11 Layering Mistakes That Make Your Skin Care Stop Working

In the skin-care rulebook, there is no chapter that’s as confusing—and as debated—as the one on layering product. “It’s about cleansing the skin, treating the skin and then protecting the skin,” says celebrity aesthetician Veronica Barton Schwartz. “I always tell my clients to go from more-watery to thicker, which comes down to absorption. If you apply a richer, thicker formula first, it would prevent thinner ones form penetrating.” Here is the game plan the experts say to go by in the quest for glowing, healthy skin:

Serum Step

Repeat: Always apply serums before moisturizers. The reason: “In order for products to absorb most effectively, active ingredients, which are usually found in serums, must go on first,” says Barton Schwartz. “Pay attention to the vehicle used and apply things in an order that will best absorb into the skin,” adds New York dermatologist Jody A. Levine, MD. “Cleanser, toner, serum, cream is a good order.”

The Water Way

Sounds simple enough, but the mantra, “Always use your water-based products before any oil-based products,” is one Miami dermatologist Dr. Deborah Longwill says must be followed.

Retinol Rules

“If you are using tretinoin, do not use any benzoyl peroxide products at the same time as this will deactivate the tretinoin,” Dr. Longwill stresses, adding that, in her opinion, it’s smart to stay away from applying tretinoin in the daytime.

Wipe Out

Whether you love them or hate them, Dr. Longwill says DO NOT apply skin-care products post makeup wipes. “Instead, properly clean skin before applying.”

Over Don’t

Dr. Levine says one of the most common layering mistakes she sees is simply using way too much, especially as it relates to actives. “I think the biggest mistake is layering too many ingredients that, together, can cause dryness and irritation and, therefore, not enable to skin care to work effectively. A benzoyl perozide product layered with a vitamin C serum, an alpha or beta-hydroxy acid or a retinol can cause excessive dryness. Each product alone can be effective, but may be too irritating when layered with one or more of the other ingredients. It is best to use one product in the morning with one of these effective ingredients and a different product in the evening, or alternate days and nights of each product.” The one exception: “It is OK to use a cleanser with one of these ingredients—such as benzoyl peroxide or AHA/BHA—as the cleaner will be washed off before the next product is used, hopefully leading to less irritation.”

Tone Poem

While Dr. Longwill isn’t against toners, she does recommend refraining from using harsh ones, as this will strip oils from your skin, and that can throw off anything you apply on top.

Just a Minute 

Has anyone invented a skin-care stopwatch yet? (If not, please count this as our unofficial move to copyright.) According to Dr. Longwill, always give your products a few minutes to penetrate into the skin before applying your next product, “as you do not want any ingredients to ‘deactivate.’” A good rule of thumb is to wait 30 seconds to a minute between layers to maximize absorption, Barton Schwartz adds. “This helps lessen the chance that the formulas will pill and ball up on your skin. Also, applying too much product can cause pilling. Gently press products into the skin if you’re layering.”

Damp Do

A close relative to the “press,” Dr. Longwill recommends “patting” your skin dry and applying skin care while damp for better penetration.

Oil Spill

According to Barton Schwartz, the final step of our skin-care routines in the evening should be face oil. “Face oil always goes on last. That’s because oil is occlusive, which means it creates a barrier. Oils go through moisturizer, serums and lotions. Nothing can get through oil, so it always goes on last in your p.m. skin routine.”

SPF Stage 

Likewise, Barton Schwartz says, in the morning, switch it up so sunscreen goes on last—no exceptions. “Whether your formula is chemical or physical, sunscreen should always go on last. You want it on top because it’s blocking the rays from penetrating the skin.”

Pair Shape

Always ask your dermatologist or aesthetician about ingredient combinations to avoid. If you’re using multiple active ingredients in your routine, be sure they can be safely paired. 

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