It's not just the skin-care products we put on our skin that matter. It's also the order in which we apply them.
"Developing a specific order of application with skin-care products maximizes their efficacy and benefits," says Michele S. Green, MD, a dermatologist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Those benefits include not just minimizing the effects of aging but also moisturizing, reducing blemishes and protecting your skin from the sun and other elements. This, in turn, can cut back on your chances of developing skin cancer or aggravating conditions like psoriasis.
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While the order matters, your morning and evening skin-care regimens don't have to be complicated. Neither do the products you choose.
"An extensive, 10-step skin-care routine is not necessary," Dr. Green says. "In fact, using fewer products still packed with beneficial ingredients lowers the risk of irritation."
While working with a dermatologist will allow you to create a skin-care plan tailored to your individual skin type and lifestyle, here are some basic tips for your morning and evening routine.
"Your daytime skin-care regimen focuses on protecting your skin from environmental stressors throughout the day," Dr. Green says. Of course, sunscreen is an important part of this but it's not the first thing you should apply.
"We typically tell patients to layer on their topicals from thinnest preparation like gels and light lotions to thickest," says Melanie Palm, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and medical director of Art of Skin in Solana Beach, California.
Here's the order you should follow.
"A cleanser should always come first for maximum absorption of the following serums and moisturizers," Dr. Green says. "It'll help get rid of dirt, oil, debris, makeup and pollution that was built up."
Be careful that the product you pick is appropriate for your skin type, per the Cleveland Clinic. The best face washes for dry skin skip the foam and harsh scrub features, while sensitive skin requires products that specify sensitive skin or that say "gentle" on the label.
Although both oil- and water-based formulations are effective and safe, you may want to go for water-based in the morning when your skin is already basically clean, says Shoshana Marmon, MD, PhD, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor and director of clinical research in the department of dermatology at New York Medical College.
Experts recommend against using makeup wipes as a shortcut. “They leave behind residue that can cause irritation or acne breakouts,” Dr. Green says.
Try These Dermatologist-Recommended Cleansers
- La Roche-Posay Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Face Cleanser ($22.95, Walmart; $15.99, Amazon)
- La Roche Posay Lipikar Wash AP+ Body & Face Wash ($15.99, Amazon; $32.90, Walmart)
For acne-prone or sensitive skin, try:
- Dr. Barbara Sturm Cleanser ($58, Walmart; $75, Sephora.com)
- Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Daily Cleanser ($8.46, Walmart; $5.49, Amazon)
A toner can be an added cleansing step but it's not strictly necessary, Dr. Green says.
You can opt for either a traditional liquid-and-cotton-ball application, or a peel pad with skin-perfecting ingredients such as retinols and alpha and beta hydroxy acids, Dr. Marmon adds.
Alpha and beta-hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs) are chemical exfoliants that slough off superficial dead skin cells, making way for new, healthy skin cells.
"AHAs are great for sensitive or dry skin because they gently break the bond between dead skin cells and healthy cells, and are less likely to cause irritation like physical exfoliants," Dr. Green says.
Try These Dermatologist-Recommended Toners
- Peter Thomas Roth Even Smoother Glycolic Retinol Resurfacing Peel Pads ($33.70, Walmart; $52, Sephora)
- First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads ($36, Sephora.com)
Serums are the next step after cleanser and toner. They contain concentrated nutrients and antioxidants which are absorbed more easily when the skin is already slightly damp from a cleanser, Dr. Green says.
Look for products containing vitamin C (ascorbic acid). "A vitamin C serum is a critical addition to any skin-care routine," Dr. Marmon says. "These serums brighten dull skin and help to remove discoloration."
As an antioxidant, vitamin C helps protect the skin from free radical damage and oxidative stress caused by environmental stressors such as UV radiation and pollutants, Dr. Green says. It also promotes synthesis of collagen, an abundant protein that basically bolsters our skin structure. Age along with environmental factors like sun exposure, alcohol, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and lack of sleep can erode collagen and slacken skin, per Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Vitamin C reduces discoloration and brightens the skin by inhibiting the production of melanin, a molecule which is responsible for coloring of your skin, eyes and hair, including color from tanning in the sun.
Try These Dermatologist-Recommended Serums
Next is a good moisturizer.
