How to Layer Skincare Products: Morning and Nighttime Routine

Surely, when you're applying your makeup, you don't put a blusher before your foundation. Well, skincare is not much different, and there's a proper order you should follow when layering skincare products.

September 18, 2021 10 minutes read
Young woman with facial mask

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Unless you're keeping your skincare routine to a minimum – cleanser, moisturizer, and SPF – you might want to pay attention to how you're layering your skincare products. We admit, with all these serums, toners, ampules, essences, and other beauty goodies, finding the correct order to apply them is a bit more daunting than we would like.

However, if you've already invested some time and dollars into assembling your skincare routine, it's only logical you'd want to get the most out of it.

To ensure you take the full advantage of each product, the order of application is a big deal. That's why we created easy-to-follow step-by-step guides for your morning and nighttime skincare routines.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Layering Your Skin Care

skincare bag and skincare products

So, you might wonder – What goes on top of what? And the short answer to that question would be – Order them from the thinnest to the thickest. Start with the products that are water-based with a thinner consistency and end with thicker and greasier textures.

Oils and other heavier moisturizers have larger molecules, and that's why they should be applied last. Otherwise, the lighter water-based products wouldn't be able to pass through them and into your skin.

But – there's always that but – it's not all that simple after all. There are other factors worth considering, such as ingredients that shouldn't be used together and how long you should wait before applying the next product.

Morning Skincare Routine: Step-by-Step

In the mornings, your skincare should be all about protection from the elements, pollution, and most importantly, the sun.

If you have a basic 3-step routine consisting of washing your face, moisturizing, and sun protection, it should be easy. First, cleanse your skin, then apply your moisturizing cream or lotion, and lastly, slather on your SPF.

However, with all the toners, serums, and treatments in between, it's getting slightly more knotty:

Step #1: Cleanser

What: Start your morning routine by washing your face with a gentle cleanser specifically designed for your skin type. Gel and foam cleansers best suit oily skin, while milk cleansers do well with dry and sensitive skin.

Why: Cleansers remove excess oils that were built up overnight as well as any night cream residue. They make your face a clean slate for other steps that follow.

How: Gently massage your facial cleanser into wet skin and rinse off before it dries. Then, pat dry with a clean towel.

Some people, especially those with dry skin, like to skip morning cleansing because they feel like it's unnecessary. However, if you have oily and acne-prone skin, you shouldn't skip this step as it helps unclog your pores, allowing other products to work better.

Step #2: Toner

woman applying face toner

What: Here, you should know the difference between toners and astringents. Toners usually contain hydrating ingredients and antioxidants, such as glycerin and hyaluronic acid for dry skin, and witch hazel and salicylic acid for oily skin – just to mention a few. Astringents, on the other hand, are alcohol-based lotions – which we wouldn't recommend no matter your skin type.

Why: After you've washed your face, toners are there to restore your skin's PH, remove any last traces of dirt stuck in your pores, and prep your face for the following product.

How: You can tap it directly to your skin with your fingertips or use a cotton pad. Again, it's essential to be gentle while spreading it over your face and use dabbing motions instead of swiping. Some toners also come in the form of sprays or mists.

Step #3: Serums and Boosters

What: Serums are liquid or gel-based treatments that are packed with active ingredients, such as antioxidants, peptides, glycerin, resveratrol, green tea, niacinamide, and others. There are many different kinds of serums out there, and each of them has a unique set of ingredients, addressing a specific skin concern.

Why: Serums are meant to boost our skin's hydration, protect from the free radicals damage, reduce blemishes, brighten the skin tone, or fight the signs of aging. Vitamin C and E are common daytime serum ingredients that improve skin's firmness, texture, and tone, while protecting from environmental pollutants at the same time.

How: Put a few drops on your fingertips and pat it lightly on your face and neck. Try to resist massaging it in, but rather smooth it out gently and let it absorb before your next step.

Step #4: Spot Treatment

What: If you have a whitehead or a blemish, you'll want to spot-treat it with a topical anti-inflammatory product before applying your moisturizer. These products are only meant for superficial impurities. If you have a painful bump under your skin, it's probably a cyst and will likely require a prescription medication.

Why: Products with benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and sulfur are excellent in fighting persistent acne and blemishes and can help reduce redness and swelling as well. You're free to skip this step if your problem is not that alarming or leave it for the nighttime routine.

How: First, you need to remove the toner and serum you previously applied from the spot using a damp cotton bud. Apply a small amount of the product only where needed and let it dry.

Step #5: Eye Cream

woman applying eye cream

What: The skin around the eyes is the thinnest and the most delicate part of our face, and therefore, deserves special attention and care. We usually tend to get right to moisturizing after a serum and leave the eye cream for last. However, it's best to apply an eye cream first before creating a barrier with a moisturizer.

Why: Consistent use of eye cream will keep the skin around the eyes elastic, preventing fine lines and wrinkles as well as dryness and puffiness. Since the first signs of aging usually show around the eyes, it's best to include this step in your skincare routine early on, in the mid-20s, and apply it in the mornings and evenings.

