What goes on first? Not everything is intuitive when it comes to skincare. Do I apply face oil before of after moisturizer? At what point do I use my mist?
Using your products in the correct order is crucial if you want to reap all their benefits.
In this post, I’m breaking down everything you need to know about building a skincare routine that works, and applying products in the right order. The easy way.
These steps are by no means all essential. Your routine can be as basic or as complex as you want it to be. Visit my examples of skincare routines for some inspo.
First things first: washing your face. We have to remove all that sweat, bacteria, sebum, and possibly makeup and sunscreen. Double cleansing is recommended in the evening, especially if you wear makeup or even just sunscreen.
Double cleansing means you’re using 2 cleansers (duh): an oil-based cleanser followed by a water-based cleanser.
Why double cleanse? For one, because washing your face twice is more effective than washing your face once.
The first cleansing round removes surface impurities but not everything. There will still be traces of yucky things left after the first cleanser, since there’s just so much stuff on our face, especially if we wear makeup — moisturizer, sunscreen, foundation, bronzer, blush, highlight and contour. That’s a lot of layers.
The second cleansing round goes deeper into your pores and removes all the excess stuff that your first cleanser didn’t get rid of.
1.1 Oil Cleanser
We start with an oil-based cleanser, which could be a cleansing oil or a cleansing balm. This is a matter of preference.
I, for one, prefer cleansing oils because they’re more slippery and make removing makeup a breeze. It’s quicker than using a balm. With a balm, you have to scoop it, melt it into your hands, and it’s also thicker and harder to spread on the face. Most cleansing oils have pumps and they’re a liquid, so application is super fast.
Is there any difference in their effectiveness? No. They both do a wonderful job at removing makeup, sunscreen, and sebum. Like attracts like, so an oil cleanser is a wonderful way of getting rid of oil.
How To Use: To use your oil cleanser, place a generous amount in your palm and rub your hands together. No water is necessary. Massage the oil all over your face, making sure to remove every trade of face and eye makeup. Take your time for a proper cleanse. Give yourself a relaxing facial massage if you’re in the mood. Use a warm, wet muslin cloth or face towel to remove everything.
Common Question: Can I use a makeup wipe or micellar water as a first cleanse?
Answer: No. Makeup wipes contain irritating like alcohol and fragrance, and they also make for a poor way to cleanse your skin. They might be quick and easy, but they’re not recommended by dermatologists. Micellar water is a better alternative to wipes, but it’s also not your best choice. Use an oil cleanser instead, and you’ll see that it’s just as quick.
1.2 Water-Based Cleanser
This cleanser goes deeper into your pores to remove impurities. This second cleanser should not be stripping, and it’s best to stay away from foaming cleansers, which can be harsh. If there’s foaming, there’s sulphates. And sulphates are harsh ingredients used in industrial cleaning — you don’t need them on your face.
Choose a gentle, cream cleanser instead. If you can, make sure the pH is not too alkaline, as this can disrupt the skin and dry it out. Handsoaps and sulphate products are too alkaline for the face. Your water-based cleanser should be low-pH, ideally 5.5.
Your face should also never feel tight or squeaky clean after cleansing. It should be clean yet soft. Tightness is a sign that your cleanser might be too harsh.
How To Use: Spread the product on your wet face, massaging in circular motions for a full minute to really get the cleanser to do its job. Be gentle and don’t rub it in too harshly. Use water to remove the product. Your face should feel clean, yet soft.
Question: Can I use a scrub to thorough wash my face?
Answer: Using scrubs isn’t recommended, as they can cause damage to the skin. Instead of a scrub, which uses physical exfoliation (i.e. tiny particles such as sugar or — please god NO — walnut bits), use a chemical exfoliant. More on this below. If you really, really want to use a scrub, use it in lieu of your water-based cleanser in this step.
3. Chemical Exfoliant (1-3 times/week)
Exfoliating the skin means removing the old, dead skin cells to make room for new and better ones. When you exfoliate regularly, your skin is less dull, less textured, and more youthful.
There are 2 ways of exfoliating: scrubs (aka physical exfoliation, aka too harsh for mostly everyone), and chemicals.
Chemical exfoliants contain AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) or BHA (beta hydroxy acid).
Both work by breaking up the “glue” that holds dead skin cells together. When this bond is broken, it’s bye-bye dead skin cells.
AHAs and BHA are similar, but not the same. So which one should you be looking for? Let’s dig deeper.
Common AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid. These chemicals perform their magic on the skin’s surface. They don’t penetrate pores. AHAs are great for bringing glow back to the skin as well as getting rid of texture and signs of aging. They’re perfect for those with dry skin, since they’re also hydrating.
BHA is commonly called salicylic acid. Typically, it’s used to treat acne, but it can do much more for our skin. Salicylic acid not only works on the skin’s surfance, but it also penetrates deep inside the pores. It helps with any clogged pores, bumps, blemishes, and enlarged pores. For these reasons, salicylic acid is perfect for those with oilier skin types.
Note: The chemical exfoliant your choose should be between a pH of 3 and 4.
There are many “strengths” of chemical exfoliants. If you’re a beginner, make sure to choose a gentle product that doesn’t have insane levels of acids. Remember these are powerful chemicals, and take it slow. Start with a low percentage and work your way up if needed. Tingling and redness are normal reactions to chemical exfoliants, but make sure to patch test if you have sensitive skin.