"Moisturizers repair and maintain the skin's natural protective barrier to prevent environmental damage (i.e., pollution and bacteria)," Dr. Green explains. They also hydrate the skin and seal in the products underneath.
Products with hyaluronic acids and ceramides are good choices to hydrate the skin, an ability our bodies naturally lose with age, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
"Hyaluronic acid (HA), is a humectant, which means it has the ability to pull moisture from the environment and hold it on the skin to deliver hydrating benefits," Dr. Green says. "Hyaluronic acid not only attracts water, but it also has the ability to hold a thousand times its weight in water, making it a great hydrating ingredient to have in skincare."
Along with HA, a key ingredient to look for in moisturizers is ceramides, Dr. Green says.
Try These Dermatologist-Recommended Moisturizers
- Tatcha The Water Cream Oil-Free Pore Minimizing Moisturizer ($69, Sephora)
- Youth To The People Superfood Air-Whip Lightweight Moisturizer with Hyaluronic Acid ($48, Sephora; $48, Amazon)
- Charlotte Tilbury Magic Cream Moisturizer With Hyaluronic Acid ($64, Sephora)
- Vanicream Daily Facial Moisturize ($12.99, Amazon; $16.25, Walmart)
- Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Gel-Cream Face Moisturizer ($18.94, Walmart)
This should be your last step before heading out to meet the day, Dr. Marmon says. Use it every day of the year, in every season (including fall and winter) and use extra if you're spending lots of time outside exercising.
Look for tinted broad spectrum products (they guard against both UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF of 50 or higher, Dr. Green says. Here's why tinted is preferable: By adding pigments that match your skin tone, the sunscreen can be visible on your skin, which is necessary to block visible light, per Harvard Health Publishing. When broad spectrum sunscreens aren't tinted, they block UVA and UVB, but cannot block visible light.
"Sunscreen is a critical step for the morning routine to prevent premature aging, skin cancer and the development of dark spots and unwanted pigmentation," Dr. Marmon says.
How to pick? "Most cosmetic dermatologists will recommend SPF 30 that's broadband," says Dr. Palm, who is also a volunteer assistant clinical professor at the University of California San Diego. "Many of us really favor physical sunscreen agents like zinc and titanium. They act as mirrors so they reflect rays back into the environment rather than converting them into chemical agents on the skin."
What if Your Moisturizer or Makeup Contains Sunscreen?
A sunscreen that's actually sunscreen is important. Using cleansers or makeup which happen to have SPF coverage usually isn’t enough.
“Makeup really shouldn't be your only source of sun protection,” Dr. Marmon says. “Even if you apply foundation all over your face you are pretty much always blending it in to achieve a certain look and not using the amount needed to protect your skin.”
Plus, SPF levels in moisturizers and makeup are likely diluted, Dr. Green says.
The best routine is to apply a moisturizer followed by a separate sunscreen. However, using SPF in moisturizer or makeup is better than not using any sunscreen at all.
In any event, many sunscreens actually do double duty with moisturizing ingredients like ceramides, niacinamide and hyaluronic acid. "Look for a tinted sunscreen with moisturizing ingredients," Dr. Marmon says. "These products are designed to act as sunscreen but can be thought of as moisturizer and makeup as well."
Once the all-important sunscreen is in place, then you’re ready to apply any make-up.
Try These Dermatologist-Recommended Sunscreens
- Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen ($14.31, Walmart; $20, Sephora)
- Pipette Mineral Sunscreen ($11.97, Walmart)
- EltaMD UV Clear Tinted Face Sunscreen Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 Face Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin ($39, Amazon; $16.91, Walmart)
- EltaMD UV Elements SPF 44 Tinted Moisturizer ($25.99, Walmart; $38.50, Amazon)
"Your night regimen addresses different concerns, and products used at bedtime often contain more concentrated ingredients," Dr. Green says. "These ingredients often cause photosensitivity [sensitivity to light]. Therefore, they aren't for daytime use. Night creams are often therapeutic and penetrate deeper within the dermis to repair the skin as you sleep."
For simplicity's sake, many folks opt to use the same products morning and night. Others prefer to vary the routine. That said, the types of products you use are much the same and in the same order with the exception of sunscreen which, at night, is replaced by retinol.
