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SKINCARE LAYERING GUIDE | FOR BEGINNER, INTERMEDIATE & ADVANCED USERS

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Today we're talking layering. Since the advent of single-ingredient actives, it's one of the most asked questions on the internet, so hopefully this should shed some light. It's worth bearing in mind that you don't need to try every skincare ingredient on the market, I'm trying to focus on the function each product serves within the routine. These are general suggestions and rules of thumb based on my experience and research; I'm not an expert, so please just use your common sense! If you don't know your skin very well then definitely just go with the beginners outline and take it from there. Let's dive in...

- GENERAL GUIDELINES -

Thinnest to thickest

This is the general rule of thumb if you're unsure. For example, you have a face mist, but just bought a Korean essence: the essence is going to have a thicker texture so mist first then use the essence. Generally, the thicker the texture, the harder it is for stuff to get through it. This is a very broad rule like 'i before e' and we'll get the the 'except after c' nuance shortly, but this is kind of the basis of the order you apply skincare in most of the time.

Water-based before oil-based

Most oils have an occlusive quality, meaning they lock everything in. It also means water-based products have a hard-time getting through, so it makes sense to use them last. Examples of water-based ingredients are hyaluronic acid, aloe and glycerin. Examples of oil-based ingredients are squalane and a form of Vitamin C called ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate. If you're really not sure: put a drop of the product on the back of your hand and see how runny it is. If it slides off in an almost water-like way, it's probably fine to apply earlier on in your routine.

Consider pH 

Things can get quite scientific with this, but just remember your chemistry lessons at school! If you mix acids and alkalis, they neutralise each other so you want to avoid applying an ingredient that likes a low pH with one that likes a high pH, as they will level out at a neutral pH and not be very effective. The skin's natural pH is very slightly acidic at around a 5. If the ingredient has 'acid' in the name (salicylic, glycolic etc.) then it's obviously acidic, Vitamin C also likes an acidic environment (without going too in-depth - pure form Vitamin C will be called 'ascorbic acid' or 'l-ascorbic acid' - some of its derivatives can operate at a slightly higher pH but that form needs an acidic environment). Retinoids work at around about the pH of the skin, so no worries about that and niacinamide works in almost all environments. The only popular ingredient class I can think of that tends to prefer an alkaline environment is the peptide family. Specifically copper peptides just don't play ball with... well, anything! I would personally alternate it with your retinoid in the evening if you want to use this ingredient. With other peptides, I'm a bit more relaxed and just make sure I leave my skin for maybe half an hour (I go and brush my teeth and get on with something else) between it and a more acidic-loving ingredient. Whereas I usually apply everything pretty quickly whilst my skin is still damp for maximum penetration. Your other option is to sandwich an active-free serum (like a hydrating formula) in-between the two to buffer things. I don't tend to recommend that because... 

I don't recommend applying more than two serums in a routine

For me, this is where things are going to get messy, maybe pill and just become overly complicated and fussy. Personally, I don't have time for that and see people tie themselves in knots on this all the time. If you layer 5 serums and you love it: you do you. I'm just trying to simplify things for those who are confused or don't know where to start or whose skincare routine isn't working for them. I would really encourage you to consider what you're trying to achieve if you find yourself layering on more than 2 serums. Do you need to use a single-ingredient tranexamic acid serum then a single-ingredient azelaic acid serum to treat your hyperpigmentation? Can you find a formula that combines them together? Do the other benefits (besides treating excess pigmentation) offered by each ingredient make one better for your skin than the other because it can tackle multiple issues? If there are genuinely more than two active serums you feel you can't be without for the AM or PM, then consider incorporating some of the ingredients you need via a cleanser or a toner.   

Use light layers

Again, if you don't want your skin to feel tacky or your skincare to pill off but you're going to be using more than 2-3 leave-on products in a routine: you want to go for the light layers. There's no point wasting expensive product, after all!

Encapsulation and new technology

You may have heard old wives tales about how you can't use x with y, however most of this information is quite outdated. Skincare technology moves fast and you can even find encapsulated retinol and Vitamin C in the same formula these days, so just be aware that Google isn't always the most reliable source. If in doubt, look for products that combine multiple ingredients you want to use instead of playing chemist yourself, so you know they're formulated to be effective and non-irritating in tandem with one another.

