You just bought the most popular skincare products with the best ingredients, and you figure using them religiously should give you that perfect glass skin that you are looking for. Unfortunately, that’s not enough. What is critical to this success is the order of skincare products that you follow.
Healthy skin isn’t only about DNA and the products you use – your everyday habits have a huge impact on how you will look when you face yourself in the mirror.
One of the key variables here is the quality of your routine. So how do you find the best skincare routine that works for you? You have to remember, at the end of the day, taking care of your skin is a very personal thing.
Key questions to building your own skincare routine
- What products do you need?
- What’s the order for these skin care products?
- What exactly does each of these products do and contribute to your skin care health?
- Is the routine the best based on YOUR skin type and current condition?
- How many different ingredients should you have and when does it get to be too many?
The first 2 questions are extremely important to get right. After you haul in all your favorite beauty products, does it matter the order of how you use them in your routine? And the answer turns out, it certainly does!
The order of the routine is really important; our skin is meant to keep things out. However, we want all the wonderful ingredients in these products to get inside the skin, and preferably deeply. To make these products perform to their fullest extent, you need to use them in the correct order.
While everybody’s skin is different, we still generally belong to a certain skin type. But on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, the condition of our skin can change significantly because of weather, stress, the timing of PMS, and many other factors. That’s why it’s tricky to settle on the right routine with the right products, and the mix of products to use will almost certainly change over time.
But to get you started, here we will cover some fundamentals that apply to most people. If you’re not sure how to build a skincare regime, then this is the right place to start.
By the way, no ONE skincare routine will be ideal for everyone. You should find something that’s right for you, and usually, there will be one for daytime and a different one for your nighttime.
Don’t worry, we will lay out the order of skincare for oily skin, sensitive skin, combination skin, and other skin types by highlighting anything you need to watch out for throughout this article.
I recommend you start simple if this is all new to you. Start with the bare minimum of 3 steps. Then slowly as you feel comfortable, you can follow those people who have the discipline to do 10 steps twice a day in search of the perfect glass skin.
Remember the order and layer of how you apply skincare products will have a major impact on how effective these products turn out to be. The more steps and products you do, the more important that you get the order right.
Three basic and also beginner steps
- Tone and treat
You may already know how to cleanse and moisturize, but what does it mean to treat your skin? This category can be quite broad and can include antioxidant serum or creams with vitamin C, retinol, hydroxy acid, etc.
Introducing an intermediate step between cleansing and moisturizing is very important. The right treatment products will have a huge impact on your skin’s health over time.
Over time you may find yourself using more than one treatment product in a routine. First of all, you need to be aware there are certain types of treatments that are not meant to be used together on the same day (meaning you need to either use them morning vs night or on alternate days).
And if you are to use multiple treatment products at the same time, a general rule of thumb is to apply them based on their texture – from thinner consistency to thicker, or from liquid to cream. Thinner ingredients cannot penetrate thicker products, so you want to apply the thinner ones first.
A slightly different way to approach this is to start with products that have ingredients that should go deep into the skin. These include the antioxidants in various serums. Then you can finish up with good skincare products that are meant to target the skin surface.
Getting the order of your skincare routine right makes sure you are not wasting your time, effort, and money. No one wants to splurge on expensive serums that end up being ineffective because you used them in the wrong order.
For those who are ready to take the next step, now we will take you through each of the steps in more detail. The differences in the day and night procedures are included below as well.
Scroll to the bottom for our step-by-step skin care routine cheat sheet broken out by Day vs Night.
Double Cleansing (Day and Night)
Cleansing is the first step of any skin care routine. Washing your face is a simple but critical step. The general rule of thumb is to wash your face twice a day; once in the morning and once at night.
The nighttime wash, in particular, if you had put makeup on, involves double cleansing with a cleansing oil or cleansing balm first, followed by a gentle creamy cleanser. The cleansing oil has the ability to dissolve your makeup so that’s why it goes first. Pat your face dry with a soft towel afterward.
The right cleansing products need to clean your face without removing healthy essential oils. When choosing a facial cleanser, beginners should go for a gentle, moisturizing one. We recommend avoiding sulfates, which can have a harsh, stripping effect on your face.
If you have dry skin, then it’s safe to use water only without any cleanser in the morning. Cleaning properly in the evening, however, should never be compromised.
Only when you have a truly clean and fresh face then we are ready for the rest of your routine.
Exfoliators usually fall into 2 categories, physical and chemical. Both clean pores and get rid of dead skin cells, to expose brighter and smoother skin. This step should be done in your nighttime skincare routine.
If you want to use a physical exfoliant, such as a face scrub, then it could replace the creamy cleanser step after cleansing oil.
Either way, doing exfoliation about twice a month should be adequate for most beginners. Ramp it up slowly to a higher frequency if you are relatively new to exfoliating.
