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How to Layer Your Skin-Care Products in the Correct Order

In the grand scheme of things in life, building a skin-care routine shouldn’t be all that complicated. But with a growing number (i.e. hundreds of thousands) of product options on the market, including cleansers, serums, moisturizers, and more, figuring out when and how to use your 10-step skin-care routine can get confusing.

That said, instead of just slapping on five creams — then washing your face because, seriously, that stuff is heavy — follow the lead of the pros. (And don’t be surprised if your products suddenly seem to work all the better for it.) Ahead, dermatologists share their tips for basic skin-care layering, plus how to effectively incorporate the bells and whistles like face oil and retinol.

1. Start light.

Serums— the thinnest products — go first, because a) that just makes sense and b) “they deliver active ingredients into the skin most efficiently,” says Ranella Hirsch, a board-certified dermatologist in Boston. Plus, they’re easy to customize.

2. Add an antioxidant.

Vitamin C is one in­gre­dient every skin type needs. “It brightens, protects against sun damage, and promotes collagen production,” says cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson, who recommends using a potent serum.

Just don’t pair it with a toner or moisturizer with an alpha hydroxy acid (such as glycolic), which destabilizes vitamin C. If you’re using an acid, opt for antioxidant green tea or resveratrol instead.

3. Take a coffee break.

In this most basic routine, a toner helps remove dead skin cells so your moisturizer can penetrate better (there are hydrating toners and oil-absorbing ones), says Marnie Nussbaum, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. You also increase penetration by letting each step absorb for a minute — say, during the time it takes to brush your teeth or make a pot of coffee — before moving on to the next.

4. Lock it down.

Moisturizer is key to any layering routine because “it seals serums on your skin, which can make them more effective,” says Wilson.

5. Know when to go in reverse.

If your sensitive skin reddens at the thought of using even one treatment product, try putting on a simple, fragrance-free moisturizer first and then serums on top. “The cream will reduce the potency of the serums,” says Hirsch, “but they’ll also be less likely to cause irritation.”

6. Add an oil.

In small doses, oils make skin radiant. Put them on dry areas after creams — as a rule, oils can penetrate moisturizers, but not vice versa. Skip the oil if you’re wearing more than two serums under your moisturizer, though — at some point, you can’t avoid looking greasy.

7. Don’t forget protection.

“Sunscreen is your last step in the morning,” says Jeannette Graf, a board-certified dermatologist in Great Neck, New York. “It sits on top of your skin, so if it goes on first, it prevents other ingredients from penetrating.”