What is the Proper Skincare Routine Order?
Baking and skincare have a lot in common. Following an order of operations can determine whether you whip up lush, chocolatey confection or chip a tooth on a trayful of hard brown tiles.
Your skin is no different. Whether you have oily skin or dry skin, it doesn’t matter if your skin care routine includes 3 steps or 13—the order in which you layer your skincare products is key for delivering all the benefits they have to offer your skin.
That said, it can be tricky to juggle every product on your roster and the order of skincare products you should use, especially since your routine should look a little different from day to night. Below, we outline the recipe for developing a layering skincare routine order that will turn your routine a piece of cake.
Why the Order of Your Skincare Routine Matters
To understand why the order of skincare products matters, it’s important to take a closer look at how your skin works at the level of chemistry:
The primary function of your skin is to act as a barrier against bacteria, pollutants, and other micro-trespassers. But your skin is no suit of armor—it’s a permeable organ that intelligently admits, regulates, or restricts matter it comes in contact with according to its chemical components.
For the active ingredient in your skincare product or treatment serum to make it past the proverbial velvet rope, they must be formulated with carrier agents that your skin is willing to accept (e.g. water). In addition, they must also approach the entryway in an approved sequence to gain entry.
If your skincare sequence is out of order, the treatment serum products you apply may be blocked from entering the skin. This can occur as a result of the physical traits of your products (like a thin serum layered over a creamy moisturizer) or because the chemical compounds in your products don’t mesh well together, resulting in inflammation.
Fortunately, there are some basic guidelines for layering your skincare products to ensure that your skin stays happy and that it’s nourished by the products designed to support it.
The Basics on Any Skincare Routine
Wondering how to prevent acne scars or simply how to keep your skin glowing and looking healthy? Learning to layer your skincare products properly is elemental to ensuring they can work their magic and prevent the products you’re using from backfiring and damaging your sensitive skin.
To nail your skincare sequence, stick to these 3 golden rules.
Rule #1: Move from Thin to Thick
The viscosity, or thickness, of the product at hand will give you a clue as to where it should fit into your skin care routine. In general, thinner, liquidy products sink more rapidly into the skin, which means they should always precede heavy creams and moisturizers that take some time to sink in.
Rule #2: Move from Active to Inactive
Many serums and treatments contain active ingredients that need to make direct contact with clean skin to be properly absorbed. Some common active ingredients include:
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)
Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)
Skincare products that target a certain skin concern, like acne or hyperpigmentation, usually contain active ingredients and require some time to sink into the skin. When choosing an acne treatment that's right for your skin, you’ll want to know if there are active or inactive ingredients and if daytime or nighttime is best to apply this treatment. More often than not, these should be applied before your serums, essences, or moisturizer so there’s no middleman between the treatment and your skin.
Rule #3: Separate Your PM from Your AM Products
Every 3-4 weeks, your skin undergoes a complete resurfacing to dispense with old cells and produce a generation of new ones. A large part of this recycling occurs at night, which skin scientists refer to as the skin’s chronobiological functioning.
Supporting your skin’s chronobiological functioning process is critical for:
Preventing premature skin aging
Preventing skin cancer growth
Nurturing skin cells with chemical support (i.e. the ingredients acquired from your skincare products)
The takeaway? Curating separate daytime and evening skincare routines has nothing to do with indulgence. It’s about supporting your skin at different stages of its own daily routine.
Daytime Skincare Routine
You’ve hit snooze three times, cracked the kinks out of your neck, and now you’re up and facing the bathroom mirror to nail your morning skincare regimen and face the day. Here’s how to layer in the morning in 5 consecutive steps:
Cleanse – Starting with a fresh canvas is the first step in preparing your skin for the day ahead. Washing your face gets rid of the sweat, night creams, or excess oil and bacteria that can accumulate on your pillow (especially if they’re cotton) during the night. Washing your face and double cleansing can be particularly beneficial especially if you have delicate skin or acne prone skin. Plus, washing your face with water leaves you with a supple, prepped surface that’s more amenable to receiving your complete product lineup.
