What is the right order to apply skincare products?

by beautifulwithbrains

Are you applying your skincare products in the right order? *scratches head*

Skincare used to be so easy. Cleanse. Tone. Moisturise. Go out the door.

Now you can’t leave the house without sunscreen. And an antioxidant serum or two. Plus, an exfoliant. And… what the heck are essences now?!

Your skincare routine is getting longer by the minute. But how do all these products fit in together? Like, should you go with serum or moisturiser first? Toner or exfoliant? Does it even matter?!

Yep – and a great deal, too. Vitamin C or retinol get into the skin much faster if they don’t have to fight through 5+ layers of products to get there.

Here’s the right skin care routine order to make the most of your lotions and potions:


1. Cleanser

Before you apply your skincare products, you need to remove everything that’d make it harder for them to get through the skin. Start your routine with a gentle cleaner that removes dirt, oil, makeup and all the other impurities that accumulated on your skin during the day (and night). The key is to pick one that doesn’t leave your skin feeling tight. That’s a sign the cleanser’s damaged your protective barrier!

Related: How To Pick The Right Cleanser For Your Skin Type

2. Exfoliant

You know what else prevents retinol & co from penetrating deep into your skin? All those dead cells that accumulate on the surface of your skin. Get rid of them with a good exfoliant. And nope, I don’t mean a scrub. Chemical exfoliation is the way to go here. These exfoliants dissolve the “glue” that holds skin cells together, so they can slough off and reveal the smoother, brighter and softer skin underneath. But don’t use them every night! Two or three times a week is more than enough.

Related: How To Choose The Right Exfoliant For Your Skin Type

3. Toner

This step is totally unnecessary, but, I know a lot of you like to use a toner. A good one hydrates skin and prevents premature wrinkles. You can apply it before exfoliation, especially if it has a runny texture. But I prefer to make my canvas as clean as possible before using anything else.

Related: Is Toner Really Necessary?

4. Prescription Products

If your doctor’s prescribed you any meds (think Tretinoin or Hydroquinone), use them now your skin’s freshly clean. Those active ingredients need to penetrate the skin deeply to fix whatever issue you’re dealing with. The only exception? If you find they’re way too harsh for your skin and cause severe peeling, flakiness and redness, you can put them on after moisturiser. Yes, you’re diluting their effectiveness. But that’s what makes them more tolerable to your skin. You can always invert the order again once your skin has gotten used to the harsh med.

Related: 3 Reasons You Should Use Retinoids

5. Serum

Serums are the workhorses of skincare. They contain higher concentrations of active ingredients than moisturisers, so they’re able to treat dehydration, wrinkles, sun spots, and everything else you’re dealing with better and faster. They have thinner textures to so the sooner you apply them, the better. Put them on top of moisturisers, and chances are they won’t be able to get through to your skin.

Related: Why You Should Add A Serum To Your Skincare Routine

6. Eye cream

Another unnecessary step you do out of habit. The eye area doesn’t need any special ingredients, so your fave fragrance-free facial moisturizer would do. If you want to use a separate eye cream, apply that first. It helps keep the undereye area hydrated, smoother, and brighter.

Related: Do You Really Need An Eye Cream

7. Moisturizer

A moisturizer locks in moisture and all the other skincare products you have just applied, boosting their efficacy. That’s why it makes sense to use it last. Plus, out of all your skincare products (sunscreens excluded!), moisturisers have the thickest texture. Anything you put on top will struggle to reach your skin.

(P.S. If you have very oily skin, you may not need a moisturiser at all. A moisturising sunscreen in the AM and a hydrating serum at night may be enough for you).

Related: Does Everyone Need A Moisturiser?

8. Sunscreen

Sunscreen should always be the last thing you put on your skin in the morning (well, before makeup!). Why? Cos that’s how scientists test it. Sunscreen is medicine. It keeps you safe from UV harm and prevents wrinkles, sun spots, and cancer. Use it like it’s meant to.

Related: How To Boost The Effectiveness Of Your Sunscreen

Skin Care Routine Order Explained

I know what you’re thinking: “Gio, you’ve left so many products out. Where do essences go? And what about sheet masks? And clay masks? Argh!”