Be mindful of accumulation

Something to bear in mind is that a lot of skincare products contain the same ingredients. What you don't want to do is use a toner with niacinamide, then a 10% niacinamide serum, then a moisturiser with niacinamide every single day, because that could get irritating. Just be aware of repetition of active ingredients in lots of your products. You might not need a standalone serum for them.

Intensity matters

I personally am quite intentional about the concentration of the ingredients I use. For me, my retinoid and my Vitamin C are the most important but the most potentially-irritating part of my routine and where I tend to go for higher-strength options. Therefore, when it comes to exfoliating acids, I tend to choose lower concentrations and gentler options. Be aware that product names don't always tell you the whole truth: ascorbic acid tends to be more irritating than other Vitamin C derivatives, glycolic acid is generally the harshest chemical exfoliant whereas lactic acid, PHAs and mandelic acid are usually gentler (look for <10% concentrations in them), retinal is stronger than retinol and the gentlest (but least-effective form) are esters like retinyl palmitate. So ' Vitamin C serum' and 'retinol cream' don't always tell you a lot. How intense the form and and concentration of an ingredient will dictate to a large extent whether layering is going to be ok for your skin or not.

Actives closest to skin

This is where I kind of suggest breaking the oil rule: you can find Vitamin C, retinol and salicylic acid face oils and I actually think you want to apply those before your moisturiser to get the most benefit; just make sure you're not slathering it on - a couple of drops will do. This is unless you're looking to 'buffer' the ingredient, which is applying something strong like a high-strength retinoid after your moisturiser so it's not as harsh (you can even apply a second light layer of moisturiser over the top of that). Likewise, if you have a hydrating serum and a Vitamin C in your morning routine, if they're both water-based, I'd use the Vitamin C first.

The usual order

With all that in mind, you'd usually go for...

AM

Cleanser (if needed)

Toner (if needed)

Serums / Treatments

Moisturiser 

Sunscreen

PM

Makeup Remover / First Cleanse

Second Cleanse 

Toner (if needed)

Serums / Treatments

Moisturiser

Oil (if needed)

- BEGINNERS LAYERING -

This is where to go if you know you have sensitive skin or you're new to skincare, so I've tried to keep things budget-friendly as far as I can. If you aren't sure where you fit in: start here. I've focused on one active ingredient in the morning and one in the evening and I don't recommend using them (the exfoliator, Vitamin C and retinol) every single day from the start; you need to acclimatise. Of course you need to patch test before smearing anything all over your face, but I've given here both an active and a hydrating option in cleansers, toners and serums. The idea is that you start by using the actives once a week and the hydrators on the other days, then gradually build to hopefully being able to use both every day. Obviously you don't need to go out and buy all of these, just have a look at the ingredients of what you already have and try to figure out which role your products play within the routine.

AM

Cleanse (if needed)

Not everyone needs to cleanse in the morning, particularly if you have very dry skin. I'd generally recommend a gentle option if you do prefer to cleanse, so you just want to start with a fresh canvas without overly stripping your skin. One I personally enjoy is the CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser* | £9.49 | full review | which is a non-foaming jelly with simple ingredients to keep your skin barrier happy (there's also a lathering version, if you prefer).

Tone (if needed)

A hydrating toner or mist isn't necessary for everyone, but as we head into the colder months, it can definitely be a 'nice to have' if you're on the drier side. I like the Pixi Hydrating Milky Tonic* | £18 | full review | (they also do a mist version, if you prefer). You use your exfoliating acid toner at this stage in your routine too, however I would start with once a week to see how your skin tolerates it and I wouldn't use that more than three times a week. A great gentle leave-on exfoliant for beginners is the Inkey List's PHA Toner* | £9.99 | full review | which also contains niacinamide. This is fine for me to use daily given the type of acid it is and the fact it has hydrating properties too. Some people say you should only use acid toners in the evening, but this is very gentle and you should be wearing your sunscreen either way. If you're more on the oily / spot-prone side: maybe skip the CeraVe cleanser and opt for the Inkey List's Salicylic Acid Cleanser* | £10.99.

