With so many lotions, potions, serums, and creams, it's hard to know what to use when. Here's the exact skin-care routine order to follow.

By Rachel Jacoby Zoldan
Updated August 21, 2020
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Young woman spreading cream over her face while looking in the mirror. Beauty treatment. Female putting on moisturizer on her facial. Albino woman applying cream to face as part of skin care routine order and looking to mirror
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Your skin's primary job is to act as a barrier to keep bad stuff out of your body. That's a good thing! But it also means you need to be strategic when applying skin-care products if you want them to be effective.

As a general rule of thumb: Apply the thinnest, more watery products first, then end with the heaviest creams and oils last—but there's a lot more to it than that. Here, two top dermatologists break down the best skin-care routine order.

Graphic of skin-care routine order
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Step 1: Exfoliate and cleanse.

Once a week, start your morning skin-care routine order with an exfoliator to eliminate dead skin cells, which make it harder for all the active ingredients you're going to apply to penetrate the skin. "Exfoliating before you wash can help to prime your face for the rest of your skin-care routine," says Michele Farber, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. (Related: The Best Face Scrubs to Achieve Bright, Smooth Skin)

Every other day, skip the exfoliator and go straight for the cleanser when you first wake up. "If you have dry skin, use a gentle, hydrating cleanser with ingredients like ceramides, glycerin, or an oil," says Dr. Farber. For the most bang for your buck, try Cetaphil's Gentle Skin Cleanser (Buy It, $12, amazon.com), which soothes and cleanses without harsh surfactants, making it ideal for those with sensitive skin. For greater nourishment, go for a cleansing oil, like DHC Deep Cleansing Oil (Buy It, $28, amazon.com) or African Botanics' Pure Marula Cleansing Oil (Buy It, $60, revolve.com), both of which dissolve makeup, dirt, and surface impurities without leaving your skin dry to the bone.

Acne-prone or more oily skinned types should look for a foamy cleanser with ingredients like glycolic acid or salicylic acid, says Dr. Farber. These chemical exfoliants remove excess surface oil and built-up gunk from your pores to keep your skin soft and breakout-free. Both SOBEL SKIN Rx's 27% Glycolic Acid Facial Cleanser (Buy It, $42, sephora.com) and La Roche Posay's Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser (Buy It, $13, amazon.com), which contains 2% salicylic acid, will get the job done. (BTW, here's exactly what glycolic acid products can do for your complexion.)

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Step 2: Use a toner or essence.

Once your skin is squeaky clean, the next step of the best skin-care routine order is to employ the aid of a toner or an essence (re: a creamier, more hydrating toner). Use the former if your skin is on the oily side, the latter if you've got a drier complexion.

"Toners are great for getting rid of excess dead skin cells," says Dr. Farber. "Look for ingredients like glycolic acid to even out skin tone, but don't use too much since they can be drying."

Alternatively, essences — concentrated formulas that help to optimize serum and cream absorption — also target fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin texture. Unlike a toner, which you'd apply by putting a few drops on a cotton pad and swiping across the face, you can apply a few drops of essence using your fingertips, gently tapping into skin until its absorbed. Try Royal Fern's Phytoactive Skin Perfecting Essence (Buy It, $85, violetgrey.com) to soften skin and refine your complexion, or La Prairie's Skin Caviar Essence-in-Lotion (Buy It, $280, nordstrom.com) to lift and firm the skin while minimizing the appearance of pores.

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Step 3: Apply your eye cream.

Before using any other products, Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital's Department of Dermatology, suggests layering on your eye cream first so that the area — the most sensitive on your face — doesn't get overrun with harsh acids or other ingredients not suited for use there. Essentially, the eye cream applied at this stage in the skin-care routine order will help protect the delicate area against any harsh ingredients you apply later. For a vegan option, opt for Freck's So Jelly Cactus Eye Jelly with Plant Collagen (Buy It, $28, revolve.com), a soothing cream that reduces the appearance of dark circles and wrinkles. And if you're willing to splurge, stock up on Dr. Lara Devgan Scientific Beauty's Peptide Eye Cream (Buy It, $215, sephora.com), which boasts a lightweight formula that supports natural collagen production and reduces fine lines and wrinkles. (P.S. derms *love* these eye creams.)