Toners (Day or Night or both)
Toners can be a perfect way to balance your skin’s pH level. These thin liquids offer an additional boost in nutrients and help your skin properly absorb the other ingredients in the later steps of your routine. It’s best to apply toner with clean hands. Just pour a few drops in your hand, then pat it onto your face.
Most toners can be used morning and night unless the toner is exfoliating – meaning that it extracts dead skin cells with ingredients such as glycolic acid. Use these only at night or every other day. Remember you must not use exfoliating toners and retinoids or other exfoliators together.
– Look for a toner with ingredients such as BHA (beta hydroxy acid, salicylic acid) or AHA (alpha hydroxy acid, glycolic acid or lactic acid) that unclog pores, avoid breakouts and dissolve blackheads over time.
– Go for a moisturizing toner to soothe and replenish moisture. Actives such as hyaluronic acid can fill the skin with hydration and get your skin ready for the next steps in your routine.
Essence (Day and Night)
Considered by many to be one of the most important steps in the best Korean skincare routines, the category of essence products is still relatively unknown to many others.
Essence is the secret to achieving glowing skin in the Korean skin care regimen. It is a hybrid between toner and serums. Rather than focusing on one thick cream to do everything, the Korean skincare approach encourages layering on products that enable the skin to relax and prevent pores from being clogged up.
Usually, essences are often finer in texture, and some also feel watery. They penetrate the skin to a deeper level and allow easier absorption of the good stuff to come next. It also hydrates the skin, promotes cellular turnover for a more youthful look.
If you find a good essence, it should take no time to apply and get absorbed; so this extra step should not take you more than an extra minute or two.
Serums and Ampoules (Day and Night)
Serums are heavily concentrated, nutrient-dense therapies that address specific skin concerns. This is the step where you push those active ingredients to the skin that you got ready from cleansing and toning.
Serums are made with lower molecular weight active ingredients so that they can penetrate deeper layers of the skin. If you apply serum later on by mistake, the active ingredients won’t penetrate as well.
You can apply serums day and night, but likely different products at those times. In the morning, choose an antioxidant serum that protects your skin from daytime stressors such as UV rays or toxins. Vitamin C serum, my favorite, is known to brighten skin and eliminate dark spots effectively with diligent use, is a popular choice.
At night, opt for peptide serum and growth factors to heal your skin. Retinol and vitamin B3 products can also promote the production of collagen that prevents wrinkles, fine lines, and sagging. Exfoliating treatments (peel pads and masks) should also be used at night only.
Other wonderful ingredients that are good for both day and night include niacinamide to minimize redness, hyaluronic acid to moisturize the skin, and AHAs and BHAs to help with skin pigmentation. Hyaluronic acid is particularly helpful if you are also using any anti-aging or acne treatment products that may irritate and dry your skin.
– Look for stem cells, retinol, and green tea
– Look for lipids, hyaluronic acid, and peptides
– Look for a good vitamin C serum which is known to be very effective against pigmentation. (see the Imagine Vital C Hydrating serum above).
If you have several skin concerns to treat, then you may want to use more than one serum. But remember, whatever you choose to use, water-based serums should go before moisturizer; facial oil-based serums should be used after moisturizer.
And it’s best to keep the following treatments to different nights:
- retinol and exfoliators
- acne/rosacea medications and exfoliators
Sheet masks (Night)
The variety of sheet masks available in the market these days will amaze anyone. From hydrating to anti-aging functions, from black to multi-colors, or from bubbling to animal-looking ones, sheet masks come in many different types.
The way masks are applied, the active ingredients they have are forced to interact with your skin directly for a longer period of time, allowing for better absorption. No matter what skin type you have, you will easily find sheet masks that will help the concerns you want to address and benefit and supplement your skin care routine.
How often you apply a sheet mask is definitely a personal preference. Starting with once a week is quite nice. Many Koreans do this every night. In recent years I have usually managed to do this about twice a week to some weeks where I masked up 5 out of 7 nights. I prefer sheet masks that adhere well to my face so that I can carry on with doing other things at the same time. Then this step does not really take up any extra time of my day.
Eye cream (Day and Night)
Specialized eye cream is an optional step in the routines; but if you opt to use one, it is normally layered underneath the moisturizer because eye creams are thinner.
I don’t use one of these personally. Right now, I’m comfortable enough to use a regular moisturizer around my eyes. Maybe one day I’m going to try to add an eye cream to my routine.
If you have specific issues with your eye area, such as dry skin under eyes or puffiness, then it’s a good idea to use an eye cream. The skin around the eyes is very thin and sensitive and is more likely to react to irritating ingredients. Therefore, most people go gentle.
You can choose eye creams with lower amounts of active ingredients to begin with. However, if you can tolerate it, conditioning your eye area to accommodate more active ingredients (like retinol) can be really beneficial.
If you want to play it safe, go for a moisturizing eye cream (with hyaluronic acid and ceramide) that gives your skin a good protective barrier. But hydrating eye cream should be used only in the morning. Using a hydrating one at night can cause fluid retention that makes the eyes look puffy in the morning. Store your eye cream in the refrigerator if you can, and use it in the morning to help with your under-eye pockets.
