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How to Apply Your Skincare Products in the Correct Order

skincare creams cleansers and serums

Ever since I started this blog, I knew that I wanted to discuss the topic of the order of application of skincare products. It has been a question of mine over the years and I’ve googled this topic more than once. Today, with the increasing popularity of Korean skincare, some routines using K-beauty products may include 10 steps or more! So what to do and when to do it can be confusing! This is a guide that is meant to help you take the guesswork out of introducing new products to your skincare routine or re-evaluating your current skincare routine.

There are many different thoughts on the order of application of your skincare products. You may apply your skincare in a different order and you may be pleased with your results. If that’s the case, then please continue doing what you are doing!

If you have a simple routine, some of these steps may not apply to you. I simply hope this post will get you thinking about all of your options.

2020 UPDATE: As I’ve incorporated more products into my skincare routine and dabbled in the 10-step Korean skincare routine, I wanted to update this post with my current thoughts on the correct order of skincare application.

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Cleanse

1st Oil-Based Cleanse

Drugstore Cleansing Balms

The first step of any skincare routine should be to cleanse the skin and prepare it for the products that will help rejuvenate and protect it. In the morning when you only have last night’s skincare to remove, a single cleanse should do the trick. In the evening when a day’s worth of makeup, dirt, oil, and environmental factors are layered on your skin, you can benefit from a double cleanse.

I prefer to use an oil-based cleanser as my first cleanse. A good oil-based cleansing balm will remove makeup, even stubborn eye makeup, dirt, and grime all while providing moisture and conditioning the skin with its oils. These days the drugstore has some great affordable cleansing balms that make quick work of dirt and makeup. My all-time favorite balm cleanser continues to be this one which I purchase on Amazon. An option for drier skin is Drunk Elephant Slaai Makeup-Melting Butter Cleanser. I discuss my thoughts on this clean cleansing balm in this post.

Related: Drugstore Skincare: Cleansing Balms

2nd Water-Based Cleanse

A gentle water-based cleanser is a perfect option for a second cleanse. Oily complexions can reach for a gel cleanser, and for drier complexions, a gentle cream cleanser is a good way to remove any additional dirt and makeup. I am always amazed at the additional makeup that the second cleanser removes. I grimace when I think of all those years of only cleansing once and all of that leftover makeup in my pores! La Roche-Posay Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Cleanser is gentle water-based cleanser and is very affordable for its large size.

Exfoliation

Physical Exfoliation

When it comes to exfoliation, you have the option of either physical or chemical exfoliation. A gentle physical exfoliation using a face scrub will remove dead skin cells and prep your skin for the next treatment steps of your skincare routine.

Liquid Acid-Based Chemical Exfoliators

Liquid acid-based chemical exfoliators remove dead skin cells, help even skin tone, reduce the appearance of fine lines, and can even help with acne. Sensitive skin types may have an issue with liquid chemical acid-based exfoliators, so you may want to start slowly or test the chemical exfoliator to make sure your skin can tolerate it.

Alpha hydroxy acid toners are a great option for chemical exfoliation. Lactic acid based toners such as REN Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Toner may be a bit more gentle than glycolic acid toners since the molecule size of lactic acid is slightly larger than glycolic acid. As a result, lactic acid molecules will not penetrate as deeply in the skin’s outermost layers causing less irritation.

Once your skin becomes accustomed to chemical exfoliation you may want to consider a stronger acid in the form glycolic acid, such as The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution or The Inkey List Glycolic Acid Toner.

Related: The Inkey List vs. The Ordinary: Anti-Aging Skincare on a Budget

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

Alpha-Hydroxy and Beta-Hydroxy Acids

You may even want to look into a chemical exfoliator that combines both alpha-hydroxy-acid and beta-hydroxy acids. I have heard such great things about cult favorite Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 which is said to exfoliate, hydrate, reduce the appearance of pores and balance the pH of the skin with its anti-inflammatory and anti-acne properties.

The latest version of P50 is formulated with alpha-hydroxy-acid, beta-hydroxy acid, niacin, and botanical extracts. Those who are fans may even tell you that its life-changing. Although it may cause redness and stinging for those with sensitive skin, a gentler version, Lotion P50W, is available for those with the most sensitive skin. Even though I have sensitive skin, the more I hear about it, the more I feel the need to cross it off my wishlist! I will update this post when I do!

NOTE: Do not use in the same routine as other direct acids, retinoids, pure vitamin C, or peptides. Acids will make the skin more sensitive to sunlight so it is important to wear sunscreen while using these products. Really, you should wear sunscreen every time you go outside.

Rinse Off Mask

Innisfree Pore Clearing Clay Mask with Super Volcanic Clusters

You may want to use a face mask once or twice a week or even once in a while. For those masks that are rinsed off, this is a good place in your skincare routine to apply it. A clay mask that I have been enjoying is innisfree Super Volcanic Clusters Pore Clearing Clay Mask. This mask exfoliates while clearing pores and does not dry out your skin.

