Skincare has become a focal point in our daily routines. Whether you're a novice, minimalist, or nine-step skincare devotee, you're invested. Time and money are precious resources, especially with the cost of some skincare products, so why not get the most out of each step? We consulted the experts on how to do just that and, once again, the old adage proves to be true: Timing is everything.
From a three-second rule to watching the clock, read on for how to get optimal results from your skincare routine.
Meet the Expert
- Debbie Thomas is a skincare expert with over 20 years of experience. She is the founder of D. Thomas Clinic in London.
- Rabbia Aslam is the clinical treatment director of England-based HC MedSpa.
- Dr. David Jack, MBChB, specializes in aesthetic medicine and anti-aging treatments at his London-based clinics. He is also the founder of Dr. David Jack skincare.
Apply to Damp Skin
In Korea, there is such a thing as the three-second rule when it comes to applying your serums and moisturizers: This is a window of three seconds after cleansing when someone should apply their first skincare product. The idea is that damp skin is more receptive to the active ingredients housed in that pricey bottle of serum or cream than dry skin. “Damp skin is more permeable than dry skin,” says Debbie Thomas. “So technically you should get...better absorption of your products if applied directly after cleansing. You don’t want it to be wet, but my advice is to apply your products within a minute of cleansing or washing your skin.”
Rabbia Aslam suggests using a damp face cloth to remove excess cleanser and water from the face before applying your products to the dampened skin. “Similar to a sponge, dry skin will hold some moisture, however, if the sponge (or in this case your skin) is damp, it will absorb and retain even more liquid.”
If damp skin is more receptive to skincare ingredients, it would make sense that exfoliated skin would be more open too. “An exfoliator will remove the barrier and buildup of dead skin cells, therefore any skincare applied to the surface will penetrate deeper into the layers than if an exfoliator was not used,” says Aslam.
To reap the benefits daily, Thomas recommends that you use a face wash with glycolic, mandelic, or salicylic acids. “The reason I prefer this type of exfoliation is because it is more controlled and gentler than a typical ‘scrub’ with beads or grains that can scratch the skin, meaning you can use it daily.”
But it’s not just that the exfoliator clears the way; it may actually change the skin to make it more receptive to certain skin-boosting ingredients. Much like Thomas, David Jack, MBChB, recommends an acid-based exfoliator. But he also goes a step further, stating “A low concentration of acid, such as lactic, will reduce the pH of the skin and allow much better access to the deeper layers of the skin by active products. The added benefit of slightly lowering the skin pH assists penetration of any acid-pH ingredient, such as vitamin C (ascorbic acid), hyaluronic acid, and vitamin A (retinol).”
Understand Your Skin’s Internal Clock
For years, scientists have understood that our bodies are governed by time, 24-hour circadian rhythms that cause us to sleep and wake with the movements of the sun. But it appears that rather than there just being one “master clock,” our bodies are kept in sync by multiple clock systems in most of our cells throughout the body. “When this system is disrupted, it results in premature tissue aging, as well as a greater predisposition to developing skin tumors,” explains Aslam. Our body regenerates at different times throughout the 24-hour window: “It is well known that the proliferation process takes place during the day at various times, many of us feel that our skin can feel a little tight and dehydrated around 4 p.m., this is a great time to rehydrate and boost the skin with a light face mist,” claims Aslam. But don’t spend money on an active-rich mist to sit on your desk. “Yes, you can use a mist easily during the day, but if you have makeup on you won’t get the full benefit of the mist,” adds Thomas. In other words, save your money for the morning and evening products.
Cell turnover is at its highest at night. "Circadian rhythms in the skin affect the biology of appearance and also have a profound effect on the absorption of applied treatment products,” notes Aslam. "It is vital to effectively remove all impurities before applying your nighttime skincare products; we recommend active ingredients such as retinol."
Cortisol (the stress hormone) levels tend to be highest when we wake up in the morning (especially around 7 a.m.), “so the levels of potential skin inflammation may be higher at this time generally. I always suggest using products containing things like vitamin C and E at this stage, which have anti-inflammatory and strong antioxidant activity,” says Jack.
Regardless of the number of steps in your skincare routine, the sequence of their application can make or break how effective they are. Once again, this all comes down to absorption. Layering ingredients in order from lightest to thickest will ensure that each molecule can penetrate the skin barrier and deliver results. The correct order is to follow your cleanser with a toner, then apply serums, eye creams, spot treatments, moisturizers, and retinols in that order. (Of course, you can eliminate any steps that don't serve you.)
Occlusives like oils and petrolatum products like Vaseline or Aquaphor should be applied last as they form a barrier that seals in anything underneath.
Lyons AB, Moy L, Moy R, Tung R. Circadian rhythm and the skin: a review of the literature. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2019;12(9):42-45.
University of Michigan Health Michigan Medicine. Cortisol in blood test. Updated March 31, 2020.