One of the more frequent questions I get asked is: What is the correct order to apply my skincare products in? And the answer is an absolutely dissatisfying: „That depends!“
Just like it is in many other areas of skincare, there is not much research to help answer the question.
It would be hard to design a study around that topic anyway. I mean, what does „right“ mean here? Most efficient? Least harmful? Or most pleasant experience? All three could be right for you. As always in skin care it comes down on what you want your routine to do.
So in an attempt to give you a comprehensive guide, let me break down the best order to apply your products in – depending on what you want to achieve!
The „thinnest to thickest“ rule
I bet most of you have heard the following advice: Skincare should always be applied thinnest to thickest! But while that is a good rule of thumb, it is not true in every situation.
Where does the „thinnest to thickest“ rule come from?
The reason behind it is that the heavier (read more occlusive) the formula is, the more it will slow down absorption of what is applied on top. Some people will even tell you that once you applied an oil or occlusive cream, anything put on top will no longer work for you.
That is of course not true. No one ingredient in skincare is that occlusive that it completely stops the penetration of things put on top, not even vaseline, and that is as occlusive as it gets. (Read more about occlusives in skincare here)
Totally a good thing, because a substance that would prevent all penetration would in turn also prevent any perspiration. Not as funny as you would think – people have done damage to their health by wrapping themselves in clingfoil for an extended period of time.
Exceptions from that rule
It does make sense though to go from thinnest to thickest to get results quickly, unless (first exception here!) you have good reason to slow down absorption.
Introducing a strong retinoid could be such a reason for example. By applying your retinoid after an oil or moisturizer it gets absorbed slower, which reduces the risk for irritation (see video).
So: A thick before thin application might be the best for sensitive skins that want to use actives.
The “Actives always go first!“ rule
Again, a great rule of thumb. To get the most out of the actives (as in prescriptions or simply stronger OTC products) you should apply them when they can best penetrate the skin, which is before anything else and directly after cleansing.
That might go against the thickest to thinnest rule, as Tretinoin for example comes often in creams or gels rather than serums, and that means you need to be clear what you want to achieve:
Maximum results, then the actives go first, or optimal penetration for everything, then you go thickest to thinnest.
Or, which is what I do: When you use strong actives, you keep the rest of your routine simple. That way you don´t have to layer at all!
The best place in your routine for specific products
As long as it is not an Overnight Mask (in which case it goes last), use it when you would use your actives, which is directly after cleansing
If you want to use one (they are not really a necessity), apply it after serum and before your face cream as it tends to have a light texture.
For best results, apply them onto clean skin, but make sure to not move them around when you go in with the rest of your skincare. If that is too much hassle, apply them last and maybe wipe away the products applied beforehand using a q-tip.
That totally depends on the oil. Thinner, more dry textures can go in before creams, heavy oils should be applied last. In general though oils are again not an essential skincare step, so I wouldn´t stress too much about where I apply them.
There is no right or wrong way of applying your skincare, there is just a way that is right for what YOU want to achieve.
Give each layer time to absorb, think about what you want from the ingredients put on your face and keep it as simple as possible – it is as easy as that!