Tone – Facial toners vary by their purpose and ingredients, but every toner is designed to complete the cleansing process. Yes, cleansers are essential for binding to the excess oil, grime, and dirt on your face and flushing them down the drain, but many face washes leave a film of their own residue which can prevent your other products from sinking in. Toners are astringent enough to finish the job and prepare your face for step #3.
Treat – The most common daytime treatment for skin comes in the form of serums and essences, both one notch above toners when it comes to viscosity. Many serums are water-based, which means they mix moisturizing ingredients from their formulas. Instead, they nurse the skin with higher concentrations of potent ingredients targeting a specific skin condition or skin concern like dullness (vitamin C), acne (AHAs and BHAs), or dryness (hyaluronic acid). In particular, there are a variety of hyaluronic acid benefits that can help your skin. If you find your treatment leaves you with redness or irritation, you may apply treatment over your moisture to mellow out its potency.
Hydrate – Make sure you allow your serums to dry completely before layering on your moisturizer. Moisturizers not only replenish your skin’s hydration levels, but they also serve as a sealant for your treatment. Save your thicker creams for your bedside table, and favor lightweight formulas for daytime to let your skin breathe and avoid mottling your pores and having excess face oils.
Protect – Whether it’s the height of summer or the dead of winter, the sun never sleeps—which means sunscreen should always be the final step in your daytime skincare routine to prevent UV rays from damaging your delicate skin. Sunscreen will also help to prevent the formation of dark spots. If you’re looking to streamline your regimen, choose a moisturizer that includes SPF to top off your regimen and protect from UV rays.
Nighttime Skincare Routine
After a long day of being out and about, an evening skincare routine helps your skin restore and replenish during the hours you’ll spend at rest. Here’s how to proceed:
Cleanse – Cleansing at night may be even more important than cleansing in the morning. Washing your face dispels the environmental grime, natural oils, and other jetsam that can accumulate on your face during the day.
Tone – Like toning by day, toning before bed is key for fully removing makeup, face oils, and dirt from your skin. Hydrating toners are an excellent choice for nighttime, preparing it to receive those extra layers of moisture you’ll provide your skin before it’s time to tuck in.
Treat – Certain types of skin treatments are best left for nighttime use. Retinoids like tretinoin, for instance, augment cellular turnover and make your skin more photosensitive (reactive to UV light). Using them in the daytime can make your skin more vulnerable to redness, irritation, and flaking, so save your clinical-grade treatments for your nightly skin ritual.
Hydrate – The richest moisturizers in your arsenal are tailor-made for bedtime. 6-8 hours of rest will give your skin adequate time to drink in plenty of extra moisture. If a hyaluronic acid formula is included in your regimen, be sure to apply it and allow it to absorb before applying your night cream. If you don’t have a deep moisturizer on hand, try mixing a facial oil into your daily moisturizer to thicken it up and give your skin an extra hydration boost.
When the evening calls for a little self-care spa treatment, chances are a clay mask and exfoliant are on the agenda to give your pores a little extra love.
If that’s the case, always be sure to save your exfoliant skin care product for after you apply and rinse off your face mask. Sloughing off dead skin cells from the topmost layer of your face can leave your skin extra vulnerable, leading to redness and inflammation if you directly follow up with an astringent mask formula.
Moreover, some masks contain chemical compounds designed to provide exfoliation without the use of an abrasive exfoliant. Before you overtax your skin, keep an eye out for the following common face mask ingredients:
Fruit enzymes (e.g. papaya)
Above all, your own body is your best teacher when it comes to curating a skincare product sequence that meets your skin’s standards. If you can bookend your days with a routine that shows your skin you care, there’s no doubt your products will make it past the velvet rope to deliver the TLC your skin needs to put its best face forward.
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