The Ultimate Guide To Building An Effective Skincare Routine, According to Derms

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No matter how amazing your skincare products are, they can only work to their full potential if you're putting them on correctly. Even if you've got the perfect skincare routine on lock, it can all be for nothing if you're doing it wrong—and you can't trust everything you see on TikTok to ensure you're getting it right.

With that in mind, we asked dermatologists to share their top skincare application tips to avoid the most common skincare routine errors and—most importantly—get every penny's worth from the products you're spending your hard-earned money on.

What is a proper skincare routine?

While the "best" skincare routine for you largely depends on your skin type and concerns, dermatologists say a few general rules apply to everyone trying to craft a basic regimen. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that every skincare routine include these four steps, at minimum: a cleanser, a treatment serum, a moisturizer, and a sunscreen.

Experts In This Article

This quadrafecta is the bare minimum you need to keep your skin healthy—think of these products as "must-haves" and everything else (like toners, eye creams, and facial oils) as "nice-to-have" extras. "In general, the more products people use, the more irritated their skin gets," says Anna Karp, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York. I tell people only to add additional products one at a time to make sure they react well."

Though 12-step skincare routines once had their time to shine, we now know that doing less is actually the best way avoid stripping and sensitizing your skin. This means only adding products you really need and doing so slowly and carefully.

What skincare products do I need?

1. Cleanser

Washing your face is critical for whisking away dirt and grime, which will help you avoid breakouts and create a clean canvas so that the rest of your routine can absorb into the skin more easily. The type of cleanser you use should be dictated by your skin type and concerns (gel formulas are typically better for oily skin, creamy formulas work best on dry complexions, and formulas infused with actives like salicylic acid can help with breakouts), and know that you may need to double cleanse with an oil-based product followed by a water-based one to get off all your makeup.

2. Serums/Treatments

Serums are the workhorse of your routine, and different active ingredients can help with different concerns. Generally speaking, dermatologists recommend using an antioxidant serum (like vitamin C or niacinamide) during the day to defend against environmental aggressors and a retinoid (or retinol alternative) at night to repair your skin while you sleep.

While whatever retinoid you're using may offer enough skin-resurfacing benefits on its own, you can opt for an exfoliating acid once or twice a week for a little extra sloughing—just be sure to practice "skin cycling" and use it (or any other harsh actives) on nights you aren't applying a retinoid, as these ingredients can cause irritation when combined.

If you're dealing with additional skin concerns like acneeczemadry skindiscoloration, or wrinkles, you may want to add additional treatments into your routine—like salicylic acid, cicahyaluronic acidtranexamic acid, and peptides, respectively.

3. Moisturizer

No matter what type of skin you have, you should use moisturizer. These formulas work double duty to hydrate the skin (which is important for those with dry complexions) and balance oil production (which is critical for those who skew oily) while also creating a protective seal between your face and the environment. Lightweight lotions are best for the warmer months or those with oily skin, while heavier creams are ideal for cold weather and dry complexions.

4. Sunscreen

Sunscreen is the single most important skincare routine step. It's your first line of defense against UV damage and—as any dermatologist will tell you—the best anti-aging product money can buy. While those with sensitive skin should opt for a mineral formula made with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide (versus a chemical one that heroes actives like avobenzone, octocrylene, and oxybenzone), everyone else has their choice of whatever is on the market. Just be sure you're investing in something with at least an SPF 30 and that you'll want to apply (and reapply) every day.

Why does skincare routine order matter?

"It's important to choose the right products for your particular skin type and layer them correctly," says Michele Farber, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology in New York City. In practice, effective skincare application means starting with clean skin (that's been washed either with water or a cleanser) and layering formulas from thinnest to thickest to maximize product benefits.

The best order to apply skincare products

Everyone's skin is different—and even your own needs can change depending on the day—so it's important to remember that you don't need all of the steps below every day (or, in some cases, ever). Consider this a general guide, but listen to your skin and tailor your routine as needed.


During the day, the name of the skincare game is "protection." Environmental aggressors like pollution and UV rays are enemy number one for visible signs of skin aging (think: discoloration, skin laxity, fine lines, and wrinkles), so your a.m. routine should be all about defending against these factors.

