How To Layer Skincare While Maximizing Your Ingredients

African American young woman smilling, close up potrait against green tropacal leaf. Natural skin care products concept

Key Points

  • There isn’t a right or wrong way to layer skincare products, so take all general skincare layering advice with a grain of salt.  

  • Learning how to layer skincare products in the correct order requires a nuanced approach.  

  • A general rule of thumb on how to layer skincare products in the right order is to apply them from the lightest to heaviest or thinnest to thickest consistencies. 

Congrats! You’ve built your skincare armament. Finding the right skincare products for your skin type was not an easy mission, and now you can’t wait to put them to the test. You gather all your skincare products and set them on your bathroom counter. As you prepare to give your skin some tender loving care, a realization hits — you don’t know how to layer skincare products in the right order.    

Learning how to layer skincare products in the right order is important. It makes your journey to healthy, glowing skin a smooth experience. Knowing how long to wait between applying your daily skincare products is equally important for achieving a healthy-looking complexion. Tame your skin issues ASAP with this step-by-step guide to a correct skincare routine, with guidelines on order of products, as well as wait time between products. 

Why Is It Important To Layer Skincare Products in the Right Order?

Treat your skin issues one at a time. Layering multiple skincare products at the same time to tackle all your skin concerns makes your skin more prone to irritation and other annoying side effects. 

Also, your skin may develop an allergy to any ingredient. The more skincare products you apply at a time, the more you’re exposing your skin to many ingredients that could potentially cause an allergic reaction. 

Fragrances and preservatives in skincare products are major causes of contact dermatitis. If you layer a ton of skincare products containing these common allergens, there’s no doubt your skin is going to experience irritation, especially if you have sensitive skin

Some skincare products buffer the effects of other skincare products, so it’s important to learn in which order to layer your products to get the most out of them.

Six hands hold up a variety of skin care products bottles

What Is the Correct Order of Layering Skincare Products? 

As a good rule of thumb, apply your thinnest products first and thicker products last. This is not a hard and fast rule. Everyone’s skin is different, so skincare routine orders vary depending on the person’s skin type, and skin issues.

Tailoring your skincare steps to your skin type is a must. This involves layering your skincare products in a way that maximizes the benefits of your skincare products. For example, those with sensitive skin types may layer products in a way that lessens the absorption of some of their most potent products to avoid irritation. 

1. Makeup Remover and Cleanser

Cleansing is usually the first step in any skincare routine. Removing makeup is the first step of a skincare routine for those who wear makeup. Not all cleansers effectively remove all makeup, so removing makeup with micellar water before cleansing, ensures all hard-to-remove cosmetic products come off your face. Cleansing removes any residue left after removing makeup and other impurities on the surface of your skin. 

Many refer to this method of cleansing as double cleansing. However, some like to double cleanse by starting with an oil-based cleanser first and then following with a water, gel, or cream-based cleanser. 

Soak cotton pads with micellar water and then apply them to your face for a few seconds before wiping away your makeup. Follow this quick TikTok tutorial by board-certified dermatologist Dr. Muneeb Shah to correctly remove your makeup. 

If you have a cleanser with active ingredients, let the product sit on your face for a few minutes. If you rinse off the product too quickly, you are literally washing the beneficial ingredients down the drain. Instead, take out your contacts or brush your teeth while you wait to rinse the cleanser off your face. 

If your cleanser doesn’t have active ingredients, you still want to make sure to massage it into the skin for about one minute before rinsing. Afterward, gently dab off some of the water with a towel, while leaving your skin a little damp for your next skincare product. Most of the time skincare products absorb better when the skin is damp.

The caveat is that applying products on damp skin may increase the likelihood of irritation. Also, some products are most effective when applied to dry skin, so the dampening hack is not always applicable to every routine. 

If you want to save time, wash your face when you’re in the shower, but make sure you use lukewarm water. Avoid getting hair products like shampoo and conditioner on the face as some of them cause irritation, dryness, and breakouts. 

Variety of skin care product bottles

2. Exfoliator

Exfoliation provides a deeper cleanse as it works hard to remove dead skin cells. Since exfoliation provides an extra cleanse, it should always come after basic cleansing. Not everyone is a fan of exfoliating as it harms the skin if not done correctly. 

Your skin already sheds dead skin cells on its own, so you might not need to exfoliate. Avoid exfoliating more than once a week if you have a compromised skin barrier. Not exfoliating properly makes your sensitive skin worse. Don’t exfoliate every day or you risk aggravating your skin conditions.

3. Serums

Serums are usually the lightest and thinnest skincare products, so you should apply them first. They deliver active ingredients deep into the skin to repair, hydrate or improve the appearance of your complexion. Applying them to clean, product-free skin maximizes their absorption. 

4. Retinols or Retinoids

Retinols are holy grail skincare products that provide many benefits to the skin. It’s important to be careful when applying them to your face, even if you opt for a low-strength retinol concentration. 

