Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/04/2021
Is your bathroom sink cluttered with skincare products you rarely use? Do you even know how to use half the products you’ve got stored in your medicine cabinet or shoved in the closet?
Proper skincare is essential if you want youthful, glowing skin, but sometimes that’s easier said than done. You can’t go wrong with a simple cleanse-and-moisturize routine twice a day, but where do serums and toners come in? What about acne creams and anti-aging treatments?
If you follow a “whatever works” approach to skincare, you’re not alone but you may not be doing your skin any favors.
The truth is order matters when it comes to applying skincare products. Applying them in the wrong order could, at best, limit their effectiveness or, at worst, lead to side effects like irritation, redness, and even skin damage.
Below, we’ve explained why the order in which you apply skincare products matters. We’ve also delved deep into the details of daytime versus nighttime skincare and provided a step-by-step process for applying skincare products.
It makes sense that washing your face is the first step in any skincare routine. After all, you need to remove traces of oil, dirt, and impurities before you start layering on product.
But what comes next and does it really matter?
The short answer is yes, the order in which you apply skincare products really does matter. The longer answer is, well, a longer answer.
Your skin is the largest organ in your body and its primary function is to protect you. It’s designed to keep things OUT. For the most part, that means bad things like ultraviolet rays, pollution, and the effects of extreme weather. When it comes to skincare, however, it’s all about getting ingredients IN.
Even the most thoughtfully formulated products have a limited ability to penetrate the skin. The size of the molecular particles plays a role in determining the degree of penetration, but the products already on your skin matter as well. It’s generally best to apply thinner products first and work your way up to thicker products to optimize absorption.
Not only can some skincare products affect the penetration of other products, but they can affect their efficacy as well. One of the biggest examples of this is retinol.
Retinol is also known as vitamin A and it is an essential ingredient for anti-aging and acne. This ingredient promotes skin cell turnover, so it works wonders to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, dark spots, and uneven skin tone – it can also help heal acne blemishes.
The trouble is retinol can have a drying effect on your skin. Using retinol in combination with exfoliating ingredients like alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy acids could further dry out the skin and cause irritation.
While you’re still wrapping your head around the idea that the order of skincare products matters, we’re going to throw another curveball at you. You should also be using different products on your skin in the morning than you do at night — at least, to some extent.
In the morning, your skincare regimen is about hydrating and protecting your skin from the elements — things like sun, weather, and pollution. At night, you want to focus on repairing the damage done to your skin during the day. Your skin is primed for absorption at night as well, so it’s the perfect time to do a little extra exfoliation and moisturization.
Your daytime and nighttime routines can be as simple or as complex as you want but for now let’s keep it simple. Here’s what we recommend for a quick morning and evening routine:
Moisturizer. Hydrate your skin to lock in moisture, again, using a product appropriate for your skin type.
Sunscreen. Finish off your daily skincare regimen with a layer of sunscreen, even if you don’t plan to spend much time outdoors. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends a broad spectrum, water resistant sunscreen, which has at least 30 SPF..
Makeup Remover. Start with a quick cleanse to remove makeup and residue from any other products you applied in the morning.
Cleanser. After removing makeup, follow up with another cleanse to remove any lingering impurities.
Acne Treatment. Your skin is the most absorbent at night, so it’s the perfect time to use spot treatments for acne and other skin concerns.
Night Cream. Finish up with a richer moisturizer than you use during the day. A night cream or reparative skin mask is ideal.
If you want to maximize the benefits of your daily skincare routine, you may want to write up a quick cheat sheet. Jot down the proper order of application on a sticky note and put it on your mirror as a daily reminder until you know it by memory.
Until you have your routine committed to memory, it may help to follow a simple rule of thumb in applying products with the thinnest consistency first, working your way up to the thickest products (generally your moisturizer).
It’s also important to apply products you want to penetrate your skin (like serums) before products designed to sit on top of your skin (like sunscreen).
Here is the proper order to apply skincare products.
The first and most important step in any skincare routine is cleansing. Clean skin is essential for other skincare ingredients to absorb properly.
In the morning, you can keep it simple with a splash of warm water. If you have oily skin or if you’re cleansing in the evening, however, you may want to go with something a little stronger such as a cleanser appropriate for your skin type.
Before you wet your face and lather on cleanser, make sure to wash your hands. You don’t want to transfer bacteria and other germs from your hands to your face. Always use warm to cool water (never hot water) and apply gently with your fingertips.
After cleansing, rinse well then pat your skin dry with a clean towel.
