Yes, there’s a right and wrong way to apply your skincare

A dermatologist lends her expertise

Yes, there’s a right and wrong way to apply your skincare Credit: Getty Images / Margot Cavin

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Remember in “The Little Mermaid” when Ariel sings, “I've got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty, I've got whozits and whatzits galore?” That’s how you might see skincare these days: There’s a surplus of products you can add into your routine, whether you want to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, banish breakouts, fade hyperpigmentation, or just ward off dryness. But with a number of steps and items in your regimen, you may wonder if it’s all actually working.

To help you optimize your routine for maximum results, we consulted Dr. Suzanne Friedler, a board-certified dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology PC in New York City.

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Why does the order you apply your skincare products matter?

Right order
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Applying your skincare in the wrong order won't hurt you, but you may not get the results you want.

The drawback to applying your skincare products in the wrong order is that they may not work as well, either because they won’t sit close enough to the skin to actually penetrate it or because they become diluted by other products you put on your skin right before or after. For this reason, Friedler recommends keeping your routine simple. “More is not always more,” she says. “Having a million steps doesn't necessarily mean [that] what you're doing is better.” There’s nothing wrong with a three-step routine: cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen in the mornings. But when you want to try out extra steps to target specific skin concerns, here’s how you should go about it.

Step 1: Cleanse your skin for a blank canvas

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Start your routine by cleansing the skin.

Before anything else goes on your skin, you want to use a cleanser to get rid of leftover makeup, excess oil, and any other dirt and impurities from your day. If you’re wearing makeup, you may want to precede this step with a makeup remover and use a face wash as a second step to ensure you get rid of every last trace of concealer and mascara—otherwise, you can jump right into this step, massaging your favorite gentle cleanser into your skin with some warm water. Once you have a clean, bare face, you’re ready for the rest of your routine.

Step 2: Apply your active ingredients

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Apply your toners, serums, or essences after cleansing.

You want your active ingredients, such as vitamin C, salicylic acid, and hyaluronic acid, to sit close to the skin to penetrate it. For that reason you’ll apply them first after cleansing. These actives often come in the form of toners, essences, or serums, which are all liquids you can apply to your face with your bare hands or a cotton round. Let the active ingredient fully absorb into the skin before you move onto the next step to avoid diluting the product. Some dermatologists recommend waiting up to 20 minutes before applying your next step, but at the very least, wait until the product no longer feels wet or tacky on your skin.

In the case where your active ingredient is an ointment, gel, or cream-like consistency, like some retinoids, default to the “thinnest to thickest” method and apply your liquid actives first, followed by the cream ones. However, before you mix active ingredients, research whether they pair well together. Friedler explains: “Some products can inactivate other products. If you're using things with active ingredients, sometimes they're not compatible … so using them together would render them not effective.” If two products you want to use aren’t compatible or if you’re unsure, consider spacing them out throughout your routine.

For example, use your vitamin C serum in the morning and your retinol at night or alternate the days a week you use them to avoid mixing. In the case of vitamin C and retinol, they have different pH levels that, when mixed, causes both ingredients to lose their efficacy.

Another bad combination is retinol with alpha hydroxy acids, as both of these ingredients exfoliate the skin and can cause irritation. As a rule, stay away from pairing two products that both claim to exfoliate, some of which include retinol, BHAs, AHAs, and benzoyl peroxide. Consult your dermatologist for the best results for your skin.

Another thing to consider: Some active ingredients are better for nighttime use only because they can cause sun sensitivity (like retinoids), while others work fine either time but make more sense during the day because of the protection they offer the skin to outside irritants (like vitamin C), and some are great either or both times a day (like hyaluronic acid). Follow the directions on your product or consult a dermatologist to understand the best way to use it.

Step 3: Apply your creams or oils

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Apply your moisturizer, eye cream, or oil after your serums.

Next, you’ll apply cream items, like a moisturizer or eye cream to hydrate your skin, protect your skin barrier, and seal in moisture. While using skin oils is often an unnecessary step, if you’re interested in the benefits of one or you prefer the feel to a cream, Friedler recommends replacing your cream products with the oil, as oils also moisturize and act as a sealant over the skin.

Step 4: Apply your sunscreen in the morning

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Finish off your morning skincare routine with sunscreen.

While the previous steps work for the nighttime, you’ll want to also add on an SPF either in place of or after moisturizer. If your SPF feels moisturizing enough on its own, you may prefer to skip the third step, which is fine. Just don’t forget to reapply throughout the day with a cream, powder, or spray SPF.

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