This post was published just over four years ago, but is one I reference frequently so I make it a point to update it at least once a year with my most current thoughts + favorite products as a few things have changed/
The Correct Order to Apply Skincare Products
One of the questions I get asked the most is what skincare product to apply, when!? With so many products out there (serum! toner! essence! oils!) layering your skincare products can feel really overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be though, I promise! The general rule is to layer your products from thin to thick; and to apply the products with the highest percentage of active ingredients first so that they are absorbed first. And of course, SPF is the last step. Makeup goes on after SPF!
I’m not an expert or board certified dermatologist (lol), but I have talked to a lot of experts about this, and this is what I have been told.
I’ve talked about product order before in my bedtime skincare routine but today I wanted to break things down in full. I think the biggest “controversial” part of my routine (if skincare routines can be controversial, ha ha) is whether to apply face oil before or after moisturizer. I’ve been taught that facial oil is the last step, but if you want to apply it before your moisturizer, do that, no one is stopping you! I say this often, and I’ll say it again: if something works for you, there’s no need to fix it just because of “rules.”
I’ve seen it in my DM’s and reader emails, everyone stresses out about doing things the wrong way. You’re not going to ruin your face because you didn’t follow the recommended product order. The only thing that is truly bad for your skin is using too many actives at night (or skipping SPF during the day). Listen to your skin, experiment to see what works, don’t stress! Pampering should be fun… applying things in a slightly “wrong” order is not going to ruin your life.
I will also caveat that you might not need all of these steps. If you have sensitive skin or oily skin for example, you’re probably not going to want to do all of these serums and oils. I have dry skin, so share what works best for me. My biggest concerns are hydration, dullness, and anti-aging… tackling those fine lines and wrinkles!
Cleanse and exfoliate:
Obviously this is the first step. But I included it because if you are doing a double cleanse (more on that here),you should use the creamy/oil cleanser first. I love a good cleansing oil or balm… they transform washing your face into a luxurious treatment. These are frequently applied to dry skin and the point is to use that rich cleanser to get your makeup off, and then use a gel cleanser to get your skin extra clean. If you are doing a face scrub, that’s the last part of your cleansing process.
For the longest time, I didn’t think toner was necessary but recently changed my position. Toner should be the last step of your cleansing routine. If you use a toner, this is where you do it. Pat skin dry and apply all over with a cotton pad. This toner is my personal favorite! I wrote more about toners and why you need one in this post!
The next step is your essence. Whereas toner is the last step of cleansing, essence is the first step of skincare. (If you use it – you can read about my love of SK-II in this post.) I apply my essence (Right now my favorite essence is actually the newer Royal Fern one – it’s described as “if P50 and SK-II had a baby” and I think that’s pretty spot on).
*Note: P50 is very very active and I consider it an acid, not an essence. I recommend only using at night, and if you do use it before bed don’t use other actives (retinol, Vit C, etc). Just moisturize. You could do a gentle serum like hyaluronic acid (this is my current favorite HA serum – it’s amazing at plumping up the skin!), but you don’t want to do much else. Also, re: P50, Helena did a great review of it!
I wrote a longer post about the difference between essence and toner; highly recommend reading that if you are at all confused!
If you use an eye cream or a neck cream, this is when I like to apply these. Caroline Hirons has drilled it into my head (read her book, it’s amazing!) that eye cream goes on before everything else. The eye area is so delicate; you want to just pat it on very gently. I do a little extra patting around my crows feet and fine lines. For eye cream, this one from Strivectin is my current favorite. It pretty much just does everything. I also love the Neocutis Lumiere so much. It does a great job tightening and brightening. This one from Biossance is also very good. (Plus it’s clean and less expensive).
Serum or Actives.
Serum is the next step. The way you want to think of your product order is that you want to apply the ingredients with the highest concentration of active ingredients first, so that they’re closest to the skin and absorbed first. Essence is packed with actives, as is serum. But because essence is less viscous (it’s consistency is like water), you want to apply that first. I use a bunch of different serums/actives. Below is a loose guide to my favs and how often I use them.
Also: this is my favorite hydrating serum. You can use it before any of these (or Vitamin C serum in the morning). It delivers a long lasting shot of lasting hydration… and it has a nice little plumping effect too!
- Retinol – 1-2x a week. This is my current favorite retinoid. For something affordable, I love the Olay one. The Biossance phyto-retinol is amazing if you want something clean.
- Acid – 2x a week. Still loving the Biossance one. (Honeymoon Glow and P50 also fall into the acids category!)
- Kiehl’s Wrinkle Reducing Concentrate – 1x a week
- (On the off nights I just do Bader and skip serums)
Obviously Bader is king (for me) but on serum nights I don’t use it (I make sure to use it in the AM instead if I don’t do it at night!)
