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Whether you want a simple 3-step routine for the morning or have time for a full 10-step regimen at night, the order in which you apply your products matters.

Why? There isn’t much point in having a skin care routine if your products don’t get a chance to penetrate your skin.

Read on to learn more about how to layer for maximum impact, which steps you can skip, what products to try, and more.

Infographic: The best order to apply skin care productsShare on Pinterest
Design by Maya Chastain

Morning skin care routines are all about prevention and protection. Your face is going to be exposed to the outside environment, so necessary steps include moisturizer and sunscreen.

Step 1: Oil-based cleanser

  • What is it? Cleansers come in two forms: water-based and oil-based. The latter is intended to dissolve oils produced by your skin.
  • How to use it: Some oil-based cleansers are designed to work their magic on wet skin. Others are best on dry skin. Read the instructions before applying a small amount to your skin. Massage in and rinse thoroughly with water before drying with a clean towel.
  • Skip this step if: Your cleanser only contains oil — instead of a blend of oil and surfactants and emulsifiers — and you have combination or oily skin. Cleansing oils may cause an increase in oiliness.
  • Deviant Enzymatic Cleansing Oil removes makeup and impurities but is gentle on skin.
  • Be sure to: Do a patch test in a small area on your skin for a few days and monitor how your skin reacts. If you experience cystic acne, talk with your dermatologist before switching to an oil-based cleanser.
  • Pros: Oil cleansers can have a higher cleansing ability. They can unclog pores and remove even waterproof makeup. A small 2019 study suggests that oil cleansers may do a better job at removing waterproof sunblock compared to other methods.
  • Cons: Anecdotal evidence suggests that there may be an initial 1- to 2-week “purging” period where you may experience breakouts as old oil on your skin is cleansed.

Step 2: Water-based cleanser

  • What is it? These cleansers primarily contain surfactants, which are ingredients that allow water to rinse away dirt and sweat. They can also remove the oils collected by an oil-based cleanser.
  • How to use it: Massage into wet skin and rinse with water before drying.
  • Skip this step if: You don’t want to double cleanse or if your oil-based cleanser contains surfactants that sufficiently remove dirt and debris.
  • La Roche-Posay Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Cleanser. COSRX Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser is designed to help balance and protect your skin.
  • Be sure to: Look for a cleanser with a neutral or low pH, as a 2017 study suggests they may be less irritating to your skin.
  • Pros: Mild water-based cleansers may help prevent breakouts in those with acne-prone or oily skin.
  • Cons: Harsher surfactants can dry out your skin and may damage your skin’s natural barrier.

Step 3: Toner or astringent

  • What is it? Toners are designed to replenish skin through hydration and remove dead cells and dirt left behind after cleansing. An astringent is an alcohol-based product used to remove excess oil.
  • How to use it: Straight after cleansing, either tap directly onto the skin or onto a cotton pad and swipe over the face in an outward motion.
  • Skip the astringent if: You have dry skin.
  • Be sure to: Avoid toners high in alcohol as they can irritate your skin.
  • Pros: Toners and astringents can help reduce the appearance of pores and remove impurities left behind after cleansing.
  • Cons: Overuse of alcohol-based toners can cause irritation.

Step 4: Antioxidant serum

  • What is it? Serums contain a high concentration of certain ingredients. An antioxidant-based serum will protect skin against damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals. Vitamins C and E are common antioxidants used to improve texture and firmness. Others to look out for include green tea, resveratrol, and caffeine.
  • How to use it: Pat a few drops onto your face and neck.
  • Be sure to: Test a new product in a small area to see how it works on your skin and with the other products in your routine.
  • Pros: Antioxidant serums can help reduce redness, wrinkles, and damage to your skin.
  • Cons: Some serums, such as those that contain acids, may cause irritation when combined with other acid-containing skin care products.

