How to Layer Skincare
Written by Jess Beech
24 Mar 2023
You asked: In what order should I layer my skincare?
The expansion of our skincare routines beyond the traditional cleanse, tone, and moisturize has made skincare more exciting (and impressive) but can also sometimes feel a bit…confusing. Allow us to set you straight with an easy-to-follow guide to how to layer your skincare. It’s not quite as easy as 1, 2, 3 - but it’s not far off.
Does the order I layer my skincare matter?
Sometimes, in beauty as in life, the order you choose to do things in really doesn’t matter. Want to apply your concealer before your foundation? Go for it. Wash your face after you’ve had your shower? Not a problem. Apply your mascara before anything else? Be our guest. But for some things, the order really does matter. Case in point: layering your skincare.
Applying your skincare in the wrong order can make products less effective and irritate your skin
Get the order wrong, and your skin can very quickly get confused. At best, your products won’t be as effective in the wrong order (and we all want to get the most from our products), and at worst, you can seriously irritate your skin. Think of it like serving your dinner the wrong way round – that savory starter just isn’t going to hit the same when you’re tucking in after a sugary dessert.
What is the best order to layer skincare products?
Want to nail the order to layer your skincare products in? Consider this step-by-step guide your ultimate cheat sheet. Remember, not all steps are essential, and as long as you stick to the correct order, you can pick and choose which products you use.
Step 1: Cleanser (single in the AM, single or double in the PM)
Good cleansing is the foundation of any skincare routine and always comes first. At night, it’s your opportunity to wash away makeup, SPF, and daily grime, and in the morning it’ll rinse off bacteria, sweat, and residual skincare.
Good cleansing is the foundation of any skincare routine and always comes first
Not cleansing properly will not only render your skincare products less effective (as they won’t be absorbed as well) but can also lead to dullness and breakouts. If you want to double-cleanse (great if you wear makeup and/or use SPF every day, which of course you must…), it’s best to do that at night (first to remove surface grime and second to clean the pores) and cleanse once in the morning.
Step 2: Exfoliator (AM and/or PM)
Liquid exfoliants dissolve the bonds that hold old, redundant skin cells to the surface to reveal the fresh, new skin beneath. By whisking these out of the way, your serums and moisturizers are able to penetrate more efficiently, too.
Liquid exfoliants can also help to clear, brighten and hydrate the skin. There are three key types (alpha-hydroxy acids, beta-hydroxy acids, and poly-hydroxy acids) all of which work in slightly different ways.
Step 3: Serum (AM and/or PM)
Serums and drops generally have the highest concentration of active ingredients of any product in your routine, making them the perfect choice to target any specific skin issues. Skin looking lackluster? Brighten with Vitamin C. Dull and dehydrated? Quench with Hyaluronic Acid. Dry and irritated? Soothe with ceramides. Noticing more fine lines? Use retinoids and peptides to plump. Whatever your gripe, there’s a serum for you.
For the maximum opportunity to work their magic, serums are best applied to clean, exfoliated skin. The difference with serums, compared to other steps in your routine, is you might want to use a cocktail of more than one. In this case, texture is key. Work from lightest to heaviest in terms of feel, moving from water-based through to oil-based.
Work from lightest to heaviest in terms of feel, moving from water-based through to oil-based.
This has extra benefits, as the hydration provided by the watery serums will help the others to slide more easily into the skin. Remember that not all ingredients play nicely together, and some, like retinol, can only be used at night. If you are mixing and matching, do your research and go slow to avoid overwhelming your skin.
Step 4: Moisturizer (AM and PM)
The role of a moisturizer is to seal in all those hardworking ingredients in your serum and lock in moisture within the skin. That’s why it comes at the end of your routine, like the icing on top. If you have oily skin, you might be able to forego moisturizer if your serum is nourishing enough, but it’s a must for anyone with dry skin. Note: whether your moisturizer is a richer cream or a lighter fluid, it should still come after serums.
Step 5: SPF (AM)
SPF should be the last step in your routine, as its key function is as a barrier to protect your skin from UV rays. It also almost goes without saying that it’s a day time only product, as your skin doesn’t need shielding while you snooze. If your SPF contains moisturizing ingredients, you might want to skip the moisturizer and proceed straight from serum to SPF.
These nice-to-have, optional extras might not always make an appearance in your routine, but here’s where, and how, to slot them in:
Liquid exfoliators have risen in popularity in recent years but there’s still often a place for a trusty scrub in your routine too. It’s just more of a once or twice-a-week treat to slough away dead skin cells than a daily must-do. When you do reach for one, apply to clean skin and use in place of your liquid exfoliant, followed with a serum then moisturizer.
Essences & Mists
Essences and mists come after your exfoliant, with the aim of supercharging the benefits of your serum. Spritz or press onto the skin to reap the rewards of an extra dose of hydration to help any active ingredients that follow penetrate the skin more effectively.
The skin around our eyes is thinner and more delicate than the skin on the rest of our face, so needs to be treated with extra care. For this reason, eye creams tend to have lighter formulations than moisturizers designed to be used all over. To give your eye cream the best possible chance of making it into the skin, apply after serum and before moisturizer, so this heavier barrier doesn’t lock it out. Eye creams can be used in the morning to brighten and de-puff and in the evening to soothe and reset.
Battling blemishes? A targeted spot treatment is a good way to speed up the rate at which they make themselves scarce. Just be wary of overdoing it. If you have already used a toner with salicylic acid or a serum with retinol, then adding more breakout-busting ingredients into the mix has the potential to cause irritation. In this scenario, apply your spot treatment in the morning instead. As for the order, it’s best placed after your serum and before moisturizer.
As the category name reflects their texture, it's relatively easy to decipher that facial oils come towards the end of your skincare routine – between your serum and moisturizer to be precise. Use too early, and any lighter, water-based serums won’t be able to pass through this nourishing barrier. Check the ingredients list too, to make sure you’re not doubling up on any active ingredients like Vitamin C or retinol which could also be in our serum. Some people also prefer to not use a moisturizer after a facial oil, but that’s down to personal preference.
How long to wait between each skincare layer
Unlike the need to brush your teeth for precisely two minutes or wait an hour after eating before swimming (there’s a small chance that one is just something our parents told us to give them a rest) there are no particular timings when it comes to applying skincare. The best approach is to just let the middle layers (your exfoliant and serum) each sink in a little before moving on to the next.
Depending on how thirsty or well-hydrated your skin is, that could take a few seconds or a few minutes. The same goes for moisturizer and SPF before applying makeup. Go straight in and you’ll one, dislodge and displace them, and two, be more likely to experience rolling and pilling of your primer or foundation.
Does it matter if you apply skincare in the wrong order?
Look, it’s not life and death but - yes it does matter if you apply your skincare in the wrong order. Each step of your routine has been formulated based on how they soak into the skin and allows everything to work with maximum efficiency. For example, if you cleansed after applying your serum, it won’t have had the chance to deliver all those brilliant actives into your skin. Or, if you applied a hydrating serum on top of your moisturizer, it might make your skin look super glossy, but it’s not going to be able to penetrate through that barrier.
It’s not life and death but it does matter if you apply your skincare in the wrong order.
It’s important not to skip steps too. You could be using the most amazing serum but if it’s going onto dirty skin then you won’t see the benefits. Same for using an efficacious moisturizer but never exfoliating away those old, clinging-on skin cells. It won’t be able to get close enough to the skin to deliver moisture, and your complexion will continue feeling dry and looking dull.