My second to last step is always my moisturizer. I love a thick, velvety moisturizer. This one from Sobel Skin (refer to this post for a more in depth review of that!) is probably my favorite for non-Bader nights but I also love Skin Food!
This is when I’d apply any spot treatments (like pimple cream, etc!)
Oil or SPF
The last step in your routine should be face oil (at night) or SPF (day).
Oil is what seals it all in! I like to let everything I’ve applied sink in for a minute or two while I brush my teeth, and then gently pat on my oils. I love to warm my facial oil up in my palms and then push it into my skin. For me, oils are saved for nighttime as after serum AND moisturizer I’m already pretty shiny, but I really like to lock in all that moisture. My favorite is either the Biossance Rose Oil or Everyday Oil and sometimes if I am feeling really extra I will do Vintner’s Daughter over Dr. Bader. Yes I know that’s one very expensive skincare routine but it’s an incredible combo.
For SPF right now I am VERY big into the Supergoop Glowscreen. It’s so pretty that you can skip makeup (or put foundation over it for a more subtle glow). I know a lot of people swear by mineral sunscreen but I have historically had a hard time with it. It feels like my skin can’t breathe!
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This clears so many things up, thank you! I typically put on my facial oils before my moisturiser… had a feeling I’d gotten it wrong. 🙂
Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog
Really glad it was helpful! xo
What about vitamin c?
Vitamin C is usually a serum so I’d apply then.
I think the challenge is that sometimes there are serums that have an oil consistency, i.e. Sunday Riley UFO oil or Kiehls Midnight Concentrate or Vintner’s Daughter. They feel like an oil, but they are technically a serum.
I’m embarrassed how much I spend thinking about my skincare…
Agreed!!! Vintner’s daughter is confusing as it feels like an oil. Full disclosure, sometimes my skin feels so good after Vintner’s Daughter that I skip moisturizer and oil.
I too spend an embarrassing amount of time thinking about this.
Great post! It is reassuring to realize that I had it mostly correct, but the introduction of “essence” into my life really threw me for a loop. I’m looking forward to trying some of your product recommendations, and now I really feel like I need to bite the bullet with P50!
Glad you enjoyed it.
I HIGHLY recommend P50. I get sent a lot of products to try for the blog and P50 is one of the few products I repeatedly buy over and over again with my own money. It’s seriously awesome.
I’d number ,7 a good product
What about sunscreen during the day?
Last step – as moisturizer, or separately, right before makeup.
Hi Grace–related question, if my moisturizer for day has SPF in it, would adding face oil on top of that negate the SPF, or do you simply wait 5 minutes and then do oil? I usually do moisturizer with SPF as a last step but don’t use face oil during the day. Maybe I am missing out? Thanks!
I don’t use oil during the day. I wouldn’t take any chances, it might negate the effects. I think saving oil for night is the best strategy.. otherwise yes, switch up the orderr.
Love reading your posts. You always crack me up “I’m a fancy lady” haha. THANK YOU for sharing the skincare routine steps. I can never remember to get it right haha.
So glad it was helpful!
I enjoyed the above article, but being on an extreme budget, what are the drugstore equivalents? I am a 54 year-old with a very oily t-zone.
I have lots of drugstore beauty product recs on my blog https://thestripe.com/?s=drugstore&submit=
but it sounds like we have totally different skin types (mine is very dry). If I were you I would join the Fat Mascara community page on Facebook and pose your question there. Someone will have a great rec for you!
UGH! I need to get on board with doing this to my skin. I typically just cleanse and moisturize!
The Champagne Edit
Haha well you still look great!!!
Grace, I think you would really like the new Forever35 Podcast (https://forever35podcast.com/). Two friends in their thirties, talking about serums and self-care. For someone who is into skincare, it’s a fun and interesting listen.
I am obsessed with it! Huge fan, even belong to their facebook group.
Very interested to know about the neck cream since I’m slightly over 30 😉 but the link goes to the eye cream. Could you please update?
Sorry about that!!! http://shopstyle.it/l/A0SR
This is a helpful post, but most of these items are SO expensive so I can’t really follow it unfortunately…!
I’m sorry – I linked to my personal favs. The point of the post is the order though, not the actual products. 🙂
I don’t even understand what I should be applying? What am I aiming for hydrolic acid, other acid. . ., moisturizers, oils, serums- it’s all too much for me to figure out.
I guess it is not that difficult to keep things in order. Most specially skin care products, you have to know what to choose first until the very last. But this will sure to help a lot.
StyleSprinter Blog by Katya Bychkova
Great article! This is so helpful and has been something I’ve constantly wondered about (yet never thought to research). Question… when it comes to washing your face, do you cleanse morning and night? My skin also dries out so easily, but I’m also prone to little breakouts here and there so it’s a tough balance.