Since retinol initially stings, burns, and causes irritation, slowly introduce them into your skincare routine. These effects linger for weeks. To avoid these side effects, many people quit before they get the chance to enjoy the full benefits of retinol/retinoids. Don’t let these temporary reactions stop you from improving the appearance of your skin. Try it a few times a week or every other day to give your skin ample time to adjust to them. 

If you’re new to this skincare staple, employing the retinol sandwich is the best way to apply retinol onto your skin. This method involves moisturizing, applying retinol, and then moisturizing again. Using this method helps the product penetrate less into the skin so that you still get some benefits while minimizing the side effects, like dryness. 

How you layer retinol also depends on what skin conditions you want to tackle. In his live Q&A on YouTube, dermatologist Dr. L. J. Maxfield explains, “For the purpose of protecting sensitive skin or offsetting irritation from an ingredient, you’re sacrificing absorption to maximize consistency and then long-term gains.”  

If you’re going to use retinol/retinoids for acne, you may want to apply them after cleansing to make sure you get the most absorption into the skin to treat that skin condition first. If you’re new to retinol and have irritation, stick to the retinol sandwich. Or try a lower concentration of retinoids to reduce the risk of irritation. It's also recommended to apply retinols/retinoids on dry skin to avoid irritation as it limits absorption. 

It may take several months to enjoy the full results of retinoids, but you'll gradually start to see improvements in your skin over time. Before you start this treatment, take a before selfie to put side by side with the after selfie and see how much your skin has improved over the months. 

Other important retinol tips are to only use retinol during your night skincare routine and apply no more than a pea-sized amount to the entire face. 

Woman applies face mask to face

5. Moisturize 

The skin produces sebum (oil) that protects it from environmental stressors and bacteria. It also helps seal in moisture to keep the skin hydrated and supple. With all the external factors that the skin faces every day, such as UV radiation, pollution, harsh weather conditions, and other toxins, the moisture barrier faces skin damage.

What’s more, the oil glands in your body make less oil as you age, making you prone to dry, itchy skin. Since the skin uses more hydration as you get older, moisturizing is a must. 

Moisturizing is usually the second to last or last skincare step since they are usually thick or heavier than your other skincare products. This means that it penetrates through your lighter skincare items like serums. 

A good rule of thumb is to coat the skin with moisturizer both day and night, especially on the drier parts of your skin. In your morning skincare routine, use moisturizer right before your sunscreen. At night, moisturizing is typically the last skincare step.

6. Eye Cream

Eye cream usually comes after the moisturizer, but some apply it before. It all depends on the consistency of your eye cream and if you want to reduce the risk of irritation. Since the area around the eyes is very thin and delicate, some people moisturize first to buffer the effect of their eye cream to reduce irritation, especially if it contains retinol. 

If your eyes don’t get irritated easily, apply your eye cream based on its texture. For example, you should apply lightweight eye cream before moisturizing to maximize absorption. If you opt for a thicker or heavier eye cream that penetrates through your moisturizer, apply it after moisturizing. 

7. Sunscreen 

Sunscreen is always the last skincare step. You should apply sunscreen 15 minutes before going out in the sun to let it fully absorb and protect your skin. If you apply sunscreen outside you increase the chance of sunburn. Some people don’t apply enough sunscreen, which means they don’t get enough sun protection. Applying multiple layers of sunscreen ensures you don’t miss any areas of the face that need protection. 

Many people also forget or don’t know that the lips, ears, eyelids, and neck also need sun protection, so make sure not to skip these areas. Not all sunscreen products are equal. Most dermatologists recommend using a broad sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher that shields your skin from both UVB and UVA rays. If you opt for a moisturizer with SPF, make sure to apply more than you normally would to ensure that you get enough coverage.

While layering chemical and mineral sunscreens is okay, dermatologist and skin expert Dr. Dray recommends applying them one at a time instead of mixing them to avoid messing up the SPF. In short, let the first layer of sunscreen fully dry before applying the next sunscreen product.

A variety of skin care products on table

Note that combining sunscreens does not equal more SPF. In other words, combining sunscreen with SPF 30 and one with SPF 50 does not mean you’ll get SPF 80 protection. Instead, layering sunscreen only ensures you have an extra layer of protection. 

If you’re going to wear makeup, make sure you apply sunscreen first and give it enough time to fully dry and absorb into the skin. When applying makeup, you might accidentally remove your sunscreen, especially if you're using blending brushes to rub the makeup on your face. A way to combat this involves using makeup products with SPF. That way, you compensate for the loss of sunscreen during makeup application. 

It’s also important to understand that using cosmetic products with SPF does not replace your sunscreen step. Simply using makeup with SPF 30 as your only sunscreen doesn’t provide enough coverage to protect your skin from the sun. Also, not all makeup products protect against all types of sun rays. 

If you spend your time outdoors, reapplying sunscreen every two hours is important, especially after sweating or swimming. When in doubt, check the product’s instructions on how to apply and layer the product on your face. 

