The general rule of thinking is to apply creams, lotions and serums with the thinnest or lightest consistencies first, recommends New York City dermatologist Joshua Zeichner. “For every rule, however, there may be an exception,” he says, so follow these guidelines with your judgment and the advice of your doctors.
In the mornings, “I usually recommend washing the face first and afterward applying serum,” he says. “Then you can follow with your moisturizer and lastly a mineral sunscreen.” There’s some debate, he says, about when is best to apply a chemical sunscreen. Some pros suggest applying to clean skin “as the ingredients in the chemical sunscreens interact with the skin to give adequate protection.” Chemical sun blockers work “by absorbing UV light and converting it into heat,” he says. “A mineral blocker works by forming a protective seal over the skin and reflecting harmful UV rays away.” That’s why it’s best to slather on that layer of mineral block right before you head out the door. “Cosmetics or moisturizers with tint should be applied last.”
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A note about the wrinkle-fighting ingredient retinol: “I generally recommend applying it in the evening,” says Dr. Zeichner, as in some product formulations the ingredient has the best chance at remaining stable and potent outside of certain UV light. So try designating it to your evening skincare ritual.
And if you’re dealing with acne medications that contain ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, try applying these over your moisturizer, as moisturizing the skin first hydrates and can help minimize any potential irritation, suggests Dr. Zeichner.
Generally speaking, you can view the morning as a time for prevention (your key player being sunscreen), and the evening a time for repair (hello, retinol). “For that reason, I typically recommend antioxidants in the morning, as they serve as fire-extinguishers that put out inflammation caused by free radical damage,” says Dr. Zeichner. (Free radical damage is a side-effect of sun exposure.) At night, look to products that repair and help stimulate skin-firming collagen with ingredients like retinol and peptides.