Nighttime skincare routines usually get most of the attention, and as beauty editors, we've definitely fine-tuned ours. But our morning routines are just as important—and impressive, thanks to a collection of tips we've picked up from the pros. Most of these corrected some pretty substantial mistakes we didn't even realize we were making.
It turns out that getting your skin through the day is all about the prep, the products, and some time management on when to use what.
"There is no such thing as a 'correct' skincare routine order, but there's a more optimal way to apply your products. Very often, we have a routine where we use too many products or layer on too many steps in the preparation for the day," says Ava Shamban, MD. "The morning is a time to refresh, gently cleanse, and prepare skin to protect and proactively fight off environmental factors, not to aggravate or be overly treated with aggressive actives. Also, by day, we want to focus on strengthening the barrier function, which is the key component to skin's natural protection process."
We spoke to Shamban and dermatologist Rachel Nazarian for their advice on how to achieve a solid morning skincare routine.
Meet the Expert
Keep reading to learn the skincare mistakes to avoid in the a.m.
Not Washing Your Face
Yes, we know, we’re constantly reminding you to wash your face every night to scrub off makeup and the day in general. But it's also crucial to wash your face every morning. Overnight, your skin cells are hard at work. And there’s the matter of your pillowcase—it’s not exactly clean.
"When you sleep, your face is rolling around in the sheets with oils from your hair, dead skin cells from your body, bacteria, saliva, and all of that needs to be washed off before applying your morning regimen," says Nazarian. "This makes the product more effective, but the cleansing also decreases the risk of infection and signs of premature aging. And be sure to wash super gently with a non-soap, non-foaming cleanser—my favorite is the unscented Dove Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar ($6)."
"Cleansing comes first for a reason—to be sure that the canvas is clean and clear," adds Shamban. "A gentle sulfate-free cleanser—like CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser—is best in general. Mild milk or a hydrating cleanser with peptides is great for regular skin, while a mild salicylic acid cleanser to dislodge dead cells from pores is best for oily or acne-prone skin."
While extreme temperatures of any kind can unbalance the delicate skin on your face, hot water dehydrates. Lukewarm water makes for better cleansing (morning and night).
Using Too Many Products
"Very often, we have a routine where we use too many products or layer on too many steps in the preparation for the day," says Shamban. "My gold standards for morning routines include antioxidants, vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, ceramides, niacinamide, polyphenols, glycerin, and tinted sunscreen," says Shamban of the ingredients you should be using. She adds that layering on too many other actives like lactic, glycolic, salicylic is a big skincare mistake, especially first thing in the morning.
Skipping the Exfoliating
We know what you’re thinking: Exfoliate in the morning? Isn’t it better to do that at night? The answer is sort of. If you’re a diehard fan of chemical exfoliation, continue to use your glycolic acid pads and the like at night. But chemical exfoliation is only one part of the equation.
Your skin may need physical exfoliation, too. Celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau says figuring out if you need physical exfoliation is easy; just ask yourself one question: When you do use a grainy, gritty exfoliant, does your skin feel softer and smoother afterward? If the answer is yes, you need to stop relying on chemical exfoliation alone. Rouleau says the best time to use a scrub is in the morning. Overnight you’ve loosened up dead skin cells with your glycolic acid or retinol products, making the morning a perfect time to brush them off.
After washing or scrubbing your face, move quickly. Immediately after patting dry with a clean towel, apply the next step of your skincare routine. Rouleau says that your skin should never stay dry and bare for more than 30 seconds. But that’s the only part of your morning skincare routine you should rush. In order for your skin to properly soak up all of the benefits of each product you apply, you need to give them time to sink in, try three to five minutes.
Not Wearing Antioxidants
Antioxidants are beneficial everywhere in your routine, but it's best to use them during the day in your a.m. serum or essence.
During the day, antioxidants can protect your skin from free radicals and environmental damage. The right combination of antioxidants can be quite powerful. Nazarian encourages the use of antioxidants topically and orally in the morning and likes Skinbetter Science's Alto Defense Serum, which helps to improve the appearance of uneven skin tone and redness.
"A specialized eye cream for your concerns—dehydration, fine lines, and wrinkles, puffiness or dark circles, etc.—can be applied next," notes Shamban.
Forgetting to Moisturize
If you think you can skip your moisturizer for a day, think again. Not only will your face feel tight and dry, but skipping such an important step in your skincare routine will cause your other products to suffer as well.
"Many people forget to moisturize while skin is still damp and can be best absorbed," says Shamban, who notes that a moisturizer or just a tinted [hydrating] sunscreen goes on last.
While you may need to adjust your moisturizer if your skin changes with the seasons (heavier in the wintertime for dry skin and lighter in the summer for oily skin), it's a step you never want to skip.
Not Applying Sunscreen
For such an essential product, many of us aren’t using it to its full potential. For starters, the majority of people apply less than half of the actual amount needed. If you’re not applying a teaspoon amount of sunscreen to your face every morning, you’re not getting the sun protection factor you think are. And you’re probably forgetting your neck and chest—your décolletage tends to be one of the first areas to show signs of aging. Protect yourself from the chest up Revision Skincare's Intellishade TruPhysical sunscreen, Nazarian's pick for a broad-spectrum, minimum SPF 30 sunscreen, that is tinted to block visible light.
"A good cleanser, antioxidant serum, and sunscreen is a product combination that preps the skin appropriately, protects from free radical damage, and shields skin against ultraviolet light and visible light," says Nazarian. "It is my absolute morning trifecta."
Sunscreen usually needs 20 to 30 minutes to set in (make sure to read the directions on your specific sunscreen). Leaving the house too soon after application leaves your skin unprotected.
Using the Wrong Anti-Aging Ingredients
Don’t get us wrong—we’re pro-anti-aging. But there’s a time and a place for every potent product in your routine. Heavy doses of skin cell turnover–boosting retinol and alpha-hydroxy acids (aka exfoliating acids like glycolic and lactic) can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Your body naturally regenerates cells while you sleep—so save retinol, prescription retinoids, and AHAs for evening use.
"If we do a proper de-gunking routine in the evening, add the key factors for repair, hydrate, and sleep well, the skin will have time to work in its most efficient way leaving a less is more morning routine," says Shamban.
Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on the skin. Molecules. 2018;23(4):863. doi:10.3390/molecules23040863