In a multi-step skincare routine, the order is of the utmost importance. While layering skincare may seem like a basic concept, assembling your products the right way can make all the difference. Whether you’re teaming up a face oil and a serum or using a combination of active ingredients like vitamin C and retinol, putting your products on in the proper order is critical to their efficacy.
Instead of just slapping on a bunch of creams and serums, there’s a prescribed order to follow that not only allows products to do their best work but in some cases can even boost their effects. For products to absorb most effectively, active ingredients (which are typically found in serums, the workhorses of any routine) go on earlier in the regimen and then are sealed in with richer formulas. Here, we break down the proper order plus share tips for basic skincare practices.
Step 1: Create a fresh base with a gentle facial cleanser
People often gloss over facial cleansers when building their skincare routine. Instead, they focus their energy (and money) on serums, eye creams and moisturizers—but that’s a big mistake. If you don’t lay the proper foundation by using the best cleanser for your skin type, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle from the very beginning. Translation: Before putting on any serums, creams, or oils, always start with cleansed skin, both morning and night.
What does a cleanser do for your face?
A quality face wash—tailored to your needs—should cleanse your skin of dirt, sebum, makeup, and debris without stripping it of essential oils and maintain its pH balance. It should create a clean canvas so that whatever you put on topically afterwards has a much better uptake into the skin, meaning it can penetrate better.
How long do you leave the cleanser on your face? Well, that really depends on the type. For oils, gels, and foams, aim for at least 30 seconds, or until the product lathers up on your face. However, it’s always best to read the instructions.
Should you double-cleanse?
The term “double-cleansing” was added to the beauty lexicon a few years ago. But what does it actually mean—and can you over-cleanse? The act of double-cleansing is as simple as it sounds: washing your face with two different cleansers, one after the other. The first is usually an oil-based cleanser or micellar water and the second one is usually a deeper water-based cleanser. The act of doing it twice won’t necessarily over-cleanse, but if you’re using the wrong kind, you run the risk of stripping your skin of oils that keep it healthy and balanced. A sign that your cleanser is too harsh is if your skin feels tight after using it.
Step 2: Use a toner to clear pores
Do you need toner? Technically, no. But the right one, when used correctly, can help improve your skin. Traditionally, on cleansed skin, toner is swept on with a cotton pad, but some people like to pat it on like a serum.
What does face toner do?
A toner is a liquid that’s meant to remove any makeup, dirt or oil that’s left on your skin after cleansing. Every formula is different and may contain moisturizing, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, or exfoliating ingredients. If you choose to use one, it’s important to select one that’s best for your skin’s needs. If you have sensitive skin (it reacts easily, is prone to redness and is often itchy), look for one that’s hydrating and alcohol-free, so it won’t be overly drying and cause irritation.
If you have acne-prone skin, that’s when toners can be extremely beneficial. One ingredient to be on the lookout for is glycolic acid. Like all alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), glycolic acid is water-soluble, which means that it works well on the superficial skin layers. The best glycolic acid toner is one that has less than 5% glycolic acid and helps bring your skin back to its natural acidic state, sweeping impurities away and helping your skin absorb your skincare products.
Step 3: Protect skin with a potent vitamin C serum
Vitamin C is a clinically proven ingredient that you can (and should) add to your product lineup, especially your morning skincare routine, no matter your skin type. It’s often referred to as the holy grail of skincare ingredients, and that’s in large part because it protects your skin from the inflammation and damage caused by environmental stressors during the day while also brightening skin and lightening dark spots over time.
If you’re wondering when to use vitamin c serum in your routine, it should be after you cleanse (and tone, if you decide to use) in the morning and at night.
What does vitamin C serum do?
Beyond acting as a bodyguard against nasty free radicals, vitamin C reduces the appearance of the signs of aging such as fine lines, wrinkles, discoloration, and sunspots while also helping to boost radiance and improve skin texture. But while vitamin C can be effective at curing a plethora of skincare woes, not all vitamin C is created equal. It’s an unstable ingredient, so finding a proper formulation is paramount to reaping its benefits.
The best vitamin C serum is listed on labels as ascorbic or L-ascorbic acid, which is the active version of vitamin C. In terms of concentration, look for between 10% and 20%, like in Vichy LiftActiv Vitamin C Serum. Not only is it formulated with 15% pure vitamin C but it also harnesses the antioxidant power of vitamin E, which supercharges its effectiveness against free-radical damage; each vitamin helps stabilize the other.
Step 4: Provide hydration for the tricky undereye area
Did you know that the skin around your eyes—otherwise known as the eye contour—can be one of the first areas to show signs of aging? At just 0.5 mm thick, the skin of the undereye and eyelid area is the thinnest anywhere on the body, which makes it very delicate.
Another reason why this area of the face ages more rapidly is because it works hard! The average person blinks between 14,400 to 19,200 times a day, which contributes to the first signs of aging—the fine lines around the eyes, commonly known as crow’s feet.
The best eye serums that dermatologists often recommend are ones that have a light texture and are fragrance-free, ophthalmologist tested (which means cleared for safety by an eye doctor) and packed with moisturizing ingredients because the skin in this area dries out easily, which can intensify the appearance of fine lines. Luckily, Vichy Minéral 89 Eyes checks all these boxes, adding hydration while helping to smooth fine lines and brighten.
Wondering how to use an undereye cream or serum? Avoid applying it directly on the eyelids or right next to the lash line unless the product’s directions say otherwise. Tap it into the skin using your ring finger (it has the lightest pressure), and then gently dab a pea-size amount around the orbital bone, smoothing out any excess at the temples.
Step 5: Lock in hydration with a facial moisturizer
Next comes moisturizer, which should be used morning and evening. The rule of thumb is that you should choose a cream based on your skin type. If you are oily or combination, a lighter texture (think lotion) will be better. But if you are dryer, you need more nourishment (think cream) with a blend of humectants and emollients.
The reason why a moisturizer is a must is that it’s the only step that will keep your skin barrier—a.k.a. the very temperamental outermost layer of your skin—healthy and happy. Plus, a moisturizer not only infuses skin with hydration but also helps trap all the products underneath it to make the ingredients even more effective.
Step 6: Protect your skin with a sunscreen
The most important skincare step in anyone’s regimen is sunscreen—period. It may not add any anti-aging ingredients, but it protects skin from premature aging and increased cancer risk. Just remember: A good defense is a good offense. This means applying a minimum of SPF 30 broad-spectrum sunscreen daily, no matter the time of year or your location—indoors or outdoors.
However, the effectiveness of your sunscreen could be impacted depending on which step it is in your skincare routine. If you put it on too early, it won’t let your other products penetrate. It’s recommended that you apply a nickel-size dollop—the equivalent of two finger lengths—which is also equal to half a teaspoon, to your face and neck.
Ask any dermatologist and they’ll agree that the best sunscreen for the face is the one you’ll use every day. But for folks with sensitive skin, mineral sunscreens, which use titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, are best. They physically shield your skin from harmful rays, while chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays, which can cause some skin types to be reactive.