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Step 4: Use any spot treatments or prescriptions.

Spot treatments and prescriptions are the most potent formulation of active ingredients, and you really want them to work. That's why Dr. Zeichner says that this is the best time to apply OTC acne fighters, as well as single-ingredient boosters, to maximize their efficacy. If you have an Rx for acne, for example, apply it to pesky areas at this point in your skin-care routine order.

Step 5: Apply your antioxidant serum or retinol.

At this point in your skin-care routine order, you can apply a serum, though you may want to have targeted formulas for both morning and night. "Serums should go on before your moisturizer to help hydrate, brighten, and reduce fine lines — they provide targeted, specific results depending on what you're looking to get from your products," says Dr. Farber. "Look for ingredients like vitamin C, a brightener best used during the daytime under your moisturizer, or retinol, a wrinkle-reducer and fine-line fighter that works wonders while you sleep."

During the day, slather on Dr. Lara Devgan Scientific Beauty's Vitamin C+B+E Ferulic Serum (Buy It, $145, sephora.com). Packed with vitamin C and vitamin E, this serum helps fade the appearance of sun spots *and* reduce the appearance of fine lines. Before you snuggle into bed, apply Asari's Sleepercell Retinol Serum (Buy It, $45, asari.com), which has an all-natural formula with an impossibly lightweight texture that works on every skin type. (Scared of retinol? Don't be. Here's what you need to know about the miracle skin-care ingredient.)

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Step 6: Apply your moisturizer.

Following your serum or retinol, you want to ensure you lock in hydration. That's why Dr. Farber recommends applying a moisturizer at this point in your skin-care routine order. Try moisturizing while skin is still moist to keep skin as hydrated as possible, says Dr. Farber. While the are countless A1 moisturizers available, CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion (Buy It, $12, amazon.com) works well with any skin type.

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Step 7: Apply your face oil.

Made from luxurious, hydrating oils — such as squalane, jojoba, sesame seed, and marula — face oils are the step in your skin-care routine order key to achieving that 'grammable dewy glow. A little bit goes a long way, so you'll want to warm just a few drops (not half the bottle) in your hands and gently pat the oil on your face. Once it's fully absorbed, the face oil will work its magic, reducing redness and inflammation, protecting against premature aging, and acting as a natural barrier to keep all that moisture from your cream in the skin. Some fan-favorites? Furtuna Skin's Due Alberi Biphase Moisturizing Oil (Buy It, $225, furturnaskin.com), which boasts squalane and jojoba oils to hydrate and plump skin, and Supernal's Cosmic Glow Oil (Buy It, $108, credobeauty.com), which has camellia seed oil and squalane to nourish and plump. Herbivore's Lapis Blue Tansy Face Oil (Buy It, $72, amazon.com) is ideal for acne-prone and oily skin, as it features noncomedogenic ingredients. (Related: Celebrities Can't Stop Raving About This Algae Face Oil)

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Step 8: Apply your SPF.

During the day, you want your moisturizer to have at least SPF 30, but if it doesn't offer any sun protection, you'll want to follow up with a lightweight sunscreen. "It's unquestionably the most important step and the best line of defense," says Dr. Farber. (And, yes, suncreen belongs in your skin-care routine order—even if you're not going outside.)

Whether you use a physical (such as zinc) or chemical blocker, it's important to apply SPF last to ensure no other creams, serums, or lotions inactivate the ingredients in your sunscreen. Try Dr. Andrew Weil for Origins Mega-Defense Advanced Daily Defender SPF 45 (Buy It, $45, origins.com), which is spiked with skin-strengthening cactus extract, or Dr. Barbara Sturm's Sun Drops SPF 50 (Buy It, $145, sephora.com), which protects against UVA and UVB rays *and* hydrates skin with the help of hyaluronic acid.

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