Skincare order confusing the heck out of you? This is the correct routine

Whether you prefer two steps or seven, we've cleared the fog on skincare routines and other FAQs

With approximately a bajillion products on the market (ball park), it’s safe to say that skincare order has got a little confusing lately.

From glycolic acid to vitamin C serums to retinol and more, for a lot of us our skincare routine is no longer a case of simply cleansing and moisturising. So if you find yourself constantly asking yourself ‘what order should I apply my skincare products? Am I doing this right?’, then keep reading.

‘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. We recommend you bookmark this for future reference.

skincare order

Daytime skincare order

Cleanser

First thing’s first – wash your face morning (and night) as your first step, using your best cleanser and a hand-hot flannel or muslin cloth.

Toner

If you choose to use it, do so after cleanser, but whether toner is really a necessary step 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.’

However, toners that contain AHAs or BHAs (like glycolic acid or salicylic acid) are a different story as they provide an exfoliating step in your routine. These can help if you struggle with breakouts, clogged pores or slow skin cell turnover, depending on the acid.

Serums

In the morning, it’s a good idea to use something antioxidant-based, like Vitamin C serums, as these will offer additional protection against pollution. Hydrating serums can be used at any time of day; skincare brand The Inkey List recommends using treatment serums first and hydrating serums (like hyaluronic acid) second.

skincare order

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.

Sun cream

Sun protection should be used every day, especially if you use acids and/or retinol in your routine; view our edits of the best SPF moisturisers and best sun creams for recommendations.

Evening skincare order

Cleanser

Start by removing make-up and washing the day’s grease and grime away, double cleansing if you wish, again using your trusty muslin cloth or flannel.

Mask

A frequently asked question is, where do masks fit into the cleanse-tone-moisturise shebang? 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.

Toner

skincare order

Retinol (not to be used with AHA/BHAs)

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 can make your skin more sensitive to the sun so always apply in the evening and use SPF the next day.

Depending on your skin’s sensitivity, you may want to avoid any acids at all on the days you’re using retinol (more on why later) and if you’re new to it, be sure to introduce it gradually and begin with a low concentration.

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

Serum

Again referring to The Inkey List’s earlier advice, apply treatment serums first – this includes retinol – and hydrating serums second.

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, layer an oil over the top to lock in moisture.

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.

‘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.’

How many acid products is too many?

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.’

So, to recap the correct skincare order…

Cleanser
Mask (evening, max twice a week)
Toner
Retinol (evening)
Serum
Moisturiser/Oil
SPF (daytime)

For more skincare advice and product recommendations, head to our Hair & Beauty section

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