All Your Skincare Layering Questions Answered

With the exorbitant amount of skincare products on the market, it’s daunting to just buy a new serum, let alone assess where it fits into your routine. But the truth is, getting to grips with the basics of skincare layering is a great way to make sure you’re getting the most out of your products and tailoring your routine to your specific skin type.

Generally speaking (and I mean very generally), here is the order in which the products should be applied: cleanser, exfoliator, toner, essence, serum, eye cream, retinoid, moisturizer, face oil, SPF. But before you run for the hills, I can’t stress enough that there is no correct amount of product you to have to use. Whether your routine is two-step, three-step, or five-step is entirely up to you – more products don’t mean better results. In fact, after the big quarantine skincare boom of 2020, a time when people are scrambling to order massive amounts of skincare from their sofas, resulting in a national debate on how to repair a damaged skin barrier (no judgment, I’ve been there!) – more and more experts are preaching the benefits of a simple, straightforward routine. All this to say that the list above is by no means a manual that you must strictly adhere to – it is a loose skin care layering guide to help you understand approximately how the products interact and absorb each other.

But even with the scheme to refer to, skincare layering is not a one-size-fits-all system, and there are certainly exceptions. To dig deeper into more specific questions, I called on industry experts in dermatology and cosmetic chemistry. So if you’re wondering why some people apply their retinoid after their moisturizer and some before, or if you’re still unsure what the difference between a toner and an essence is, look no further.


Should you leave your skin damp or dry it completely?

This may be the first “skincare layering” decision you make at the start of your routine. According to Dr. Loretta Ciraldo MD FAAD, Miami-based board-certified dermatologist and founder of skincare brand Dr. Loretta, your skin is more permeable when wet, so leaving your skin moist will promote greater penetration and therefore will increase the effectiveness of your product.

If you’re using a hydrating toner or serum, a product filled with humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, for example, leaving your skin moist is a great way to help your product and ensure you’re providing as much moisture as possible for your skin. However, if you’re using a product with potentially irritating ingredients, like a retinoid or glycolic acid, for example, Dr. Loretta advises patting the skin completely dry or you run the risk of irritation.


What is the point of the scrub?

Exfoliators come in different shapes and sizes: toners, serums, masks, scrubs, and more. But generally, if you’re going to exfoliate, it should be done right after you cleanse your face. This way, the alpha and/or beta hydroxy acids can get to work, helping to slough off dead skin cells from the surface of your face, while preparing your complexion for the rest of your routine. AHAs and BHAs are wonderful performing ingredients with a wide range of benefits, including but not limited to oil control, fading hyperpigmentation, and alleviating texture issues. However, excessive exfoliation, i.e. too frequent use of AHA and BHA products, can actually disrupt your skin’s natural barrier, creating irritation, redness and breakouts. .

How often should you exfoliate?

Each skin type’s tolerance is unique to the person, but on average, one should exfoliate about two to three times a week.

Hydrating toners

Olivarrier Dual Moist Toning Lotion

Cosrx Full Fit Propolis Synergy Toner

Exfoliating toners

Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 1970 Exfoliating Lotion

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliator


Do toners moisturize?

If you grew up in the early 2000s, you might remember that toners were the astringent concoctions responsible for drying out our spotty teenage skin. But just like us, toner has matured a lot since then – thanks to the huge influence of Korean beauty on the industry, toners have since become much more cosmetically elegant, with an increased emphasis on hydration, nutrition and pH balancing of your skin, rather than oil absorption.

What if your tonic had exfoliating properties?

In addition to these new and improved formulas for quenching skin, there are also a ton of exfoliating toners, like the cult Organic P50 Toner or Paula’s Choice BHA, for example. If your toner contains exfoliating ingredients, count that product as your toning and exfoliating step and continue.

Essences and Serums

Once and for all, what is the difference between a hydrating toner, essence and serum?

Truth be told, not much, other than the fact that hydrating toners focus a bit more on pH balance and are often tasked with being applied with a cotton ball, and therefore work as a sort of second cleanse skin. According to Dr. Shuting Hu, cosmetic chemist and founder of skincare brand Acaderma, essences and serums are also virtually the same, with a few slight differences. “An essence is a lighter, less concentrated version of a serum. ,” she explained. “The main difference is that essences focus more on hydration whereas serums target a variety of skin concerns, like acne and dark spots, for example.”

Do you need to use hydrating toner, essence and serum together?

It’s certainly not essential to include these three products in your routine, but if you already have them all in your medicine cabinet and you really want them, go for it. Just be sure not to double up on products with potentially irritating ingredients, like lactic acid or glycolic acid.


Pyunkang Yul Essence Tonic

Tatcha the Essence Skincare Boosting Treatment

Joseon Ginseng essence water beauty

Cosrx Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence

111Skin Antioxidant Energizing Essence

You have several serums in your routine. How should you layer them?

According to Dr Hu, the easiest way to think about layering serums is to apply them from thinner to thicker – that way thinner, waterier serums can penetrate the skin without having to work very hard to go through a thicker formula. And again, AHAs and BHAs serve as a caveat: “If you’re using a peeling serum, like something that contains AHAs, mixed with another serum, it’s always best to use the serum first. containing acid, then wait a few minutes before applying the next serum,” says Dr. Hu.

Patricia J. Callender