SPF 45), says cosmetic chemist Ginger King.
8. Have a nightcap.
It's not as sexy as a snifter of whiskey. But ending your night skin-care routine with a retinoid, like RoC Retinol Correxion Max Daily Hydration Crème, makes you look a whole lot younger. (Every dermatologist recommends this super ingredient.)
Retinol is not for daytime use (it breaks down in the sun) and shouldn't be paired with some ingredients, like vitamin C and salicylic acid, says Nussbaum. With retinol, just cleanse, add basic moisturizer on top, and skip exfoliating for the next two mornings.