We’ve all had some kind of skincare routine since we first discovered cleanser and moisturizer. Once exfoliants, essences, and oils enter the mix, the art of skincare layering can become a little fuzzy.
Before we dive into the proper way to sequence your skincare, let’s discuss why you need to crack the product layering code in the first place. While the primary job is to protect our bodies and keep toxins out, we need our products’ active ingredients to be able to effectively penetrate the skin in order to work their magic. Applying products out of order (or applying too much of one product) may render them ineffective, or worse, lead to redness and irritation. “Since skin irritation and sensitivity are factors to consider when layering skincare, your skincare routine should have products that complement each other,” says Nikoleta Brankov, M.D., a Virginia-based board-certified dermatologist.
Meet the Experts
Nikoleta Brankov, M.D., a Virginia-based board-certified dermatologist.
Wondering how certain skincare products rank in your twice-daily routine? A general rule of thumb is to apply products with the thinnest consistency to thickest, but this will also depend on the product’s active ingredients. For example, products that contain retinol need to be able to penetrate deep into the skin (the basal layer of the epidermis, to be exact), so you’ll want to ensure that it doesn’t have too many layers of product to work through. Conversely, humectants and emollients (typically found in moisturizers) need to be able to sit on top of the skin to lock in hydration and keep environmental toxins from seeping in.
How to Layer Your AM Skincare Products
Your morning routine should be centered around keeping your skin protected from harmful UV rays and environmental pollution.
Step 1: Cleanser
Once you’re up and running in the morning, it’s time to rinse away your PM products and any dead skin cells that have accumulated while you were catching up on your zzz’s. Also remember that unless you’re switching out your pillowcase regularly, you’re also resting on a shared surface with your hair, meaning excess oils, any products left on your hair before bed, and yes, even germs from coughing and drooling throughout the night. So with those lovely details in mind, make sure you’re using a cleanser that’s both effective and gentle, like Sunday Riley Ceramic Slip Cleanser. This plant-based cleanser is able to pull dirt and impurities from the face without stripping the skin of much-needed hydration. It will also help ensure that you’re kicking off your routine with a clean slate, so the rest of your products can reach your skin without having to power through excess oil and dirt first.
Step 2: Toner and/or Essence
Toners may have once had a drying and irritating reputation, but don’t count them out just yet. If you have oily or acne-prone skin, consider a post-cleanser mattifying toner to wash away excess oil and any last traces of dirt, like Sunday Riley Martian Mattifying Melting Water-Gel Toner. Combination or dry complexion? You may want to just skip toner entirely, especially if you’re using a calming, balancing cleanser. But you may want to consider an invigorating essence immediately after cleansing — Sunday Riley Pink Drink Firming Resurfacing Essence works to balance and firm the look of skin without that uncomfortable, tight feeling that toners can leave behind. Aside from the refreshing, wake-you-up feel, it also drenches the skin in much-needed antioxidants and prebiotics which help support the microbiome.
If you’re stuck deciding between a toner or essence, remember: Toners help get your face extra-clean after cleansing, and essence exists as more of a booster before your serums, oils, and moisturizers or the first step in the treatment part of your regimen.
Step 3: Serums and/or Oils
Serums need to be kept as close to the skin as possible, due to their antioxidant and nutrient-rich formulations. A vitamin C-infused product like Sunday Riley C.E.O. 15% Vitamin C Brightening Serum acts as the perfect third step — it absorbs quickly to plump the look of skin and brighten without a sticky, greasy residue. You may also try Sunday Riley C.E.O Glow Vitamin C and Turmeric Face Oil.
While many treatment serums are targeted for night-time use, a gentle yet powerful AHA formula like Sunday Riley Good Genes Lactic Acid Treatment can totally be applied in the morning (and at night) before your moisturizers to remove dull-looking dead skin and prep your complexion.
Step 4: Moisturizer
Those with oily complexions may roll their eyes at the thought of adding more moisture to their face, but hear us out: everyone needs to moisturize to ensure the skin has adequate protection before stepping outside. Even oily skin can become dehydrated or dry. Knowing how to layer moisturizers is just as important for your skin as other skincare products in order to keep your skin hydrated. Reach for a lightweight moisturizer while your skin is still damp from your serum — this will help the product to lock in that necessary hydration.
If you’re targeting dullness, discoloration or aiming for extra protection against pollutants, reach for a hydrating, glow-inducing moisturizer packed with vitamin C, like Sunday Riley C.E.O. Vitamin C Rich Hydration Cream. This creamsicle-scented moisturizer will wake up your complexion in no time.
Step 5: Eye Cream
Moisturizers and eye creams can typically be applied interchangeably, but you’ll also want to consider the eye cream formulation before you settle into a sequence. For example, if you’re using a brightening eye cream like Sunday Riley Auto Correct Eye Cream, you’ll want to apply this eye cream post-moisturizer — this guarantees that the light-reflecting particles stay put where they’re most needed. Eye creams that simply hydrate the eye area may be applied before moisturizer.
