Is your skincare routine confusing you? Here’s the correct order to apply your products

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  • Whether you prefer seven steps or a couple, we're here to make sure your skincare routine is in the right order

    With approximately a bajillion products on the market (just a ball park), it’s safe to say that the order of your skincare routine can get a bit confusing.

    From glycolic acid to vitamin C serums to retinol and more, our skincare routines are no longer a case of simply cleansing, toning and moisturising. (Alas.) So if you’re finding yourself regularly wondering ‘what order should I apply my skincare products? Am I doing this right?’, worry not. Because we’re here to clear the fog.

    ‘The order and steps depend on your skin type, which is why when reading blogs and online articles, you have to keep in mind the person writing might have totally different skin needs to you,’ explains Ksenia Selivanova, co-founder of skin consultancy Lion/ne.

    ‘For example, dry and reactive skin will not need a toner, and oils aren’t suited to every skin. A good way to remember how to layer product is: thinner, water-based products first followed by oil-based, thicker products, and always ending with SPF [during the day].’

    Below you’ll find a handy ‘cheat sheet’ for the order you apply skincare products as advised by the experts. Be sure to bookmark for future reference.

    Daytime skincare routine 

    1. Cleanser

    First thing’s first – wash your face morning (and night too) as the first step in your routine, using your best cleanser and a hand-hot flannel, microfibre or muslin cloth. ‘Cleansing your skin is the most basic part of a good skincare routine and ideally should take place twice daily,’ explains consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto. ‘It functions to remove dirt, sweat, grime, microbes and pollution from the skin surface, as well as creating a clean base to then apply further products.’

    2. Toner

    If you enjoy using your best toner and it your skin has no problem with it, do so after cleanser. But whether it’s an absolute necessary is widely debated. ‘I’m not a big fan of toners as they often irritate the skin,’ says consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk.

    ‘Not all skin types need a toner,’ adds Kate Bancroft, founder of Face the Future. ‘Sometimes a hydrating spray is a better option.’

    Toners that contain AHAs or BHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acids) are a different story, as they act as an exfoliating step in your routine. These may help if you struggle with breakouts, clogged pores or slow skin cell turnover, depending on the particular acid. However, it’s important that you follow the guidance on using acid-containing products and introduce them to your skin slowly.

    ‘Caution is required with the exfoliating acids – the AHAs and BHAs,’ Dr Mahto warns. ‘Commonly used AHAs in skincare include glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, and BHAs include salicylic acid. These can lead to dryness, flaking, itching, sensitivity and irritation if they are overused.

    ‘Those who are more likely to develop sensitivity include those with dry or sensitive skin or a predisposition to skin conditions such as eczema or rosacea.’

    two models with glowy skin - skincare routine

    3. Serums

    Next in your routine comes the best face serums. In the morning, it’s a good idea to use one of the best vitamin C serums as it offers additional protection for skin during the day. ‘After cleansing, using an antioxidant serum containing vitamin C can help with skin brightening, as well as helping against harmful molecules known as free radicals, which lead to premature skin ageing,’ Dr Mahto explains.

    Hydrating serums can be used at any time of day, so you may want add one in here, too. (Layered before your treatment serum if you’re doubling up.)

    4. Moisturiser/oil

    Depending on your skin type, be sure to choose the best moisturiser for dry skin, best moisturiser for oily skin or best moisturiser for combination skin. They may be humectants, attracting water to the skin; emollients, providing a protective barrier to trap moisture; or occlusive, preventing water loss. This is also when you should be applying the best eye cream for your needs – whether that’s for dark circles, bags or perhaps wrinkles.

    5. Sun cream

    Whatever your skin colour, sun protection is a must every single day – not just in the summer months! ‘Using a sunscreen can help protect against skin cancer, as well as early onset of skin ageing, such as wrinkles or pigmentation,’ Mahto confirms. In the same vein, a brilliant hyperpigmentation treatment is your BFF when it comes to preventing discolouration. Be sure to check out our edits of the best SPF moisturisers and best sun creams for our top recommendations.

    Night-time skincare routine

    1. Cleanser

    Start by removing make-up and washing the day’s grease and grime away – double cleansing comes in to play in the evenings – again using your trusty flannel, microfibre or muslin cloth.

    2. Face mask (optional)

    A frequently asked question is, where do the best face masks fit into your routine? The short answer is after cleansing, before all your other skincare steps, about twice weekly. ‘Masks, if used, can be applied once or twice a week,’ says Dr Kluk. ‘I would suggest applying a mask after cleansing in the evening, then following with the rest of your usual skincare routine.’