How: Using your ring finger, gently dab a small amount of your eye cream around your eyes and under your eyebrows. However, if your moisturizer has an effective formula and is suitable for the delicate skin around the eyes, you can skip this step.

Step #6: Moisturizer

What: Moisturizers are meant to seal the moisture in, soothe, and soften your skin. If your skin tends to be oily, it would be best to use some lighter textures, like fluids or gels. If you have dry skin, you can use some heavier and richer hydrating creams or balms. Look for moisturizers that contain ceramides, glycerin, peptides, and antioxidants.

Why: Your moisturizing cream, gel, or fluid is aimed to lock all the products you have previously applied to the skin and prevent moisture loss. For that reason, they are used at the end of your skincare routine.

How: Warm up a small amount of your moisturizer, a bit more than a pea-sized amount, between your hands and press it into your skin or spread gently using upward strokes.

Applying some of your skincare products on damp skin will support their absorption and yield better results. If you wish to apply your moisturizer on a damp face but don't want to dilute the serum and other products you previously applied, you can use a face mist and apply the moisturizer before it dries.

Step #7: Sunscreen

woman applying sunscreen

What: Sunscreen should always be the last step in your morning skincare routine. You can choose between chemical or mineral sunscreen, whichever your skin likes best. However, it's important to note that mineral or physical sunscreens are usually a bit heavier in texture and leave a white cast. In contrast, chemical sunscreens are lighter and often a preferred option for those with oily skin.

Why: This is perhaps the most vital step in your morning skincare routine. Sunscreens protect us from the damaging UV rays, preventing photoaging and reducing the risk of skin cancer. For best protection, choose SPF products with a high SPF, at least 30, and a broad spectrum of protection (covering UVA and UVB rays).

How: Apply generously all over your face, neck, ears, and other body parts that are exposed to the sun. You should use about half a teaspoon for your face, another half for your neck, and of course, much more for your arms and legs. It's best to apply it 20 to 30 minutes before going outside.

Try letting all your previous products absorb and dry fully before applying your SPF. Sunscreen is supposed to create a film layer on your skin and if you don't let everything you applied before dry completely, your sunscreen will start to pile up in some regions of your face. It will then result in an uneven distribution of the product and unbalanced protection.

Step #8: Makeup

daughter doing her mom's makeup

What: Like to wear makeup? No problem, as long as you always apply it after your sunscreen. If you find it challenging to put foundation on top of sunscreen, opt for tinted moisturizers, BB or CC creams, with a high SPF factor instead.

Why: Because you want to look pretty!

How: Be careful when applying your foundation on top of the sunscreen. Let your SPF absorb and dry thoroughly; then apply your foundation with a beauty blender, using light dabbing motions, so you don't disturb the sunscreen underneath.

Nighttime Skincare Routine: Step-by-Step

Overnight, our skin repairs itself. So, with your nighttime skincare routine, you should give it all the help it needs and focus on anti-aging treatments, exfoliating, and hydration boosting.

Step #1: Oil-Based Cleanser

What: Start with an oil-based cleanser or balm, especially if you have your makeup on. If you have oily skin, it would be best to go for lighter and non-comedogenic oils, such as jojoba oil, hemp oil, or almond oil.

Why: Oil-based cleansers are excellent for dissolving and breaking down natural oils produced by our skin, as well as water-resistant makeup and sunscreen. They will gently but effectively remove all the dirt and products you had on during the day. And they won't strip your skin of the necessary lipids, vital for maintaining the skin healthy and balanced.

How: Apply it on dry or wet skin, depending on what the product instructions say. Gently massage it into your face and neck, and once the makeup and dirt on your face are dissolved, remove everything with lukewarm water or use a damp washcloth.

Step #2: Water-Based Cleanser

woman using foaming cleanser

What: You can use the same cleanser you used as the first step in your morning skincare routine.

Why: While an oil-based cleanser is good at dissolving your makeup, it's usually not enough. There will still be some dirt and makeup residue. That's why it should be followed by your regular cleanser.

How: Apply it to wet skin, gently massage it, and then rinse off.

Step #3: Exfoliator

woman holding exfoliator skincare bottle

What: Exfoliators contain different exfoliating agents, such as AHA or alpha-hydroxy acids (glycolic, lactic, and fruit acids) and BHA or beta-hydroxy acids (salicylic acid, willow extract, and others). Dry skin fairs better with the AHAs, while oily and acne-prone skin benefits from BHAs.

Note! If you find exfoliators too irritating, you can apply a toner instead and use it as you would in your morning routine.

Why: Exfoliators or chemical peels remove dead skin cells and clear away dry patches, helping the skin absorb other products better. Besides, regular exfoliation can massively impact the overall skin look and feel, making it smooth, youthful, glowing, and pore-less.

How: As far as application goes, each exfoliant will require a different application method. So it's best to follow product instructions before use. It's also essential not to over-exfoliate and use it only once or twice a week.

