Putting together a skincare routine seems like it should be a pretty simple task, but when you actually get down to it, it can get kind of overwhelming: Does serum go on before or after moisturizer? What the heck is an essence? And should you exfoliate every day?
Don’t worry, every skincare newbie has been there. While you likely know that cleanser goes before moisturizer, adding in anything new may be a mystery to you. And it’s important to learn the right order for putting on products. Using them out of order can negate the effects of your products, but doing it correctly can help you experience max benefits and avoid potential irritation.
Still not sure where to start or when to use what? Keep reading for all the answers to your skincare routine questions.
Your Morning Skincare Routine: Stick to the basics.
You don’t have to commit to a 10-step Korean skincare routine when you wake up to keep your complexion in tip-top shape, says Steven Wang, MD, board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of Dr. Wang Herbal Skincare. You can start small with your skincare routine, but before you apply makeup, you should definitely hit the basics: cleanse, moisturize, and add sunscreen. Ready? Let’s go.
Step 1: Cleanse.
Start with a clean slate so that the rest of your products are able to do their jobs. Some experts, like Wang and Elle Feldman, esthetician and co-owner of Good Skin Day, suggest using lukewarm water and your hands to apply a very gentle cleanser in the morning, regardless of skin type, since there shouldn’t be too much gunk remaining on your skin if you cleansed the night before.
Board-certified dermatologist Michele Green, MD, says cream cleansers are great for dry and sensitive skin because they feature nourishing ingredients (like oils). Cleansing milks are another good option for dry skin, says Pamela Maes, certified esthetician and spa director at Mirbeau Inn and Spa, because they’re light and gentle.
Refreshing gel cleansers are good options for oily and acne-prone skin as they offer a deeper clean, says Green. You can also look for a cleanser that’s labeled as matte with detoxifying ingredients like charcoal if you’re oily, says Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at the University of Southern California.
Finally, consider a cleanser with salicylic acid if you regularly break out, says Wang. This tried-and-true pimple-fighter exfoliates your skin to unclog pores and reduce oil production.
Step 2 (optional): Tone.
“Toner preps your skin for the rest of your skincare products by opening your pores,” says Feldman. Some toners are made with alcohol, which is drying, so invest in one without it. “Look for micellar waters or alcohol-free toners with active ingredients like rosewater, chamomile, or green tea,” says Shainhouse. All three ingredients have soothing properties. “If you are acne prone, you may consider a salicylic acid–based toner,” says Shainhouse.
Apply toner immediately after cleansing when skin is damp to lock in moisture. Feldman says that because toners help balance your skin’s pH levels, protecting it from environmental aggressors, you really only need to use one in the morning.
Step 3 (optional): Apply serum.
“A serum is the power tool in a person’s skincare routine,” says Maes. Serums are lightweight, almost watery products that absorb quickly to offer potent anti-aging benefits. Because serums are so powerful, you want to apply them directly to your skin so that the ingredients will penetrate deeply, says Shainhouse.
When it comes to ingredients, look for Vitamin C, which fights free radical damage and is a dermatologist- and esthetician-approved antioxidant found in serums. Shainhouse also likes green tea and resveratrol, two other antioxidants, while Feldman is a fan of Swiss apple extract, which has been shown to reduce wrinkles.
Step 4: Moisturize.
Cleansers strip your skin of lipids (fatty acids), says Wang, so pat on a moisturizer after washing your face to replenish what you’ve lost. If you have oily or acne-prone skin, grab a lightweight, oil-free, non-comedogenic moisturizer, says Green, since this won’t clog pores. Maes adds that gel formulas are ideal for oily skin because they’re so light.
Maes says that you’ll benefit from a richer, thicker cream if you have dry skin. “Using something that has more hydrating benefits can aid in protecting dry skin,” says Maes. One ingredient to look for: hyaluronic acid, which helps skin retain moisture.
Step 5: Protect.
SPF is a non-negotiable part of your morning skincare routine. Using a dedicated sunscreen (as opposed to the SPF in foundation, for instance) is key for shielding your skin from UV rays, which can lead to burning, wrinkles, and skin cancer. For everyday use, choose an SPF of 15 or 30, and apply about nickel-sized amount all over your face, says Wang. Make sure your sunscreen is broad-spectrum, says Wang, because that means it protects against UVA and UVB rays, both of which are damaging.
Seriously on the go?
“You can combine the last two steps in your morning skincare routine by using a moisturizer that contains sunscreen in it,” says Wang. Don’t forget to throw on a hat for protection, too, he adds. To ensure proper sun protection, sunscreen should be the last step in your morning skincare routine, says Shainhouse.
Your Nighttime Skincare Routine: Maximize your beauty sleep.
