State of Skin is our monthlong exploration of what women love, hate, and need to know about their skin — from the most common concerns to the best kept secrets in beauty.

By Erin Lukas
Nov 13, 2019 @ 10:30 am
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
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Sure, your medicine cabinet may be bursting with skincare products, but all of the cleansers, creams, serums, and masks you stocked up on aren't going to do anything for your skin if you're not using them correctly. 

As it turns out, the order you apply your skincare products matters — a lot. For each product to be effective, you need to follow a lineup that doesn’t cancel out the previous product's benefits. Think about it: Why would you slather on an expensive anti-aging moisturizer, then wash it away with cleanser? 

Figuring out steps is essential, and the sequence you should do them in can seem confusing, but spare yourself the flow chart diagram. To make the difference between your daytime and nighttime skincare routines a little clearer, we turned to two experts to find out the correct order in which you should be applying your skincare products morning and night. 

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The main focus of your morning routine should be hydration, plus setting the stage for the day with protection against whatever elements your skin is going to come into contact with.

"You may believe that most of the skin damage you get is caused by sun exposure and outdoor pollution, but the World Health Organization has now determined that indoor pollution is worse than outdoor pollution," says Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta skincare. "Consider what you’re doing during the day and what elements you may be facing when you're applying your skincare products in the morning." 

VIDEO: Pre-Makeup Skincare Routine

Step 1: Cleanser 

Using a deep cleanser in the morning is important because your skin actually comes into contact with pollutants when you're sleeping in the comfort of your very own bed. "Pillowcases get loaded with dust mites, which carry a lot of pollutants," she explains. "A lot of the pollutants found on our pillowcases are smaller than our pores, so they're really able to get in there." 

She suggests using a cleanser with salicylic acid in it, like the Mirco-Exfoliating Cleanser from her namesake product line. "This ingredient will really get in your pores, and [remove] makeup remnants that are still on your face from the night before," she says. 

Step 2: Serum 

Vitamin C is a wunderkind skincare ingredient. The antioxidant brightens skin, supports collagen production to slow down signs of aging, plus offers photo protection against UV rays.

"Incidental sun exposure can happen during the day from simply driving your car or walking to the subway, so the morning is a good time to use vitamin C because it will give you extra photo protection on top of its other benefits, explains Dr. Ciraldo. A serum like Tatcha's Violet-C Brightening Serum 20% Vitamin C + 10% AHA has a moisturizing, fast-absorbing derivative of the vitamin in it, which makes it perfect for morning use when you're short on time. 

Alternatively, a hydrating serum is also a good option for morning. Even better: Layer one on top of your vitamin C product. Dr. Ciraldo suggests using a formula that contains hyaluronic acid and lipids or ceramides, as these ingredients will build a saran wrap-like cover over the skin to protect it from weather-related dryness like extreme wind or cold. PCA Skin's Hyaluronic Acid Boosting Serum is a solid option. Plus, the extra hydration will plump up and smooth skin. 

RELATED: 7 Vitamin C Serums That Could Transform Your Skin  

Step 3: Eye Gel

An eye gel can de-puff smooth out the under-eye area, which will make makeup application easier. Tap Biossance Squalane + Peptide Eye Gel around the upper and lower eye area with your fingertip to calm and hydrate skin. 

Step 4: Moisturizer

Once your serums and eye gel are fully absorbed, follow up with a lightweight moisturizer to further prime and prep your skin for the day ahead. Olay's fluffy Total Effects Whip Face Moisturizer feels just as weightless on your skin as it looks. 

Another option is to go with a tinted moisturizer that will soften and even out your skin tone, plus, provide a boost of SPF protection. That's where Laura Mercier's cult-favorite formula comes in handy. On top of 15 shades to choose from, the moisturizer leaves skin with a dewy glow. 

Step 5: SPF 

"You should finish off with SPF," says Dr. Ellen Marmur, dermatologist and founder of Marmur Metamorphosis Skincare. "No matter the time of the year, this ingredient should always be a factor in your routine in order to fully protect your skin from the sun’s UV rays." She suggests using a mineral sunscreen with zinc or titanium dioxide, which sits on top of skin instead of getting absorbed. EltaMD's UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 is a sunscreen beloved by beauty editors and dermatologists alike. 

RELATED: Why You Really Need to Be Wearing Zinc Oxide  


At night, Dr. Marmur says that your primary concern should be repairing and rejuvenating your skin.

"Your skin needs to be nourished morning and night," adds Dr. Ciraldo. "But, nighttime is when you should address your personal skin issues. [This is also a perfect time to be] using ingredients like retinol and glycolic acid because they make skin extra-sensitive to sun exposure." Plus, let's be realistic: Who has time to do a face mask when they're getting ready in the morning? 

Step 1: Cleanser 

You've probably heard how important it is not to sleep with your makeup on, so unsurprisingly cleansing your face should be the first step in your nighttime routine. Dr. Marmur recommends BeautyCounter's Nourishing Cream Cleanser, which washes away all makeup without drying out your skin. 

Step 2: Serum 

It's ideal to target any skincare concerns like aging or acne at night, since most of the ingredients that treat these issues cause skin to be more sensitized to the sun. If your main hang-up is fine lines and wrinkles, use a serum with retinol in it or one with peptides, like Dr. Marmur's MMResponse Serum

For acne, Dr. Ciraldo says to use a glycolic acid-based serum. The chemical exfoliant will dissolve dead skin cells so pores look smaller and you're overall tone will be more even. Basically, it will help prevent clogged pores and future breakouts, plus can minimize the appearance of dark spots from old blemishes. If you're concerned about glycolic acid drying out or irritating your skin, go with a serum that's also formulated with soothing, hydrating ingredients like Drunk Elephant's T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum

Step 3: Eye Serum 

"Always use an eye repair serum, since this is one of the more sensitive parts of the face and ages faster than other areas," says Dr. Marmur. "People may habitually itch and rub their eyes during the day due to dryness or just pure stress." Elemis' Absolute Eye Serum is designed to reduce dark circles and puffiness while keeping the entire area soft and smooth. 

Step 4: Moisturizer 

Nighttime is when you can use a moisturizer that's richer than what you would typically use in the morning. "This will keep your skin hydrated throughout the nighttime and ready for the morning," explains Dr. Marmur. "Look for a moisturizer that's oil-free in order to not add to the amount of natural oil your body produces when you're sleeping." Clinique's Smart Night Custom-Repair Moisturizer is the perfect fit.