In the beauty world, ‘what product goes on first, your serum or moisturizer?’, is about as mysterious to us as the whole chicken or the egg question. But while the jury is still out on that age-old debate, the order in which you apply your skincare products is completely agreed upon by the experts — even if it is little known among the rest of us. To help set us all straight and make the most of our treasured face treatments and creams, we checked in with the experts, founder and director of Capital Laser & Skin Care Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi and celebrity esthetician Joanna Vargas to find out exactly how we should be applying each product.
First things first, Dr. Tanzi and Vargas both agree that you really only need three products for your daily routine. “If you are using great products, you don’t need a lot of steps,” Vargas tells us of sticking with a cleanser, serum, and moisturizer — the Holy Trinity of your skincare routine. But since we like to treat ourselves (and inevitably complicate things) by trying out new products, we’re breaking down every possible skincare option and step for your morning and nighttime routine, below. Still, when in doubt, Dr. Tanzi says a simple rule of thumb is to “apply products with the thinnest formulations first to [allow them] to be absorbed.” Need further clarification? Here are the exact steps:
No matter what your nighttime routine, Vargas says, “taking off makeup is the first step.” This ensures that every product you use after, from your face wash to your moisturizer, will be absorbed into the skin better, and that you’re not just piling products on to dirty skin.
Morning or night, Dr. Tanzi and Vargas both agree that you should start things off by washing your face with a cleanser that gets out dirt and oil but is still gentle on your skin. While Vargas’s Vitamin C Face Wash clears out pores to prevent breakouts without drying the skin, Dr. Tanzi also recommends the La Roche Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser for those who particularly struggle with acne or Cetaphil Skin Cleanser for an inexpensive option that’s gentle on skin.
If you prefer a more solid cleanser that melts into dry skin and can double as a makeup remover, make this your first step. The Eve Lom Cleanser gets our luxe pick for leaving skin clean and as soft as if you’ve just moisturized, while Boots No7 Beautiful Skin Cleansing Balm is a more budget-friendly option.
This is another first step alternative that dissolves makeup and washes away the gross oils (think the ones that cause acne), while leaving skin clean and soft using good-for-you oils like coconut and argan. Try Burt’s Bee Facial Cleansing Oil.
If you went in on the French beauty trend, you’ll be happy to know you can use a micellar water like Garnier’s as your first step to remove your makeup and cleanse your skin.
While it’s certainly not a necessary step, Vargas says you can use a toner “to rebalance the skin after cleansing,” if you need an extra boost.
Dr. Tanzi says you only need to do a mask once each week, and it should always be applied to skin that’s already been removed of any makeup and cleansed.
If your face needs a little bit of extra hydration or you’re trying to calm down any irritation, you can spray one of these over your face after cleansing (or use it throughout the day over your makeup for a refreshing pick-me-up).
If you suffer from breakouts, Dr. Tanzi says to follow up cleansing with an acne treatment like the La Roche Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Action Acne Treament and skip the traditional serums that can leave acne-prone skin feeling greasy. If your skin type is on the drier side, Dr. Tanzi says, “use a hydrating serum with hyaluronic acid both morning and night.” We’re partial to Caudalie Vinosource S.O.S Thirst Quenching Serum.
Dr. Tanzi says that since you wouldn’t be using an oil and a serum, those with drier skin can opt for an oil if they like, while combination and acne-prone skin types should always go for the serum.
Since essences and serums provide the same hydrating skin benefit, if you’ve found an essence you really like, you can skip the serum and use that instead.