Your skincare product order is the most important thing to finesse. We get totally get that building a beauty routine may sound like it involves a dizzying number of options so that's where we step in to help.
When it comes to your skincare routine order, knowing exactly what to apply and when—from the best moisturizers for dry skin or the best vitamin C serums—is paramount to making the most of the products and letting them work the hardest they can.
Broadly speaking, the backbone of a solid skincare regime is these four pillars: cleanse, serum, moisturize, and SPF. And always in this order, says aesthetic doctor Ifeoma Ejikeme: “The rule of thumb with any skincare product is to apply it in order of consistency—from the thinnest to the thickest.
“Products are created to sit on top of one another, but thinner products can’t penetrate thicker ones. So humectant serums (which draw moisture to the skin) should always be placed on the skin before occlusive moisturizers (which prevent water from escaping). And wait 30 seconds between each product layer to prevent pilling.”
Remember, too, the goal of any skincare routine is to keep skin functioning at its best. It is also a deeply personal experience designed to troubleshoot individual concerns and play nicely with your skin type.
SPF, for example, is non-negotiable for all skin types during the day. “But if you have oily skin, you may only want to apply serum and SPF as most sunscreens now contain moisturizing ingredients,” says dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto. “Dry skin types may find they need more hydration and prefer to sandwich a day cream between their serum and SPF.”
Also worth noting is that there’s no such thing as an instant fix—you need to give your products at least a month to get to work as this is how often skin cells renew themselves.
Consider this the Cliff Notes of your skincare product order...
Your skincare product order made simple
Step 1: Cleanse
You may think that washing your face is the most basic step of your routine. And in some ways, it is, as the product only stays on your skin for the duration of the 60-second rule before being rinsed away.
But Dr. Ejikeme warns: “If you don’t cleanse properly, all the dirt, debris, sweat, and make-up will still be sitting on your skin, which means any skincare you apply on top won’t penetrate as effectively.”
And that’s before we’ve even touched upon blocked pores leading to acne.
Best cleanser for oily skin: Foaming cleansers help to break down dirt and excess sebum from pores. Dr. Mahto recommends choosing one spiked with either salicylic or glycolic acid—try Paula's Choice Clear Pore Normalizing Cleanser, $13 [£17, Cult Beauty].
Best cleanser for dry skin: You have a few choices here. Cream cleansers are formulated with emollients such as glycerin, which wipe away impurities while also hydrating skin. Buttery balms are another option as they transform into a liquid when massaged over damp skin and are a surefire way to avoid that uncomfortable tight feeling.
Dr. Ejikeme says: “I recommend CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser, $13.99 [£9.50, Lookfantastic] as it’s a non-foaming gel formula that contains both ceramides and hyaluronic acid for plump skin while ridding pores of grime.”
Step 2: Tone (optional)
For many, the word ‘toner’ conjures up memories of being 16 years old and applying a ton of stinging alcohol to get rid of spots.
Thankfully, toners today look a lot different. They should be applied straight after cleansing to remove any final traces of grime that your cleanser might have missed.
But they also do so much more than that.
A good one to try is REN Clean Skincare Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic, $38 [£27, Cult Beauty]. However, if you have dry skin, opt for Clarins Hydrating Toning Lotion, $27 [£23, John Lewis], which is alcohol-free and newly reformulated to include organic botanicals such as aloe vera and saffron flower.
Toners help to balance your skin’s pH after cleansing. Due to the alkaline nature of soap and many cleansers, the pH balance of our skin can get thrown out of whack. This means your skin works overtime to find its sweet spot again—a slightly acidic pH, around 5.5—which can result in excess oil and breakouts.
They also provide an extra shot of transformative ingredients pre-serum. If you have acne or sallow skin, look for a toner filled with either salicylic acid or AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids, like glycolic or lactic acid), which help unclog pores, dissolve blackheads and stimulate the skin into naturally resurfacing.
Step 3: Serum
Put simply, serums are the treatment stage of your skincare routine. Due to their high concentration and potency, serums are the most effective way of shuttling active ingredients into the skin.
Consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk explains: “Serums are lighter and made up of smaller molecules than your face cream so they absorb into the skin on a deeper level.”
Antioxidant serums are considered your best line of defence during the day to minimize UV and pollution-based free radicals assaulting your skin.
Invisible to the naked eye, pollution is often comprised of tiny specks of soot and toxic oily molecules, which can seep into the skin. Dr Tom Mammone, vice president of physiology and pharmacology at Clinique, says: “This can overwhelm your skin’s own antioxidant systems so they no longer repair sufficiently, resulting in lines and sagging.”
So it’s worth giving your skin a helping hand with an antioxidant serum. The ability of the best vitamin C serums—like Dr Barbara Sturm The Good C Vitamin C Serum, $130 [£110], Selfridges or Clinique Fresh Press Daily Booster with Pure Vitamin C, $79 [£25, Lookfantastic]—to protect against free radicals is backed by science.
If you're using serum at night.
The serum you apply in the morning should differ from the one you use before bed. Dr Barbara Sturm, aesthetic doctor beloved by Hailey Bieber, explains: “At night, it’s essential to use active ingredients that assist the body’s repair processes while you sleep.”
Between the hours of 11 pm and 4 am our cell production can double, making skin more active. So you want ingredients that will make a transformative difference.
You might want to lean more heavily on hyaluronic acid to replenish skin’s hydration levels, says Dr. Ejikeme: “Hyaluronic Acid is most effective when paired with other ingredients like ceramides or niacinamide, which restore the skin’s natural barrier. Hyaluronic acid is a big molecule so these ingredients will help to transport it directly into the skin to hydrate and plump up fine lines.” CeraVe Hyaluronic Acid Serum, $19.99, Ulta [£17, Lookfantastic] is a good option here as it contains this Holy Grail trio.