Step 5: Spot treatment

  • What is it? If you have a blemish with a head, first look for an anti-inflammatory product to remove it, then turn to a spot-drying treatment to clear up the rest. Anything under the skin is classified as a cyst and will require a product that targets the infection on the inside.
  • How to use it: Use a damp cotton swab to remove any skin care products from the spot. Apply a small amount of the treatment and leave to dry.
  • Skip this step if: You have no spots or want to let nature take its course.
  • Be sure to: Avoid using spot treatment on open blemishes.
  • Pros: Acne treatments can reduce inflammation, redness, and pain.
  • Cons: Skin reactions may occur, especially with products with stronger ingredients. Always introduce a new product slowly and monitor your skin.

Step 6: Eye cream

  • What is it? The skin around your eyes tends to be thinner and more sensitive. It’s also prone to signs of aging, including fine lines, puffiness, and darkness. A good eye cream can brighten, smooth, and firm up the area, but it won’t completely eliminate issues.
  • How to use it: Dab a small amount onto the eye area using your ring finger.
  • Skip this step if: Your moisturizer and serum are suitable for the eye area, contain an effective formula, and are fragrance-free.
  • Be sure to: Use only a small amount and cleanse properly. Not removing product buildup from this gentle area may clog pores.
  • Pros: Eye creams are designed for the sensitive skin around your eyes and can help reduce signs of aging, such as wrinkles and discoloration.
  • Cons: If your eye cream gets into your eye, it may cause irritation.

Step 7: Lighter face oil

  • What is it? The lighter the product, the earlier you should apply it. Easily absorbable oils are lightweight and should therefore come before moisturizer. They’re especially useful if your skin’s showing signs of dryness, flakiness, or dehydration.
  • How to use it: Squeeze a few drops onto your fingertips. Rub them together gently to warm the oil before lightly dabbing onto your face.
  • Skip this step if: You prefer a maintenance routine. More often than not, you’ll have to try different oils to see which works best for your skin.
  • Be sure to: Let your oil sink in fully before applying sunscreen. Some face oils may dissolve your sunscreen.
  • Pros: Face oils help lock in hydration, keeping your skin moisturized.
  • Cons: Oils may cause breakouts in people with oily skin.

Step 8: Moisturizer

  • What is it? A moisturizer will soothe and soften skin. If you have a dry skin type, opt for a cream or balm. Thicker creams work best on normal or combination skin, and fluids and gels are recommended for oilier types. Effective ingredients include glycerine, ceramides, antioxidants, and peptides.
  • How to use it: Take a slightly bigger than pea-size amount and warm it in your hands. Apply to cheeks first, then to the rest of the face using upward strokes.
  • Skip this step if: Your toner or serum gives you enough moisture. This is especially true for those with oily skin.
  • Be sure to: Apply moisturizer with clean hands — especially if you’re using it from a jar that you dip your fingers into. If you use dirty hands, you may be adding dirt and even bacteria into your moisturizer.
  • Pros: Regular moisturizing can help prevent blemishes and other skin issues by protecting your skin’s barrier.
  • Cons: Using a moisturizer that’s too heavy without proper cleansing may result in developing milia — small white bumps — on your skin.

Step 9: Heavier face oil

  • What is it? Oils that take some time to absorb or simply feel thick fall into the heavy category. Best suited for dry skin types, these should be applied after moisturizer to seal in all the goodness.
  • How to use it: Follow the same process as the lighter oil.
  • Skip this step if: You don’t want to run the risk of clogging your pores. Again, trial and error is key here.
  • Supergoop! Glow Oil SPF 50 is a fragrance-free face oil that also contains SPF.
  • Be sure to: Fully cleanse your face at the end of the day, as heavier face oils can contribute to clogging pores.
  • Pros: These oils moisturize your skin and seal in hydration from other steps in your skin care routine.
  • Cons: Heavier oils may contribute to breakouts in people with acne-prone skin.

