Layering Skincare Products

Less is always more

Before we get into technical details, I’d like to express my beliefs regarding layering cosmetic products in general. I firmly believe less is more and I’m really not into impossibly long K-beauty routines, not even in moderately long routines. Less, fast and effective, period. If you feel like a 10 step routine really works for you, that’s fine, but you’ won’t find me encouraging or enjoying this, for three reasons:

  • being practical. I just prefer 20 extra minutes of sleep than enbalmation on daily basis (I’m all into weekend skintertainments, though!). In long term sleep will do much more for your skin than any cosmetic product (beauty sleep is not a myth!), except if you find immense happiness and zen in a 30” routine twice a day. I’m just more into fast and furious.
  • excessive layering might be harmful! Different water-based products have different preservatives, actives, pH balancers etc. which are compatible within a specific product’s formula. All this ingredients might not be compatible with another product’s ingredients and formula, which can have deteriorating effects on your skin barrier and overall skin health, which  is not even the biggest concern. Preservatives are. They are a necessary evil for product preservation, but not an appreciated guest on our skin. Layering  products basically means layering preservatives too, which also means, that you can easily excess the maximum safe amount of preservatives on your skin as prescribed by cosmetic safety regulations. This sounds just like a Russian roulette to me, especially because…
  • I have sensitive skin with bouts of atopic dermatitis so I just tend to avoid complicated routines, products and any hazards that can impact my condition negatively. Less is always more but with sensitive skin it is not even an option, it is simply a necessity.

This doesn’t mean that you should go into panic mode, if you’re on an elaborated skincare routine that works for you. Maybe you could just consider some optimization, just to be on the safe side in the long run. We’ll get deeper into this, but first things first – how should you layer your skincare products.

Layering cosmetic products means layering preservatives too

Layer em' right

If we put it really simply, all you need to know is:

  • Go from thin to thick
  • Active ingredients products first

Now, a little elaboration for the curious.

From thin to thick means that you use water-based, light products (serums, mists, essences, tonics) first and follow them with thicker products (moisturizers, oils, occlusive creams) in order considering their thickness. Why? Because thicker products act as a barrier . On one side they keep the moisture (and other goodies!) from water-based products locked in your skin and from the other side, they keep your skin safe against environmental factors. But the latter also extends to any water-based products if put on top. If you’d layer your mostly water-based products last, they just wouldn’t get through to your skin in such extent to do »their job«. Just imagine putting water on a layer of oil, the water won’t penetrate it.

For example you’d put your toner first followed by a water –based serum, lighter moisturizer, thicker moisturizer/occlusive, and SPF keeping in mind your skin type (e.g. the more nourshing products are redundant if you’re on the oily side) If you are ever in doubt, just follow the thin to thick rule and don’t bother too much.

Active ingredients first because you want that expensive serum with copper peptides or vitamin C to be as near on your skin as it can. It is common sense, the closer the better. Most of the powerful actives are on the thin side so the thin to thick rule basically covers this too, but of course there are exceptions. Than you just follow the thin to thick and minimize the layers between your skin and the active ingredients.

Nevertheless, with some powerful actives that might excessively irritate your skin it is recommended to put a layer of a light moisturizer before putting the active on your skin. This is recommended mostly for powerful vitamin A derivatives (tretinoin, retinol), but Vitamin C is not excluded. Some researchers claim that a layer of a light moisturizer beforehand even promotes the absorption of vitamin A.

This is a very general overview of layering, but your might find some related information about order and combinations in my post about Basic Skincare – When and What (click).

Another important questions in this topic is time. How much time should I wait between layers? In all these years I  didn’t manage to find an uniform answer, but I’d say between 30 and 60 seconds until the product dries. I think it  is better to wait a little bit longer, but I’m not an patient person and I don’t layer many products, so it suits me perfectly. Let’s return now to less is more and leave all that layering complications behind us.

Less with optimization!

How to optimize your super elaborated routine? Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Does your skin really need all that products or are some of them just a habit? A perfect example of a habit induced product in my case is a toner. I use a hydrating serum and a moisturizer, so do I really need that extra hydration from a toner? Nope. Do I need my pH to be re-balanced? Nope, because I have adequate cleansers. Do I need a toner then? Nope. If your toner has some nice active ingredients and antioxidants that is a different story, but if you use it out of habit and you already compensate it’s effects with other products in your routine just ditch it.
  • Do you really need to put all products on all areas or could some be restrained to specific areas? Consider skin-zoning which means that you put products that target specific concerns only on areas where those specific concerns occur. For example, use azelaic acid only where your acne are, use argireline only where your dynamic wrinkles appear, etc. Of course this makes no sense if afterwards you spread another layer of some other product all over your face and mix it all up, it is a good general rule to tap your products into your skin instead of spreading.
  • Do you really need to put everything at once in one day? Consider alternate nights if skin-zoning is not an option because the concern area is the whole face (anti-aging products). Of course this might reduce the effects, but if you have a well organized skincare you shouldn’t notice any setbacks. I didn’t!
  • Could you replace a few of your products with one multipurpose? While I must say I’m not a multipurpose lover because if something goes south I can’t be sure which ingredient is the villain, I’m still trying to introduce more multitaskers in my routine. A quality serum with niacinamide, vitamin C, nice humectants and antioxidants can replace many steps in your routine. No incompatibilities, no excessive amounts of preservatives sound like a good deal to me.

If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask! I will be answering questions and talking about layering also on my IG account so please join me anytime!


My Current PM routine, where I practice alternate nights and skin-zoning

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