Step 6: SPF
Regardless of whether you’re skipping toner or switching your eye cream/moisturizer order, an SPF should always be the last step in your morning skincare regimen. Why? Because it allows your other targeted treatments time to absorb into your skin, especially vitamin C products. “Vitamin C serums should be layered underneath sunscreen in the morning since they complement one another, and both protect against the harmful UV sun rays,” explains Dr. Brankov. Applying SPF before any other skincare steps is counter-productive — you may be doing your part to block harmful UV rays, but you’ll also be preventing active ingredients in your other products. Ideally, you’ll want to wait about 20-30 minutes after your skincare routine to apply your sunscreen. Opt for something breathable that won’t make your skin feel heavy or slimy, like Sunday Riley Light Hearted Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Sunscreen. Because it leaves zero white residue and absorbs in a flash, you definitely won’t be opposed to wearing it consistently, aka every single day.
How to Layer Your PM Skincare Products
While your morning routine is centered around protection and hydration, your evening regimen should be dedicated to treatment and recovery. Check-in with your skin at the end of each day. If you’re noticing a lackluster complexion, you may want to exfoliate. Experiencing irritation? Add a dose of hydration with a thicker moisturizer. But targeted treatments aside, check your current product order with the recommended sequence below.
Step 1: Cleanser (Double-Cleansing Optional)
Why double cleanse in the evening? Because you have a day’s worth of build-up on your face, especially if you wear makeup and SPF. As long as you have a gentle cleanser like Ceramic Slip, you can double-cleanse using the same product. But for a deeper, SPF and makeup-dissolving cleanse, start with something soothing and sugar-based, like Sunday Riley Blue Moon Clean Rinse Cleansing Balm. This extra-soft melting balm not only melts away stubborn makeup but also contains therapeutic essential oils of Blue Tansy and German chamomile to calm your skin and help you wind down. Once your makeup is completely rinsed away, wash with Ceramic Slip to ensure your pores are extra-clean (and primed to soak in your nighttime active ingredients!)
Step 2: Toners and/or Essences
Depending on the type of concern and formulation, toners are generally great for all skin types, especially oily and acne-prone skin. The same goes for essence — they’re wonderful for adding an extra dose of hydration, too. Since many toner and essence formulations tend to be very lightweight and water-based, you can apply them interchangeably after cleansing. Just listen to your skin!
Step 3: Treatments and/or Serums, Oils
The body rests to recharge itself, and the same concept applies to the skin. That’s why many prescription creams, retinol-based products like Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum and Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil, and other targeted treatments are best applied at night. You may apply a multi-treatment product, such as Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment, at night, too. This AHA serum is able to rapidly exfoliate and keep skin hydrated without irritation, so you can mark a few concerns off your list with one use. Ingredients like vitamin C may have a daytime-only reputation, but you can still absolutely apply them at night, too. Try the C.E.O. 15% Vitamin C Brightening Serum for an added boost of brightness that will carry you into the morning. Vitamin C will also help to repair damage caused by environmental stresses throughout the day.
Step 4: Moisturizer and/or Night Cream
If your skin seems to be doing well with the same moisturizer used during the day, then keep doing what you’re doing. However, if you’d like to step up your hydration game or you’ve recently exfoliated, it may be time to reach for a thicker moisturizer. “Moisturizers with ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic acid and glycerin help to hydrate and soothe the skin after exfoliating with a lactic acid,” says Dr. Brankov. And because our skin loses water as we sleep, it’s vital to have an extra-hydrating option in your beauty sleep arsenal, like Sunday Riley ICE Ceramide Moisturizing Cream. This rich cream uses ceramides and hydrating coconut to prevent excess water loss and works while you sleep to prevent tight, thirsty skin in the morning.
Step 5: Eye Cream
Just like your morning eye care application, this step will depend on your eye cream formulation and whether you’d like for it to stay put. If your eye cream is formulated with light-reflecting particles, like Auto Correct Eye Cream, it’s best to apply it last in your routine (before SPF!) to ensure the particles stay put. If your eye cream doesn’t include a brightening boost, apply it before any targeting treatments. Just be careful not to apply any peels or extra-potent exfoliants too close to the eye area.
Other Layering Factors to Consider
Skin type and routines aside, it’s important to consider the time it takes for your skin to absorb your products. While some of us may be in a rush in the morning, ideally you should have more time in the evenings to allow your night treatments to properly absorb. If you’re feeling stressed or pressed for time throughout your morning and/or evening routines, you may want to simplify a bit to allow yourself (and the products) enough time to get to work. Don’t feel like you have to stand in front of the mirror applying everything in one sitting. You may start your regime after you have cooked dinner and apply the last product when you get into bed.
Keep in mind that the product layering routines aren’t etched in stone. Your skin is unique and it’s important to find what works best for you. If you’re seeing the results you desire from your current routine and it differs from the sequences above, keep doing what works best for you and your skin.
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