Whether you prefer seven steps or a couple, we're here to make sure you're using your products in the right order
With approximately a bajillion products on the market (just a ball park), it’s safe to say that skincare order can get a bit confusing.
From glycolic acid to vitamin C serums to retinol and more, out skincare routines are no longer a case of simply cleansing, toning and moisturising. If you ask yourself ‘what order should I apply my skincare products? Am I doing this right?’ regularly, 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. Bookmark for future reference.
Daytime skincare order
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.’
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.
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.
In the morning, it’s a good idea for vitamin C serums to come next, as they can offer 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. Skincare brand The Inkey List recommends using treatment serums first and hydrating serums (like hyaluronic acid) second.
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.
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. Check out our edits of the best SPF moisturisers and best sun creams for our top recommendations.
Evening skincare order
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.’
If you’re a fan of toner, here’s where you should add it in to your evening 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.
Again referring to The Inkey List’s earlier advice, apply treatment serums first and hydrating 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.
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.
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.’
To recap the correct skincare order:
- Mask (evening, max twice a week)
- Retinol (evening)
- SPF (every morning)
For more skincare advice and product recommendations, head to our Hair & Beauty section at the top of the page
Micellar water is great for removing make-up (just don't use it as your only cleanser). Garnier's is truly one of the best affordable options on the market, and it's gentle enough for sensitive skin types to use.
An ultra-gentle, fragrance free and non-comedogenic (non pore-clogging) cleanser that helps keep skin hydrated and support barrier function.
Probably the most famous acid 'toner' on the market, Paula's Choice leave-on liquid exfoliant contains a 2% concentration of salicylic acid to help unclog pores and support blemish-prone skin. It's loved by skincare enthusiasts around the world – including us at Marie Claire!
One of those excellent, science-backed brands, Medik8 is one of those names trusted by beauty experts up and down the country. This particular retinol comes in three different concentrations, but the 3TR (0.3%) is your best bet if you're only just starting to use this wonder product.
This is one of the most popular facial sunscreens on the market, and with good reason. It's lightweight, non-greasy and truly invisble – and at SPF 50+ it's sufficient protection in the summer months.