One of the most oft-asked questions for any beauty expert has to be some variation of: In what order should I be using my products? It's a question right up there with shampoo frequency and if there's a safe way to pop zits (respective answers: It depends, and no). Your skin care order should have a structure around it, but within the confines of this structure, you can play around with other variables. So your routine might look different from a friend's—and that's OK!—but they will follow the same flow.
Here, we outline the steps you can use in your skin care routine. You do not have to do all of these steps (and we'll note where a product is a necessity versus a nice-to-have), but this will at least help you build your morning and nighttime routines:
Facial cleanser or rinse
A clean canvas is necessary for all that follows. "Impurities on the skin can prevent active ingredients from penetrating," says board-certified dermatologist Jennifer Herrmann, M.D. (Not to mention without a daily cleaning, your pores may start to accumulate buildup.) Even if you don't wear a stitch of makeup or feel dirty, your skin still comes into contact with a significant amount of debris, pollution, and so on throughout the day—you need to get all that gunk off.
As for the type of wash, that's entirely up to you. Just be mindful of the types of products you are using later in your routine. For example, if your toner contains acids, skip an acid-containing wash, as that will likely be too many exfoliators in one routine. For more guidance, check out our all-time favorite face washes.
What about a double-cleanse?
You may also consider a double-cleanse, especially if you do wear makeup. As makeup is usually oil-based, it doesn't easily slide off with water (oils are hydrophobic1, so they repeal water). A double cleanse starts using an oil on dry skin, so it literally melts off your makeup and sebum without stripping your skin. From there, you follow up with a water-based cleanser.
Do I have to wash my face in the morning?
The one exception to the rule: If you have dry skin, you may find you do not need a full wash in the morning. You can either splash your face with water or go directly to toners—however, you cannot jump to serums. Your skin produces sebum in the evening, has skin care residue from the night before, and comes into contact with grime and bacteria from your pillow—and thus needs some reset come the a.m.
Toner or essence
A somewhat controversial step—some swear by it; others deem it entirely unnecessary—toners and essences always go after your wash to further clarify skin, cushion it with a thin layer of moisture, and get it ready for the other steps to follow. (Read our guide to toners for more info.)
Toner ingredients tend to run the gamut, too. If you want something more purifying and exfoliating, look for AHAs, BHAs, or fruit enzymes. If you want something on the moisturizing end of the spectrum, "key hydrating ingredients include rose water, glycerin, and hyaluronic acid," says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D. Feel free to check out our favorite toners for specific product recs.
Of course, you can opt out of this step if you don't favor a multipronged approach to skin care. "Toners were initially intended to help reset the skin's pH after harsh cleansers. However, many cleansers are much gentler now and tend not to cause a large pH shift, and so toners are actually unnecessary for many routines if you don't want to use them," says Herrmann.
Serums are your treatment step. What do we mean by this? These are the products that have some sort of intended outcome, be it exfoliating dead skin cells, soothing inflammation, supercharging hydration, smoothing fine lines, targeting acne, brightening tone, and so on. You don't need a serum, per se, but if you have any skin care concern you'd like to tend to, it's worth investing in one as they are going to be the most effective way to do so.
"These active ingredients are usually formulated so that they can get through the skin's barrier and should be as close to the skin as possible. Any other products put on before can limit their penetration," says Herrmann.
If you are looking for some good ingredients for your serums, "Active ingredients, depending on what skin issues you want to address, include alpha-hydroxy acids, salicylic acid, niacinamide, vitamin C, and retinoids," says King. And as King notes, these ingredients all address different concerns, so our advice is to identify your top skin care goal(s), and then find a serum based on that. (Here are our favorites with an explanation of who they might be good for, given their ingredient structure.)
Can I use more than one?
Many people ask if you can layer serums, and the general rule of thumb is that you shouldn't as too many active ingredients can either cancel each other out or start to cause irritation. "More products are not necessarily better. Mixing two potentially irritating products can be overly harsh on the skin. Plus when layering different products, unfortunately, you don't know whether they will inactivate each other," says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. For example, "antioxidants should never be combined with acids or acne treatments like benzoyl peroxide, which can make them ineffective," says Herrmann.
However, you can switch up your serums from day-to-night. For example, use an antioxidant product in the morning (to protect your skin from free radical damage throughout the day), and then switch to a retinol, glycolic, or lactic acid at night (to help slough off skin cells and accelerate cell turnover).
Should I wait in between steps?