Serum(s) / Treatment(s)

If you're using your exfoliating toner, I'd recommend following it with a hydrating or calming serum - I've recently been loving the CeraVe Hyaluronic Acid Serum* | £16.99 | full review. This is really easy to use because it combines hyaluronic acid (which can be finicky) with fat-based ingredients to provide hydration that lasts. On the days you aren't exfoliating, I recommend going for a Vitamin C serum - I think the Indeed Labs Vitamin C Brightening Drops* | £19.99 | full review coming soon | are just great, featuring encapsulated ascorbic acid for a gentle, slow-release, stabilised dose of antioxidant brightening benefits. If you like, you can layer these on together - for best results go for the Vitamin C first and then the hydrating serum. Over time, you should be able to use the Vitamin C daily, including on the 3 days you're using the PHA. Either way, I personally always have a calming, hydrating serum on-hand, not just for layering but for those days when my skin just feels a bit irritated.

Moisturiser

Really, this is where skin type comes into play a little more but a great basic moisturiser that seems to work for most people is the Ordinary's Natural Moisturising Factors + HA* | £6.80 (supersized) | full review. This just replenishes the skin with added goodness that it will recognise. It's not heavy or greasy but still works.

Sunscreen

I think a pretty great, pretty universal sunscreen is the Garnier Ambre Solaire Super UV Anti Dark Spots & Anti Pollution Face Fluid SPF 50+ | £7 | full review. This is a super-lightweight fluid that will work for almost any skin type as an every single day product that still provides a high level of protection. Just as a side-note: even if a product is marketed as a 'sunscreen serum', you apply it as a final step if you're looking for sun protection from it (never under moisturiser).


PM

Makeup Remover / First Cleanse

I personally love the Ordinary's Squalane Cleanser* | £13.90 (supersized) | full review. I probably wouldn't go for it if I was wearing full drag but it's a great gentle, replenishing oil-based cleanser to melt down makeup and sunscreen without the need for harsh surfactants. Massage it onto dry skin then emulsify. You can use a dual-phase makeup remover or a micellar water as a first cleanse if you like, I just find a cleansing oil or balm, running water and a cloth to be the most effective method.

Second Cleanse

Go in with the CeraVe cleanser again to gently cleanse the skin underneath your sunscreen or makeup.

Tone (if needed)

I'd recommend using the hydrating toner (if any) in the evening because we're going to use the strongest active here and you aren't going to want to layer anything else with it.

Serum(s) / Treatment(s)

The aim is really to get to using a retinoid every night if you possibly can. My recommended beginner-friendly product is the Inkey List's Retinol Serum* | £9.99 | full review. So you'd start with once a week and build from there - definitely check out my retinoid post that I linked to learn a bit more about what to expect as your skin adjusts to this ingredient.

Moisturiser

You're fine to use the same moisturiser in the PM as in the morning, but if you want something extra-nourishing (after all, retinol can be drying as your skin adjusts) then I recommend the Beauty Bay Thirst Class Rich Moisturiser | £7 | full review | instead. 

Oil (if needed)

If you want to use an oil to counteract any dryness (you don't have to) then I recommend the Ordinary's 100% Squalane Oil | £5.50.


- INTERMEDIATE LAYERING -

Ok, so we're now getting into a place where you've got to know your skin, you know you're not really that reactive and you've used and tolerated acids, Vitamin C and retinoids for a while now, but you want to step things up. Let's cover how you ease into layering once you've got your confidence.

AM


Cleanser (if needed)

I really love the Skingredients PreProbiotic Cleanse* | £25 | full review | as a morning option, particularly as we head into winter. It has a creamy formula that's never too much for my skin first thing in the morning. This has ingredients to support your microbiome and also PHAs to hydrate and very gently exfoliate. If you prefer a gel texture then go for something like the Scientia Pure Clarity Deep Clean PHA Cleanser* | £24 | full review | because (despite the name) it's actually quite gentle!