1. Cleanser (optional)

Many people—particularly those with dry skin—only need to wash their faces once a day. If that's the case, dermatologists recommend waiting until evening so that you can go to bed with a face that's free of dirt and makeup. Even if you're not using an a.m. cleanser, be sure to rinse your face with water (or, if you want something a bit heavier duty, micellar water) to get your skin ready for the rest of your routine. 

2. Toner (optional)

There's much debate among skincare pros about whether or not you really need a toner, so the choice of whether or not to add one to your routine is entirely up to you. This step aims to balance the pH of your skin (which admittedly isn't as necessary now that most cleansers are already pH balanced) and whisk away any debris left over on your skin after applying. If you want to use a toner during the day, look for a formula with hydrating and nourishing ingredients—like hyaluronic acid, algae, or marine peptides—instead of heavy active ones to ensure it won't cause sensitivities when used alongside your vitamin C. 

3. Antioxidant serum

An antioxidant serum is a non-negotiable morning suggestion for two important reasons. First and foremost, these ingredients help protect against radical damage from environmental aggressors. Additionally, studies have shown that layering an antioxidant under sunscreen can make your SPF even more effective. Vitamin C is known to be the best in this category (and, as a bonus, comes with its own brightening benefits), but if you've got sensitive skin, niacinamide is a great alternative.

4. Eye cream (optional)

Eye creams are another one that dermatologists can't seem to agree on. While some say you can get everything you need from your full face moisturizer, others say eye creams may be worth it because they deliver heavily concentrated actives designed to be gentle enough for the delicate skin around your eyes. During the day, ingredients like caffeine (which boosts circulation around your eyes to minimize bags) and green tea (which reduces puffiness) are great, as are tinted formulas that help mask the appearance of dark circles.

To apply, pat the product on with your ring finger—avoid pulling or tugging at the skin, which can cause wrinkles over time.

5. Moisturizer

In addition to hydrating your skin, your moisturizer's secondary job is to create a seal over your skin to lock in all of the actives you applied before it and prevent them from escaping into the environment. During the day, it should be the final step in your routine before applying sunscreen.

If you're looking to reduce your morning regimen to even fewer steps, look for an active moisturizer that works overtime as a treatment—we love this vitamin C-infused option. Just know that you won't get quite as much active ingredient bang for your buck with a moisturizer as you would with a serum—or opt for one that's infused with SPF.

6. Sunscreen

Rain, shine, or snow, sunscreen should be the final step in your routine. It's worth repeating that whatever you're using should have an SPF of at least 30, and should be applied to your face, neck, decelloté, and any other exposed skin.


Overnight, your skin switches to rest and repair mode. During this time, your body ramps up its cellular regeneration processes and becomes primed for peak product penetration thanks to a lower rate of transepidermal water loss while you sleep. Because of this, your p.m. routine should focus on reversing any damage that's occurred during the day.

One important thing to remember: Because many nighttime products contain harsh actives (like retinoids and exfoliating acids), it's super important to pay attention to what you're using and when. You don't want to mix multiple aggressive products on the same night, or you'll risk stripping and sensitizing your skin—which will create more concerns than you started with.

1. Cleanser (single or double)

Washing your face at night is a must to whisk away all the things your skin comes into contact with during the day—sweat, sunscreen, makeup, pollution, etc. While a single cleanse may be enough to get you clean (especially if you've got dry or sensitive skin or don't wear a lot of makeup), certain complexions may benefit from the lather-rinse-repeat process that comes with a double cleanse.

If this sounds like you, start with cleansing oil or balm, as the oils in these formulas will melt away even the most stubborn makeup while also pulling dirt and grime off your top layer. Step number two is a bit more of a "dealer's choice" situation and should include a water-based formula suited to your skin type. You can also use a scrub to get a little bit of exfoliating action in this step; just don't do it every night or you run the risk of sensitizing your skin.

If you're more of a "one-and-done" type of face washer, look for a bi-phase cleanser. This type contains oil and water-based ingredients that work together to remove buildup from your skin in a single step.

2. Toner (optional)

Once your skin is clean, you can get a little creative with the rest of your routine. Toners can be particularly helpful after a single cleanse as these products will help whisk away whatever your face-washing step left behind, and these days, many come infused with actives like exfoliating acids, hydrating humectants, and calming ingredients. If you are going to use a toner, be mindful of what's in it—if it's packed with AHAs, for example, you shouldn't apply it before any other exfoliants or retinoids in your routine.

