With the exorbitant amount of skin-care products on the market, it’s daunting to simply buy a new serum, let alone assess where it fits in your routine. But the truth is, familiarizing yourself with the basics of skin-care layering is a great way to ensure that you are making the most of your products and catering your routine to your specific skin type.
Generally (and I mean very generally) speaking, this is the order in which products should be applied: cleanser, exfoliator, toner, essence, serum, eye cream, retinoid, moisturizer, face oil, SPF. But before you run for the hills, I can’t stress enough that there is no correct amount of products that you must use. Whether your routine is two steps, three steps, or five steps is entirely up to you—more products doesn’t equal better results. In fact, following the great quarantine skin care boom of 2020—a time when folks binge ordered mass amounts of skin care from their sofa, resulting in a nationwide discussion on how to repair a damaged skin barrier (no judgments, I’ve been there!)—more experts are preaching the benefits of a simple, straightforward routine. All of this just to say, the list above is by no means a manual you must strictly adhere to—it’s a loose skin-care layering guidebook to help you roughly understand how products interact and absorb on top of one another.
But even with the outline to refer back to, skin-care layering is not a one-size-fits-all system, and there are certainly exceptions. To dive into some more specific questions, I called upon industry specialists in dermatology and cosmetic chemistry. So if you’re wondering why some people apply their retinoid after their moisturizer and others before, or if you still don’t know what the difference is between a toner and an essence, look no further.
Should you leave your skin damp or dry it completely?
This is perhaps the first “skin-care layering” decision you’ll make as you begin your routine. According to Dr. Loretta Ciraldo MD FAAD, a board certified dermatologist based in Miami and founder of skin-care brand Dr. Loretta, your skin is more permeable when it’s wet, so leaving your skin damp will promote greater penetration and therefore increase the efficacy of your product.
If you are using a hydrating toner or serum—a product chock full of humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, for example—leaving your skin damp is a great way to help your product along and ensure you’re delivering as much moisture as possible to your skin. However, if you are using a product with potentially irritating ingredients, such as a retinoid or glycolic acid, for example, Dr. Loretta advises patting the skin totally dry, otherwise you run the risk of irritation.
What’s the point of exfoliation?
Exfoliators come in all different shapes and sizes—toners, serums, masks, scrubs and the like. But typically, if you’re going to exfoliate, it should be done right after cleansing your face. That way, the Alpha and/or Beta Hydroxy acids can get to work, helping remove dead skin cells from the surface of your face, while also priming your complexion for the rest of your routine. AHAs and BHAs are marvelous, workhorse ingredients with a wide range of benefits, including but not limited to controlling sebum, fading hyperpigmentation, and helping smooth out textural issues. However, over-exfoliation—meaning using AHA and BHA based products too often—can actually disrupt your skin’s natural barrier, creating irritation, redness, and breakouts.
How often should you exfoliate?
Every skin type’s tolerance is unique to the person, but on average one should exfoliate around two to three times per week.
Do toners hydrate?
If you grew up in the early noughties, you may recall toners as the astringent concoctions responsible for drying out our pimply, teenage skin. But much like us, the toner has greatly matured since then—thanks to the enormous influence of Korean beauty on the industry, toners have since become far more cosmetically elegant, with an increased focus on hydration, nourishment, and balancing of your skin’s pH, rather than oil absorption.
What if your toner has exfoliating properties?
In addition to these new and improved skin quenching formulas, there are also a ton of exfoliating toners out there, like cult favorite Biologique P50 or Paula’s Choice BHA toner, for example. If your toner has exfoliating ingredients in it, count that product as both your toning and exfoliating step and move along.
Essences and Serums
Once and for all, what’s the difference between a hydrating toner, essence, and serum?
Truthfully, not a whole lot, besides the fact that hydrating toners have a bit more of a focus on pH balance and are often instructed to be applied with a cotton pad, and therefore function as a kind of second cleanse to the skin. According to Dr. Shuting Hu, a cosmetic chemist and founder of skin-care brand Acaderma, essences and serums are also practically the same, with only a few slight differences.. “An essence is a more lightweight, less concentrated version of a serum,” she explained. “The key difference is that essences focus more on just hydration whereas serums target a variety of skin-care concerns, like acne and dark spots, for example.”
Do you need to use a hydrating toner, essence, and serum together?
It’s certainly not essential to include all three of these products in your routine, but if you happen to already have all of them in your medicine cabinet and you’d really like to, go ahead. Just make sure you’re not doubling up on any products with potentially irritating ingredients in them, like lactic acid or glycolic acid.
You have multiple serums in your routine. How should you layer them?
According to Dr. Hu, the simplest way to think about layering serums is to apply them thinnest to thickest—that way thinner, more watery serums are able to penetrate the skin without having to work extra hard to get through a thicker formula. And once again, AHAs and BHAs serve as a caveat: “If you are using a peeling serum, like something that contains AHAs, mixed with another serum, it’s always better to use the acid-containing serum first, then wait a few minutes before applying the next serum.” says Dr. Hu.