You likely have a little bit more time to spend on your skincare routine at night, so this is when you can consider adding in a few extra steps, says Wang.
Step 1: Take it all off.
We’ve all had those nights where we get in late, way too tired to even think about washing our faces. “But you want to cleanse that environment very well,” says Wang, since the mix of makeup, dirt, oils, and pollution that have settled onto your skin during the day can clog pores. Allowing these things to stay on your skin overnight may even lead to oxidative (aka skin-aging) damage, says Shainhouse.
“Traditional cleansers might not be effective at removing foundation,” says Wang, “so a lot of times women have to use wipes [first]—and those can be harsh on the skin.”
Micellar water and cleansing oil are two makeup-removing alternatives that are much gentler on skin—and they work, says Wang.
Step 2: Cleanse again.
If you have the time, experts say there is benefit to a double cleanse in your nighttime skincare routine. If you use a micellar water or cleansing oil to initially remove makeup and other buildup, you then have to rid those ingredients from your skin.
A second cleanse (you can use the cleanser from your morning skincare routine, says Wang) will take everything else off, leaving your complexion ready for the rest of the products in your skincare routine to get to work.
Step 3 (optional): Treat acne or signs of aging.
Post-cleanse, target any pimples you have with a spot treatment. “Products with active ingredients that are meant to improve skin quality or a specific skin condition should be applied directly to the skin,” says Shainhouse. Two proven acne-fighting ingredients are salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide.
Applying an anti-aging treatment, like a prescription retinoid or OTC retinol, should also be done after cleansing to ensure efficacy, says Shainhouse. (Note that you shouldn’t use acne and anti-aging treatments together since that can aggravate your skin or render the products ineffective.)
“[Retinol] can help encourage new cells to reach the skin surface and encourage the skin to make new collagen,” says Shainhouse. “This can help thicken skin over time and reduce the appearance of fine lines and dark spots.” Just avoid applying it too close to your eyes and mouth to prevent irritation, she says. Since retinol is often drying, start out using it once a week and work your way up to a few times a week once you develop a tolerance, says Feldman.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, topical acne and anti-aging treatments may increase sun sensitivity, so only use these in your nighttime skincare routine (and be diligent about SPF in the morning).
Step 4 (optional): Layer on serum.
While not completely necessary at night, using the antioxidant serum from your morning skincare routine is a nice addition. “It will help undo the oxidative DNA damage from the day,” says Shainhouse. Wang says some people can get away with using serum as their moisturizer, especially if they’re oilier.
Step 5 (optional): Apply eye cream.
Eye cream will protect and nourish the delicate skin around your eyes, says Shainhouse. The best formula for you depends on your skin type, says Feldman. Someone with oily skin might benefit from a lightweight gel eye cream, while someone with dry skin might benefit from an ultra-luxurious balm.
One ingredient worth checking the label for is caffeine, which has antioxidant properties to ward off aging. It also temporarily shrinks under-eye bags. Wang likes hyaluronic acid because it increases skin’s ability to hold onto water. He advises steering clear of eye creams with fragrance, though, because this can cause irritation.
Step 6: Moisturize.
Think about it: Not only can cleansing be drying, but so can acne and wrinkle treatments. Your daytime moisturizer should suffice before bed, says Feldman. However, if treatments or winter weather are drying you out, then use a richer cream pre-bedtime, says Feldman.
Go above and beyond with these daily additions to your skincare routine:
So now you have your morning and nighttime skincare routines down pat, but there are a few additional steps you could take any time of day to amp your skincare game up even more.
If you’re interested in essences…
Essences are similar to serums in that they target specific skin issues, but they tend to have lighter consistencies. “In a Korean skincare routine, you’d use an essence after cleansing and toning,” says Maes. “They rehydrate skin and infuse it with antioxidants. Some of the active ingredients may brighten, shrink pores, or have anti-aging benefits.” Use your essence after your toner but before your serum.
If you want to spritz with face mist…
Like toner, a face mist opens pores after cleansing to prep it for serums, treatments, and moisturizers, says Feldman. She likes face mists that are labeled as hydrosols. A hydrosol is the water that is left over when a plant is distilled into an essential oil. “Hydrosols are an amazing way to get vitamins and minerals into your skin,” says Feldman.
If you’d like to try an oil…
Face oils can make a great alternative (or addition to, if used sparingly) moisturizer. Facial oils are particularly useful if you have super-dry skin caused by weather or aging, says Wang. Feldman’s favorite oil is squalane, which comes from olives and is antibacterial, won’t clog pores, and is safe for use on sensitive skin.
Your Weekly Skincare Routine: Pamper yourself (and be gentle!).
