The right way to layer your skincare products

When you spend as much time on your skincare routine as I do, you need to make sure you’re actually doing it right. Otherwise, you may as well put that time to other good uses. Like researching vineyards to work on in Tuscany. If you follow an extensive Korean skincare routine and have more products than you know what to do with, you might have questioned the right way to layer them. From my experience (and with a little help from Gothamista), there are two things to take into consideration when layering your skincare products – especially those with active ingredients. The first is the consistency of the product. The second is the concentration.

Active ingredients

Before we get into the right way to layer our skincare products, we need to first talk about what active ingredients are. Active ingredients can be added to your routine to address a particular skin concern. This concern could be hyperpigmentation, acne scarring, pore control, anti-ageing, brightening, hydrating, or exfoliating. Vitamin A, or retinoids, is a great active for targeting fine lines and wrinkles and smoothing skin texture. Vitamin C works to brighten dull skin, and alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) work on the surface to remove dead skin cells. There are so many actives out there that can suit your skin needs – just make sure not to combine too many at once.


After you’ve cleansed, what next? Typically, you want to apply the product with the thinnest consistency first. This is because it will absorb into the skin the quickest. Then, work up to the thickest – which will be your moisturiser – and add an SPF last if it’s your morning routine. Some products may be a similar consistency – a spot treatment and your moisturiser, for example. But like serums, spot treatments need to be sealed in by an occlusive (an ingredient in your moisturiser that creates a barrier over the skin). Keep in mind that there are almost always exceptions to any rule. The exception of this rule being the concentration of a product.


Simply put – the more concentrated the product, the earlier you want to put it on your skin. So, if you’re using an active ingredient, apply this first. If you’re using more than one, layer the most concentrated active first. Sometimes this can mean you are applying a serum or cream before a toner. In my morning routine, my first step is a vitamin C serum. At night, I use a retinal cream before I layer on my toner. This may sound contradictory to the previous point because if you were using that principle, the toner would be applied first. But it really depends on what product you’re using and if there’s an active involved.

Listen to your skin

If you have sensitive skin, you may want to avoid the concentration rule. We do typically want to apply actives first for them to be the most beneficial to us. But, if you often experience redness or irritation with certain actives (retinoid sensitivity is a common one), you may want to use another product before to lessen or buffer the effect. This will reduce its potency, but it will be gentler for your skin. While you should keep the aforementioned principles in mind, use your own judgement to decide what works best for your skin. And that usually means testing different combinations until you find what sticks.

Although sometimes confusing and counterintuitive, to me, figuring out an effective layering system is a welcome challenge. If you are more of a beginner and don’t know what products you should use in the AM and what you should use in the PM, hopefully this post will help. Good luck!


Kait x

Cover photo by Polina Kovaleva