Ask ITG: How Do I Layer My Skincare?

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In what order should products be applied? Oils then creams? SPF then makeup? Retinol then BHA? I know it's my skin, my choice. But there are definitely things that work best in certain ways. Help help help. I do well with bullet points. Merci.

Hoo-wee is this a good question. It’s one I’ve been meaning to answer in all my years as a beauty editor (a grand total of three) and am only getting around to it right now. Why? Because it’s complicated! Ask any two skincare experts the same question and you’re bound to get at least five different answers. Figuring out which combination of goo works for your face is a moving target. So this is my Reader’s Digest version—general enough to lay some ground rules, but not too prescriptive that you should feel boxed in or out.

Let’s assume you’ve cleansed however you cleanse best. From there, your golden rule is lightest to heaviest. Products that have a low viscosity also tend to have a smaller particle size, meaning they can penetrate more deeply into your skin. These are your essences, your toners, your serums. Slap those on first, and then work your way up to oils and creams—the more occlusive textures that work to keep what’s in, in. The other guideline I’ll give you is pare down how much you’re using. Skincare is worlds easier when you’re not slathering yourself with 10 products every morning and night hoping that at least one will work. Take it from a girl who’s got roughly 20 vials next to her bed: You just don’t need it all. Three is probably your golden number in terms of topicals.

This is where you live, in this order:
1. Watery toner or essence for hydration
2. Targeted serum with a treatment focus of your choice
3. Cream or oil to seal it all in

Boom. Done. Very simple.

But there are caveats. (Of COURSE there are caveats.) Because nothing is easy, not even being beautiful. Mainly, watch out for ingredients. There are a few big ones that you shouldn’t mix unless you’re looking to burn off your current face and start fresh with a new one. Read below as it applies to you.

If you like to tone: The easiest thing to do is spritz your face with something balancing and hydrating. Pai makes a killer redness-reducing solution called the Bioaffinity Tonic; and right now I’m working my way through a bottle of Lumion’s Skin Mist. Your other option is a treatment toner, but that’s when you’ve got to tread lightly. Witch hazel or Susanne Kaufmann’s Clarifying Tonic (fancy witch hazel) should play with other products just fine; Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting Liquid 2% BHA and the like with active ingredients could limit what you can use later.

If you have a zit: Go for a spot treatment. But know this: Benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, lactic acid, and glycolic acid shouldn’t be mixed with any retinol or retinoids in your routine. If you use something serious like La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo, let that do its work without layering too much on top of it. Retinol will break down your skin barrier and lead to irritation; other products might mess with the actual potency of the spot treatment. So consider your options here. Maybe just use your retinol sans spot treatment, since it’s also a good acne eradicator. Alternatively, a treatment toner might allow you to skip this step.

If you’re into serums: That’s chill, just watch out for vitamin C. While it’s been touted as a miracle ingredient for everything from acne to sun protection, it can also be quite drying and irritating when used with too many other actives. (Ascorbic acid is still an acid.) The easy fix for this is to use it during the day and leave your harsher BHAs, AHAs, and retinols for nighttime. Drunk Elephant and True Botanicals top this list for me.

If you prefer an oil over moisturizer: Great! Me too. (Read up here.) But oils go on last. So layer your water-based serums on before adding a few drops of oil to lock it in. The other crucial tip here is time. Let each product soak in completely before adding another product on top. Remember when you learned that water and oil don’t mix? That’s still true! So let the lighter serums make their way into your dermis before sealing them in with a heavier hydrator.

If you don’t like an oil: That sounds like a personal problem. See the above tips, but sub in moisturizer for oil. Glossier Priming Moisturizer Rich was made for this very purpose.

If it’s daytime: You know what I’m going to say. It’s the thing we spent a whole week saying at the beginning of the summer. I’m going to say, “Add sun protection.” SPF is always the last step of your skincare routine. Adding a moisturizer on top of it can mess with the protection factor. No good.

And there are probably another 10 to 20 clauses I could add to this, but that’s a bit too complicated for my taste. You’re right—it’s your skin, your choice. Just tread lightly and slowly. And when in doubt, ask a dermatologist. They’re certainly more qualified than I am to tell you things like that. But thanks for reading anyway!

—Emily Ferber

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