If you have:
Undereye bags and inflammation
Use caffeine, peptides, and hyaluronic acid
Use vitamin C, kojic acid and niacinamide
- Eye cream should be gently dabbled, not only underneath, but all the way around the eyes.
- You can also pat a little bit of your favorite serum or essence around your eyes before applying the eye cream.
- If you worry the eye cream will make your concealer or eye makeup run, then go for a lighter hydrating gel that settles in easily and stays in place. (So, once again, use hydrating eye cream in the morning)
Spot Treatments (Day or Night)
Acne and other spot treatments are typically are applied at night. However, switch them to the morning if you want to use retinol at night instead. Acne-fighting ingredients should not be used at the same time as retinol, which may lead to inflammation. Regardless, spot treatments should be applied before moisturizer.
Pimples and acne
Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are proven to treat pimples and acne effectively (but not together, unless you want to irritate your skin). Benzoyl peroxide eliminates acne-causing bacteria – use it for classic whiteheads. Salicylic acid dissolves oil and skin cells (use it for clogged pores and inflamed bumps).
Apply just a thin film on the pimple or zit. Be careful not to smear the treatment to other areas of your face when you apply a moisturizer later.
Note that these treatments will dry your face, so please use it only on targeted areas where you really need it.
Dark spots and acne scars
Use hydroquinone (a skin-bleaching ingredient that works well but is very irritating) or niacinamide (ie. vitamin B3) to brighten scars over time. Niacinamide can be used daily – most formulations won’t irritate. Hydroquinone, on the other hand, should be used every other day (or even every three days) until you know how your skin reacts to it.Back to Top
Moisturizers and cream (Day and Night)
Moisturizing is a super important step and a cornerstone of any skincare routine. The basic function of a moisturizer is to hydrate our skin. It prevents the loss of water from our skin. It also helps seal in all the good stuff we have applied so far to make these ingredients even more effective.
You need to use a moisturizer, no matter what kind of skin you have. But your choice can vary based on your needs.
A special mention for people with dry or acne-prone skin. You must still use a moisturizer for hydration. And be careful not to over-wash your face, since this will cause an over-production of oil on your skin. Dry skin makes things worse.
Look for non-comedogenic ones instead – these moisturizers do not contain things that can clog up pores and cause more breakouts.
Star ingredients in moisturizers
- Hyaluronic acid: fills the skin and restores hydration.
- Ceramides: important for building skin barrier, especially for people with dry skin and eczema
- Vitamin C: a great antioxidant and brightener
Day Vs Night Cream
In the morning, you want to choose moisturizers that shield you from environmental aggressors. Antioxidants can minimize pollution-based free radicals and SPF can protect you from ultraviolet radiation. Go for a light, gentle hyaluronic cream.
Find one with SPF 30+, particularly if you’re not going to use a separate sunscreen later. It’s best that you can let it settle for a few minutes before doing makeup.
Night creams should focus on skin recovery. Your skin is going to work extra hard while you’re sleeping. You may use ingredients like retinol to improve cellular regeneration. Night creams should also replenish hydration.
As we said earlier, if you are using an acne spot treatment, you want to avoid those spots when applying your night cream. We don’t want the ingredients in your cream competing with the active ingredients in your spot treatments.
Apply sun protection daily, even on cloudy days. Sunscreen doesn’t need to penetrate anything, so it can be the very last step of your routine. It shields your skin against the outside world. Yet this step is a very crucial step that you cannot skip.
Daily sunscreen can protect you from UV radiation, prevents skin cancer and signs of aging. The sun is the number one cause why skin ages prematurely. Even though you spend your days indoors, UV rays will still pass through the windows without you realizing it.
Broad-spectrum and the 30 and 30 rules
When you are browsing the many sunscreen choices out there, remember 3 rules:
- Go for a broad-spectrum one, which combines physical and chemical blocking, and therefore protects you from both UVA and UVB rays. The bonus is they typically do not create any visible residue.
- Look for a sunscreen with at least SPF 30.
- Apply it 30 minutes before sun exposure, and reapply at least every two hours.
Mineral vs Chemical Sunscreen
Mineral sunscreens (like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) serve as blockers, physically preventing sun rays from reaching the skin. They’re deflecting light away from your skin. Zinc is safe, reliable and offers the best possible defense against UVA and UVB rays.
A bonus is zinc oxide sunscreens are a great choice for oily skin as well as combination skin types due to their matte finish.
On the other hand, chemical sunscreens (octocrylene or avobenzone) shield the skin from UV rays by absorbing light first and turning it to heat, stopping it from entering the skin.
Mineral formulations are also ideal for sensitive skin, whereas chemical formulas are usually thinner and can be spread better. You may be able to find chemical sunscreens that provide moisturizing benefits, so you can take care of your everyday hydration needs while protecting your skin from the sun.
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