Do’s and Don’ts: How to layer and order your day and night skincare routine
Why skincare order matters
Our skin is a complex organ. It is constantly changing and evolving, which means that an adaptable skincare routine order is an absolute must for a healthy complexion. Specifically, you should be curating your skincare collection to accommodate the precise needs of your skin. Great skin is not simply a matter of DNA—your daily skincare routine order has a big impact on what you see in the mirror. The role and goal of any skincare routine order is to tune up your complexion and troubleshoot or target any area you want to work on.
When searching for ingredients to combat dry skin, keep an eye out for hydrating ingredients like glycerin or hyaluronic acid. If you’re starting to see lines and facial wrinkles, you may be struggling with premature ageing and it’s time to give retinol a go. If your skin is looking dull or patchy, start looking into powerful active ingredients like PITERA™, vitamin C or AHAs.
But here’s a scary thought: The expensive serum you splurge on every few months might not be working as well as it should simply because you’re not layering it over other skincare products in the proper order. Why spend time going through online reviews and recommendations before deciding on the most effective product if you’re not going to use them in the most productive manner? It doesn’t make any sense.
The point here is that there are plenty of wonderful active ingredients and skin solutions on the market. Since many skincare routines include several different steps and sometimes dozens of different products, in order to optimise their benefits, you have to use them correctly. In essence, this means that you need to know how to order your skincare routine properly. Not all active ingredients play well together, and the order by which you apply your skincare products actually does matter.
Ahead, we’ll be talking about what it takes to create the ideal skincare routine order for both day and night. Luckily for you, we’ll also be gleaning some expert tips and recommendations from local skintellectual, Alicia Tan.
The ultimate daytime skincare routine order
When it comes to the daytime, planning your skincare steps ahead is crucial—especially in hot and humid Malaysia. According to Alicia, while curating your daytime routine, there are a few factors you need to consider:
“If you live in a humid country like Malaysia and you have oilier skin, you can keep it rather light and fresh (leave the heavy creams and more potent skincare for the nighttime). I like to add anti-pollution and antioxidant-rich skincare into my routine to help protect my skin against environmental aggressors. I do also like to incorporate a Vitamin C serum or another brightening serum during the daytime—it goes hand-in-hand with sunscreen in any routine too! Of course, sunscreen is a must; rain or shine, whether you are indoors or outdoors.
“For me, my daytime routine involves a gentle cleanser, followed by a toner and/or an essence, a serum, moisturiser, eye cream, and sunscreen (in that order!).” The general idea here is that you want to be putting your skincare on according to texture, such as from lightest to heaviest or thinnest to thickest.”
Contrary to popular belief, toner is not a cleansing step. Rather, toner is a fast-penetrating liquid skincare step that, according to Alicia, “helps to prep your skin after cleansing, for better absorption of the following steps in your routine. It can be your first step of hydration, or it could be a toner with exfoliating ingredients to help remove dead skin cells and clarify the skin.”
One thing we can all agree on is that the toning step comes first in any ideal skincare routine: Apply your toner just after cleansing and before any other products.
Alicia’s application tip: “For hydrating toners, I like to just pour it onto the palms of my hands and pat it into my skin. For exfoliating toners, I prefer to pour the product onto a cotton pad and swipe it onto my skin. Using a cotton pad is also good for those with oilier skin who want to swipe off excess oil.”
Somewhere between a toner and a serum, the essence shares a similar function to both skincare steps. This is actually one of Alicia’s favourite skincare steps: “Essences are like ‘liquid gold’; a water-based skincare step that is concentrated with active ingredients—usually fermented ingredients—to improve cell renewal and the skin's health.”
Effectively, it is a concentrated, hybrid formula that can target particular skin problems, depending on its specific formulation. As a general rule, essences deliver hydration and actives deep within the skin, making them the ideal companion for any routine.
Alicia’s application tip: “Simply pour your essences onto the palms of your hands and pat gently into the skin.”
Often gel-based or liquid, serums are yet another efficacious way to incorporate powerful actives into your skincare. Alicia explains that they have “one of the highest concentrations of active ingredients to target specific concerns and penetrate into deep layers of the skin”. They tend to be lighter in weight than a moisturiser and heavier than both a toner or an essence. As such, the best way to use a serum in your skincare routine order is to layer them over your toner and essence steps, and under your moisturiser.
Alicia’s application tip: “Use just one pump of serum, activate the formula with your fingertips, then massage, glide, and press it onto your skin.”
Let’s be real: You know why you need to moisturise. However, if you need a quick crash course, Alicia explains: “Moisturisers are essential to protect skin's barrier—they seal the deal, basically; they lock in and seal in all the goodness of the products we’ve applied prior. Essentially, a moisturiser maintains skin’s moisture barrier and protects the skin from environmental damage.”