3. Essence (optional)

Essences may look like toners with the same watery texture but serve a different purpose entirely. While toners are considered a part of your cleansing routine, essences are treatments with high concentrations of actives that target various skin concerns—like hyaluronic acid for hydration, vitamin C for brightening, and peptides for wrinkles. Again, you'll want to pay attention to the inky list here, and avoid doubling up on any harsh products that may sensitize your skin.

4. Exfoliant (optional)

Exfoliation is important for sloughing away dead skin cells from the surface and brightening up dullness, but it doesn't need to happen every night. Alpha-hydroxy acids, like glycolic (a heavy hitter) and lactic (a gentler option), are great for getting the job done, and there are plenty of serums on the market that combine a host of AHAs that work together to give your skin a full resurfacing treatment. Limit this step to once or twice a week, and—again—only do it on nights when you aren't using a retinoid, a scrub, or any other exfoliating actives.

5. Treatments/serums

If you're only going to use one active product at night, dermatologists recommend a retinoid. Think: retinol, adapalene, prescription-grade tretinoin, or a retinol alternative like bakuchiol if you have sensitive skin.

Largely considered the "gold standard" of skincare, retinoids, and their alternatives stimulate cellular turnover (meaning that they bring fresh, healthy cells to the surface of the skin to replace dead, dull ones) and help with a whole host of different skin concerns including acne, discoloration, and fine lines and wrinkles. One thing to note is that retinol can cause irritation, so it's important to start slowly—apply a pea-sized amount of product once a week until your skin has built up tolerance, then work your way up to using it multiple nights.

If you're looking for more plumping or wrinkle-fighting power, pair your retinoid with a peptide serum, but be sure to use the peptides first to ensure better penetration of both products. And if you want more hydration, you can follow your retinoid with a hydrating hyaluronic acid serum, but that's it—save any other treatments (like spot treatments or discoloration-fighting serums) for your non-retinol nights.

6. Eye cream (optional)

Certain under-eye concerns are best treated while your skin is in repair mode, where an evening eye cream can help. If you've got fine lines and wrinkles, look for formulas infused with retinol and peptides; if you've got dark circles, use something with licorice extract or niacinamide; and if the skin around your eyes is feeling super dry, opt for a product that contains hyaluronic acid or squalane. You'll want to use that pat-pat technique here, too, and remember to apply your eye cream both under your eyes and on your lids for best results.

7. Moisturizer

Just like in the morning, your nighttime moisturizer is designed to hydrate and strengthen your skin and lock in all of the other products you've used before it (and, yes—you still need one if you've got oily or acne-prone skin). At night, opt for a heavier formula to ensure your skin stays properly nourished while you sleep—ingredients like squalane, glycerine, and ceramides are all worth looking out for. You can use a night cream that contains additional actives, like retinoids and peptides, but only if they aren't already elsewhere in your routine.

7. Occlusive (optional)

If you've got super dry skin, you may want to add a second moisturizing step by way of an occlusive—like a facial oil or the Vaselines/Aquaphors of the world that people swear by for slugging. While these products don't deliver moisture, they help lock it in thanks to their heavy-hitting occlusive properties, which means they can further prevent your skin from drying out overnight.

How to layer multiple serums in your skincare routine

The "thinnest to thickest" decree applies here, too—but with a few caveats. Any exfoliating treatment should come first, as it will help remove dead skin cells from the surface of your skin to maximize product benefits. If you're using a retinol, you may want to apply a layer of moisturizer before and after the serum (a technique known as the "retinol sandwich") to avoid irritation.

What skincare products shouldn't be mixed in a routine?

As you know by now, combining too many harsh actives comes with the risk of sensitizing your skin, which can leave it raw, irritated, and prone to breakouts. A few examples of products that should be kept apart:

1. Retinol and any other harsh actives

"Retinol should not be mixed with other actives like AHAS/BHAs, vitamin C, or benzoyl peroxide unless they're already together in an all-in-one product that's been formulated to have the ingredients combined," says Dr. Karp. On nights you're using a retinoid, avoid any other harsh actives—stick with gentle ingredients like hyaluronic acid, squalane, and peptides instead, and save your more intensive treatments for your non-retinol evenings.

