This Is The Exact Order You Should Apply Skincare Products

Back in the day, toners were these alcohol-based liquids that irritated the hell out of your face. But today’s toners are filled with either gentle, hydrating ingredients to coddle dry skin, or with chemical exfoliants to treat acne. “They’re not meant to be something that sits around on your skin and feels heavy,” says Dr. Gohara. “They’re essentially just priming your face for ingredients to be better absorbed later on.”

If you’ve got acne…

You can use a toner formulated with BHA (beta hydroxy acid-like salicylic acid-for oily skin) or AHA (alpha hydroxy acid-like glycolic acid or lactic acid-for dry skin), which work to unclog pores, prevent breakouts, and dissolve blackheads over time.

After cleansing, tap them over clean, dry skin every other night (or every other morning, if you plan to use a retinol at night), then wait a full five minutes before applying anything else on top, or you’ll accidentally neutralize the acids before they work their magic.

If you’ve got every other skin type…

You can opt for a hydrating toner, which helps replenish any water your skin barrier lost when you washed and dried your face. After cleansing, tap one over your clean, dry skin every morning, or every night, or both: “There’s no such thing as too much moisture, regardless of your skin type,” says Dr. Gohara.


Ah, serums-you've seen them, you've probably got some sitting in your cabinet, and you're not totally sure WTF to do with them. You're not alone. “Serums are essentially just shots of extremely concentrated nutrients, hydrators, and antioxidants that really amp up your skin health as soon as you apply them,” says Dr. Gohara. “People often skip out on using them, but they’re honestly the heavy lifters of your skincare routine.”

In the morning…

Dr. Gohara (and every other derm in existence) swears by vitamin C serum, which protects your skin from the inflammation and damage caused by free radicals during the day, while also brightening skin and lightening your dark spots over time.

At night…

Opt for a serum filled with hyaluronic acid, which pulls water from the air into your skin to plump it up and keep it hydrated while you sleep. “If you’re using acne treatments or anti-aging products, which can be drying and irritating, you want to prep your skin with as much moisture as possible first,” says Shereene Idriss, M.D., a cosmetic dermatologist in NYC.


Eye creams tend to be lighter and thinner than face moisturizers, so make sure to apply them before you slather on your creams and oils. “The rule of thumb when applying skincare is to apply the lightest first and the heaviest last, since thinner products can’t penetrate thicker products,” says Dr. Idriss. Mind-blowing, right?

In the morning

Look for an eye cream that has a rollerball applicator (“the cold steel ball helps a bit with fluid retention, especially if you keep it in the fridge between uses,” says Dr. Gohara) and a formula filled with caffeine, which helps constrict and tighten puffy under-eyes within 20 minutes.

At night…

“Most people think that their night eye cream has to contain some sort of retinol to help with fine lines, but in reality, your eye area is delicate and at risk for rashes and irritation, so you want to be gentle,” says Dr. Gohara. “Instead, tap on a simple, hydrating eye cream that’ll protect your under-eyes and repair your skin barrier overnight.”

Yes, you can-and should!-use a retinol around your eyes, but “it’s better to apply retinoids to your whole face, rather than to just spot-treat parts of it,” she says. (Don’t worry; retinol options will come later on.)


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Ideally, you'd apply your spot treatments (whether they’re for zits, scars, or dark spots) at night, since that's when your body's working hardest to repair itself. But, if you've already used an acne-fighting toner, and/or you're planning to layer on a retinol, try spot treating in the morning, instead, so you don't irritate your skin. Just make sure to tap them on before your moisturizer, so they can really penetrate your skin and work their magic.

For dark spots and acne scars...

Dr. Idriss recommends using a spot treatment with either hydroquinone (a skin-bleaching ingredient that works fast, but can be irritating) or niacinamide (i.e. vitamin B3, which gently brightens marks over time).

For pimples...

Dr. Gohara stands by tried-and-true benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid (but not together, unless you want to irritate your skin). Benzoyl peroxide kills acne-causing bacteria-use it for classic whiteheads-and salicylic acid, which dissolves oil and skin cells (use it for little clogged pores and inflamed bumps).