I hear ya. There are too many skincare products to mention them all here. Especially because you DON’T need them all. I rarely do more than 4 steps, both morning and night. 

I’m not convinced, the more, the better. If anything, the more stuff you put on your skin, the more chances of an irritation or breakouts.

But if you want to go the extra mile and use something I haven’t mentioned here, it pays to know the rules behind the right skin care routine order:

  1. The rule of textures: start with the lightest product in texture and build your way up till the heaviest in texture. Heavy textures (think moisturisers) create a barrier that’s difficult for anything you apply next to get through.
  2. The rules of actives: if you’re using any prescription products, retinols, vitamin C, skin-brighteners or exfoliants, apply them as close to freshly cleansed skin as possible. If vitamin C is the 5th layer you put on your skin, it won’t be able to penetrate as well (that’s why I like minimalistic routines πŸ˜‰ ).

Now you know the rules, use your judgment. If your serum has a lightweight, almost runny texture and your prescription product is a rich cream, then it makes sense to use the serum first. But if they both have lightweight textures, apply the one with the most beneficial active first.

It helps to keep your skincare simple. I don’t use toner, eye cream or any extra layer I don’t need. If I like two antioxidant serums, I’ll use them on alternate days rather than try to fit everything in.

Skincare isn’t about using all the products. It’s about using what works for you. In the right order.


Are you following the right skin care routine order? Share your skincare routine in the comments below.



Lisa May 5, 2009 - 3:03 pm

Ooh, I found this really useful cause I always wonder which product should go first. Now I don’t have to wonder anymore. πŸ™‚

Dao May 5, 2009 - 4:08 pm

Whenever I buy a new product, I always ask for the order of application. Otherwise, it would not be as effective. To me, if I use a retinoid product, I would cease anything that contains AHA/BHA to avoid skin freak outs. Since retinoid and AHA/BHA are both skin exfoliants, using only one will do.

Nikki May 6, 2009 - 12:53 am

thanks for this post! I am glad I am doing the right thing πŸ™‚

anastacia May 6, 2009 - 4:56 am

wow! you always doing something exciting! very helpful πŸ˜€

beautifulwithbrains May 6, 2009 - 9:11 am

Lisa: you’re welcome. There are just so many products out there it can be confusing πŸ™‚

Dao: That is a great tip, thanks. Some ingredients can make others less effective, so it’s important to know how to use them properly. And you certainly don’t wanna use too many exfoliants as that would make skin red and irritating.

Nikki: you’re welcome. Am glad about that too, well done πŸ™‚

Anastasia: thanks a lot hun! πŸ™‚

Khuzaimah April 14, 2016 - 10:43 am

How about toner, serum, moisturizer and chemical sunscreen? Which comes first?

Gio April 14, 2016 - 4:13 pm

Khuzaimah, the best order is toner serum, chemical sunscreen, and moisturizer. Toner and serum have very lightweight textures, so they are unlikely to interfere with the sunscreeen.

Barbara May 26, 2017 - 8:14 am

Hello! I have a question. I put on a Vitamin E oil and Tho Ordinary (Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%) and was trying to decide which should go first .At first I thought vitamin E oil because itΒ΄s light, but then I wonder if I should put the Ordinary first so that the ingredients can penetrate better. What are your though?

Gio May 27, 2017 - 5:23 pm

Barbara, I’d go with The Ordinary first. As a rule, you should apply the lightest texture first, but oils tend to be occlusive in nature so they may compromise the absorption of anything you apply afterwards.

Sahithi July 21, 2017 - 6:34 am

Should i use facewash before using cleanser?is it okay to use?

Gio July 21, 2017 - 11:17 am

Sahiti, there is no need to use face wash if you use a cleanser. Pick one and use that.

Chichi August 24, 2017 - 2:16 pm

how about toner, serum, moisturiser and Physical sunscreen……which one comes first?

Gio August 26, 2017 - 7:57 am

Chichi, you nailed it! Your order is the correct one. πŸ™‚

Mia September 12, 2017 - 10:00 am

Can I not wear moisturiser since the serum is oily anyway?

