There was a time when layering skincare was simple. You cleansed, you toned, and you moisturised. In the daytime, you added sunscreen on top.
So, where does the serum go? And which serum goes on first? What about essences? And spot treatments? And face oils?
When did it get complicated? Why does it matter? What happens when you get the order of your skincare products wrong? And what is the right way to layering skincare?
Here is the most effective, no-fripperies, (if I may say so) intelligent guide you shall find to all these questions.
Because. It. Matters.
Why does the order of your skincare products matter?
Have you ever tried to put jam on a toast first, then the butter? Did it work for you? Or did the butter just sit on the jam, rather than soaking into the bread, and everything was one big gooey mess?
That’s what happens with skincare. Let’s take a look:
— If you put on a thicker product before one with a thinner consistency, the former is going to create a barrier over your skin. This means the product with the thinner consistency won’t reach where it needs to for effective results. For instance, layering serum over a face oil will pretty much make the latter useless.
— Ditto for oil- and water-based formulations. Water cannot cut through oil, so the water-based creams or serums need to go on first if they have to do their work.
— Layering on your skincare products correctly makes sure that active ingredients have the chance to work properly. Hyaluronic acid? It needs to go under a moisturiser. Spot treatment? After the serums.
So, in short, layering skincare products properly is all about making your routine most effective and not rendering any of those precious lotions and potions completely useless.
With that established, let’s discuss each element one-by-one (with the understanding that we are putting everything on a freshly cleansed face!). Here’s your ultimate guide on how to layer face products.
Toners and essences
Whether or not we should still be using toners is a loaded topic and deserves its own blog post.
At the moment, we are focusing on layering skincare products — and in that context, if you use a toner it should be the first thing that goes on to freshly cleansed skin.
Ditto for essences.
If you are using both, the toner will go on first… then wait about 60 seconds and pat on the essence.
That’s because both toners and essences are the thinnest products in your routine, and their primary purpose is to soften the skin so other products can be absorbed more easily.
This was a revelation to me — every single expert I spoke to for this piece on how to layer face products insisted that eye cream needs to go on before any other skincare.
This is necessary to protect the delicate undereye area from potent ingredients that could cause irritation.
Serums are super-concentrated treatments that address specific complexion concerns. They are loaded with actives and nutrients that need to sink into the skin.
Hence, serums usually have a super-light consistency to allow for easy absorption.
Given all this, it’s important that serums go on before any occlusive (barrier-forming) product, so they sit right next to the skin.
This makes them them the second step after toners and essences; or the very first step in your skincare if you are skipping the former.
But… what happens when you are using more than one serum?
In that case, the rule of texture and consistency applies: The thinner serum goes before the thicker one (pour a couple of drops on your hand to check each one); the water-based serum goes before the oil-based one (read the ingredient label).
And, if both serums have the same consistency and texture, apply the one that your skin needs the most first. So, if your biggest concern is acne, the salicylic acid goes on first. Or if you want to deal with hyperpigmentation as a priority, it will be the serum with Vitamin C.
Another rule of thumb: Wait a minute between putting on each serum. This way, you will allow them to absorb fully and also stop pilling.
Next in the world of how to layer face products come the spot treatments — the benzoyl peroxide for acne, the zit stickers, the calamine-based formulations.
These will come after the serums and before the moisturisers.
While moisturisers are being called upon for everything from hyperpigmentation to fine lines nowadays, their primary job is to infuse the skin with hydration and create a barrier that keeps the good stuff in (it seals in all your other skincare products, which allows them to work most effectively) and the bad stuff out (such as environmental toxins like dust, pollution and other grime).
Hence, it goes on after everything else. Always.
Face oils are lovely and can work wonders for undernourished or super-dry skin — when used correctly.
If you are using only a face oil, it goes instead of the moisturiser.
If you are choosing to wear both, the face oil goes on top of the moisturiser. That’s because most face oils can penetrate a moisturiser but not vice-versa.
The best option, though, is to alternate. Wear a more lightweight moisturiser in the daytime and a face oil at night. However, that depends on your skin and preferences.
Finally: The sunscreen
In today’s age, you have to be living under a rock to be oblivious to the importance of sunscreens. Again, while that would be the subject of an entirely independent blog post, here what’s important is where the sunscreen would go in your skincare routine.
The answer: This part of layering skincare depends on whether you are using a physical or chemical sunscreen.
Check the label — if it lists Parsol, mexoryl, oxybenzone or avebenzone as an ingredient, the formula is chemical.
If it does not contain any of these and lists zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, it’s a physical sunscreen (also known as sunblocks).
If, however, it contains ingredients from both categories, treat it as a chemical sunscreen.
Chemical sunscreens need to sink into the skin, so they go on before the moisturizer. However, since layering on a moisturiser over a sunscreen can sometimes get a bit messy (think pilling and patchiness), try and look for a hydrating SPF formula that can also double up as the moisturiser.
Physical sunscreens (also known as sunblocks), on the other hand, create an opaque barrier on your skin and won’t allow any other product to work effectively over them.
So, if you put moisturizer over sunblock, the latter will stop the former from being effective. And that is exactly why you need to understand how to layer face products.
Plus, the act of putting on the moisturizer or serum over the physical formulation can give the sunblock a patchy effect, thereby reducing your sun protection. Which makes it crucial that any physical sunscreen is the absolute last step in your (daytime) skincare routine.
Any kind of makeup — like foundation, concealer and powder — would go on last in all cases.
Unless you’re using a powder sunscreen (check out the best ones here!), which can be brushed on right at the end, in place of setting powder.
Powder sunscreens are usually mineral based and won’t clog the pores, making them perfect for those with acne-prone skin.
Added benefit: You can reapply every couple of hours (as you know you’re supposed to be doing!) without disturbing your makeup.