The ultimate guide to layering skincare like a boss

I don’t prefer layering too many skincare products. Like medicine, I believe skin care products have contraindications, too. There’s just no telling how all the different chemicals react with each other! If I could just limit myself to a 2-step cleanse-and-moisturize routine, I would. However I feel the need to add more products as I encounter problems like acne, skin ruddiness, and - as I push into my mid-30s - fine lines and wrinkles.

Products from the same line and skin care sets from derm clinics are pretty straightforward to apply because they come with specific instructions. But if you’re like me and like to mix and match products from different brands, below are the skincare layering rules I’ve learned and practiced through the years.

Rule #1: Start from the thinnest to the heaviest consistency.

A good guideline is the Korean 10-step skincare routine. For products that are left on the face, apply the runniest product first and proceed by order of least to most viscous.

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To better understand why the recommended steps is from lightest to heaviest, it’s important to know what are in moisturizers and how they function:

Humectants - ingredients that attract moisture to the topmost layer of the skin (e.g., glycerine, hyaluronic acid, and urea)

Occlusive Agents – ingredients that sit on the skin and create a seal to prevent moisture from evaporating (e.g., oils, waxes, petroleum, and silicone)

Emollients – ingredients that repair and smoothen the skin by filling in the gaps on the surface. Emollients also penetrate the skin to replace lost skin oils. Most emollients are lighter oils so they also provide a protective layer to prevent moisture loss (e.g., propylene glycol, jojoba oil, and silicone)

Watery products like toners and exfoliating lotions usually contain very little of the above-listed ingredients, if at all. They’re mostly designed to penetrate and deliver active ingredients into the skin, and are thus applied first.

More of these moisturizing ingredients are added as we move up to the heavier consistencies, finishing off with products that seal everything in. This protective layer that keeps moisture from evaporating also keeps other ingredients from penetrating. That’s why facial oils are usually patted on last.

Rule #2: Apply treatment products first.

Treatment products are products loaded with active ingredients that address specific skin issues. Examples are AHA and BHA toners, vitamin C serums, and prescription creams like tretinoin. It’s easier to know the order by which to apply them because many treatments are thinner anyway, so Rule #1 still applies. But between two products of the same consistency, apply the treatment product first.

Treatment products are usually formulated with ingredients that penetrate the skin. They’re ideally applied to bare or nearly bare skin.

There’s an exception: Many treatment products can be irritating. For people with sensitive skin, applying a light moisturizer first can help buffer the treatment product and minimize irritation. As the skin develops tolerance to the active ingredient, the treatment can eventually be applied first.

Rule #3: Split treatment products between morning and night routines

As much as possible, I avoid layering products with different active ingredients simultaneously. Doing this could either negate the benefits of using the products or aggravate irritation. For this reason, many dermatologists prescribe retinoids at night, and Vitamin C or other acids in the morning. There’s a list of product combos that are typically not advised to be used together in skincare, but we’ll reserve that for another article.

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Rule #4: Wait in between applications.

If you must layer treatment products, allot enough time for each product to ‘absorb’. The verdict is still out on how long the waiting time should be but personally, I just wait until the product dries or sets. Usually, that takes around 10 to 15 minutes. A quick google revealed that waiting time practiced among skin care enthusiasts range from 10 to 20 minutes. If you're doing your evening regimen, make sure to allot enough time before bed to do your entire routine!

When should I apply sunscreen?

There's no straight-up rule about this as it's still up for debate, but the consensus so far is that it depends on the sunscreen you're using. There are two types of sunscreen, as determined by their SPF ingredients: chemical (can absorb UV rays), and physical (can block and reflect the rays away from your skin). 

For a chemical sunscreen to work, it has to be properly absorbed into the skin. However, most sunscreens nowadays are a combination of chemical and physical SPF ingredients so they form a solid and even layer of protection. Sounds a lot like an occlusive agent, right?

My recommendation: Check the active ingredients in your sunscreen. If it’s mostly titanium or zinc oxide (physical blockers), apply it last. If it’s mostly chemical screeners like oxybenzone and avobenzone, apply sunscreen first and wait for it to set before applying a moisturizer.

Whenever you do decide to apply sunscreen, just make sure not to skip it!

If anybody’s curious, here’s my routine.

Morning: facial wash > exfoliant (2x a week) > hydrating serum > sunscreen

Evening: makeup remover > facial wash > hydrating toner (only if I have one) > hydrating serum > tretinoin cream or moisturizer (used alternately) > acne spot treatment (if I have pimples)

Hope this helps! What does your skincare layering routine look like?