The top layer of your skin serves as a barrier, and removing dead skin cells from it via exfoliation will boost your glow. It’s like wiping down the smudges on a mirror so that you can see your reflection better, says Wang. “You want to help those dead skin cells slough off easier so that light reflects and gives you that natural glow,” he says, “but if you do it too frequently, you break down your skin barrier and are left with inflammation.”
Shainhouse agrees: “Exfoliating too frequently and harshly can be irritating and can actually damage the skin.” She advises limiting yourself to twice a week tops.
Apply the same thought process to face masks. “Especially with detoxifying masks, you have to take a step back,” says Wang, “and use them once a week.”
The Right Way to Exfoliate
You can manually exfoliate with a scrub or facial brush or chemically exfoliate with an acid in the form of an at-home peel.
Green doesn’t typically recommend scrubs because they’re often abrasive. And Feldman says, “The problem with scrubs is that people become obsessive and want their skin to feel as dry and squeaky as possible.” If you like the feeling of a scrub, however, Shainhouse suggests using a sugar-based one because the particles dissolve in water and won’t be harsh on your skin.
If you’re going to incorporate a facial brush into your skincare routine, use a brush head designed for sensitive skin in order to avoid irritation, says Shainhouse.
Chemical exfoliation involves the use of acids or enzymes to break down dead skin cells. “Chemical exfoliators can be really safe and beautifully effective products on even sensitive skin,” says Feldman. Glycolic acid and lactic acid are two very effective alpha hydroxy acids that aid in smoothing rough skin and minimizing the appearance of wrinkles. If you have acne, exfoliating up to three times a week with a salicylic acid pad could help keep breakouts in check, says Green.
Use a chemical exfoliator at night after cleansing, says Shainhouse, since acids increase skin’s sun sensitivity. Note that you shouldn’t mix retinol with an acid because doing so could cause further irritation. Plus, retinol and salicylic acid will actually cancel out each other’s effects, says Shainhouse, so don’t use products with these two ingredients in tandem.
The Right Way to Use a Face Mask
If you have sensitive skin, try masking once a week; other skin types may be able to handle masking two or three times a week, says Maes. “Post-exfoliating is a great opportunity to follow up with a mask, Maes says. “You’ll get more benefits because your pores are more open and can better absorb the ingredients.”
Feldman says charcoal masks are fabulous for people with oily skin, congested pores, and acne because they draw out grime stuck in your pores. On the other hand, if you have dry or irritated skin, you could take 100 percent aloe vera, put it all over your face, and leave it on for a few minutes as a face mask to soothe, says Feldman.
Sheet masks are another expert favorite. They’re infused with serums to target specific skin issues, says Maes. Sheet masks deliver a lot of hydration and drive whatever serum it’s packed with into your skin, says Wang. At night, apply one after cleansing, leave it on for the allotted time, then remove the mask and top everything off with moisturizer to seal the serum in, says Maes. Sheet masks are much gentler than wash-off masks, so if you love the feeling of wearing one, it’s hard to go overboard; some Korean beauty bloggers mask every day!
Your Monthly Skincare Routine: Hit your derm’s office (or the spa).
Beyond what you do at home, there are professional treatments you can add to your monthly skincare routine if you have the time and money.
“Facials are amazing for treating things topically, reversing the effects of aging, and stimulating cell turnover,” says Feldman, who generally recommends getting one from a licensed esthetician every four to eight weeks. Facials feature multiple steps with some combination of cleansing, exfoliating, masking, and hydrating.
If you can’t swing facials once a month or every other month, getting one seasonally or four to five days before a big event is another option. “Brushing your teeth is home care, and then you go to the dentist for a nice deep clean twice a year,” says Maes. “That’s how I like to think of facials. When you want that deep level of [skin] cleaning, a facial is going to provide that for you.”
The chemical peels you get at your derm’s office or from an esthetician are a lot more powerful than any exfoliating peel you can do at home, says Green. “You can get a chemical peel once a month or every few months,” says Green. “They help get rid of fine lines and hyperpigmentation.”
Tips to Make Your Skincare Routine More Effective
Besides picking out the right products for your skincare routine and applying them in the right order, there are other tips that’ll make your skincare routine more effective.
Remember your neck.
“Don’t forget to extend moisturization and sun protection all the way to your neck area,” says Wang. Do the same for your hands, too, he says. “The two areas where you can tell someone’s age are the hands and neck,” says Wang.
Add one new product in at a time.
“A really aggressive skincare routine could have a negative impact,” says Maes. “If you start to switch a lot at once, you’ll have a hard time figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.”
Give your skincare routine time to work.
“Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see results in 48 hours,” says Maes. “Most products are tested to work in 60 days. Most of the time you will see positive changes to skin sooner than that, though.” Patience is a virtue—and it will pay off!