The Ultimate Guide to Perfectly Applying Your Skincare

When, how, and in what order

Updated 08/18/19
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Here's a scary thought: That expensive serum you splurge on every few months might not be working as well as it should simply because you're not layering it over other skincare products in the proper order. Seriously, the order that you apply skincare makes a real and significant difference to your skin. If you're not following that order, it could be compromising the overall efficacy of your routine. And why buy the most effective products if you're not going to use them in the most effective manner? It doesn't make any sense.

Seeing as I rotate between a couple different high-priced serums (one of which is IS Clinical's Active Serum, which is a whopping $135 per bottle), this thought is enough to keep me up at night. "The order you place your skincare products matters," says celebrity facialist and esthetician Shani Darden. "In general, you want to apply products thinnest to thickest." This ensures that all the product is getting time in direct contact with your skin (which is kind of the point of skincare products, yes?). Because I'm paranoid that I'm wasting potent ingredients and subsequently a good amount of my paycheck due to incorrect application order, I asked a couple of experts—including Darden—to spell it out for me.

What order to apply skincare
Stocksy

Morning

Cleanse

First things first. Cleansing always takes precedence. It sounds obvious, but some people insist on going without cleanser each morning. Their reasoning is that they wash their face each night. There's no makeup or dirt coming in contact with their skin while they sleep, so they just splash water on their face. This could be a mistake, according to Craig Kraffert, board-certified dermatologist and president of Amarte Skincare. "Why not just splash water on your face in the a.m.? Because even the best products won't work if debris or oil is on the skin. You will gain quite a lot from cleansing, as opposed to just splashing water on your face in the morning, because the products you use work their best and absorb most efficiently on debris-free skin." This makes sense, considering your skin can still produce oil and come in contact with environmental pollution at night.

Fight Grime Deep & Fresh Gel cleanser
27 Rosiers Fight Grime Cleanser $39
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Tone

After cleansing, your skin should be smooth, fresh, and clean. That's when you reach for toner, which is a thin veil of hydration that should always precede moisturizer. "Toners are wonderful products to use, and while not everyone needs to use them, everyone can use them: They're calming and provide an additional layer of hydration to prep the skin for makeup," says Kraffert. People who have acne and/or oily skin will benefit most from using toner since "they're formulated to remove sebum, oil, and dirt from the pores."

If you don't have oily or acneic skin, Kraffert says to treat toner as you would a face mist or facial wipe. "They can be especially convenient for use while traveling or refreshing skin on a hot day without ruining your makeup. Take one in your gym bag, stash one in your carry on and keep one at the office for an instant hydrating complexion boost that saves you from taking five minutes to 'freshen up.'" For the latter, we like using CLE's Lifting Mist ($21), which is compact enough to carry in your bag and has every quality you could want in a toner. 

lifting mist facial toner
CLE Lifting Mist $21
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Treat

Next is serum. Darden prefers using a vitamin C serum each morning, which provides skin-protecting and anti-aging antioxidants. It smoothes the skin's texture and treats and prevents signs of aging. Celebrities like Jessica Alba and Chrissy Teigen swear by it. There are also more than a few members of the Byrdie team who can attest to its skin-refining magic.

Kraffert, on the other hand, recommends using a water-based serum like Amarte's Aqua Veil Pure Hydration Serum ($57). "Your serum should be full of botanical extracts and antioxidants and lightweight yet powerful hydration properties as a primary benefit," he says. The potent blend of good-for-skin ingredients is subsequently why serums are usually the most expensive part of a skincare routine—and also why I'm committed to using it correctly, which means applying it before moisturizer and after toner.

Moisturize

After serum, apply moisturizer to keep your skin balanced, hydrated, and plump. For people with dry skin, reach for a thick moisturizing cream—we like Tatcha's Dewy Skin Cream ($68). For those with oily skin, try a lighter gel moisturizer like Neutrogena's HydroBoost Water Gel ($24). The latter is one of our favorite drugstore moisturizers at the moment. Kraffert recommends using your moisturizer as another opportunity to treat your skin. "You want your lotion or moisturizing cream to have some brightening or retinol properties (yes, it's okay for daytime too!) and then follow that with a light formulation of SPF coverage."

