Confused About Your Skincare Routine Steps? Here’s the Right Order

Skincare can be overwhelming, to say the least. When we were younger, it was pretty easy: Wash your face with any ol’ drugstore cleanser and maybe apply that random moisturizer sample that your mom got you from the department store. There weren’t too many steps involved, partly because far fewer products were available.

But as the beauty industry has boomed in recent years, you’ve likely accumulated a plethora of products that you haven’t the faintest idea what to do with, and you’re probably wondering which ones are actually necessary. And once you’ve pared down your routine to the absolute essentials, what are the proper skincare routine steps? Is it moisturizer before face oil? How many serums do you need? Do you even need a serum?

As a general rule, after cleansing you should start your routine with the thinnest (or most easily absorbed) products and work to the heaviest, which is usually an oil (because oils are emollients, they should always be used last, even after your moisturizer). Certain ingredients shouldn’t be used during the day—for example, retinol makes your skin more sensitive to sun exposure, so it’s not conducive for a morning routine—and others, like masks and treatments, work better when they’re kept on your skin overnight, so make sure you keep that in mind as you build your regimens.

Below, three respected skincare experts in Los Angeles—renowned celebrity facialist and founder of Joanna Vargas Salons and Skin Care, Joanna Vargas; owner of Crystal Clear Skin & Beauty, Crystal Koro; and lead aesthetician at The Things We Do, Aziel Rodgers—weigh in on what product categories you definitely need in your morning and evening skincare routines, and most important, what order to apply them in.


Morning Routine

Step 1: Cleanse
Though it might seem unnecessary to wash your face first thing in the morning, some sort of refresh will ensure that your skin starts with a totally clean slate. The buildup of any products you leave on your skin overnight can clog your pores, especially if you work out in the morning. Use a gentle cleanser—Koro recommends one that “detoxifies skin and removes dirt and oil without leaving [it] feeling stripped of moisture”—or wiping down with a cotton round and a hydrating toner if you’re on the drier side.

Shop cleansers: Summer Fridays Super Amino Gel Cleanser ($38); Farmacy Clean Bee Ultra Gentle Face Cleanser ($28); Versed Baby Cheeks All In One Hydrating Milk ($18); Garnier SkinActive Micellar Cleansing Water ($7)

Step 2: Serum

According to Koro, serum is a necessity. “While the specific type of serum you might need depends on your skin type, everyone can benefit from using one that contains protective ingredients like vitamin C, niancinamide and ferulic acid to protect skin against free radicals and has antioxidant properties.”

Shop serums: Drunk Elephant C-Firma Vitamin C Day Serum ($80); Glow Recipe Pineapple-C Bright Serum ($49); Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Liquid ($39); The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 ($7)

Step 3: Moisturizer

Even if you have oily skin, moisturizer is an absolute must in your routine. It helps maintain your skin’s moisture barrier throughout the day and it seals in all the serums underneath. According to Koro, the best moisturizers provide all these benefits without looking or feeling greasy or heavy. Many moisturizers even work well as a base layer for makeup so that you don’t have to use a primer.

Shop moisturizers: Tatcha Dewy Skin Cream ($68); La Mer Creme de La Mer ($180); Sunday Riley Brightening Enzyme Water Cream ($65); Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream ($29)

Step 4: Sunscreen

You’ve probably heard this a million times in the past few years, but it bears repeating: Sunscreen is a must. Every single day. Not every once in a while. Every day. SPF protects your skin against any potential damage that can come from sun exposure, which includes premature aging, dark spots and skin cancers. And while there are many two-in-one moisturizer-sunscreen combos out there, using separate products ensures that you are completely protecting your skin from UV damage. There are two main types of SPF—physical and chemical—with pros and cons for each. In general, physical sunscreens are better tolerated by sensitive skin, while chemical sunscreens tend to hold up better for oilier skin (or people who are very active).

Shop sunscreens: Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40 ($34); Perricone MD High Potency Classics: Face Finishing & Firming Moisturizer Tint SPF 30 ($69); Sun Bum Original SPF 50 Sunscreen Face Lotion ($13); Neutrogena Clear Face Break-Out Free Liquid Lotion Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 55 ($11)

Optional Steps:

The four steps above are the absolute bare minimum to include in your daily morning routine, but you can add a few supplemental products if you need help troubleshooting specific skin concerns.

Essence: Adopted from eastern Asian beauty routines, essences have slowly trickled into the mainstream market. These thin, sometimes viscous liquids are meant to be the first step in your skincare routine after cleansing (and before serums). They add more moisture and help prepare your skin for the following steps.

Shop essences: Peach & Lily Wild Dew Treatment Essence ($39); Then I Met You The Giving Essence ($50)

Eye Cream: Some aestheticians, like Koro, believe that eye cream is a must-have product in your morning regimen. Others insist that you can achieve the same effects with a layer of moisturizer under your eyes. If you decide to use an eye cream, Koro recommends applying it before your moisturizer.

Shop eye creams: Olehenriksen Banana Bright Eye Creme ($39); Kiehl's Creamy Eye Treatment With Avocado ($32)

Face Oil: Many people with oilier skin avoid face oils—especially during the day—but if you’re on the drier side and need a little extra moisture, an oil can help. Oils form an occlusive seal to keep in all the goodness from the rest of your skincare routine so that you don’t get as dry or flaky throughout the day. Be sure to use it after your moisturizer to reap the benefits. The dewy finish is a bonus.