    3. Toner

    If you’re a fan of toner, here’s where you should add it in to your evening routine.

    model wearing very little makeup smiling - skincare routine

    4. Retinol (avoid using with AHA/BHAs)

    ‘At night, using a vitamin A product [like retinol] will help boost collagen production in the skin as well as even out skin tone,’ Dr Mahto explains. Retinol is known for being a pretty potent potion, so on the days you apply it, swap out any acid-containing products to avoid any reactions. It’s thought that this can make your skin more sensitive to the sun initially, so it’s worth applying in the evening and always using SPF the next day. Which, we might add, you should be doing every day anyway!

    ‘Following retinol with any other topical skincare will dilute the active ingredient, vitamin A, and reduce its effectiveness,’ Bancroft adds.

    Depending on your skin’s level of sensitivity, you may want to avoid acids completely on the days you’re using retinol (more on why later). If you’re new to it, be sure to introduce it gradually and begin with a low concentration, like 0.3%. Every third day is a good frequency to begin with.

    5. Serum

    Again referring to The Inkey List’s earlier advice, apply hydrating serums first and treatment serums second. ‘AHAs, such as glycolic or lactic acid can be used throughout the week depending on tolerance and sensitivity to gently chemically exfoliate the upper layer of dead skin cells, leading to a brighter complexion,’ explains Mahto.

    6. Moisturiser/oil

    Finish your nightly routine with your usual moisturiser or the best night cream for your skin type. And if your skin is particularly dry, you could try layering an oil over the top to lock in moisture, but it may not be essential. Final step is your eye cream.

    Are there products that can’t be applied together?

    More and more of us are using potent skincare ingredients, like acids and retinol, on the regular, so it’s important to know which of the strong stuff don’t mix.

    While it’s not an absolute rule not to do so, many people would find using the two at once far too irritating. ‘I would avoid using multiple products with irritant properties at the same time,’ explains Dr Kluk. ‘An example of this would be avoiding the application of AHAs, such as glycolic acid, and retinol or any of the prescription retinoid creams together. Many people can’t even tolerate using these on the same day, so my advice would be to choose one or the other unless advised otherwise by a dermatologist.’

    Kate agrees: ‘I don’t like to mix acids and retinols at the same time; some skins are highly susceptible to retinoid reactions and mixing too many actives in one go is asking for trouble.’

    Which products should you not use during the day or at night?

    ‘Vitamin A creams, such as retinol or retinaldehyde, may increase sensitivity to the sun and so should be applied at night – and SPF should be applied the following morning. The same goes for acids,’ explains Dr Kluk.

    ‘Antioxidants like vitamin C can be used both morning and night, but as they provide a form of protection against UV and pollution, it seems sensible to me to use them in the morning before heading out the front door.’ Noted!

    How many acid products is too many in one session?

    These days acids come in just about every skincare form, from cleanser to toner, serum and moisturiser. So what’s the safe limit for how many AHA/BHA products you can use in one go?

    ‘It depends on how reactive your skin is and also on your individual skin needs,’ advises Dr Kluk. ‘Acids are potentially quite irritating to the skin and can cause redness, peeling and sensitivity, so it’s best to select one product and only add others if there is still a clinical need and your skin is able to tolerate it. You don’t need to use every acid just because you can!

    ‘If you have oily skin or breakouts, choose salicylic acid. If you want to smooth and hydrate the skin, choose lactic acid. And if you want to brighten dark spots or treat wrinkles, choose glycolic acid.

    ‘For those who can’t tolerate any of the above acids, mandelic acid may be less irritating to use as the larger molecules don’t penetrate as deeply.’

    Why the order of your skincare routine matters

    Generally speaking, the rule of skincare routines can be summarised as thus: protect your skin in the daytime – SPF, best BB creams and primers – and correct your skin in the evening – retinols, concentrated serums, and heavier moisturisers.

    But having all the beauty products in the world at your disposable won’t matter if you’re applying them in the wrong order. This is because products applied in the incorrect order – or even too many products applied at once – will dilute or cancel each other out; undoing all your hard work.

    It’s also a good idea to leave some time between products to allow them to work into the skin. While this likely isn’t possible when you’re in a rush to get to your desk, even leaving a minute between applications will allow your skincare products to work their magic. Try cleaning your teeth, brushing your hair or making your morning coffee between steps to buy your products more time to absorb into your skin.

    To recap, here’s the correct skincare routine:

    1. Cleanser
    2. Mask (evening, max twice a week)
    3. Toner
    4. Retinol (evening)
    5. Serum
    6. Moisturiser/Oil/Eye Cream
    7. SPF (every morning)

    Here’s to many good skin days ahead…

    For more skincare advice and product recommendations, head to our Hair & Beauty section at the top of the page

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