Dr Ejikeme continues: “Overnight is also the time to use one main active—and one only to avoid inflammation or breakouts.” This includes the best retinol serums, which trigger collagen production and increased cell turnover, in order to fade dark spots, prevent breakouts and brighten skin.
If you’re new to retinol, take a softly softly approach to mitigate the initial adjustment period of flaking and irritation. “Apply a pea-size drop to your entire face one night a week for one week, then two nights a week for two weeks, and then every other night going forward,” says Dr Ejikeme.
Step 4: Eye Cream (optional)
Can you survive without an eye cream? Maybe. But, if you have specific concerns—like hyperpigmentation, dark circles , dryness or puffiness—you might want to consider using one. Eye creams tend to be thinner than the best face moisturizers for dry skin, so apply them after serum and before you slather on your creams.
“Dark circles can be caused by a loss of volume—fat, and collagen—which happens naturally as we age and results in thinner skin and more pronounced tear troughs,” says Dr Maryam Zamani, oculoplastic surgeon, aesthetic doctor and founder of MZ Skin.
But according to Dr Zamani, there’s some genetic component to dark circles, too. “Some ethnicities, such as Asian and south-east Asians, can have hereditary hyperpigmentation under the eyes due to a common genetic trait of very thin lower eyelid skin. This allows veins to show through, resulting in a darker appearance.”
Brightening ingredients like vitamin C and kojic acid can help. For underage bags, look for a cooling rollerball with caffeine, while peptides and hyaluronic acid can have a plumping effect on hollows.
Step 5: Moisturize
Whereas serums are designed to travel into the deeper layers of your skin, moisturizer is thicker in texture and sits on the surface of your skin. Here, among other things, it seals all the goodness from said serum into your skin.
The creams you apply in the morning should also be brimming with antioxidants to protect your skin from environmental aggressors—some even have a built-in sunscreen to help shield you from UV rays.
Best moisturizer for oily skin: Gel moisturizer, like Kiehl's Ultra Facial Oil-Free Gel Cream, $33 [£28], Selfridges, if you feel like you need it or your skin feels dehydrated. You don’t want to apply more oil to oily skin and these water-based options are lightweight and absorb quickly.
Best moisturizer for dry skin: While you don’t want to overload parched skin with a heavy moisturizer, a cream containing peptides and amino acids will strengthen and keep it bouncy. Try Drunk Elephant Protini Polypeptide Cream, $68 [£57, Cult Beauty].
Best moisturizer for normal skin: A lotion or an air-whipped formula is the sweet spot between a gel that’s too light and a cream that’s too rich. Youth To The People Superfood Air-Whip Moisture Cream, $48 [£42, Cult Beauty], with a wealth of vitamins and hyaluronic acid, ticks every box for pepping up tired-looking skin.
Night creams, on the other hand, should be full of ingredients that stimulate skin cells while you are at rest, says cosmetic doctor Rabia Malik: “These include niacinamide to help rebuild damaged cells and copper amino acids, which can help to improve collagen production.”
Skin is more permeable overnight as it’s warmer—this means it’s more receptive to the ingredients in your skincare. On the downside, it also means that it’s more prone to water loss. So that extra blanket of night cream will provide welcome relief.
Step 6: Sunscreen (never skip this step!)
Ask any dermatologist and they’ll tell you that sunscreen is, without exception, the most important product in your daily regime. Dr Mahto warns: “From a medical standpoint, daily and consistent use of sunscreen will lower your risk of developing skin cancer, which can be fatal.
“If this isn't enough to convince you, then from an aesthetic point of view, it will help slow down the rate of skin aging in the form of wrinkles, pigmentation, and sagging.”
Be sure to use an SPF30 +, even on cloudy days, as UVA rays are still present.
And always make sunscreen the final step in your daytime routine, says founder of Paula’s Choice skincare, Paula Begoun: “Any skincare product applied over the top of sunscreen dilutes it, lessening its effectiveness.”
Step 7: Face Oils
The biggest misconception about face oils is that they are the same as moisturizers—when, in fact, they are not.
Face oils are occlusive, meaning they seal in all the hydrating ingredients from your serums and creams to keep them from evaporating as quickly. On their own, face oils don’t hydrate skin that well because the size of the fatty acid molecules is too big to penetrate beyond the top layer.
Consequently, you should only ever apply face oil as the last step in your skincare routine at night, as sunscreen can’t penetrate a face oil.
Fiona Embleton is a multi-award-winning beauty editor who has tested over 10,000 products in her 10 years + of writing and shooting beauty stories. For the past four years, she was the Senior Beauty Editor at Marie Claire, having previously worked in the role of Beauty Editor at both Stylist and Cosmopolitan. She has recently gone freelance and alongside My Imperfect Life, she has written for titles including ELLE UK, ELLE Canada, Buro 247, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Vogue Scandinavia, and ES Magazine. Beauty journalism allowed her to marry up her first-class degree in English Literature and Language (she’s a stickler for grammar and a self-confessed ingredients geek) with a passion for make-up and skincare, photography, and catwalk trends. She loves jumping on the latest internet-breaking beauty news, dissecting the best red carpet looks, and having the crème de la crème of dermatologists, make-up artists, and hairstylists on speed dial so she can tap them for the best advice. She’s a discerning beauty shopper and knows it can be confusing trying to navigate what’s hype and what really works. So if she really likes something, you can trust that she has reached that opinion by vetting it against everything else she’s ever tried. Her career highs? Interviewing Cate Blanchett and winning a Jasmine Award for the deeply personal feature Cancer Stole My Mother’s Scent.
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