After cleansing your skin, you may want to apply toner. If you do, skip the step of drying your face after cleansing — toner is best applied to slightly damp skin.
Years ago, toners were alcohol-based liquids known for drying out and irritating the skin. Today, however, they are made with gentle ingredients to support hydration, remove lingering impurities, and even to treat acne. Simply spritz the product onto your skin and pat it in.
If you struggle with acne, look for a toner made with exfoliating ingredients like alpha hydroxy or beta hydroxy acids. These ingredients help unclog the pores to prevent breakouts. If you have dry skin, look for a hydrating toner designed to replenish the skin’s moisture barrier.
After toning, let the product absorb into your skin for five minutes before moving on to the next step. Now’s the perfect time to brush and floss your teeth!
Once your skin has been properly cleansed it’s time for nutrition. This is where serums come in.
Serums are concentrated products designed to deliver a high dose of nutrients, hydrating ingredients, or antioxidants. Choose a serum based on your primary skin concern or, if you’re simply trying to maintain healthy skin, select one appropriate for your skin type.
For dry or sensitive skin, look for a serum that contains hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid to rebuild and protect the skin’s natural moisture barrier. Vitamin C serums are great for acne and hyperpigmentation while antioxidant serums may help with dull skin tone.
If you’re layering serum, make sure to apply water-based serums before oil-based and give the product about 30 seconds to absorb between applications.
Having given your skin a concentrated dose of nutrition, it’s time to moisturize. Eye creams tend to be thinner and lighter than facial moisturizers, so it’s generally best to apply them first.
Like any other skincare product, eye creams are made with a variety of active ingredients to address different issues.
Antioxidants like vitamins C and E help reduce the visible effects of aging and may protect your skin against pollution. Hydrating ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid trap water in the skin, giving it a plumping effect. If you’re trying to tackle undereye circles, ingredients like niacinamide or kojic acid may brighten things up.
When applying product to the delicate skin around your eyes, it’s important to be gentle. Apply a pea-sized amount to your ring finger and dab it gently onto your skin starting at the inner corner under your eye and working your way up toward the brow bone.
Give the eye cream at least 60 seconds to absorb before moving on to the next product.
If you have acne prone skin, spot treatments may be your best friend. It’s important to apply these products close to the skin to maximize their benefit, so always apply before moisturizer.
Acne spot treatments are made with a variety of different ingredients, so choose carefully to ensure you get the desired results. For occasional blemishes and mild acne, over-the-counter spot treatments like benzoyl peroxide work well. For severe acne, prescription-strength ingredients like tretinoin or clindamycin may be better.
Keep in mind that spot treatments can be highly concentrated and may contain ingredients that dry out your skin, so apply them sparingly.
Perhaps the most important step in your daily skincare regimen is moisturizing. No matter your skin type, it’s essential to keep your skin hydrated.
Your skin contains a natural lubricating system of sebaceous glands that secrete oil to help maintain the skin’s protective barrier.
Throughout the day, however, that barrier can become compromised by sun, weather, and pollution. Give your skin a boost of moisture at the end of your skincare routine to lock in hydrating.
During the day, it’s best to choose a lightweight moisturizer. Apply it while the skin is still slightly damp from cleansing or toning. At night, take advantage of your skin’s increased absorption and use a thicker night cream or hydrating mask.
As important as moisturizing is, protecting your skin from the sun may be more important — at least during the day. You could even hit two birds with one stone using a daytime moisturizer with SPF and save your richer moisturizer for nighttime use.
Sunscreen should be the last step in your daytime skincare routine because it is designed to sit on top of the skin. Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with at least SPF 30.
At night, you may want to include an extra step in your routine by adding retinol. Retinoids or vitamin A derivatives penetrate deep into your skin to help speed up cell turnover.
These products are perfect for anti-aging, but they work best when you use them daily for at least 4 to 6 months. If you’re just starting out, however, you should apply them once a week at first, slowly working your way up to daily use or every-other-night use.
There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for skin care — your skin is as unique as you are — but that doesn’t mean you have to agonize over developing the perfect custom skin regimen.
The sooner you start caring for your skin the better, but you don’t necessarily need to go through a long seven-step process twice a day.
At the very least, you should be cleansing and moisturizing twice a day, morning and evening. If you have the time and energy to do more, focus on products designed to address specific skin concerns like acne and anti-aging.
If you’re not sure where to start, talk to your dermatologist or skip the doctor’s office and complete a free online consultation.