How To Use: There are several product types available. Exfoliating toners, creams, gels, serums, or masks. The choices are endless! Choose the product that most appeals to you. You can also either go for a product that contains AHAs, BHA, or both combined!
It’s recommended to use a toner after cleansing to restore hydration and pH balance to the skin, since cleansing typically strips some moisture and raises the pH. Hydrating toners come in liquid form, but are sometimes available in a mist.
There are 3 rules to using toners.
- Stay away from toners containing alcohol.
- Stay away from toners containing alcohol.
- Stay away from toners containing alcohol.
In the 90s and early 2000s, astringents were marketed as “toners”. These types of toners contain alcohol or witch hazel and claim to shrink pores (sidenote: studies have proven this to be false).
In 2019, we’re steering clear from astringent toners, which are getting harder to find. For a good reason.
Nowadays, most toners have hydrating properties and contain humectants like glycerin or hyaluronic acid. Some toners bring not only hydration, but also antioxidants and nourishment.
How To Use: Use a round cotton pad to soak up some of your toner, and swipe across your face. If using a mist, simply spray 3 times — cheek, cheek, forehead.
Some products marketed as toners are actually chemical exofliants in liquid form. These products contain ingredients like AHAs (lactic acid, glycolic acid) or BHAs (salicylic acid).
Common Question: Can I use witch hazel as a toner?
Answer: It’s not recommended to use witch hazel on the face because of how drying and irritating it is. Witch hazel also contains 14% to 15% alcohol due to its extraction process, which makes for a very drying product. If you have oily skin, don’t get your hopes you when you hear “drying”. Dryness isn’t a good thing for any skin type, and using witch hazel isn’t an effective way to combat acne.
5. Hydrating Mist
A hydrating mist can bring extra hydration for those who need it, not to mention that misting your face makes for a refreshing ritual.
How To Use: Mist over your entire face, keeping enough of a distance!
Essences come in liquid form, but unlike most toners or hydrating mists, they contain active ingredients. They also help to hydrate, and since essences come in a liquid consistency, they penetrate more deeply into the skin.
How To Use: Either spray on the entire face, or use a cotton bud to apply depending on the type of product. Concentrate on drier areas.
A skincare booster is a concentrated product that targets a specific concern. Boosters also use one key ingredient in more concentrated levels, which makes them highly effective.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of boosters, their key ingredients, and the concerns they target.
Vitamin C Boosters: Depending on the concentrations, these target brown spots (or sun spots), wrinkles, uneven skin tone, texture, and lack of firmness.
Hyaluronic Acid boosters: These target dehydrated skin by bringing moisture and making it plump. Because of this, they also target fine lines and wrinkles.
Niacinamide boosters: Niacinamide (Vitamin B3) targets large pores and discoloration, as well as fine lines and wrinkles. It’s also great for those with acne or rosacea.
Peptide boosters: Great for aging skin, peptide boosters target loss of firmness, wrinkles, and dehydration.
Depending on your skincare concerns, you can use one or more boosters — or none at all.
How To Use: You can either use boosters on their own, or mix them with your serum (the next step).
Sometimes called “treatments” or “ampoules”, face serums are jam-packed with actives and aim to deliver results. They often come in a thick yet watery form. Because their molecules are small, they can penetrate the skin deeply.
There are many different types of serums out there, and they often contain several active ingredients. You’ll find hyaluronic acid serums (for hydration), Vitamin C serums (for brightening, signs of aging), or antioxidant serums (to combat free radicals). Ingredients such as niacinamide, zinc, and retinol are also extremely popular in serums.
How To Use: Apply a few drops to your face as directed. Instructions vary based on the product. Generally, you want to avoid your eye area.
9. Eye cream
Although eye cream isn’t necessary, it’s a “nice to have”. Eye creams are specifically made for the skin around your eyes, which is thinner and more sensitive than the rest of your face.
How To Use: Take a tiny amount (a grain of rice amount) and pat it gentle on the boney area above your cheek. Use your ring finger, since it’s weaker and therefore more gentle. There’s no need to apply the product close to your eye, as it will naturally travel there.
10. Face Oil
Ahhh, face oil! My favorite step. Face oils are emollient, but not humectant. In other words, they trap moisture, but they don’t moisturize on their own. This is why it’s important to use a hydrating product before applying your face oil. Hydrating products contain humectants such as hyaluronic acid or glycerin.
If you use a face oil correctly (as explained above), it will change your skin for the best. Face oils really help seal in all the benefits from your previous products, and bring a ton of antioxidants and nourishment to the skin.
From rosehip oil to hemp oil, face oils are beneficial to every skin type — even those with oily skin! This is because your skin will produce less sebum if you supply it with enough oil.
Face oils keep your skin soft, youthful, and moisturized. They’re a must in my book.
How To Use: Apply a few drops to your hands, and rub together. Apply to your face, patting gently.
Moisturizer is the final step because it’s the thickest. Applying your moisturizer last, after your face oil, will seal everything in nicely. You’ll also wake up to fresh, glowing skin.
Moiturizing is an essential step for all skin types, even those with oily skin.
How To Use: Apply a pea-sized amount to the face.
Suzana Rose is the founder and editor-in-chief of Cruelty-Free Kitty. She loves using her creative energy to run her ethical businesses, and when she’s not working, you can find her thrifting cute clothes, listening to podcasts, or rewatching her favorite episodes of The Office.