Shop face oils: Glossier Futuredew ($31); Drunk Elephant Virgin Marula Antioxidant Face Oil ($72)


Evening Routine

Step 1: Cleanser

There are two ways you can go about this at night: single cleansing or double cleansing. Single cleansing is exactly what it sounds like—washing your face once with a cleanser (preceded by a makeup remover for more stubborn products like waterproof mascara). Double cleansing means you’ll use an oil cleanser to break down your makeup before lathering up with a regular face wash. Though both methods are effective, Rodgers advocates for a double cleanse. “Even if you don’t wear makeup, and even if you have oily skin, using an oil cleanser first will help dissolve any impurities and draw out excess sebum, prepping it for the next cleanse.”

Shop cleansers: Go-To Skincare Fancy Face Nourishing Oil Cleanser ($45); Farmacy Green Clean Makeup Removing Cleansing Balm ($34); Then I Met You The Cleansing Duo ($68); Glamglow Supercleanse Clearing Cream-to-Foam Cleanser ($32); Joanna Vargas Vitamin C Face Wash ($40)

Step 2: Exfoliation

While exfoliation should be a part of your routine only a few times a week (and even less if you have sensitive skin), both Rodgers and Vargas agree that this necessary step should take place at night. You can choose to chemically exfoliate with an acid treatment or physically exfoliate with a scrub or cleansing device. Exfoliation helps lift the dead skin cells away to expedite cell turnover and allow products to penetrate better into the skin. Rodgers recommends steering clear of any abrasive scrubs, as they can further sensitize the skin.

Shop exfoliators: Pixi Beauty Glow Tonic ($29); Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Intensive Exfoliating Treatment ($85); Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment ($105); Summer Fridays R+R Mask ($52); Tatcha The Rice Polish Foaming Enzyme Powder ($65); Foreo Luna Mini 3 ($159)

Step 3: Serum

Your skin does most of its cell turnover at night, so this is when your products really get to work. If you have specific issues like dryness or dark spots that you’re trying to remedy, look for serums that target those areas of concern. Speaking of targeting, you don’t have to apply your serums to your entire face. For example, if you need extra moisture in your cheeks but want to control the oils in your T-zone , apply a hydrating serum just to the spots that need it and allow it to sink in before applying your next and final step.

Shop serums: Dior Capture Youth Serum Plump Filler ($95); Glossier Super Pure ($28); Peach & Lily Glass Skin Refining Serum ($39); Dr. Jart+ Cicapair Tiger Grass Serum ($46); Mario Badescu Anti Acne Serum ($20)

Step 4: Moisturizer

Nighttime moisturizers are typically heavier than daytime moisturizers. That said, opt for creamy products over gel formulas, because creams are more effective at stopping transepidermal water loss and will help keep moisture in while you sleep.

Shop moisturizers: Drunk Elephant Lala Retro Whipped Moisturizer ($60); Augustinus Bader The Cream ($265); Algenist Genius Sleeping Collagen ($98); CeraVe Skin Renewing Night Cream ($14); Herbivore Botanicals Moon Fruit Super Night Treatment ($58)

Optional Steps:

Again, the four steps above are the absolute minimum to include in your evening routine. For additional help, you can add one of the following products as needed.

Mask: If you plan to apply a mask, the best time to do it is right after you’ve finished cleansing (and exfoliating, if it’s part of your routine that night). While masks aren’t a necessity, they can give your skin a little extra TLC if you’re in need of a boost. Vargas recommends using a hydrating sheet mask after exfoliating to help soothe the skin if it has become sensitized, or you can use a spreadable mask to target other issues, like dryness, darkness or hyperpigmentation.

Shop masks: Patchology FlashMasque Illuminate 5 Minute Sheet Mask ($30); Dr. Jart+ Firm Lover Rubber Mask ($12); Innisfree Super Volcanic Clusters Pore Clearing Mask ($15); Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask ($45); The Things We Do Liquid Lift Sleeping Mask ($62)

Retinol: This ingredient—which is a derivative of vitamin A—is touted as the holy grail for all things anti-aging, so it makes sense that both Vargas and Rodgers made a point to mention it. Note that it’s meant to be applied directly after cleansing. Because retinol can leave your skin a bit sensitive, it’s best not to use it on the same days as exfoliation. To get started, Rodgers recommends using it only once a week so your skin can get acclimated, and then you can increase the frequency over time. If your skin is too sensitive for retinol, try bakuchiol, which is a plant-based alternative that offers similar results.

Shop retinols: Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinol Serum ($85); Shani Darden Retinol Reform ($88); Herbivore Botanicals Bakuchiol Serum ($54)

Spot Treatment: Whether it’s a zit or a dry patch, spot treatments can help address your skin concerns as they (forgive the pun) pop up. Like retinols, spot treatments should be the closest layer to your skin to ensure maximum efficiency, so apply them right after you cleanse and don't use retinols on the same day that you spot treat.

Shop spot treatments: Kinship Pimple Potion Gentle + Healthy Acne Solution ($18), Tatcha The Serum Stick ($48)

Eye Cream: Some people really see a difference when they use the right eye cream, so if you find one that works for you, feel free to incorporate it into your routine. Rodgers cautions that if the formula is too heavy, it can cause milia (small bumps around your eyes), so you’ll want to find one that’s heavy enough to hydrate yet light enough to layer.

Shop eye creams: La Mer The Eye Concentrate ($235); Dior Capture Totale C.E.L.L. Energy ($105)

Face Oil: Last but not least, face oils serve the same purpose in the daytime as they do at night, though you can use a thicker oil at nighttime. Rodgers recommends either layering this on top of your moisturizer or mixing the two together before applying for a hydrating boost.

Shop face oils: Peach & Lily Pure Beam Luxe Oil ($39); Mara Algae + Moringa Universal Face Oil ($72)

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Freelance PureWow Editor