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How to Layer Your Skincare Products

Written by Kat Freitas-Seitz

| Illustrations by Megan Badilla

Whether you’re a skincare minimalist or a 10-step Korean routine devotee, adding a new product to your regimen can be tricky. There’s always the possibility that your shiny new serum will irritate your skin (or have no effect at all). To help you get the most out of your products, we create this handy guide to layering your skincare—from the order you should apply to the ingredients you definitely shouldn’t mix.

Go from light to heavy

When applying skincare products, the golden rule is to go from light to heavy textures. Ingredients tend to penetrate better when you start with light, watery products (e.g., facial mists and toners) and finish with heavy creams and moisturizers. Heavier textures are generally occlusive—they seal in moisture and whatever you applied before them. Save these for your last step before sunscreen and makeup.

1. Toners, Facial Mists

2. Essences, Ampoules, Serums

3. Oils, Creams, Moisturizers

4. Sunscreen, Makeup Primer

Apply your sunscreen last

Sun protection should come last in your skincare routine. Dermatologists recommend applying at least ¼ teaspoon to cover your entire face. Give your sunscreen a few seconds to dry (it’s a myth that you need to wait for it to “activate,” but it’s best to let the product set over your skin), and then move on to primer and makeup if you wear them.

Mind your actives

When it comes to layering skincare, active ingredients—e.g., retinol, salicylic acid, and vitamin C—are where a lot of people get tripped up. Here’s a list of the most common actives found in skincare products and what you need to know about applying them.

Ingredient

Doesn’t mix with…

Apply it…

Alpha arbutin

None.

Day or night.

Alpha hydroxy acids (like lactic, glycolic, malic, and mandelic acids)

None. Be careful when layering AHAs with vitamin C and retinoids—they can be irritating when combined.

Day or night (it’s a myth that AHAs shouldn’t be applied during the day), but you should wear sunscreen no matter what. AHAs exfoliate the top layer of your skin, leaving you more susceptible to sun damage. Always wear sunscreen during the day when an AHA is part of your routine.

Ascorbic acid (aka vitamin C)

None. You may have heard that you shouldn’t apply vitamin C and niacinamide together, but that's not true. This pure form of vitamin C can be irritating, so be careful when layering it with AHAs and retinoids.

Day or night. Vitamin C combats free radicals and reduces photosensitivity, so it’s especially good for daytime.

Azelaic acid

None.

Day or night.

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide and retinoids don’t mix. Benzoyl peroxide can degrade retinoids, making them ineffective.

Day or night.

Hyaluronic acid

None.

Day or night. Hyaluronic acid works best when you seal it in with a facial oil or moisturizer.

Niacinamide (aka vitamin B3)

None. (You can even use it with vitamin C—really!)

Day or night.

Retinoids (like retinol, tretinoin, adapalene and tazarotene)

Retinoids and benzoyl peroxide don’t mix. Benzoyl peroxide can degrade retinoids, making them ineffective.

Depends. Some retinoids (like tretinoin and retinol) are sensitive to light so it’s recommended that you use them at night. Adapalene and tazarotene, on the other hand, can be used during the day. Always wear sunscreen during the day when a retinoid is part of your routine.

Salicylic acid

None. Be careful when layering with AHAs and retinoids, as they can cause irritation and dryness.

Day or night. In fact, salicylic acid actually has some UV-protective powers, making it good for daytime application.


Ingredient: Alpha arbutin

Doesn’t mix with…:

None.

Apply it… : Day or night.


Ingredient: Alpha hydroxy acids (like lactic, glycolic, malic, and mandelic acids)

Doesn’t mix with…:

None. Be careful when layering AHAs with vitamin C and retinoids—they can be irritating when combined.

Apply it… : Day or night (it’s a myth that AHAs shouldn’t be applied during the day), but you should wear sunscreen no matter what. AHAs exfoliate the top layer of your skin, leaving you more susceptible to sun damage. Always wear sunscreen during the day when an AHA is part of your routine.


Ingredient: Ascorbic acid (aka vitamin C)

Doesn’t mix with…:

None. You may have heard that you shouldn’t apply vitamin C and niacinamide together, but that's not true. This pure form of vitamin C can be irritating, so be careful when layering it with AHAs and retinoids.

Apply it… : Day or night. Vitamin C combats free radicals and reduces photosensitivity, so it’s especially good for daytime.


Ingredient: Azelaic acid

Doesn’t mix with…:

None.

Apply it… : Day or night.


Ingredient: Benzoyl peroxide

Doesn’t mix with…:

Benzoyl peroxide and retinoids don’t mix. Benzoyl peroxide can degrade retinoids, making them ineffective.

Apply it… : Day or night.


Ingredient: Hyaluronic acid

Doesn’t mix with…:

None.

Apply it… : Day or night. Hyaluronic acid works best when you seal it in with a facial oil or moisturizer.


Ingredient: Niacinamide (aka vitamin B3)

Doesn’t mix with…:

None. (You can even use it with vitamin C—really!)

Apply it… : Day or night.


Ingredient: Retinoids (like retinol, tretinoin, adapalene and tazarotene)

Doesn’t mix with…:

Retinoids and benzoyl peroxide don’t mix. Benzoyl peroxide can degrade retinoids, making them ineffective.

Apply it… : Depends. Some retinoids (like tretinoin and retinol) are sensitive to light so it’s recommended that you use them at night. Adapalene and tazarotene, on the other hand, can be used during the day. Always wear sunscreen during the day when a retinoid is part of your routine.


Ingredient: Salicylic acid

Doesn’t mix with…:

None. Be careful when layering with AHAs and retinoids, as they can cause irritation and dryness.

Apply it… : Day or night. In fact, salicylic acid actually has some UV-protective powers, making it good for daytime application.

When combining actives, it’s best to consider your skin type. While it’s okay to apply an AHA and vitamin C at the same time, these two ingredients can exacerbate dryness and irritation. If your skin is sensitive or you’re new to skincare, try applying your actives at different times—i.e., vitamin C in the morning and lactic acid at night—to see how your skin reacts.

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