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How to Layer Your Skincare Products

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Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD - Blogs
October 08, 2018
From the WebMD Archives

If you’re like most women, your bathroom counter is cluttered with skincare products. Anti-aging serum. Moisturizer(s). Sunscreen. A topical medication your doctor prescribed for breakouts or rashes, plus a handful of other lotions and potions promised to rejuvenate your complexion.

How are we supposed to layer on all these products without feeling like an over-spackled painting?

An in-person evaluation with a dermatologist is always going to be the best resource in tailoring a specific regimen that’s right for you. (Spoiler alert: she’ll tell you that everyday sun protection is an absolute must.) But there are a few guiding principles that can help you determine which skincare products to apply, and in what order.

For example, if you’re a multi-product person, it often makes sense to apply the lightest, fastest-absorbing formulas first, working up to any with a heavier or thicker texture. That means any liquids, solutions, or toners, followed by serums, gels, lotions, creams, oils, or ointments. (And please note: In spite of what some ambitious regimens might suggest, there is no person on earth whose skin needs all of these things!)

As you refine your own regimen, consider this general guide to skin care and product layering:


  • Cleanse. Suds up with a gentle daily cleanser, or splash your face clean with water.This is most important if you have acne-prone skin (to wash off blemish-promoting oil or bacteria), if you applied a topical medicine at bedtime (to remove any residue), or if you were too sleepy to remove your makeup before bed (since leftover products could contribute to irritation or skin-damaging free radicals). Non-irritating options include La Roche Posay Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Facial Cleanser and Cetaphil Gentle Foaming Cleanser.
  • Medicate. Rub in any topical medicine your doctor has prescribed (such as for acne, psoriasis, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, vitiligo, or another skin condition) right after cleansing and gently patting skin dry. Many medicines are best absorbed – and most effective – if you work them in at this moment.
  • Guard. Consider an antioxidant serum containing vitamin C or green tea to help protect against free radical damage that we naturally accumulate from daily exposure to sun, pollution, and the skin’s natural metabolism. Serums tend to be light, nonsticky, and absorb quickly. Effective choices include SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic serum, Clinique Fresh Pressed Daily Booster with Pure Vitamin C 10%, and Topix Replenix.
  • Protect. Swipe on a layer of broad-spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreen or a moisturizer spiked with SPF. (There is no need to apply both; as long as your skin is getting the hydration and sun protection it needs, these products are basically interchangeable.) This daily step should be as automatic as brushing teeth, since our skin can rack up UV damage even during the dead of winter.
  • Enhance (optional!). Follow with makeup, if you wear it.


  • Cleanse. Use a gentle face wash to remove any dirt, oil, makeup, bacteria, or skincare products. Once or twice a week, this might include an exfoliating cleanser (such as Laura Mercier Flawless Skin Face Polish or Aveeno Positively Radiant Skin Brightening Daily Scrub) to help keep the skin soft, even, and smooth.
  • Medicate. Apply any topical medicines prescribed or recommended by your MD.These might include a retinoid, such as prescription tretinoin cream, adapalene (sold as over-the-counter Differin gel), or a retinol-containing formula. These multipurpose, vitamin A-derived products are proven to rejuvenate skin, even out skin tone and texture, ease dyspigmentation, and help prevent and treat small breakouts.
  • Moisturize. Protect the skin’s barrier with a moisturizercontaining skin-soothing ingredients, such as dimethicone, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, or glycerin. Those on the oily side tend to do well with light, noncomedogenic products, such as CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion or Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel. Dry or sensitive skin types may favor a richer, more hydrating cream, such as Olay Luminous Whip Facial Moisturizer, Vanicream Moisturizing Skin Cream for Sensitive Skin, or Avene Cicalfate Restorative Skin Cream.
  • Sleep ! Adequate rest is essential to the health of our skin and our bodies, and there’s no topical regimen that can overcome the visible effects of fatigue.

Keep in mind that, as any board-certified dermatologist will tell you, it really does not take a complex regimen of cleansers, toners, gels, serums, oils and masks to have healthy skin. A few carefully selected products are likely all your skin needs to stay happy. Talk with your dermatologist to determine which products might be right for you.

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About the Author
Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD

Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD, is a Stanford-trained dermatologist, former Glamour beauty editor, and journalist who has written for The New York Times, Glamour, Allure, Real Simple, Women’s Health, and other publications. She has made many television appearances and co-hosted The Dermatology Show on Sirius-XM throughout medical school. Her personal skincare blog can be found on Instagram and Facebook.

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