Toner

I remember my teenage days when I would use Sea Breeze Astringent every day. I can still smell the slightly medicinal scent, and I swore by it as it would always remove any residual makeup. Little did I know that I wasn’t helping my skin since Sea Breeze contains drying alcohol and potentially irritating essential oils.

Now I know that I should have been doing a double cleanse to remove any leftover makeup, and the toner step is a chance to balance your skin’s pH. It is especially helpful for oily complexions in that it will also help remove dead skin cells. A gentle and pH balancing drugstore option is Thayers Rose Petal Witch Hazel Facial Toner with Aloe Vera Formula.

Essence

Essences are somewhere in between a toner and a serum. They tend to contain more active ingredients than toners and typically are more hydrating. A new favorite essence from Beauty Pie is this one, which is a micro-molecular hydrating prep tonic that feels luxuriously moisturizing on the skin.

Face Mist

You may also want to incorporate a face mist into your routine before serums/treatments. While some enjoying spritzing a face mist at the end of their routine for the aromatherapy benefits, you can use a hydrating face mist in this step to add moisture to your skin. Your skin is now prepped to receive all the benefits from skincare serums/treatments in the next step.

Related: Beauty Pie Luxury Skincare Review

Serum/Treatment

I think it was renowned British beauty blogger Caroline Hirons that once said something like, and I paraphrase, when it comes to skincare, your serums and treatments are like your dresses, while a moisturizer is like a good coat.

In other words, the serums and treatments really do the work in your skincare routine and your moisturizer should be used to help the serum/treatment do its job and seal it into the skin. The serum is the star of the show, and thus, that’s where your money should be spent.

When applying your skincare from here on out, think about applying products in order from thinnest to thickest. Thicker products tend to be occlusive and somewhat block the absorption of products that follow.

The Inkey List Hyaluronic Acid Serum

When it comes to inexpensive hydrating serums, both The Inkey List and The Ordinary have hyaluronic acid serums that are both affordable and effective.

Retinoid Treatments

Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Max Night Serum

When my skin has become acclimated to a retinoid, I will apply the retinoid and follow with a hydrating/gentle serum. I recently found some very effective inexpensive retinols that work really well for my sensitive skin: The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion and The Inkey List Retinol Serum. At the drugstore, you can find Olay’s Retinol 24 collection. I am loving Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Serum, although I can’t use it more than every other night due to its potency. It really makes a difference in skin tone and texture!

NOTE: Avoid using additional retinoids, acids, vitamin C, and other strong actives in the same routine as retinoids. If your skin is sensitive, you can apply a retinoid after your serum and/or moisturizer in order to minimize sensitivity. The other products applied prior will somewhat dilute the retinoid and make it slightly gentler on the skin. Also note that its potency will be diminished, but you need to do what works best for your skin.

Retinoid Alternatives

The Inkey List Bakuchiol Moisturizer

If you want to skip the retinoids all together, but still see anti-aging benefits, you can take the route of bakuchiol, which is a plant-based retinol alternative. I am very impressed with the results I’ve seen from The Inkey List Bakuchiol Moisturizer.

Related Posts:
Drugstore Anti-Aging Essentials For Your Skincare Routine

Olay Retinol 24 Night Serum, Eye Cream & Moisturizer: Skincare Review

Sheet Mask

Drugstore Sheet Masks

A sheet mask is typically drenched in super-charged essences for extra hydration. They can be applied after your treatment steps since the essence from most sheet masks can be left on your skin after the mask itself is removed. This way the residual essence will seal in all of the actives that you previously applied.

SK-II Pitera Facial Treatment Mask is one of the few masks that I’ve tried that makes a noticeable difference in my skin immediately after using it. It’s pricey, but it brightens and plumps like nothing else I’ve tried.

For more affordable options, it’s great to see that the drugstore has lots of sheet masks that treat most skin concerns. Check out the drugstore hydrating sheet masks that I tried in this post.

Eye Cream

Some say that you don’t need a separate cream for the skin around your eyes, and I will be discussing this in an upcoming post. But if you have an eye cream and are wondering when to apply it, now would be a good time. Different eye creams work best for morning vs evening and depending on your concern.

e.l.d. 50 mg CBD Eye Cream

An eye cream that works well during the day under makeup and gives a great pop of brightening is e.l.f. 50 MG CBD Eye Cream. It contains hyaluronic acid and a peptide complex to address the signs of aging under the eyes. For the evening, I’m currently loving this luxuriously silky eye cream from Tatcha.

Related: Do You Really Need An Eye Cream?

Moisturizer

We are nearing the finish line! We finally are at the moisturizing step of your skincare routine. There are so many moisturizers on the market and the one you choose should depend on your skin type and your skin concerns.