I kind of just listen to my skin and give it what it needs. I always wash my face at night so I don’t always need it in the morning. But sometimes I’ll wake up and it will feel like it needs to be washed so I will.
It is prob bad how many times I have referenced this post but I am slowly getting better!
Your style is so unique in comparison to other people I have read stuff from.
I appreciate you for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I will just book mark this
Hi Grace, I keep coming back to reference this post (so helpful, thank you!!) and was wondering if you have any updates to it now that you use retinol more regularly? Just wondering where it fits and if there are certain thing you should/shouldn’t use when doing a retinol night?
I talk about my exact routine in this post: https://thestripe.com/reader-skincare-q-wrinkles/
Wonderful post.Ne’er knew this, appreciate it for letting me
This is so informative!! Thank you Grace! I can’t wait to do this skin care routine (correctly) tonight. Love following you and listening to your pod! Xo
PS. I know you have a ton of great products that you use, but I am so obsessed with Kora Organics Noni Glow Face Oil! It’s amazing if you might be looking for a new one at any point. 🙂
Ooh thanks for the rec… and the kind words!
I’ve been waiting for this post, thanks so much!
Oh good! It’s actually a couple years old, so happy I gave it a refresh!
Thank you so much for sharing! I’ve been putting my facial oils on before moisturizer, so I will definitely be giving this a try! I also appreciated your inclusion of both toner and essence, often I felt like I couldn’t do both (no idea why!), but the way you explained it as part of cleanser vs. skin care really made sense.
Oh GOOD! I am so glad it is helpful!!!!!
Your skincare posts and reading lists are my favorite. So thought out and well written! I’m also a product junkie and enjoy seeing the different products and new to me product lines. I tried the Tatcha serum stick and love it.
I am soooo happy to hear it! I love the serum stick SO MUCH!
This post is great and so helpful. I know you have answered this before so apologies but I can’t find it! Are there any bloggers you’d recommend who have posts about a skin routine for aging but oily/acne prone skin?
Hi! There are two I love. @krystal_bick is amazing for fashion but has oily skin and has struggled w/acne so her beauty posts may be helpful. I also love @myfacestory – a great acne positive account!
I’ve been reading your blog for so long that it feels to me like you just wrote this! (Or maybe that’s because I’ve seen you post it on IG recently.)
Haha I know I link to it a lot!!! It’s probably the #1 question I get in DM’s.
It was crazy when I went to give it a refresh and realized it was posted almost exactly two years ago!
Thanks so much for doing this! Question, is Vintner’s Daughter considered a serum or oil? I thought it was a serum but in your post, it seems like you use it as an oil.
Hi! I know, it’s a little confusing bc it’s so thick and hydrating!
I think that technically it’s a serum. So the proper thing would be is to use it and then do a less active moisturizer (Tatcha or Skin Food would be fab!) over it. But since I’m a Bader addict and that has to go first, I put it over it. You can really do either. Since it’s so expensive I’d probably say that you should use it like a serum… but if you want to be fancy and use it like an oil, you could do that too!
Hi Grace, do you have any recs for eye makeup remover? I wear shadow and mascara most days and have sensitive eyes. (I find I need to use something specifically for that even before using the oil cleanser I use on my skin at the end of the day). Thanks!
Hi! I don’t use a separate eye makeup remover. I do find that the Farmacy Green Clean (cleansing balm) does a really good job at taking all my eye makeup off!
OH this was so helpful! Thank you!
Lisa | lisaautumn.com
This post is GOLD! I am making a sheet of my skin care routine and order right now to keep in my planner until I get used to it and can do it by heart. But quick question–when do you do masks in this routine? I have dry skin as well and received a sample from Sephora of the Korres Hydro-Biome facemask and it was so hydrating. Should I do that at night, and have you personally tried that?
Also! Do you do this routine both morning and night? Might be a dumb question, but I was curious because I workout in the mornings then need to get all my makeup off at night.
This is bedtime but can also be applied to morning or post workout. In the AM I don’t do actives; it’s usually a mild cleanser or splash of water, essence, moisturizer, and SPF!
So happy it was helpful! Masks go on between cleansing and serums/moisturizers.If it’s a moisture mask or tissue off mask that’s the exception as it’s the last step and can replace creams.
And no I have not tried that Korres mask!
Thank you for posting this again. I’m just starting to step up my skincare routine and I’m constantly referring back to your posts about steps, recommended products, etc. so thank you for putting so much content out there. I have a question that I havent seen answered or maybe I missed it. (If so, can you link to the post?) How long does your nighttime skin care routine take (time wise) and how long do you wait between applying the toner steps – moisturizer/face oil? Any info would be great. Thanks!
Thank you for all the information! Any idea how long it normally takes for it to be restocked? Currently sold out 🙂
So sorry, forgot to mention the product – the Soko Glam toner! Thanks:)
I have no idea!!!! I don’t work with them or anything, I just buy it and it’s always been in stock when I’ve ordered!