First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream Moisturizer $30
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Apply Eye Cream

The final moisturizing/treatment step of your skincare routine should be eye cream, which hydrates the delicate under-eye area while keeping fine lines and wrinkles at bay. Kraffert says it should always be "the last step in your regular routine." He recommends using it twice a day. Ole Henriksen's Banana Bright Eye Cream $38 is our current favorite morning eye cream. It supports your skin's natural collagen production while brightening the look of dark circles thanks to its potent vitamin C.

Banana Bright Eye Creme 0.5 oz/ 15 mL
olehenriksen Banana Bright Eye Creme $38
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Spread on Sunscreen

The final step to a well-ordered skincare routine is sunscreen (of course). It's the best tool for preventing signs of aging—namely hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and wrinkles. "Sunscreen should go after skincare and before makeup. It would not be ideal to put SPF under a lotion or cream moisturizer because, by nature, SPF products block sun's rays (and anything else) from absorbing into the skin," Kraffert says. Just don't forgo the use of sunscreen for an SPF BB or CC cream. Kraffert says the recommended amount of SPF for daily wear is 50, and most BB creams provide much less coverage than that. We like Algenist's Ultra Lightweight UV Defense Fluid SPF 50 ($28), which is lightweight and non-greasy, made for wearing everyday underneath makeup. 

Sublime defense ultra lightweight uv defense fluid spf 50
Algenist Ultra Lightweight UV Defense Fluid SPF 50 $28
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Nighttime

Skincare during the day and night can look vastly different, so we consulted Alexandra Accaro, esthetician at Nolita's D A P H N E Studio, as to what her perfect nighttime skincare routine looks like.

Cleanse

"Perfection starts from cleansing," she tells us. "I believe that we should always cleanse not only our face but the entire body before going to bed. Taking a shower at night has so many benefits. Our bed should never be in contact with our clothes that we wore outside, or our skin covered with everything from being outside (i.e. dust bacteria and free radicals). Before you sleep, take a cool shower that will lower your body temperature and it can make it easier to doze off into a sound slumber."

Atlantic Kelp & Magnesium Ocean Plastic Body Wash
REN Clean Skincare Atlantic Kelp & Magnesium Body Wash $27
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In terms of the face, Accaro believes in a milky cleanser for all skin types. "It doesn't strip our skin, and it removes impurities without messing up hydrolipidic layer. Oily skin will actually get the message that there is enough lipids and it will not produce more. As when we strip our skin from it, it sends the wrong message, and skin tries to make up for what is gone and the overproduction starts causing the oiliness." She recommends Biologique Recherche Lait U.

lait u cleanser
Biologique Recherche Lait U $34
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"While cleansing you can definitely use the power of massage. Use your hands in an upward motion, and make sure you lift, lift, lift," she encourages.

Tone

"It is a must to keep your skin balanced," Accaro proclaims. There's a science to it. "Your skin’s normal pH level is between 4.6 and 6.4, making it slightly acidic. I love Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 ($68). This is really a magical product that I call 'facial in the bottle.' It’s more of a treatment—it purifies, detoxifies and balances the skin’s pH. Bringing your skin to where it's the strongest and feels the most comfortable. It's a micro exfoliant that uses active ingredients." She recommends you see an aesthetician to determine which Lotion P50 is best for you, as both the original and revamped formula have their own disparate qualities.

lotion p50
Biologique Recherche Lotion p50 $68
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However, P50 isn't the only trick Accara has up her sleeve. "Micro-needling is a great idea as well. It is the key to better penetration of a product (even up to 80%.) This instrument was designed to enhance the perfusion of the ingredients in the products. By rolling the needles on the skin we create the channels, which helps the product with faster absorption and better penetration of our skin." As always, you should check with a doctor if it's right for your skin prior to use.