2. Different types of retinoids

Speaking of retinoids, there should only ever be one in your skincare routine—adding any extras will do much more harm than good. You'll find retinoids most commonly listed as retinol, retinaldehyde, retinyl esters, tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene, and trifarotene, and Shirley Chi, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Southern California, says to avoid doubling up. "If you're going to put on a serum that has retinol and then you put on adapalene, that's probably going to irritate because now you're amping up your adapalene," says Dr. Chi.

3. Vitamin C and exfoliants

Because exfoliating ingredients (like scrubs, AHAs, and BHAs) open up your pores, applying vitamin C on top of them can leave you more prone to irritation. To avoid this, use vitamin C in the morning and exfoliate at night.

4. Copper peptides and vitamin C

While this combo likely won't screw with your skin, it will mess with the ingredients' effectiveness. "Copper peptides should not be used with vitamin C as they can oxidize Vitamin C and reduce its antioxidant effect," says Caren Campbell, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in San Francisco. To achieve the maximum benefits of each ingredient, use your C serum in the morning and your copper peptides at night.

Should skincare products be applied to wet or dry skin?

Application order aside, one of the most common skincare mistakes people make is putting products on the wrong skin type. Some ingredients work best when applied to slightly damp skin, while others require skin to be totally dry to reach peak performance. And if you don't adhere to these specifics, Dr. Chi says you won't be getting the most out of your regimen.

"Your skincare routine should take several minutes," says Dr. Chi. That's because you may have to wait for one step to dry before you can proceed with the next to get the most effective results. Below, Dr. Chi breaks down which ingredients should go on damp skin and which ones need dry skin.

1. Moisturizing ingredients: damp skin

"Moisturizers should be placed on just slightly damp, freshly washed skin," says Dr. Chi. The way they work is that they trap moisture, so if you put moisturizer on skin that's fully dry—I mean more than 30 seconds dry—then it really doesn't do that much to moisturize."

If your skincare routine is simple and you're just applying a moisturizer after you cleanse, you'll want to do this ASAP while your skin is still wet. The same goes for moisturizing serums you may layer into your skincare routine, like hyaluronic acid, squalene, or niacinamide.

2. Active ingredients: dry skin

Anytime you apply an active ingredient (aka an ingredient that actively changes the skin) like retinol, glycolic acid, vitamin C, or hydrocortisone, you want to use it on a dry complexion. That's because you want the ingredient to be able to fully sink in instead of just sliding around on top of wet skin. This is especially true for any cream or oil-based actives, as we know oil and water do not get along.

"It's more effective if you're applying it, and it stays where you need to put it," says Dr. Chi. For example, "if you have a prescription topical, brightening oil, or an anti-inflammatory medication, dry skin is better, because if it's wet and there's any oil at all in the medication, it just slips off."

So, if you want to use a moisturizing serum (like the ones mentioned above), apply it right out of the shower while your skin is still wet. Let your skin air dry for a few minutes before following up with your active serum. Then, you can apply your moisturizer right on top of that. Your skin should still be moist enough from your active serum to allow it to penetrate properly.

Here's where it gets tricky: Some serums include moisturizing and active ingredients—like a vitamin C serum formulated with hyaluronic acid or a retinoid that's also got squalane. In these cases, when you apply should depend on what benefits you're looking to get out of the serum. If you're focused solely on moisturizing, apply them to damp skin, but if you want to reap the positive effects of vitamin C, wait until your complexion is dry.

3. Sunscreen: dry skin

Most importantly, your sunscreen needs to go on dry skin. Whether chemical or mineral, sunscreen, and wet skin do not mix. "If you put a mineral sunscreen on wet skin, it doesn't go on," says Dr. Chi. And while chemical sunscreen may blend into wet skin, it's not going to work as well. "Chemical sunscreens work by interacting with your stratum corneum, with the top layer of your epidermis, to absorb ultraviolet rays so that they don't go into your skin and do damage. If you're applying it to wet skin, that will affect the absorption of the chemical sunscreen." And in effect, how well it's able to absorb UV rays.

Final takeaway

With these dermatologist-approved skincare tips, your best skin yet is only a few steps away—remember that those "steps" may differ from day to day. "Listening to your skin daily and figuring out what works for you is the most important thing," says Dr. Karp. "And if you're having trouble, that's what skincare professionals like estheticians and dermatologists are here for."

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