In the grand scheme of things in life, building a skin-care routine shouldn’t be all that complicated. But with a growing number (i.e. hundreds of thousands) of product options on the market, including cleansers, serums, moisturizers, and more, figuring out when — and how — to use your 10-step skin-care routine can get confusing.
That said, instead of just slapping on five creams — then washing your face because, seriously, that stuff is heavy — follow the lead of the pros. (And don’t be surprised if your products suddenly seem to work all the better for it.) Ahead, dermatologists share their tips for basic skin-care layering, plus how to effectively incorporate the bells and whistles like face oil and retinol.
1. Start light.
Serums — the thinnest products — go first, because a) that just makes sense and b) “they deliver active ingredients into the skin most efficiently,” says Ranella Hirsch, a board-certified dermatologist in Boston. Plus, they’re easy to customize.
Pick two or three serums that each treat one of your concerns: formulas with peptides for wrinkles (we like Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair or Olay Wrinkle Correction Serum with Vitamin B3+Collagen Peptides), salicylic acid for oily skin (try The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Masque), and licorice or aloe to calm redness (like First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Hydrating Serum or E.L.F. Cosmetics Hydrating Serum).
2. Add an antioxidant.
Vitamin C is one ingredient every skin type needs. “It brightens, protects against sun damage, and promotes collagen production,” says cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson, who recommends using a potent serum such as Obagi Professional-C Serum 15%. (We also like Pixi Skintreats Vitamin-C Serum.)
Just don’t pair it with a toner or moisturizer with an alpha hydroxy acid (such as glycolic), which destabilizes vitamin C. If you’re using an acid, opt for antioxidant green tea or resveratrol instead.
3. Take a coffee break.
In this most basic routine, a toner helps remove dead skin cells so your moisturizer can penetrate better (there are hydrating toners and oil-absorbing ones), says Marnie Nussbaum, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. You also increase penetration by letting each step absorb for a minute — say, during the time it takes to brush your teeth or make a pot of coffee — before moving on to the next.
4. Lock it down.
Moisturizer is key to any layering routine because “it seals serums on your skin, which can make them more effective,” says Wilson. Feel free to keep it basic: Try Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel Face Moisturizer or Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream if you have normal to oily skin. For dry skin, we like bareMinerals Butter Drench Restorative Rich Cream or Cetaphil Daily Hydrating Lotion.
5. Know when to go in reverse.
If your sensitive skin reddens at the thought of using even one treatment product, try putting on a simple, fragrance-free moisturizer first and then serums on top. “The cream will reduce the potency of the serums,” says Hirsch, “but they’ll also be less likely to cause irritation.”
6. Add an oil.
In small doses, oils make skin radiant. Put them on dry areas after creams — as a rule, oils can penetrate moisturizers, but not vice versa. We like Rodin Luxury Face Oil, with sunflower-seed and jojoba oils, and Burt’s Bees Facial Oil, with rosehip seed extract. Skip the oil if you’re wearing more than two serums under your moisturizer, though — at some point, you can’t avoid looking greasy.
7. Don’t forget protection.
“Sunscreen is your last step in the morning,” says Jeannette Graf, a board-certified dermatologist in Great Neck, New York. “It sits on top of your skin, so if it goes on first, it prevents other ingredients from penetrating.” Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen and Alba Botanica Fast Fix Sun Stick are lightweight enough to layer over multiple products.
And remember: Even if you use another product (moisturizer, foundation) with SPF 15, the effect is not additive (as in, you can’t layer it with an SPF 30 to get SPF 45), says cosmetic chemist Ginger King.
8. Have a nightcap.
It’s not as sexy as a snifter of whiskey. But ending your nighttime routine with a retinoid, like RoC Retinol Correxion Max Daily Hydration Crème, makes you look a whole lot younger. (Every dermatologist recommends this superingredient.)
Retinol is not for daytime use (it breaks down in the sun) and shouldn’t be paired with some ingredients, like vitamin C and salicylic acid, says Nussbaum. With retinol, just cleanse, add basic moisturizer on top, and skip exfoliating for the next two mornings.