Step #4: Toner

What: Here, you can use the same toner you used in the a.m.

Why: Toners should be the last step of your nighttime cleansing regimen. It will remove any last traces of dirt, makeup, and sunscreen, and prep your skin's PH for the products that follow.

How: Dab gently with a cotton pad or with your fingertips.

Step #5: Boosters and Essences

woman applying a facial booster

What: Face boosters, just like face serums, are another type of concentrated face care and are used before face cream. Boosters mainly contain a combination of antioxidants and hydrating agents, such as hyaluronic acid. They are easy to apply and are quickly absorbed by the skin.

Why: Unlike a face serum that acts on targeted skin problems, the booster protects the skin from internal and external harmful influences, such as air pollution, stress, and fatigue, giving it a brighter and healthier look.

How: Put a couple of drops of the product into your hands and press it into your skin. If you have several different boosters or essences, you can layer them by applying the water-based ones first and oil-based ones on top. Wait about 30 seconds to a minute between each application.

If you're using a booster with hyaluronic acid, try to always apply it on wet or damp skin and put your moisturizer right on top of it, before letting the serum dry. The reason for this is that hyaluronic acid binds to the water that's on your skin or in your environment. If you apply hyaluronic acid to dry skin, it will draw water from its deeper layers, potentially drying it out.

Steps #6 and #7: Spot Treatment and Eye Cream

What: Before continuing with the next step, repeat the spot treatment and eye cream steps, just as you would in the morning. In the evening, however, you can use more heavy-duty eye creams, with richer and greasier texture.

Why: Besides addressing the obvious problems, such as dark under-eye circles and crow's feet, eye creams in the evening are also meant to protect this delicate area from the products and active ingredients that follow.

How: Acne spot treatment should be focused only on the infected area, while the eye cream should be applied all around your eyes, using your ring finger and light dabbing motions.

Step #8: Treatments

What: Here, you can use retinol, anti-aging serums infused with hydrating ingredients and peptides, or prescription meds, such as rosacea creams or tretinoin.

Why: As our skin regenerates and restores while we sleep, it's best to use targeted treatments at night. You should choose the treatments according to your skin's needs at a particular moment.

How: If you're using more than one treatment, dedicate one night to only one product instead of layering them and using them all at once.

If you're using your AHA or BHA-based exfoliant, skip on your retinoids and vitamin C-rich boosters that night. If you use them together, you'll be increasing the risk of severe irritation.

Step #9: Night Cream or Sleep Mask

woman applying a night cream

What: Many people apply the same moisturizing cream for both day and night. However, night cream or mask is usually heavier and thicker in consistency, and is meant to be soaked up by skin over several hours.

Why: A rich overnight moisturizer or sleep mask will help cell repair, lock all the other products in, and prevent water loss.

How: Warm up a little bit of the product between your palms, and apply evenly to your face, neck, and decolletage.

Step #10: Face Oil

What: If you're battling with extremely dry skin, overnight face oil will be ideal for you. Use your evenings to slather on your favorite face oil, as these can make you quite shiny – not such an attractive day look.

Why: Face oil is your overnight moisturizer helper, preventing water loss and keeping you hydrated. If you already have oily skin, you might want to skip this step.

How: Put a few drops on your fingertips, and pat them gently into your skin.

Some Parting Words of Advice...

Timing is of the essence, as well! Skincare products should be applied in the correct order and at appropriate intervals. Wait for your skin to absorb one product before applying the next, giving each product enough time to do its thing.

But, you might ask – Who has time for that? Especially if you're tired and can't wait to hit the sack in the evening, or you're in a rush to catch a bus in the morning. Our advice then would be to listen to your skin and give it only what it absolutely needs, keeping your routine simple.

All in all, it's crucial to find the products that work for you and stick to them. You don't have to stick to the trending 10-step skincare routines if you don't want to. Skincare should be fun and something you enjoy doing, not something you just want to get over with.

skincare routine step by step guide infographic


How should I structure my skincare routine?

Some rule of thumb would be to apply lighter, water-based products first, followed by creams and oil-based products. After cleansing, apply toner, serum, boosters, and essences; then seal the deal with a moisturizer and sunscreen (in the am) or night mask (in the pm).

How many products can you layer on your face?

You can layer as many skincare products as you wish, but be mindful of mixing certain ingredients. So, for example, don't apply your retinol and exfoliating acids (like AHAs and BHAs) at the same time.

What are the 7 steps of skincare?

The seven essential skincare steps would be cleansing, toning or exfoliating, followed by applying a serum that targets specific skin issues, such as anti-aging. After the serum, you can spot treat acne, apply your eye cream, and lastly, moisturizer. If it's daytime, the last skincare step should be sunscreen.

What is a basic skincare routine?

The most basic skincare routine comprises three essential steps, which are cleansing, moisturizing, and sunscreen. If it's nighttime, you don't need sunscreen; instead, you can apply an anti-aging serum after cleansing and before moisturizing.

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