Beauty Pie Super Healthy Skin Ultimate Anti-Aging Cream

I look for different qualities in a moisturizer for the day vs for the night. I want a moisturizer that works well with my makeup during the day. Olay Regenerist Whip is a favorite for its matte almost primer-like finish. For the evening, you can combine retinol with your moisturizer. I’ve been loving this moisturizer with retinol from Amazon. Or stick with a rich active-filled cream such as Beauty Pie Super Healthy Skin Ultimate Anti-Aging Cream.

Related Post: The 10-Step Korean Skincare Routine

Face Oil

If you choose to use a face oil, you can apply it on top of your moisturizer to lock in all the goodness from the products that were applied prior to the oil. Remember that face oil tends to be occlusive. It acts as a barrier, diminishing the effectiveness of products on top of it. I like to use a face oil at the end of my skincare routine in the evenings.

For an affordable drugstore pick, Allure voted this face oil as their favorite face oil in their 2019 Best of Beauty Awards. For a more luxurious option, you can opt for Drunk Elephant Virgin Marula Luxury Oil. It is a clean beauty favorite that contains 100% unrefined Sclerocraya Birrea (Marula) Kernel Oil and is packed with antioxidants and omegas 6 and 9. A few drops of this non-greasy oil can even be applied to your hair to tame flyaways and frizz.

Sunscreen

The Best Drugstore Mineral Sunscreens

Last but certainly not least, you should apply sunscreen. It should be applied in the AM or before leaving the house during the day as the last step of your skincare routine. Whether you choose a mineral or chemical sunscreen there are many different options on the market from creams and lotions to sticks and powders.

Due to the uncertainty of the safety of ingredients in chemical sunscreens, my choice will always be a mineral sunscreen. A few of my favorites include the lightly tinted Paula’s Choice Super-Light Daily Wrinkle Defense SPF 30 Matte Tinted Face Moisturizer and Etude House Sunprise Mild Airy Finish Sun Milk SPF50+ / PA+++.

Related: The Best Mineral Sunscreens for Safe Sun Protection

There you have it! I know, it sounds like quite a process and it can be, but you can choose how many steps you want to incorporate into your skincare routine. This guide will just help you in determining what to use and where in your routine you should use it.

On that note, it’s time for my skincare routine, so I’m off to follow the steps above in order to take good care of my skin. Here’s to YOUR good skin health!

Thanks for reading, and until next time…

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Pamela Andrade

Sunday 20th of September 2020

Thank you so much for your post, as seen in reading previous comments, it has helped a lot of women. I notice that you give info on using morning applications and evening, what I would like to know, do we follow this regime both day and night, unless otherwise stated? I really appreciate the time you have put into research for us. Thank you.

Sarah

Sunday 20th of September 2020

Yes, you can follow this routine for both day and night, with a few exceptions. As noted, apply sunscreen in your AM routine only. Also, in the morning, you'll probably only need a single cleanse. I recommend using retinoids in your evening routine only, as they make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. You probably won't use all of these products every day, as this list is meant to be a reference for a variety of skincare product options. Some products, like masks, you may use only once or twice a week or not at all. Also, you may not want to use retinoids or acids if your skin is sensitive and cannot tolerate them. I would recommend building a skincare routine around your skin concerns and skin type. Thanks!

Stephanie

Friday 28th of August 2020

Thank you so much for this! How much time would you allow between products? Until they've dried? This is the first post of yours I read and I've found it super helpful. I'm excited to read through your other posts and follow your blog! :-)

Sarah

Saturday 29th of August 2020

Thanks so much for your kind words! In general, I wait a minute or so between each product layer. That gives the products a chance to sink in. Thanks again for reaching out!

KAYLA

Wednesday 27th of May 2020

Thanks so much for this helpful guide. I've clearly been sheet masking all wrong so thanks for the info! If I may ask, how do you feel about micellar water? I've been using it in place of a toner and I can't find any info on if this is good or not. My skin is cool with it so far. LOL

Sarah

Monday 1st of June 2020

I'm so glad this post was helpful! You can definitely incorporate a gentle micellar water into your skincare routine. Since I love the double cleanse method, I would use micellar water as a first cleanse to remove makeup and would follow up with a second cleanser, preferably water-based, to remove any residual micellar water/makeup.

Bekka

Thursday 26th of March 2020

I completely agree with the other comment^^. I’ve been looking for a read as in depth as this. Everything else I’ve come across is so vague... I love the website and will now follow! ????

Sarah

Friday 27th of March 2020

Thank you, that's so nice to hear! Comments like yours make all the work that I do on this blog worth the effort! Xoxo

Doña

Monday 13th of January 2020

I have been looking for this type of list for the longest time. Thank you!

Sarah

Monday 13th of January 2020

Thanks so much for your comment! Order of skincare application can be confusing so I hope this post helps!

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