What’s The Deal With Layering Skincare Products?

Your go-to guide for all the dos and don’ts!

Layering skincare products
Image credit: @sokoskincare/Instagram

So you’ve finally strung together a skincare collection you’re proud of – cleansers, serums, a toner, moisturizers, an eye cream, face oils, maybe a spot treatment, masks, dare I say retinol?! and more. It runs the gamut. And now it’s all patiently sitting in your bathroom cabinet waiting to be used.
Now what? Can you apply all the products at once, twice a day, every day? Will your skin freak TF out if you do that? Should your AM routine differ from your PM routine?
Not to fear, we consulted Shani Darden, Garnier celebrity esthetician (clients include the likes of Jessica Alba, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and Chrissy Teigen), and Dr. Melanie Palm, board-certified dermatologist, and cosmetic surgeon, for the 411 on how to effectively apply and layer your skincare to avoid irritation and maximize your product benefits.

Courtesy of Shani Darden
Shani Darden

What not to layer

“Do not combine benzoyl peroxide with most anti-aging topicals. Benzoyl peroxide (found most commonly in acne treatments) can inactivate the free-radical fighting ability of ascorbic acid (aka vitamin C), and it can neutralize retinol and retinoid activity,” says Dr. Palm. “BP can also eliminate the ability of certain brightening ingredients, such as hydroquinone, to work by oxidizing the molecule.”
Basically, if you’re using an acne cleanser or treatment AND retinol, vitamin C serum or a dark spot corrector (the big active here would be hydroquinone), double check the acne product for benzoyl peroxide. Then think twice before slathering both on.
“If you’re using too many active products at once (such as glycolic, salicylic acid and retinol), you can risk over-exfoliating the skin which can lead to dryness, irritation, or even chemical burns. Additionally, you risk diluting the efficacy of any product you’re using,” Darden adds.

What you can layer

Layering skincare products
Image credit: @sokoskincare/Instagram

“Generally speaking, you want to combine like with like. Lighter formulations like gels and serums combine well together. Be careful with oils – they may cause some other skincare topicals or makeup to separate,” says Dr. Palm.
“Combining topical antioxidants like vitamin C with a glycolic is great – the latter helps drive the ascorbic acid into the skin. I also like combining peptides (aka amino acids) with a retinol or retinoid. Peptides often helps calm skin and gently build collagen, while the vitamin A derivatives help more robustly improve the dermis.”
Quick recap: you NEED peptides some way, somehow because these little wonders support collagen building which is the fountain of youth to fineline-free skin. Try Biossance’s Squalane + Peptide Eye Gel – this tiny, but mighty, eye gel drastically reduces dark circles, puffiness and firms the eye area.

The application process

“If products are well-formulated with vehicles and active ingredients that don’t compete or degrade with one another, you can layer on one right after the other, or even mix products in the palm of your hand prior to applying on your face and neck,” says Dr. Palm.
A good rule of thumb is to always start with lighter products and end with the heaviest. If you put on a thick moisturizer before your serum, odds are the serum won’t penetrate your skin and you won’t absorb all the heavenly goodness it has to offer.

Your ideal routine: AM and PM

Darden breaks out the steps:

  • Morning: Cleanse, toner (if you use one), antioxidant serum, eye cream, hydrating serum (if extra hydration is needed), moisturizer, sunscreen.
  • Night: Cleanse, toner (if you use one), treatment serum OR exfoliant (do not use at the same time), eye cream, hydrating serum (if extra hydration is needed), moisturizer.

Quick side note: I think we can all agree that toners are weird. It feels like an unnecessary step and they’re not always imperative unless you’re using one that is specifically formulated to adjust the skin’s pH, usually between a 4.5-5.5., Dr. Palm tells us. BUT if you want to dabble, a good intro toner is the Kiehl’s Ulta Facial Toner. It’s a gentle, alcohol-free toner for all skin types, formulated with squalane – a botanical lipid derived from olives to help replenish the skin’s barrier, Cool, right?
Keep scrolling for more product recs!

Must-have products (and stellar ingredients) for your skin type

“A clean canvas is always essential for any skincare routine,” says Darden. “If you’re wearing makeup, use a micellar water first to remove all makeup, such as Garnier’s SkinActive Water Rose Micellar Water. It’s a gentle enough formula that all skin types can use. Follow up with a Cleansing Serum which thoroughly cleanses the skin without stripping it, by protecting the barrier and preventing moisture loss.”
For an even deeper clean, Dr. Palm recommends using a sonicating facial cleansing brush (try the Clarisonic Mia Smart) to effectively remove dead skin cells, excess sebum, and even environmental debris. She also notes product picks will vary based on individual skin type and provides the key ingredients to look out for according to your skin type.
“Sensitive and dry skin benefit from thicker formulations with active skin reparative and moisturizing ingredients such as ceramides and glycerin,” says Dr. Palm. “Acne/oily prone skin benefit from mattifying and oil-absorbing products, with salicylic acid, sulfur, or niacinamide to combat breakouts and control oil. Sensitive skin types should avoid fragrances, harsh anti-aging products and sometimes even vitamin C – sensitive skin thrives with milky or quickly absorbing formulations that focus on anti-inflammation and gentle skin renewal, with green tea and peptides.”
Something we’re loving right now is a multi-tasking serum, fitting for multiple skin types, recommended by Darden. Retinol Reform addresses different concerns, from anti-aging to blemishes. It combines lactic acid and retinol to gently exfoliate, boost collagen in the skin, minimize fine lines and wrinkles, smooth skin texture, and reduce hyperpigmentation.
Another dynamic skin cocktail is layering a hyaluronic acid serum with a deeply-hydrating moisturizer. Give the iS Clinical Hydra-Cool Serum a spin. “It combines hyaluronic acid with antioxidants to hydrate and calm the skin. Follow that up with a great moisturizer for your skin type for deeply hydrated, glowing skin,” Darden says. For 24/7 hydration, suitable for both day + night and all skin types, dive into Tula’s 24-7 moisture hydrating day and night cream.
Now that you’re a skincare queen, it’s time to show that bathroom cabinet some love and apply all of your newly found wisdom.
Happy skincare layering!

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