There are so many skin care products out there to choose from. How do you decide which ones are best for your skin? And in what order should you apply them? It’s a lot to try to figure out on your own.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Cosmetic and surgical dermatologist Kiyanna Williams, MD, is here to help you figure out how to start a daily routine that’s right for your skin’s unique needs.
Why the order of your skin care products matters
The order in which you apply each product dictates your skin’s ability to soak it up, so you want to apply them based on the weight of each product on your skin.
“Generally, you want to go lightest to heaviest,” Dr. Williams says. “If you’re using a really fine, light lotion, start there. “Then, you follow with your cream, and then a serum, if you’re using one.”
But it’s a little more complicated than that.
“It gets very specific as to what things can be mixed with what,” Dr. Williams says. “If you have a lot of products and a lot of questions, you should schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.”
The right order to apply skin care products
First things first: You don’t actually need a medicine cabinet stocked with rows and rows of skin care products.
“I think it’s best to whittle it down to the basics,” Dr. Williams says. “Most people don’t need more than a couple of products, and in general, there’s no need to have multiple serums or toners or multiples of the same product.”
Still, it can be overwhelming to parse through all of the many skin care products on the market and try to figure out how to use all of them. Dr. Williams walks you through a basic skin care routine for day and night and what each one should include.
Your morning skin care routine
Rise and shine! As you and your fresh face start the day, a simple, straightforward skin care routine is best. In fact, just three products should do the trick for most people.
Sorry to break it to you, but no, those cleansing wipes don’t count as washing your face. If you’re traveling or otherwise in a pinch, they’re better than nothing — but as a rule, cleansing should involve water.
To pick the best cleanser for you, consider your skin type. “If your face is prone to dryness, stay away from foaming cleansers,” Dr. Williams advises, “and if your skin is sensitive, look for cleansers that have the words ‘gentle’ or ‘for sensitive skin’ on them.”
She recommends avoiding cleansers with physical exfoliators in them, like microbeads or other gritty-textured products, as they can cause irritation and inflammation. “Instead, I recommend, chemical exfoliators, which have ingredients such as glycolic acid in them,” she says. “Those provide a more gentle, even exfoliation.”
If there’s a skin care fountain of youth, it’s sunscreen. But if you think you’re all set because you wear a moisturizer with SPF, think again. That’s not actually enough to keep your skin protected, Dr. Williams says.
“I recommend SPF 30 or higher every single day of the year, even in the winter,” she continues. “Then, if you know you’re going to be out in the sun, golfing or at the beach or whatever, put on SPF 50 or higher.”
Try a tinted mineral sunscreen, which doesn’t have the thick, pasty consistency you might think of when you think about applying sunscreen to your face.
The older you get, the drier your skin gets. Moisturizer is an opportunity to give your skin back some of what it’s lost.
“As you get old, you want to replace some of the moisture you’re losing,” Dr. Williams explains. “Moisturizers that have hyaluronic acids and ceramides can be helpful to replace some of that moisture.”
Wait, what about toner?
These astringents are thought to help shrink pores. If you use one, apply it after cleansing, as a second step in readying your face for sunscreen and moisturizer — but you probably don’t need it.
“Unfortunately, there really isn’t anything you can apply to your face that’s going to shrink your pores,” Dr. Williams notes, “so I’m indifferent on toners.”
Your evening skin care routine
You can skip the sunscreen at night, when, for the most part, Dr. Williams still recommends minimal products. Here are her tips for how to take care of your skin before you call it a day.
Wash the day away
Again, makeup removal wipes aren’t going to do the trick. Before bed, use a cleanser and water to wash off the dirt and grime of the day.
Some people use two kinds of moisturizers — a lighter day cream and a thicker night cream. “Some people don’t like that heavy feeling on their face during the day, whereas they’re not as aware of it when they’re sleeping,” Dr. Williams says.
Nighttime is retinol time
Products that contain retinols (vitamin A) and retinoids (which are derived from vitamin A) increase cellular turnover, which gives your skin that youthful glow.
But these products should only be applied in the evening. “Some of them can be deactivated by the sun, so it’s important that you wear them in the evening,” Dr. Williams stresses.
Tend to blemishes
Trying to tackle a zit overnight? “Products that have benzoyl peroxide are my favorite,” Dr. Williams says. “Dab a little benzoyl peroxide cream or a retinoid cream on there to help dry it out.”
Pimple patches — little hydrocolloid stickers that you place on a zit overnight — can be helpful on blemishes that you’ve accidentally picked or that have popped on their own and are still healing.
Face masks: fine but not that helpful
Face masks (not the COVID-19 kind) help put moisture back into your face. “Think of your skin as a grape versus a raisin,” Dr. Williams says. “If you put a raisin in water for a while, it’ll start to plump up. That’s basically what face masks aim to do. It’s not clear how helpful they really are, but if you want to plump up your raisin after a night out, it can’t hurt.”
Beware of skin care products claiming to work miracles
Some people spend lots of money and effort on products that say they can do things like prevent wrinkles and get rid of dark circles. But Dr. Williams says not to be fooled by the promise of cure-alls.
“In general, if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably not true,” she says. “Products do exist to help with these and other concerns, but if you see a product promising to do things that don’t sound very reasonable, it’s probably not going to work.”
Instead, she recommends making an appointment with a dermatologist so you can figure out what’s best for your skin. “If you’re feeling bogged down, your dermatologist can go over specific active ingredients in individual products and the clinical data to support their use.”
To hear more from Dr. Williams on this topic, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode “How to Start a Skin Care Routine.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.