Toner (if needed)

I'm actually not going to recommend an exfoliating toner here, so this is definitely an optional step (as we're getting a stronger exfoliant in during the PM routine) if you want an added layer of hydration. I really enjoy the Apothaka Skin Quenching Essence* | £32 | full review. This is obviously that slightly heavier essence formula but you can use something like this instead of a toner or layered over one, depending on your preference. This is formulated with gentle, hydrating, calming and replenishing natural moisturising factors alongside niacinamide and shea butter esters. 

Serum(s) / Treatment(s)

My intermediate morning active is the Youth to the People 15% Vitamin C + Clean Caffeine Energy Serum* | £59 | full review. This is a blended mid-strength formula with some of the best-substantiated Vitamin C derivatives. It's gentle and I went right in with using this daily without any irritation. If you aren't so confident then try alternating it with your hydrator before moving to using the Vitamin C every day with the hydrator over the top. My hydrating option for this routine is the Monday Muse the Juice Daily Serum* | £40 | full review. This is calming and lightweight, making it an amazing product for layering, especially if you want to buffer stronger actives. It's formulated with cica, prebiotics, panthenol and niacinamide.

Moisturiser 

I honestly don't tend to go for really 'active' moisturisers. When it comes to Vitamin C, I just find serums more effect, though in the evening an acid or retinol moisturiser can be a gentle one-step option. Throughout the year bar summer, there are several moisturisers I can quite happily use for the AM and the PM and the I'm From Rice Cream | £31 (15% off with code JASMINETALKSBEAUTY (affiliate)) | full review | is one of them. It's a buttery but light ceramide cream to calm, soften and soothe the skin

Sunscreen

One of my favourite every-single-day sunscreens to wear under makeup is the Hello Sunday The One That's a Serum SPF 45 Drops* | £20 | full review. Whilst I definitely say: go for cheap, cheerful and water-resistant for days at the beach, I think 90% of the time you're going to be indoors for most of the day, probably wearing makeup and you're going to appreciate something elegant. This super-light formula is just gorgeous. If you're more oily, they have a primer formula too that's more mattifying.


PM

Makeup Remover / First Cleanse

Pretty much my favourite right now is the Then I Met You Living Cleansing Balm* | £37 | full review. This super-buttery, smooth formula can cut through heavy makeup and waterproof sunscreen, it can be removed completely and takes pretty much no work to warm into an oil.

Second Cleanse 

I personally see no reason why not to use your AM product in the evening too. Even though there are technically some actives in there, PHAs are very gentle and it's a wash-off product so it should be fine to use either product twice a day. I'd just be cautious using salicylic or benzoyl peroxide washes AM and PM every single day.

Toner (if needed)

I'd use the same hydrating toner as in the morning, as we're getting the actives in our serum and treatment stage.

Serum(s) / Treatment(s)

Obviously the focus here is still the retinoid but as we're stepping it up from retinol, I recommend building up to using this most days then swapping it out a couple of times a week for a different sort of treatment. We're getting very mild daily exfoliation from the cleanser, but I have a combination treatment that's amazing if you suffer from uneven skin tone, acne marks or breakouts. If you really don't need that then go for the Medik8 Crystal Retinal 3* | £45 | full review | every night (obviously building up to this goal). If you'd appreciate bumping up those added benefits then throw in Paula's Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster | £37 | full review | instead twice a week. If you want you can layer your calming hydrator underneath either of these to soothe and support the skin barrier before using a strong active. Both of these actives have a thicker, creamier texture so I would either do the light, water-based Monday Muse serum first or skip it if you want that heavier hit (applying it afterwards might make it a bit hard for it to get into the skin). I wouldn't recommend layering these treatments in one routine, however.

Moisturiser

The moisturiser I suggested is one I enjoy for AM and for PM; it really depends on your texture preferences. If you're very oily, you might not even need the moisturiser over these two creamy treatment options.

Oil (if needed)

This isn't strictly necessary but I do love using the Monday Muse the Nectar Vitamin Oil | £48 | full review | to lock in my evening routine. This isn't overly-greasy and it layers beautifully with the other products in my routine. It contains some beautiful calming and anti-inflammatory oils.