In any skincare routine, moisturiser is the bare minimum, regardless of skin type. The real challenge is finding a moisturiser that works for you. Contrary to popular belief, every skin type needs moisturiser—even acne-prone and oily skin. On top of that, when you throw our tropical climate into the mix, the need for a moisturiser that doesn’t suffocate the skin or melt off in the heat becomes desperate.
As such, your best bet is to seek daytime moisturisers that are lightweight yet effective. Opting for airy creams or gel-consistency products is key.
Alicia’s application tip: “Use just a small amount, glide it onto the skin and massage it in.”
We can hear you already: “Why do I need an eye cream? Isn’t it just an overhyped moisturiser?”. These are valid questions, and understandable ones, too. The short answer is that it depends. It’s easy to write off eye creams as a gimmick, and we don’t deny that there certainly are a good number of glorified moisturisers out there, but hear us out.
“The eye area has the thinnest skin on the face, and it is prone to dark circles, fine lines, and wrinkles! Hence, I feel that eye cream is essential to help prevent further ageing around the eyes,” Alicia explains. She’s absolutely right—eye creams can be invaluable additions to any routine. Firstly, they are specially formulated for use around your eye. You see, the trouble with using regular face products around the eye is that the concentrations of active ingredients can be too potent for the delicate area. This can lead to damage and eye irritation. Using products that are specifically formulated for the eye is a great way to ensure that every inch of your face is receiving the TLC it deserves.
On top of that, applying eye creams can be a very pampering, sensorial experience. Obviously, this has nothing to do with the condition of your skin, but it is a wonderful way to incorporate a little self-care into your week.
TIP: Indulge in a de-puffing and de-stressing eye massage as you apply your eye creams for a lovely way to wind down.
Alicia’s application tip: “Dab a small amount around the eyes and gently massage it in with the fourth finger.”
By now, it should go without saying, but SPF is a necessity. As you load up your pores with acids and antioxidants, your skin becomes more sensitised to sun rays. Further, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, Alicia asserts the importance of sunscreen in anti-ageing.
“UV rays are the biggest cause of skin ageing, wrinkles, and pigmentation, and the only way to prevent photoaging is to wear SPF,” she says. However, in addition to the aesthetic risks, there is an often-overlooked risk that comes with UV exposure: Skin cancer. It is the tenth most common type of cancer in sweltering, sunny Malaysia, so there are absolutely no excuses here.
“It’s a must to apply sunscreen every day, rain or shine—even if we are indoors—to protect us from the UV rays,” Alicia continues. At the very least, use an SPF30 in your daily skincare routine (broad-spectrum, of course), making sure to reapply at least every two hours if you are going to be in the sun consistently.
Remember: The best sunscreen for you is the one you’re actually going to use correctly. For your face and neck, you’ll need two to three fingers worth of sunscreen (don’t skimp out!). It sounds like a lot, but trust us when we say that every single drop is necessary. That said, not all sunscreens are made equal—though sunscreens generally do have a reputation for leaving white casts and being greasy, there are some excellent formulations that don’t compromise on user experience for protection.
The ultimate night time skincare routine order
Before you ask—yes, you should have a different skincare routine order for both day and night. For starters, your skin’s needs change depending on the time of the day (you don’t need SPF at night, for instance). Further, your skin (and the rest of your body, for that matter) goes into “repair mode” come slumber time. This is when your skin can use all the help it can get with regards to targeted treatments. In fact, your skin cells enter peak absorption mode during the night. As such, there is no better time than over your bedtime to treat your skin to all the actives it can handle.
In particular, you’ll want to be focusing on hydration. Fun fact: Some studies have shown that 1) sebum production slows at night and 2) the skin loses more water as a result. So, if there ever was a time to amp up the hydration, it would be during your nighttime skincare routine. Don’t be shy: Whip out your most luxurious oils and your richest formulations just before tucking into bed!
Alicia’s personal routine goes a little like this: “I start with a double cleanse (using cleansing oil followed by a cleansing foam or gel), then I apply toner, essence, serum, eye cream, moisturiser, and facial oil.
“Sometimes, I’ll add in a wash-off mask after cleansing, a sheet mask after toner, or a sleeping mask before I go to bed. It depends on what my skin needs.”
There are two things you want to facilitate with your evening serum: Hydration and skin cell turnover. Therefore, come sundown, you’ll want to opt for a more heavyweight serum that is jam-packed with gentle exfoliants and reparative ingredients.
“Generally, serums can be used for both day and night. But, there are certain night serums that use high concentrations of active ingredients like retinol or glycolic acid which may increase the sensitivity of your skin to the sun, making them better suited for the nighttime routine,” Alicia explains. “Other night serums are also targeted to help repair and regenerate the skin as we sleep (but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t be used during the day as well).”
