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As the average person's skincare routine becomes more elaborate, more and more people are confused on what order to apply their skincare products in. So, today my aim is to demystify things a little (though I'm sure someone in the comments will still have an alternative way of doing it!)
AM: cleanse, tone, serum, eye cream, moisturiser, sunscreen
PM: oil cleanse, gel or cream cleanse, tone, serum, eye cream, night cream, oil (if you use one)
However, many of our routines are more complex than that and we're constantly discovering new (or seemingly-new) product categories and wondering where they're supposed to fit into our current lineup. A general good rule of thumb is to go from the thinnest to the thickest texture when you're applying skincare, because lightweight formulas might have a hard time absorbing if they're being blocked by an already-heavy layer of product. Regardless of consistency, I'd always apply an oil as the final step in your evening skincare routine (or, if you use them in the morning; the final step before sunscreen), because they lock moisture into the skin. There's really not a lot of point in applying products after them, because anything water-based just isn't going to be able to get through to the skin.
I'm not a big stickler for the 'eye cream before moisturiser' rule, as I don't tend to apply my moisturiser to my eye area anyway, however if you do, it's best to use the targeted eye cream first. Eye creams tend to be more active and concentrated, so you just want to ensure the ingredients are penetrating.
Sunscreen is generally applied last in the daytime because you want it to cover the skin and form a protective layer. This is particularly true when it comes to mineral sunscreens that physically block UV rays from the skin. There is an argument that chemical formulas need to be absorbed into the skin and therefore using them over the top of a thick face cream could prevent them from working as well. If you're concerned about this; you could always apply a thin layer before your moisturiser and a second thin layer after, and of course you're meant to reapply it throughout the day regardless.
One thing that tends to puzzle people is toner. What many TikTok-ers fail to realise is that a mist is just a toner in a spray bottle, so it's designed to be used directly after cleansing. You may like how your skin looks when you apply it as the final step in your routine, or it might help prime the skin for makeup, just be aware those ingredients probably won't penetrate through your moisturiser to deliver any skin benefits.
Another common confusion is toners vs. essences. You probably don't need to use both in the same routine, but if you do; apply the lightweight toner first, followed by the slightly thicker essence to ensure the ingredients from both products are able to reach the skin.
Layering serums or masks and creams
Another potential confusion can come from sheet masks. Sheet masks aren't actually face masks and eye patches are the same concept, but specifically designed for the eye area. What they're soaked in are concentrated serums, so you don't use them and then wipe them off or cleanse (as you would with a traditional face mask); you instead use them at the serum stage (after cleansing and toning), massage any excess into. the skin and then go straight onto moisturiser.
If you want to use an overnight mask, you can apply this after your moisturiser, if it's just intended to hydrate and moisturise. If it's an active mask (containing ingredients like retinol or acids), you might want to apply it right after your serum (and possibly use a moisturiser or oil afterwards) to ensure it's close to the skin and you reap the maximum benefits.
In a similar vein, if you want to layer serums, I'd generally recommend using your active serum (Vitamin C, acids or retinol) first, so it's closest to the skin and use your moisturising serum afterwards. However, some people actually deliberately use a hydrating serum first, apply their active serum and then their moisturiser. This is called 'buffering'; reducing the potency of an active, if you have sensitive skin or you're using it for the first time. It just takes some of the edge off by surrounding the active with moisturising ingredients.
Where do treatments fit in?
As I've mentioned previously; I recommend using anything containing active ingredients with as few barriers to the skin as possible, therefore if you're using a targeted spot treatment then apply it before your serum and moisturiser. This ensures it can penetrate into the skin properly.
There aren't really hard and fast rules on wash-off masks, however you want to apply them to clean skin. I personally like to use them in-between my first and my second cleanse, so my face is clean, but there's also the second cleanse to ensure the mask is fully removed.
Are you doing too much?
As a general tip: if your skin isn't taking in the product, you're probably going overboard! Not every skincare routine needs multiple serums and lots of steps and different types of products; sometimes simpler is better. Doing too much can cause you to break out and overuse of lots of different actives can really damage the skin barrier. In the very best-case scenario; it's pointless, because the excess product can't be absorbed by your skin and just sits on its surface.
How do you apply your skincare?