Have you tried the Vintner’s daughters essence? Curious how this compares to the SK-II essence. Also, have you tried any other Biologique Recherche products?
Hi! I have! I really like it! It’s hard to say how it compares to the SK-II as the ingredients are SO different.
And I’ve tried P50 but felt like it was pretty toxic. So I started using the Farmacy Honeymoon Glow (it’s similar in that it’s an acid and leaves skin super smooth the next day). The Biossance Lactic Acid is another good alternative, and I also got the moon juice acid potion and am excited to start testing that.
Hi Grace, I really love your beauty posts,I’m starting to use some of the products you recommend and they are so good for my skin. But I feel my skin is a bit dry and sensitive, and thinking about adding and oil. Wich one you recommend, Vinter’s or everyday oil or any different one. Thank you so much
I have referenced this post 100 times in the past month- it’s so good.
So- I’m Bader days- do you skip essence? Or just skip serum? Just curious!
Technically you’re not supposed to but some days I will do the Royal Fern one. Usually on Bader days/nights it’s just cleanse, tone, Bader!
Just bought royal fern essence! Excited to try it! So it’s cleanse, tone, royal fern essence, moisturize? I’m a little confused because royal fern essence says it’s a toner on the box so I wasn’t sure how to place it in my routine. And when you use the essence, do you also use a retinol/AHA?
Yes and yes! The Royal fern is sort of a hybrid toner/essence, but as those two steps are next to each other anyway, you’re fine!
I love this post Grace (I know I’m late!). I’m intrigued by the Tatcha moisturizer b/c I use serums under AM/PM. I think your skin goals are similar to mine and love following you for advice.
Hi! Great post. I’m going to to be referencing this. I wanted to get clarification on one thing you said… “But because essence is more viscous (it’s consistency is like water), you want to apply that first.” Do you mean it’s less viscous? Water is not very viscous. And you were saying less creamy/thick stuff first right?
I get this question ALL THE TIME too. I’ve never used an essence though, may need to add this to my already very extensive routine!
an indigo day
It can be so confusing. And you MUST try the Royal Fern essence!
I was actually thinking about this post this morning?? I just got a good new tinted moisturizer (on rec from the FB group!) and was wondering if you still wore regular moisturizer under a tinted one.
I personally do, but have very dry skin! I think if you have oily or combo skin you could likely skip regular moisturizer.
Very helpful post!! Is it bad to use a serum or active in the morning and a different serum or active in the evening? Should you keep to only 1 serum per day?
Not bad at all!!!!!
Nice one, this is awesome products and procedures on how we should apply skin care products.. Does SPF really help with preventing dark skins?
So so helpful! Thanks Grace!
Spot treatment always throws me off. I have been doing it before serum. Will try it last now. Thanks
Grace – This was very helpful! I use a pigment control crème with 4% hydroquinone and AHA (ZO by Obagi). I apply all over at night and spot treat in the morning. It’s on the thicker side compared to serums I use. I’ve tried before and after serums. I always want to get everything out of the products I use, so I always think about where in the line-up to apply. Your thoughts? Thanks!!
I think I would layer that between your essence and moisturizer. I don’t typically apply more than one serum at a time.
Got to say, this is very strange to follow. Firstly, you state toner is the LAST step in the routine, but second in your list. Next you state essence is after toner although it’s the first step in the routine. I can’t follow this, makes no sense at all, and didn’t even answer my question.
Hi Alex, I’m so sorry that the post came across as confusing to you. Toner is the last step of the cleansing process. That is the best way to explain it. First you cleanse and tone, then comes essence, which is grouped with serums/creams. 🙂
Hi Grace! Love these posts, thanks for continuously updating with your favorites!
As a face tanning drop lover, I was curious how/when you incorporate this into your routine? Do you just apply that and moisturizer? And then hold off on using retinols/acids in subsequent days? I’m always worried I will negate any of the tanning drop effects if I add my other products into the routine! Thanks in advance 🙂
I do tanning drops on non-retinol/acid nights. They fade faster using acids but that’s okay!
Hi, thanks a bunch for explaining essences and where to layer them. Super helpful.
Just FYI, there’s a little mistake. You’ve put “But because essence is more viscous (it’s consistency is like water)” when referring to serums. It should read “But because essence is less viscous”.
Whoops! Great catch, thank you.
Hi! What if my essence is thicker than my serum? I’m using a vitamin c serum which is very thin in consistency but the snail mucin essence I’m using is thicker. Which should go first?
In that case I think I’d switch up the order! Maybe try both ways and see which you prefer.
I know this is an older post, but I’ve been recently gotten into multi step skincare, and this is some great info! Thanks for sharing!
As an aside viscous basically means “thick”. So a higher viscosity product would be thicker rather than more water-like in consistently.