Step 10: Sunscreen

  • What is it? Sunscreen is a critical final step in your morning skin care routine. Not only can it lower your risk of skin cancer, but it can also reduce signs of aging by blocking damaging UV light. The American Cancer Society recommends choosing a broad spectrum sunblock rated SPF 30 or higher that protects against UVA and UVB light.
  • How to use it: Spread liberally over your face and massage in. Make sure to apply it 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside. Never apply skin care products on top, as this can dilute the sunscreen.
  • Be sure to: Reapply sunblock to your face and body every 2 hours while spending time in the sun.
  • Pros: Using sunblock along with taking other precautions like wearing a hat and being in the shade can help lower your risk for skin cancer.
  • Cons: Some sunscreens may cause skin reactions, so it is important to test in a small area prior to applying over the body. Other formulas may not be safe for marine life, such as the coral reef, if you will be swimming in ocean water. Be sure to read the label to determine the best product for your needs.

Step 11: Foundation or other base makeup

  • What is it? If you want to wear makeup, a base layer will give you a smooth, even complexion. Opt for foundation — which comes in a cream, liquid, or powder form — or a lightweight tinted moisturizer or BB cream.
  • How to use it: Use a brush or sponge to apply makeup. Start at the center of the face and blend outward. To seamlessly blend the edges, use a damp sponge.
  • Products to try: Whether you prefer powered or liquid formulas, try hypoallergenic foundations or natural foundations that are environmentally friendly and nontoxic.
  • Skip this step if: You prefer to go au naturel.
  • Be sure to: Check your foundation’s expiration date. Many last for 6 to 12 months from the date you first open them.
  • Pros: Foundations provide light to heavy coverage for blemishes, uneven tone, and more.
  • Cons: Covering your skin with makeup can cause breakouts in some people.

Focus on repairing the damage done during the day with thicker products at night. This is also the time to use anything that makes skin sensitive to sunlight, including physical exfoliants and chemical peels.

Step 1: Oil-based makeup remover

  • What is it? As well as dissolving the natural oils produced by your skin, an oil-based cleanser can break down oily ingredients found in makeup.
  • How to use it: Follow the specific product instructions. They may advise you to apply the makeup remover on wet or dry skin. Once applied, massage in until skin is clean, then rinse with water.
  • Products to try: Deviant Enzymatic Cleansing Oil and DHC Deep Cleansing Oil were our choices for daytime cleansing, and they’re our choices for nighttime cleansing too.
  • Skip this step if: You don’t wear makeup, have oily skin, or would prefer to use a water-based product.
  • Be sure to: Read the instructions on your oil-based makeup remover, as some may direct you to follow this step with another type of cleanser or micellar water to remove residue.
  • Pros: Using a makeup remover helps remove makeup residue and impurities from your skin.
  • Cons: Not fully removing excess oil from your skin may clog pores.

Step 2: Water-based cleanser

  • What is it? Water-based cleansers react with makeup and dirt on the skin in a way that allows everything to be rinsed away with water.
  • How to use it: Follow the instructions. Usually, you’ll apply it to wet skin, massage in, and rinse off.
  • Skip this step if: Double cleansing isn’t for you.
  • can remove makeup and impurities and is hypoallergenic, fragrance-free, and sulfate-free.
  • Be sure to: Choose a gentle formula with a low or neutral pH. These help maintain the health of your skin’s natural barrier. Avoid scrubbing your face too hard when cleansing. Using too much force can irritate your skin.
  • Pros: Double cleansing can help remove any residue left behind by your makeup remover or oil cleanser.
  • Cons: Some formulas may have ingredients that can dry out your skin. If you experience dryness or irritation, switch to another product.

Step 3: Exfoliator or clay mask

  • What is it? Exfoliation removes dead skin cells while clearing pores. Clay masks work to unclog pores, but can also absorb excess oil. These masks are best applied at night to remove leftover dirt and help the skin soak up other products.
  • How to use it: Exfoliators have different application methods, so follow product instructions. For clay masks, once or twice per week, apply the mask all over or to specific problem areas. Leave on for the recommended time, then rinse with warm water and pat dry.
  • Skip exfoliating if: Your skin is already irritated.
  • contains bentonite and kaolin clays and can help purify clogged pores.
  • Be sure to: Avoid overuse of physical and chemical exfoliators, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), especially if you have sensitive skin. Stop use if any irritation occurs. Exfoliators may affect your sun sensitivity, so be sure to wear sunblock during the day after exfoliating.
  • Pros: Exfoliation removes dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. Some chemical exfoliators can also remove impurities from deeper within your skin and prevent breakouts.
  • Cons: Some physical exfoliators, such as those containing coarse sugar or salt, may be abrasive on sensitive skin and cause irritation. If a product leaves your skin irritated, stop use and swap it out for another option once your skin has healed.

