One of the most frequently asked questions is “in what order to put my skincare products on?”. Essences, Serums, Toners, Retinols, AHAs, BHAs, Oils, Moisturizers…ahh. I totally understand how this can be overwhelming. Plus, skincare products cost money and require time, so it makes sense that we want to make sure we’re getting the most benefit out of our routine.
While I was working at a Medical Spa in college, the training that we were taught (and we repeated over and over again) was “Cleanse, Treat, Hydrate”. Pretty simple? I added a few more steps to really cover our basis. Here are two different ways to think about the order of your skincare application.
2. THINNEST TO THICKEST
This is the easiest way, in my opinion, to remember the order of how to apply your products. Of course, you’ll want to cleanse first to have a “clean slate”, to make sure you’re not topping your skin with serums that won’t sink in due to dirty pores. After cleansing, apply the more “watery” products first. Follow that with slightly thicker-than-water serums, and then onto oils, then thicker creams and moisturizers. This logic has to do with the molecular level of the product. Essentially, if the product has a small molecular level the product is going to absorb into your skin’s pores more easily. If the molecular level is larger, it won’t absorb as easily. A thicker cream has a large molecular level, which means that if you apply that first and then top with a thinner product, that thinner product won’t be able to penetrate easily into the skin since the thicker product is blocking it.
2. 5 STEP: CLEASE > PREP > TREAT > HYDRATE > PROTECT
Here’s my personal approach to skincare product order. I like this approach because it helps reinforce the purpose of the skincare product you’re using. I’ll use this 5 step process to walk you through my routine.
When I cleanse my face in the morning I’ll generally just cleanse once with a gel or milk cleanser. At night I’ll start by double cleansing, using a balm or oil cleanser first to remove my makeup. My second cleanse is normally a gel or milk cleanser to get the rest of the dirt from my face without stripping the natural oils.
Next, I use a chemical exfoliator that is more watery in texture, such as The Ordinary Glycolic Toning Solution. If you use a toner, this is where your toner would go. Toners help balance the pH levels in your skin and chemical exfoliators help slough off any dead skin cells. When using a toner or “watery” chemical exfoliator, you’re helping prep the skin for the products to come, allowing them to absorb more easily into your skin. I’ll then follow up with an essence. An essence is generally pretty watery in texture and helps hydrate the skin. You’ll want to gently pat into your skin, and then follow up with the next steps while your skin is still damp. This will help the products that follow to absorb better. Think of it like a sponge. If a sponge is already somewhat wet and you get more water on it, it will hold more and more water. This is what we want our skin to do.
This is one of my favorite steps. Now that my skin is cleansed & prepped, I can treat it. Generally, this is where serums come in and where you can really treat the “issues” you’re looking to correct. Serums are normally thicker than a watery texture but not as a thick as a moisturizer or cream. It’s more of a silky texture. If it’s acne that you’re looking to treat, maybe this is where you’ll use a Retinol or a Lactic Acid. If it’s dryness, this is where you can use a hydrating serum such as Hyaluronic Acid. For me personally, this is where I’ll use a Lactic Acid at night all over my face to promote clearer more even skin. In the morning, I’ll use a vitamin C serum to help brighten my skin and protect my skin barrier from free radicals. At night I’ll also use a Salicylic Acid as a spot treatment on any breakouts that are forming. I love to apply my Eye Cream here, that way it can get in there and treat that sensitive eye area before thicker creams are applied and potentially block the pores in that area.
So you’ve now cleansed, prepped, and treated the skin, and now you’re going to hydrate. This step is super important because it’s going to help all the products you just applied to work more effectively. Oil helps push hydration down into the skin. A moisturizer will help keep that moisture in. At night I love to use a facial oil. I gently press the oil into my skin with my hands. I’ll then top with moisturizer. You can read more about why I use oil before moisturizer here. In the morning I’ll either just do an oil or just a moisturizer, depending on how my skin is feeling.
This is a step that many of us forget, but it’s just as important as the previous steps. This is where you’ll apply sunscreen. At night I skip this step since I won’t be out in the sun. However, SPF is always a part of my morning skincare routine. I’ll let my oil or moisturizer sink into my skin for a bit and then I’ll top with an SPF. You should always wear an SPF (even on cloudy days) to protect your skin from sun damage. If you’re using products with vitamin C, Retinol, AHAs, BHAs, or any “active”, you want to make sure that you’re using SPF. Those ingredients exfoliate your skin, removing dead skin from the surface of your face. This means that fresh skin is exposed and you’re much more sensitive to sun damage.
So those are my 5 Steps! When I’m using a new product I’ll just think of its purpose and its consistency and I’ll add it into one of these 5 steps. If you’re feeling confused about what order your products should go on, you can think through your skincare products and see which of the 5 steps they fit in.
A FEW MORE TIPS:
From steps Treat-Hydrate, I normally wait a few minutes or so until the products have absorbed into my skin, that way you give your products a chance to sink to the skin and you’ll avoid pilling.
Look at the ingredients in your products. If a product has silicones in it, products won’t penetrate past this ingredient. Your products will just sit on top of the silicone and really won’t do you much good. So be on the lookout for that!
Special Treatments: When I use a mask that isn’t a sheet mask, I’ll generally use it after I prep the skin. Then I’ll follow with the next steps. If it’s a sheet mask, I’ll put that on after I treat in place of Hydrate. Then I’ll top with a moisturizer if I feel like I need it. If I’m doing Gua Sha, I’ll do that after I put on an oil, then I’ll top with moisturizer and SPF if necessary. If I’m doing High Frequency, I’ll do this after I cleanse and put on a little essence. Then I’ll follow with Treat, Hydrate, and Protect (if applicable.) I also love to facial steam after I cleanse before a clay mask or retexturizing mask.