No, you don't need to sit in the bathroom timing out your steps. But if there is one section of your routine where it makes a difference, it's this one. Again, it just comes down to ensuring you are not accidentally inactivating your ingredients. "It takes a bit of time for products to absorb. The skin should appear dry before applying the next product," says Herrmann.
Creams, lotions, and/or oils
Now it's time to top it off. Creams, lotions, and oils are important for two reasons. The first is that they offer hydration or conditioning properties; the second is that they are able to seal in water in your skin.
As for the type of moisturizer or oil (or both!) you might need, here's a little breakdown to help you. In your cream or lotion, look for comforting, cushy ingredients, like aloe vera, colloidal oat, "ceramides, shea butter, or coconut oil," says King. As for texture, just find a consistency that works for you. (Peek at our top moisturizers.)
Natural facial oils are endlessly popular as they offer emollient properties (meaning they soften and ease irritated skin) as well as are occlusive. "Occlusives form a protective seal over the skin to lock in hydration and the products applied under them," says Zeichner. Jojoba and argan tend to be favorite oils for skin.
Should I get a day and night product?
As for day or night variations, that's entirely up to you. However, if you do decide to opt for two products, there is sound reasoning for it. Day products are lighter, more breathable, and sit better under makeup. "Night moisturizers are heavier to help prevent water evaporation from the skin overnight," says Herrmann. This is important since your skin is more permeable at night and thus loses moisture faster if you don't have a protective layer there keeping it all in.
What should I know about using oils?
If you choose to use an oil, you can layer it over a cream or use it instead of a cream. The former is especially helpful if you have very dry skin and find you need all the help you can get. Or you can use it in place of a cream; however, in this instance you need to make sure you use a water-based toner or serum under it. The reason is simple: Oils can't trap in moisture if there's no water underneath to trap!
Last but not least, your sun protection. The safest SPF options are mineral-based physical blockers. "Because mineral sunscreen ingredients zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide sit on top of the skin to scatter and deflect UV rays, physically blocking them from penetrating the skin, it makes sense to apply these products last," says King. (Chemical sunscreens absorb the UV rays, rather.) And because they act as a barrier, anything that is put on after sunscreen is not penetrating your skin. If you need some help finding a good option, check out our favorite mineral sunscreens.
What should I know about applying SPF daily?
"Many think that they will get SPF 30 protection if they apply an SPF 15 moisturizer and an SPF 15 foundation. Not true! At best, if the sunscreen ingredients have not gotten diluted, and the proper amounts were applied, the protection will be SPF 15," says Hadley.
This, of course, is not to say that layering products that contain SPF is forbidden—in fact, many people don't apply enough sunscreen or remember to reapply throughout the day, so layering SPFs might actually be needed—but you should know that your final SPF number is only as much as your highest number.
Those above are not the only products out there, however. Here are a few additional steps that are likely not part of your daily routine—but may be folded in when needed.
Masks or peels
These should be done as part of your nighttime routine—if for no other reason other than you tend to have more time to let the product do its work. (Although peels you really should do at night as they may increase photosensitivity.) They should be applied to clean skin, so slather them on right after your nighttime wash. After you let it sit for the recommended time, wash it off, and continue as usual. The exception to this is that if you have opted for an exfoliating mask or peel, skip any AHAs, BHAs, or retinols for the evening—you don't want to slough off too much skin. Only do these one or two times a week.
There are a lot of eye creams out there, and what type you get might dictate where it falls in your routine. For example, if you get one with caffeine, it needs to be applied to clean skin so it can work more effectively. Use it right alongside your serum. (You usually don't apply serums near your eye anyway, so it doesn't matter which one goes first as they won't be competing for the same space.) If you have a thick cream, the primary point of the product is hydration (the eye area gets dry faster since it's thin skin). For these, apply right alongside your face creams. Finally, if you use a tinted eye cream, apply it at the end of your routine as it's functioning as something of a concealer as well. You can use eye creams daily.
These act as something of a makeup and skin care hybrid and thus should be used as the step in between the two. Apply primers after your skin care products and SPF have fully dried (hot tip: keep a paper fan in your bathroom and fan yourself to speed up drying time). This way, the primer shouldn't pebble. Then apply your makeup as normal. Use a primer when you need your makeup to stay put.
There is no one-size-fits-all beauty routine. How you develop and curate yours will depend highly on your time, investment, needs, and interest. But if you need a structure to help place each one in order, consider the above your new go-to.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.