Step 4: Hydrating mist or toner

  • What is it? A hydrating mist or toner marks the end of your nighttime cleansing routine. DermNet NZ says you should look out for humectant ingredients — lactic acid, hyaluronic acid, and glycerine — to really give skin a moisture boost.
  • How to use it: Spritz mists over your face. For toners, apply the product to a cotton pad and swipe over the skin.
  • Facial Spray with Aloe, Cucumber and Green Tea
  • Be sure to: Avoid overuse of toners with high levels of alcohols, as they may cause irritation or damage to your skin’s barrier.
  • Pros: Toners can help remove leftover residue from other steps in your routine and balance your skin’s pH.
  • Cons: Alcohol-based products may cause irritation in individuals with sensitive skin.

Step 5: Acid treatment

  • What is it? Dousing your face in acid may sound scary, but this skin care treatment can encourage cell turnover. Beginners may want to try glycolic acid. Other options include acne-busting salicylic acid and moisturizing hyaluronic acid. Over time, you should notice a brighter and more even complexion.
  • How to use it: Start once per week with the goal of using every night. Do a patch test at least 24 hours before first use. Add a few drops of the solution to a cotton pad and sweep across the face. Make sure to avoid the eye area.
  • Skip this step if: You have particularly sensitive skin or experience a reaction to a particular acid.
  • Be sure to: Choose an acid treatment that fits your skin’s needs.
  • Pros: According to 2021 research, acids can help reduce signs of aging, scarring, and acne, and even out your skin tone.
  • Cons: Acids may make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Be sure to use sunblock during the day following application of an acid treatment.

Step 6: Serums and essences

  • What is it? Serums deliver powerful ingredients directly to the skin. An essence is simply a watered-down version. Vitamin E is great for dry skin, while antioxidants like green tea extract can be used on dull complexions. If you’re prone to breakouts, try retinol or vitamin C.
  • How to use it: Carry out a patch test 24 hours before using a new serum or essence. If skin looks good, dispense the product into your hand and press into your skin. You can layer multiple products. Just apply water-based ones before oil-based and wait around 30 seconds between each.
  • La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Serum
  • Be sure to: Choose a serum that delivers benefits your skin needs, whether it’s one that focuses on pro-aging support, moisturizing, brightening, or spot reduction.
  • Pros: Serums deliver highly concentrated skin benefits. Because of their formula type, more of the product penetrates your skin’s surface.
  • Cons: Some serums can be pricey — but you don’t need to spend a fortune to reap the benefits. And remember, compared to moisturizer, you only use a small amount of serum, so a little goes a long way.

Step 7: Spot treatment

  • What is it? Anti-inflammatory products are for blemishes with a head. Follow with a spot-drying treatment. Ones that dry visibly are great for nighttime use.
  • How to use it: Make sure skin is clean. Apply a small amount of product and leave to dry.
  • Skip this step if: You’re spot-free.
  • Be sure to: Avoid popping pimples, blemishes, and whiteheads yourself. The AAD says that this can cause scarring, introduce bacteria, and push pus further under the skin. If you don’t see improvement in 4 to 6 weeks, consider talking with a dermatologist.
  • Pros: Healing products can make a noticeable difference, sometimes even overnight.
  • Cons: Sometimes, peeling, redness, or irritation can occur, especially if you have sensitive skin.

Step 8: Hydrating serum or mask

  • What is it? Some products can clog pores, but hydrating serums aren’t one of them. With the ability to pack a real moisture punch, they’re wonderful for dry skin.
  • How to use it: These powerful hydrators can come in various forms. Some are serums. Others are thicker masks. And some are even designed to be left on overnight. If this is the case, apply it at the end of your routine. Just follow the instructions on the pack and you’re good to go.
  • If you’re more into sheet masks, If you’re applying a sheet mask, make sure to use it earlier in your routine — just after toner. Otherwise, when you take it off, it may remove your other products as well.
  • Be sure to: Try refrigerating a sheet mask before using it and enjoy some additional anti-inflammatory benefits.
  • Pros: A mask keeps beneficial and hydrating ingredients in close contact with your skin and can remove excess sebum.
  • Cons: As with all new skin care products, test masks on a small area of skin before applying, as they may contain ingredients that irritate your skin.

