The promise of youthful skin well into my senior years is reason enough to get my skin care routine sorted ASAP. I was convinced that sunscreen was all I needed to achieve a golden, baby-smooth, clear complexion. And I wasn’t wrong—sunscreen is a godsend product for addressing anti-aging, preventing and reducing dark spots, and offering protection from the sun. However, since my skin care journey has always been fraught with dark spots and textured areas, I’ve learned that it’s the big guns—targeted serums, gentle cleansers, hydrating moisturizers—that really do the heavy lifting.
Building an effective skin care routine isn’t as easy as it seems. Thankfully, I invested in an esthetician and a dermatologist to find the best products to address all my skin care woes. The most humbling revelation I had on this journey is that regardless of brand, price, or ingredient, the order in which you apply your products can affect the efficacy of your routine.
So before you splurge on that luxury moisturizer or introduce a new bakuchiol serum into your routine, let’s take it back to the basics. And if a skin expert isn’t quite in the budget yet, we consulted Dr. Lian Mack and Dr. Bertha Baum to build this comprehensive guide on how to correctly apply your AM and PM skin care routines—yes, there’s a difference.
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When looking at your skin care formulas, it’s always better to apply products from the thinnest formula to the thickest. Now, the most important thing to remember when applying your AM skin care routine is the sun. “When you’re thinking about your skin care routine, it’s really simple. During the day, you want to protect your skin. At night, you want to repair,” Dr. Lian Mack, NY-based board-certified dermatologist at GlamDerm, explains.
Cleansing your skin from all the dirt, oil, and debris is how you create the perfect canvas for all your subsequent products to seep through your skin and work their magic. Here’s the step that sets the tone for your entire routine. Pay close attention to your skin—are you more on the dry side or find yourself swiping away oil throughout the day? Understanding your skin type is how you decide what cleanser is right for you. If you have sensitive skin, Dr. Bertha Baum, a Florida-based board-certified dermatologist, suggests using a gentle cleanser. Those with oily skin can benefit from a foaming cleanser, Baum adds. But never forget about the sun! Since you’ll likely encounter the UV rays throughout the day, Mack recommends using cleansers without actives in them “because you don’t want to increase your risk for photosensitivity,” she says.
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Toners are an optional step in a skin care routine. Depending on your skin’s sensitivity, Mack says it’s okay to skip a toner. Ultimately, toners serve different purposes but are great for hydrating the skin for the next step in the routine.
A fun way to shop for serums for your morning routine is to remember what ingredients are typically associated with brightness, are antioxidant-rich, and are gentle enough for daytime wear. If vitamin C was the first thing that came to mind, you’re already on the right track. “During the day, you want to couple antioxidants—like vitamin C and E. In addition to antioxidants, you can sandwich other things into that regimen because serums have smaller molecules, and they’re able to penetrate the skin better,” she explains. After applying your serum, Mack advises incorporating “a hyaluronic acid molecule to help pull water to the skin.”
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The skin around our eyes is super sensitive and thin. Eye creams help delay any signs of aging, like fine lines and wrinkles. Mack says to look for ones with “peptides that help to firm and strengthen or lift the skin.” Since eye creams are not as thick as moisturizers, it’s perfectly fine to apply an eye cream before your moisturizer—but if you apply one after, you’re not wrong either.
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After cleansing and treating your skin, the next step is to seal it all in with a good moisturizer. Moisturizers not only keep the skin hydrated, but they also work in tandem with the serums you’ve already applied. Thicker formulas work great to soothe dry skin. “Some people don’t need a thicker moisturizer because they tend to be oily,” Mack says, so those with oily skin should look for lighter formulas with hyaluronic acid.
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“The two mainstays of a morning routine are vitamin C and SPF 30 or higher,” Mack adds. No routine is complete without sunscreen, which protects the skin from harmful UV rays. However, the type of sunscreen you use should match your lifestyle.
In Mack’s office, she often recommends mineral sunscreens to her patients. “I prefer mineral-based sunscreens because there are great options for skin of color. For many, part of the struggle of searching for sunscreen is finding one that blends nicely with darker skin types,” she explains. Even if you’re using a tinted moisturizer or a BB cream, she still recommends using sunscreen prior to applying. “You would have to apply a lot of that foundation or BB cream to get the protection that you would from a true sunscreen. When you’re applying sunscreen, use the two-finger rule to get the amount of protection that you need.”
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After a long day at work, running errands, or at school, a good cleansing oil is necessary to enter repair mode.
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“Double cleansing is ideal at night because you have so many pollutants on your face. Most people are wearing makeup, moisturizers, and concealers, so there’s more to wash off. Double cleansing at night really gets the skin to a place where it feels really clean, and you’re not threatened by environmental exposures that you typically have during the day,” Mack adds. However, if you have sensitive skin, Mack says to skip double-cleansing.
People with oily skin can cleanse with a foaming or milk-based cleanser, as it won’t leave you extremely dry. “If you’re sensitive, I would just wash once,” she says.
Now, it’s time to get your skin in order. This is the part of the routine where you either reach for your retinol (prescribed or over-the-counter). “After getting home and washing off your day, you want to apply a vitamin A derivative, something that has retinol or a retinoid in it. There is also plant-derived retinol like bakuchiol, which I tend to recommend for patients who are either lactating or pregnant,” she says. It’s important to pay attention to how your skin reacts to topical treatments. “You want to titrate up to a point where you can tolerate it. Once you can get to the point where you can tolerate it every night, you should definitely be coupling it with either hyaluronic acid or a moisturizer.”
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With an actives-heavy nighttime routine, you want to ensure your skin is being properly protected and moisturized as you catch some Zzz. While you can certainly use your morning moisturizer at night, most night creams are thicker in consistency and formulated to retain moisture longer than daytime creams. Creams that tout anti-aging, firming, radiance-boosting, and hydration are great formulas to reach for during the night.
The best thing you can do for your skin is to get a good night’s rest. When you sleep, your skin has time to calm down and repair itself, with help from all the products in your routine.
Meet the experts
Dr. Lian Mack is a New York-based, board-certified dermatologist at Glam Derm.
Dr. Bertha Baum is a Florida-based, board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon.
Why trust ELLE Beauty?
As a leading publisher of fashion, lifestyle, and beauty content, ELLE.com is committed to highlighting the best products by personally testing the latest and most innovative products, interviewing countless experts, and vetting reader-loved items. For this piece, Nerisha Penrose consulted two board-certified dermatologists for the best order to apply products to optimize your skin care routine.
Beauty Commerce Editor
Nerisha is the beauty commerce editor at ELLE.com, covering all things beauty (and fashion and music). She has a penchant for sneakers and nude lip glosses, and spends way too much time re-watching 90s sitcoms.