glopro microneedling roller
BeautyBio GloPRO Microneedling Regeneration Roller $199
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Exfoliate

Next up is exfoliant. This sloughs off dead skin and pore-clogging impurities, so other skincare products can sink in and work their magic. "Both cleansing and exfoliating are essential for keeping skin youthful and fresh, but in many cases, you can combine cleansing/exfoliating into one step," Kraffert says. "Save time by using a daily exfoliating cleanser like Amarte Daily ExfoliPowder ($37), which uses ultra-fine corn starch for just a touch of gentle manual exfoliation while also cleansing and removing makeup." Kraffert says a gentle exfoliant, like Amarte's, is gentle enough for everyday use. "The 'old school' way of thinking was to not exfoliate more than a few times a week, but these types of exfoliant cleansers can be used every day and eliminate the need to use both a cleanser and an exfoliating treatment separately." If you're using a more intense exfoliant, go old-school and span it out to a few times a week.

Amarte Daily ExfoliPowder $37
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Treat

Now our skin should be ready to receive a treatment! Accara shared a formula for treatment decisions, "We always start from the serums (smaller molecules go first- to simplify thinner to thicker.) This is when we address areas of concerns." Similarly, at night, Darden will sub the morning's vitamin C serum out for a retinol serum like her Resurface Retinol Reform ($95).

Shani Darden Retinol Reform $95
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But a serum isn't the only treatment you should use to aid your skin, and Accara's personal routine reflects that. "On the nights where I have more time I definitely add a sheet mask (if you use cream mask make sure you do it before applying your serum, since you don’t want to wash the serum off, or just simply reapply.)" For the sheet-mask averse, multi-masking is an option: "You can also choose from various types that target a particular skin concern. Skin concerns such as aging, fine lines, excess oil, dehydration, hyperpigmentation and redness. You can even use masks to target your undereye area, eyelid and lips."

glow activator mud masque in a green bottle with a brush next to it
Orveda Glow Activator Deep-Clearing Mud Masque $105
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Orveda's mud masque is hydrating and cleanses your pores, so you don't have to choose between dry skin or acne.

Moisturize

You might keep the same moisturizer for the morning and the night, but you can also use this opportunity to target two separate conditions. Only you know which moisturizer you need—anti-aging, brightening, extra hydrating. And only you know whether you want to use a cream, gel, or somewhere in between.

Some of the most popular night creams out there are anti-aging, which Accara goes into great detail about: "Anti-aging creams help combat visible signs of aging, such as fine lines, wrinkles and sun spots. They have hydrating properties, and include ingredients that smooth and brighten the skin for a more youthful appearance. Alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids, for example, help exfoliate dead cells and stimulate collagen production so your skin looks firmer. Other anti-aging creams contain retinol that helps speed up cell turnover and boost collagen production."

lotus youth preserve dream face cream with the cap off in a frosted blue glass jar
Fresh Lotus Youth Preserve Dream Night Cream $48
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"When it comes to cream I would definitely suggest adjusting your cream to the season," she advises. "[For] winter use a heavier, more protecting cream. In the summer, use a lighter version or even a gel form."

Hyaluronic Acid Gel Moisturizer
Tata Harper Hyaluronic Acid Gel Moisturizer $116
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You should also use an eye cream at the end of this step.

Sleep 

The key to the best night time skincare routine? Sleep. But there are certainly some ways you can make even sleeping more effective. "Don’t forget to sleep on a satin pillowcase! It is hypoallergenic, cool and super comfortable," Accara emphasizes. "Also, it will not absorb the products that we just applied on our face."

Outside of a daily routine,

Accara suggests "using LED light and a face massager a few times a week." She recommends Joanna Czech's facial massager tool ($189), saying that it's something "everyone should have at home." She extolls the benefits of it, telling us about how "Massaging the skin speeds up circulation, bringing more oxygen to the tissue, resulting in brighter, healthier skin! It's like a gym for your face muscles." Protip: keep it in the fridge.

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