Regardless of which you choose, the application is the same: Dab a thin layer (seriously-more isn’t merrier, here) over your spot or zit, then wait at least a full minute for it to dry before moving on to your moisturizer.


“A moisturizer not only infuses your skin with hydration, but also helps trap in all of the products underneath it to make the ingredients even more effective,” says Dr. Idriss. Note: Make sure to apply moisturizer around your spot treatments, rather than directly on top of them, so you don't accidentally wipe them away.

In the morning…

Look for a light, gentle, hyaluronic-based moisturizer, which will keep skin hydrated without feeling heavy or greasy. And, ideally, get a formula with a sunscreen of at least SPF 30 in it, especially if you’re not planning to slather on a separate sunscreen later. Whichever you choose, let it sink in for at least a full five minutes before applying makeup (if, of course, this is the end of your skincare routine, and makeup is your next step).

At night…

“Your skin goes into repair mode at night, working extra hard to fix damage and boost regeneration,” says Dr. Gohara. “So your night moisturizer should be filled with all of the things your body naturally produces and can use more of, like hyaluronic acid, lipids, and proteins.” You can also tiptoe into the retinol game by using an anti-aging night cream, which has a “watered-down” dose of retinoids that tend to be gentler, especially on sensitive skin.


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“Retinoids sink into your skin to speed up cell turnover, causing your body to churn out fresher, smoother, less-wrinkled skin over time,” says Dr. Gohara, noting that you’ll see results within 4-6 months of consistent use (sorry, but good things take time).

But wait!-cue infomercial voice-That’s not all! “Retinoids trigger collagen and exfoliation, which means they’ll also fade dark spots, smooth scars, clear pores, prevent breakouts, and brighten skin,” she says. Basically, retinoids are the closest thing to magic that dermatologists have.

How to use them...

If you’re new to retinoids-which is the umbrella term for all vitamin-A derivatives, including retinol-make sure to start slow to mitigate the initial adjustment period of flakes and sensitivity. “Apply a pea-size drop one night a week for one week, two nights a week for two weeks, three nights a week for three weeks, and then every other night indefinitely,” says Dr. Gohara.

Skip this step if...

You’re already using (or planning to use) a night cream with retinoids, since doubling up won’t make it more effective-it’ll just cause inflammation. And if you do have extra-sensitive skin, apply another layer of moisturizer 20 minutes after the retinol to reduce irritation without totally diluting the treatment.


“Face oils are occlusive, meaning they seal in all of the ingredients and moisture you just applied to your face to keep them from evaporating as quickly,” says Dr. Idriss. On their own, oils aren’t actually that moisturizing, but when you layer them over products, they help increase your routine’s efficacy, while also leaving skin soft and smooth. Just make sure to always, always, apply them last.

“Oils can easily penetrate moisturizers, serums, and treatments, but no products can penetrate an oil, which means they need to be applied last,” says Dr. Gohara. And don’t think that oils are just for dry skin-certain oils, like rosehip and jojoba, can decrease excess oil in acne-prone skin, while marula and aloe oils can soothe sensitive, easily irritated skin.


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OK, yes-I know I said oils go last, but technically, sunscreen is the absolute last step. Why? “Oils are still working to penetrate and treat your skin, which is why they would go last in your skincare routine, but sunscreen isn’t trying to penetrate anything-it’s there to protect your face and act as armor against the outside world,” says Dr. Gohara. “Basically, it’s not additive, like oils are; it’s protective.

But before you tell yourself that the SPF 15 in your foundation or moisturizer is good enough, know this: “The absolute bare-minimum SPF you need on your face is SPF 30,” says Dr. Gohara. Unless, you know, you’re cool with premature aging, worsened acne scars, and an increased cancer risk.


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Because you just finally learned virtually everything (ish) in the world about skincare. You may now refer to yourself as a mini dermatologist (but, like, maybe not in front of any actual doctors, k?). Now please, go deck out your face and bask in the glory of knowledge.

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