“I don’t think we necessarily need a separate night moisturiser, but there are certain ones that are richer and contain more repairing ingredients that help recover skin while we sleep,” says Alicia. As we mentioned, your nighttime moisturiser has to be both hydrating and nourishing. One thing you may also want to consider is introducing a moisturiser into your routine that is specifically formulated for barrier repair.
When treating your skin with exfoliants and other sensitising actives, it’s important to make sure that you’re not going overboard. Ergo, the perfect addition to any nighttime skincare routine order, is a soothing, calming skincare saviour that fortifies the skin against irritation.
The principles of daytime and nighttime eye creams are pretty identical—the only difference here is the type of active ingredient you’re looking for. While you would generally want more sun-friendly actives like vitamin C or niacinamide in your daytime eye cream, the evening is the perfect time for more intensive options like retinol or AHAs.
Facial Oil and Retinol
You may recall that your skin loses more water at night (also known as transepidermal water loss). Though it seems out of place in our hot and sweaty climate, a face oil could make all the difference in your skin.
Alicia says: “I personally love facial oils because of the instant glow they give to my skin. Facial oils also give great nourishment to the skin, protecting the skin from external aggressors, helping to balance the skin’s oil production and, overall, improving the skin's hydration, moisture levels and health. The key is to find oils that are suitable for your skin type.”
Using the right kind of face oil can enhance (or recover) your skin’s natural barrier function, intensely hydrate, and deeply nourish your skin. You’ll know you’ve found a good oil when it 1) sinks into the skin quickly without leaving an oily residue and 2) effectively hydrates the skin.
Alicia’s application tip: “For facial oils, I use just a few drops, warm it between the palms of my hands, and press it into my skin. Sometimes, I’ll also mix it in with my moisturiser for an extra boost of nourishment.”
If you’d like to go the extra mile, facial oil is the ideal vehicle for retinols. “Retinol itself is great for its anti-ageing, anti-wrinkles, anti-hyperpigmentation, and anti-acne properties. It is one of the most effective ingredients, and it works by increasing skin cell turnover to target these issues,” she continues. Opt for an oil that is formulated with the active to reap both the anti-ageing and the nourishing benefits.
Alicia’s application tip: “If your retinol is in your face oil, follow my above advice. If you’re using retinol on its own (such as in a high concentration retinol cream), I prefer to use a very small amount after my toner or essence step—and only at night. Remember to moisturise well when using retinol as it can cause flaking and dryness—it is a very potent ingredient that renews the skin.”
Optional skincare steps: Mask and Exfoliator
In addition to your day-to-day skincare routine, you may also want to opt to include steps like masks or exfoliants to supplement your skin’s needs. There are two types of exfoliation: physical and chemical. In physical exfoliation, a tool (like the Foreo Luna or even a washcloth) or face scrub is used to physically remove dead skin cells. Chemical exfoliators, on the other hand, use ingredients like AHA or BHA to dissolve cells. What you use depends on your skin type and sensitivities; start off with a tester and experiment before committing. Depending on your skin type, it’s okay to exfoliate one to five times a week.
If you’re looking to throw in a face mask, it may be hard to settle on one that will really help your skin given the dizzying number of masks in the market. Besides their functions, masks also come in various formats: peel off, sheet, gel, cream—the list continues. For a fuss-free experience, opt for sheet masks. But if you’re really going for the extra boost of hydration, sleep masks where you leave on overnight to provide skin with extra nourishment is the way to go. These are not a daily ordeal, as they're a great way to give your skin a little extra TLC.
“I exfoliate my skin around once or twice a week, depending on my skin condition,” says Alicia. “I also use hydrating masks as often as I can if I’m not feeling too lazy! It can be anywhere from around three to four times a week.”
“This mask is absolutely perfect for pampering days—it has an exceptionally high concentration of Pitera that always leaves my skin glowing and plump!”—Alicia Tan
Skincare layering no-nos
With all the active ingredients available on the market nowadays, it never feels like there is enough time in a week to use them all. Moreover, not all active ingredients are created equal, so one of the trickiest parts of layering skincare is figuring out what plays well together, and what doesn’t.
There are a few obvious no-nos, according to Alicia: “Try not to mix AHAs and BHAs with retinol. And, take note of the ingredients in your toners and serums that may have a high potency of AHAs and BHAs, so that you don’t use too much of them together—otherwise, you may be over-exfoliating, and they may be too harsh on the skin, leading to sensitivity or redness.”
To keep things convenient for you, here is a quick and nifty guide to layering your active ingredients:
The take-home message here is that your skincare routine order is only as good as its sequence. The way that you layer your skincare routine is absolutely integral to optimising its efficacy and ensuring that your skin is able to absorb the nutrients and ingredients effectively. So, if your vanity is stocked with the best ingredients on the market and your skin is still struggling, it may be time to rethink your skincare steps entirely.
Looking for more information on getting the best skincare regiment for your skin? View SK-II’s guide to skincare regiments.
This article was written in partnership with SK-II. All reviews and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author.