Gio September 17, 2017 - 8:25 am

Mia, that depends. If your skin is oily, the serum alone may be enough for you. If it’s dry, it’s best to use the moisturiser, too. Try it once and see how your skin feels. If it feels tight with the serum alone, you know it needs the moisturiser too.

Vania October 2, 2017 - 2:43 pm

I use The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane, should I use it on bare skin because it is considered treatment? Or after my toner and water serums, because it contains Squalane? I am confused… Help me please πŸ™‚

Gio October 6, 2017 - 9:25 pm

Vania, I prefer to apply my retinoids after cleansing, but I don’t use toners. If the consistency of the products is very thin and watery, then you can apply retinoids afterwards. But the fewer things you use before them, the better.

Carina noona November 21, 2017 - 8:12 am

help me with this,
Morning routine = Cleanser – toner – mist – niacinamide – sunscreen – acne spot gel/mario badescu drying lotion

Midnight routine = Cleanser – toner – mist – gel mask – mandelic acid – acne spot gel/mario badescu drying lotion

Please help me to rearrange it. Thanks in advance! xx

Gio November 26, 2017 - 2:36 pm

Carina, actives should always be used first. Apply the acne spot gel before sunscreen in the morning and the mandolin acid after toner in the evening.

Sameera December 10, 2017 - 5:55 am

I have astringent and serum. What would be the sequence and after the sequence is there need of moisturizer to be used.

Gio December 10, 2017 - 2:59 pm

Sameera, I would use astringent then serum then moisturiser.

Hale January 7, 2018 - 3:25 pm

Please help me

Cleanser- toner- dark sport serum- hydrating essence serum- sunscreen

Hale January 7, 2018 - 3:27 pm

Can i use two serum like dark spot serum and moisturizing serum at once?

Gio January 19, 2018 - 3:47 pm

Hale, the order is correct and yes you can use both serums together, as long as the ingredients are compatible.

abinay March 27, 2018 - 12:35 am

How long do I wait before I apply the next product if my order is Toner -> Acne spot treatment -> Serum -> Moisturiser? Thanks!

Gio March 31, 2018 - 8:09 am

Abinay, just wait a few seconds until each product has fully absorbed.

Che April 13, 2018 - 3:21 pm

Hi! Can I use actives first before the toning and moisturizing?

Gio April 14, 2018 - 8:39 am

Che, use them after toner but before moisturiser.

Ann April 22, 2018 - 3:04 am

Thank you!! As always, your posts are so helpful! I will try applying my The Ordinary Retin A before my oils tonight. I feel as if the Retin A has not been as effective as it was a few months ago and maybe the order I apply it is the key.

Gio April 27, 2018 - 9:52 am

Ann, so glad it helped! I’m sure that will make a difference. Oils can create a barrier that prevents all the retinoid from penetrating your skin. Dermatologists recommend this approach only to those with sensitive skin who can’t tolerate prescription retinoids well. πŸ™‚

Natalia June 7, 2018 - 3:52 am

Would this be a morning routine or night routine or both? Thanks

Gio June 8, 2018 - 3:19 pm

Natalie, this is the recommended order to apply skincare products. You can take out products for morning and/or evening as you see fit.

Patricia Zabala October 24, 2019 - 4:24 am

I know I’m late to the game and I’m 54 years old. But it’s still all so confusing because no matter where you read everybody has something different to say so you really don’t know what to do okay I don’t. I know it’s about the money to people or what but I’ve done all and things changed if I can see it. I’m doing the oil cleanse the water thing after it I’ve done toners,vitamin c,hydraulic acid, eye cream,all carrier oils and retinol. I actually got into Central Oils a year ago and started this because I heard so much about it. But I don’t think the wrinkles have gone down and I think my skin is smoother as in softer. But that’s it. But I’m still plugging along!

Cheryl Mandell June 6, 2020 - 3:07 am

Love your column! Does Superoxide Dismutase Saccharide Mist go after cleansing but before exfoliant? What about Vitamin C (or CEF)?

Susan July 14, 2020 - 10:25 pm

I have only use my retinoid in my night time routine… Day: clean/ spray hydrator/ Ordinary Niacinamide/ moisturizer/ oil/ sunscreen (last). and then Night: clean/ Retinoid/ night moisturizer…?

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