You may need to adjust the timing of some skin-care steps if you are a night shift worker. For instance, if you work at nighttime, it may wind up being morning (just before you head to bed) when you want to use a stronger cleanser to remove makeup and grime from the day.
While water-based cleansers are effective just after you wake up, you may want something a little stronger at night to get rid of the accumulated grime and debris of the day. If so, look to an oil-based cleanser, which are good for easy makeup removal, Dr. Marmon suggests.
You also have to take your individual skin type into account. No matter the ingredients, avoid makeup wipes as they can harm more than they help.
Try These Dermatologist-Recommended Cleansers
As in the morning, a nighttime toner is an optional secondary cleansing steps.
"It can be used to more deeply cleanse the skin by removing excess traces of dirt and makeup as well as prepare the skin to better absorb ingredients later on in the regimen," Dr. Marmon says. (It's best not to make it a regular habit to sleep with makeup on.)
Products with beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) are good choices.
"They're great for acne-prone and oily skin due to their ability to penetrate deeper into the skin to remove bacteria and debris from the pores for a deep cleanse," Dr. Green says. Salicylic acid is an example of a BHA but some people find this too drying or irritating to use twice a day.
Try These Dermatologist-Recommended Toners
Serums form the middle of your nighttime regimen, after cleansers and toners and before moisturizers or creams. "This allows the serum to be fully absorbed, then sealed in by the moisturizer," Dr. Green says. "Doing the opposite will likely result in the serum sitting atop the moisturizer and prevented from being absorbed into the skin."
And, again, products with vitamin C are your best choice. It can help neutralize harm from ultraviolet-induced pigmentation, according to a February 2019 meta-analysis in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. It can also help minimize acne, per a February 2010 trial in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology.
Eye creams, if you use them, should follow serums, Dr. Green says. That's because they tend to be lighter and thinner than face creams or moisturizers but thicker than serums.
Try This Dermatologist-Recommended Serum
- Paula’s Choice RESIST Super Antioxidant Serum ($43, Amazon)
Although our skin has different needs during the day and during the night, it's perfectly fine to use the same moisturizer both times.
"I think it's patient preference," Dr. Palm says.
Many people do like to change out their moisturizers in line with their particular skin type.
"Someone with dry skin may use a hydrating moisturizer both morning and night, while someone with oily skin may find this too greasy," Dr. Green says. "In this case, someone with oily skin may opt for an oil-free, light moisturizer in the morning and a thicker, more hydrating moisturizer at night to support the skin's repairing process while sleeping."
Try These Dermatologist-Recommended Nighttime Moisturizers
Rather than sunscreen, which was your last step in the morning, retinol is typically your last step at night. (You can apply retinol before moisturizer, though, if you prefer, Dr. Marmon says.) Retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, makes your skin super sensitive to light so you do want to avoid it during daylight hours.
"The myriad of skin benefits that retinol delivers is backed by decades of clinical research," Dr. Green says. "Retinol, the over-the-counter version of retinoids, is a derivative of vitamin A that stimulates collagen and elastin production to minimize fine lines and create youthful skin." It also increases the rate of cellular turnover and new skin cell growth which paves the way for more even skin tone and fewer dark spots.
But retinol's merits aren't only aesthetic: It can also help prevent precancerous spots, Dr. Palm says. But the American Academy of Dermatology warns that retinol can aggravate the skin condition rosacea.
Try Dermatologist-Recommended Over-the-Counter Retinol Products
- Cleveland Clinic: “Here’s the Right Order to Apply Your Skin Care Products”
- American Academy of Dermatology: “Should I apply my skin care products in a certain order?”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Collagen”
- Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology: “The effect of Vitamin C on melanin pigmentation – A systematic review”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Melanin”
- National Library of Medicine: “Salicylic Acid Topical”
- Harvard Medical School: “Why is topical vitamin C important for skin health?”
- Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology: “Sodium L-ascorbyl-2-phosphate 5% lotion for the treatment of acne vulgaris: a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial”
- American Academy of Dermatology: “Rosacea treatment: Acne-like breakouts”
- The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology: "Vitamin C Prevents Ultraviolet-induced Pigmentation in Healthy Volunteers: Bayesian Meta-analysis Results from 31 Randomized Controlled versus Vehicle Clinical Studies"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Tinted sunscreens: Benefits beyond an attractive glow"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.