Step 9: Eye cream

  • What is it? A richer nighttime eye cream can help improve appearance-related issues, like tiredness and fine lines. Look for a high concentration of peptides and antioxidants.
  • How to use it: Apply a small amount of cream to the eye area and dab in.
  • Skip this step if: Your moisturizer or serum can be safely and effectively used under your eyes.
  • La Roche-Posay Redermic Retinol Eye Crea
  • Be sure to: Apply eye cream with clean hands or a clean applicator and gently pat into skin, rather than rubbing — which can contribute to skin aging and damage.
  • Pros: Applying overnight gives the product a chance to penetrate your skin. Plus, certain formulas can help boost collagen production and delay the signs of aging.
  • Cons: Dedicated eye creams can be expensive. But there are affordable options that can also make a difference for your skin.

Step 10: Face oil

  • What is it? A nighttime oil is great for dry or dehydrated skin. The evening is the best time to apply thicker oils that may result in an unwanted shiny complexion.
  • How to use it: Pat a few drops into the skin. Make sure no other product is applied on top for the best results.
  • Dermalogica Retinol Clearing Oil features argan, rosehip, and jojoba oils to nourish the skin. Dr. Wang Herbal Skincare Radiance Facial Oil contains ginseng, which may help reduce signs of aging, and licorice root, which has anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Be sure to: Cleanse thoroughly the following morning to remove residue from heavier products.
  • Pros: Oils may change the effectiveness of your sunscreen during the day, so nighttime application may be best for certain products.
  • Cons: A heavier oil may not be the best fit for those with oily skin or acne. Everyone’s skin is different, so find a product that works for you.

Step 11: Night cream or sleep mask

  • What is it? Night creams are a totally optional last step, but they can be worthwhile. While day creams are designed to protect the skin, these rich moisturizers help cell repair. Sleep masks, on the other hand, seal in all your other products and contain hydrating ingredients mild enough to be kept on overnight.
  • How to use it: Warm a small amount of product in your hands before distributing it evenly across your face.
  • Skip this step if: Your skin already looks and feels its best.
  • Be sure to: Test a small amount before an overnight application to see how your skin reacts.
  • Pros: Applying a night cream or sleep mask allows the product time to penetrate the skin barrier.
  • Cons: Some people may not like the feel of sleeping with heavier products on. If that’s the case, you can still take advantage of a more lightweight formula.

What routine should I follow for dry skin?

If your skin is dry, focus your routine on hydration and building a healthy skin barrier. Follow the steps above but swap out products that may be too harsh or acidic for those that add moisture to your skin and help it retain that moisture.

What is a basic skin care routine?

A basic skin care routine has fewer steps than an expanded one but keeps your skin clean and healthy. The steps can depend on your needs and the amount of time you have. Usually, a basic routine includes removing makeup, cleansing your face, applying a spot treatment for any blemishes, using sunblock during the day, and putting on moisturizer.

At what age should you start a skin care routine?

It’s never too early — or late — to start a skin care routine. Even kids can practice taking care of their skin by washing their faces when they wake up and before bed and applying sunscreen during the day.

But, choose the steps and specific products in your routine for your skin concerns and age. Adolescents, for example, may need a routine built on products to help manage blemishes and oily skin. Adults may focus more on products that support their skin as it ages. Build a routine that’s right for you.

Not everyone loves a 10-step routine, so don’t feel pressured to include every step in the above lists.

For many people, a good rule of thumb is to apply products thinnest to thickest — for however many products that may be — as they move through their skin care routines.

The most important thing is finding a skin care routine that works for you and that you’ll follow. Whether that involves the whole shebang or a simplified ritual, have fun experimenting.