- ADVANCED LAYERING -

Ok, so I am not someone who is going to use a 10% glycolic acid before applying my tretinoin, just to get that out there! I'm sure some people could tolerate that and if you can: you do you, but I just wouldn't recommend people to try it. So this is still a sensible routine for those who just want to step things up a gear but don't want their face to fall off... The cleansers and moisturisers I've chosen are gentle and replenishing to really support the skin barrier through some of these stronger actives. This is the sort of routine I personally follow and I incorporate one night a week where I just focus on replenishing and hydrating my skin and skip all actives.

AM

Cleanser (if needed)

If you'd like to cleanse in the morning, I love Venn All-in-One Moisture Balance Cleanser* | £55 | full review. This is a non-foaming, non-stripping, actually-kind-of-hydrating emulsion gel cleanser with PHAs, niacinamide and cica. 

Toner (if needed)

An amazing face mist for barrier repair and lasting hydration (if you'd like to use one) is the Zelens Fortifying D3 Mist | £48 | full review.

Serum(s) / Treatment(s)

For me, I have to have a Vitamin C in my skincare routine (for its antioxidant and skin-harmonising benefits) and if you can tolerate pure-form ascorbic acid (which can help stimulate collagen production), the gold standards is the Skinceuticals C E Ferulic* | £145 | full review coming soon. I'd start by alternating this with the other serum I'm going to talk about before transitioning to using this daily followed by other. The second product I recommend is the Paula's Choice Discolouration Repair Serum* | £46 | full review coming soon | which is one I only recently started using but is totally the sort of product I recommend trying if uneven skin tone is an issue for you because it combines tranexamic acid, niacinamide (at a skin-friendly 5% concentration) and bakuchiol to unify the skin's appearance. It causes me no irritation alongside my Vitamin C and packs several actives into one formula.

Moisturiser 

My moisturiser pick is the Regimen Labs C.R.E.A.M. Ceramide Moisturiser | $39 | full review coming soon. If you're oily; you might want to go for something lighter like the Stratia Liquid Gold, but the aim is to have something with ceramides, fatty acids and cholesterol to support the skin barrier. I personally find this light and non-greasy enough to wear during the day as a softening replenisher.

Sunscreen

One of my all-time favourite everyday sunscreens is the Ultra Violette Supreme Screen Hydrating Facial Sunscreen SPF 50+ | £34 | full review. This is a lightweight hydrating lotion that provides a high level of broad spectrum protection and is amazing under makeup.

PM

Makeup Remover / First Cleanse

A great balm cleanser for this slightly more advanced 'investment' routine is the Deviant Cleansing Concentrate (affiliate link) | £31 | full review. This feels so luxurious and makes quick work of whatever's on my face, including waterproof eye makeup.

Second Cleanse 

I'd go back in with my morning cleanser after the makeup and sunscreen is off.

Toner (if needed)

The Zelens is still great to use in the evening, if you like, to get some of those beneficial calming ingredients onto the skin before getting to the heavier actives.

Serum(s) / Treatment(s)

The first product I go for is actually really affordable and I love that there's the option to have this in a stronger and a milder strength in this exfoliator. The Ordinary's Lactic Acid 5% + HA 2% | £5.50 | full review coming soon | is the milder version and that's important. Lactic acid is less potentially-irritating than glycolic and 5% is a nice, gentle strength, plus it has some hydrating benefits. The reason I'm applying this first is because my retinoid has a creamy texture and this is light and water-based, but also because exfoliators can increase the penetration of ingredients applied after. Personally, I do this step 4 times a week and just use my retinoid on the other days (or layer a hydrating, barrier-building serum underneath it), but I'm not dead against doing this every night if your skin is happy with it. My pick for a retinoid is the Medik8 Crystal Retinal 6* | £59 | full review. This is the next step up on the retinal ladder and I actually think that if you plan on layering actives, you might be happier sticking with this strength over progressing up further. The stronger your retinoid, the more all-consuming it is within your routine.

Moisturiser

The Regimen Labs moisturiser is amazing in the evening to replenish the skin after using your actives.

Oil (if needed)

If you're dry like me or you just find that retinoids can be a little drying, you can top off this routine with the replenishing goodness of the Zelens Power D* | £95 | full review. It's super-light, contains no actives and will just contribute towards healthy skin.


How do you like to layer your skincare?


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