It’s not enough to have good skin-care products: For your products to be most effective, you also need to apply them in the correct order.
Your routine will depend on your skin type, the ingredients and formulations of your products, and the time of day. A good rule of thumb, though, is to apply in order of texture, from thinnest to thickest, since thin products won’t be able to penetrate thicker ones.
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Whether you have a three- or nine-step routine, there’s one thing anyone can do to improve their skincare, which is to apply products in the right order. No matter your skin concerns, you’ll want to start with a clean, toned base, then apply concentrated, active ingredients, and finish by sealing in moisture—and, of course, SPF in the daytime.
Here are the steps for a good skincare regimen:
- Wash your face. Morning and night, rinse your face water and rub a small amount of gentle cleanser between clean palms. Massage face wash all over your face using gentle pressure. Rinse your hands and massage your face with water to rinse your face until you’ve removed the cleanser and grime. Gently pat your face dry with a soft towel. If you wear makeup, you may need to cleanse twice at night. First, remove your makeup with cleansing oil or micellar water. Try leaving dedicated eye-makeup removers on for a couple of minutes to allow the makeup to come off more easily and avoid rubbing your eyes. Follow up with a full-face gentle cleanse.
- Apply toner. If you use toner, apply after cleansing your face and before everything else. Pour a few drops of toner into your palms or a cotton pad and gently swipe onto your face. If your toner is exfoliating—meaning that it removes dead skin cells with ingredients like glycolic acid—use only at night. Hydrating formulas can be used twice a day. Do not use exfoliating toner and retinoids or other exfoliators at the same time.
- Apply serum. Morning is a great time to use a serum with antioxidants—like a brightening vitamin C serum—because they protect your skin from free radicals you’ll encounter throughout the day. Nighttime is a good time to use a moisturizing serum with hyaluronic acid, which keeps your skin from drying out at night, especially if you’re using anti-aging or acne treatments that can irritate and dry out the skin. Serums can also contain exfoliants such as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA) or lactic acid. Whatever you’re using, always remember: Water-based serums should go underneath moisturizer; oil-based serums should be applied after moisturizer.
- Apply eye cream. You can apply regular moisturizer to your under-eye area, but if you decide to use a specialized eye cream, you’ll typically want to layer it underneath moisturizer, since eye creams tend to be thinner than face moisturizers. Try using an eye cream with a metal roller-ball applicator and storing it in the fridge to counteract puffiness in the morning. Using a hydrating eye cream at night can cause fluid retention that makes eyes look puffy in the morning.
- Use spot treatment. It’s a good idea to use acne spot treatments at night, when your body is in repair mode. Be wary of layering acne-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acids with retinol, which can cause irritation. Instead, make sure you’re doing the most to keep skin calm and hydrated.
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- Moisturize. Moisturizer both hydrates skin and locks in all the other layers of product you’ve applied. Look for a lightweight lotion for the morning, ideally with SPF 30 or higher. In the evening, you can use a thicker night cream. Those with dry skin may want to use a cream morning and night.
- Apply retinoid. Retinoids (vitamin A derivatives including retinol) can reduce dark spots, breakouts, and fine lines by increasing skin-cell turnover, but they can also be irritating, especially for sensitive skin. If you use retinoids, know that they break down in the sun, so they should only be used at night. They also make your skin extra-sensitive to the sun, so sunscreen is a must.
- Apply face oil. If you use a face oil, make sure to apply it after your other skin-care products since nothing else will be able to penetrate the oil.
- Apply sunscreen. It may be the last step, but nearly any dermatologist will tell you that sun protection is the most important part of any skin-care regimen. Protecting your skin from UV rays can prevent skin cancer and signs of aging. If your moisturizer doesn’t contain SPF, you still need to wear sunscreen. For chemical sunscreens, wait 20 minutes before going outside for the sunscreen to be effective. Look for broad-spectrum SPF, meaning that your sunscreen protects from both UVA and UVB radiation.