Always massage or rub the sunscreen onto your skin, even if you’re using a sunscreen spray. As a good rule of thumb apply half a teaspoon or two fingers length of sunscreen to cover the face and neck. The more sunscreen you apply the better. Administer at least four passes if you're using a sunscreen stick. 

What Skincare Products Should You Not Layer? 

Don’t mix active ingredients, especially if you’ve never used them before. Mixing active ingredients causes angry, dry, and irritated skin. Combining actives may also cancel out each of their effects.

There are exceptions to this no-mixing rule. Some active skincare pairings are okay. If you have a skincare product that includes more than one active ingredient, it’s alright to use it. 

Woman touches cheek while skin care products sit on table

How To Layer Skincare Actives

Now that you understand why mixing active ingredients isn’t always a good idea, you’re ready to learn how to layer them during your morning and night skincare routines. 

Using more than one active ingredient during your beauty routine is completely okay if you aren’t a beginner. For instance, “You can absolutely tolerate an alpha hydroxy acid and a retinol in the same routine as long as your skin is acclimated to the retinol,” says New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss

To mitigate irritation, lower the retinol dosage you’re using on the nights you exfoliate. Another way to reduce irritation includes alternating between active ingredients during the day. Using one active in the morning and another at night is a good way of incorporating them into your daily beauty routine. 

Another method of applying skincare actives is using one active one day and another active the following day. Dr. Shereene Idriss advises doing a patch test before pairing active ingredients, especially if you have sensitive skin. This cosmetic dermatologist also recommends considering the concentrations of the ingredients you mix. 

Merging high concentrations of active ingredients may be too strong or harsh on your skin, especially if used regularly. To be safer than sorry, use low concentrations of active ingredients if you plan to fuse them.  

Other ways of layering your skincare actives are by first applying, after cleansing, of course, the ingredients that tackle your main skin concerns. You’re basically prioritizing some skincare ingredients over others, depending on your skin type and skin conditions. 

Don’t use more than one or two actives in your skincare routine if you’re new to them. 

Woman applies skin care products to face

How Long Should You Wait Before Layering Skincare Products?

Your lifestyle habits play a role in how your skincare routine goes. Many people are super busy and can’t take the time to practice their skincare routine, especially if they’re racing out the door in the morning. You may dedicate more or less time to your skincare routine than others. Your skincare routine may involve fewer steps compared to the routines of others. 

Mornings are usually hectic. Many people are usually flying out of bed and head straight to the bathroom to prepare for the busy day ahead. And if they wake up late, they usually rush to get out the door to work. Chances are they probably don’t give themselves enough self-care in the morning, meaning they rush through their morning skincare routine. 

Busy early birds might rush their cleansing skincare step by just applying the cleanser and immediately rinsing it off their face. These people might not massage the cleanser into their faces for a couple of minutes, which means they might not get all the crud or impurities off their skin. Others may not have ample time for a double cleanse, which isn't the end of the world. 

The same applies to nighttime. Many people come home exhausted after a long day of work. Some are even too tired to wash off their makeup and cleanse their face. Others quickly rush their nighttime skincare routine so their heads can hit the pillow as soon as possible. 

If you work from home, perhaps you have more time on your hands to apply your skincare products without rushing through them as others do. For example, you might allow yourself longer wait times between each skincare product until you think they are fully absorbed and fully dried onto your skin. In short, you decide how to schedule your morning and night skincare routines and how much time you want to dedicate to them each day. You don’t need to give yourself an hour for your morning and night skincare routines, but you should consider scheduling enough time for it.

For example, if you apply a hydrating serum to your face, it’s best to follow it with a moisturizer right away as the moisturizer locks in the hydration provided by the serum. It’s also best to apply hydrating ingredients onto damp skin as some of them actually pull out water from the skin if applied to dry skin which leads to more dryness. 

Ask Yourself Why 

A bit of advice that multiple dermatologists stand by is to know why you are putting certain skincare ingredients or products on your face. If you don’t know why you might put certain skincare products on your skin, or why to mix certain ingredients, then you're setting your skin up for possible disaster. Also, if you're not using ingredients or products suitable for your skin, you increase the risk of over-stripping, over-drying, or irritating your skin.

If you pick skincare ingredients based on other skincare routines or products that other people use without making sure that they tackle your skin concerns, there’s a chance you won’t see the results you were hoping for or you may not see any progress at all. 

Still, don’t believe all the claims the skincare brands make about their product’s benefits and effectiveness. Some skincare brands make misleading claims and others vaguely explain the purpose of their products. It’s wise to research the ingredients in the products before you take them off the store shelf and into your shopping cart. Choose products with ingredients that science has proven to deliver benefits for the skin issue you’re trying to tackle.  

Last but not least, make sure to ask your dermatologist how they recommend you should layer your skincare products, especially the topical medications they prescribe. 

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