With so many lotions, potions, serums, and creams, it's hard to know what to use when. We have your step-by-step guide.

By Rachel Jacoby Zoldan
Photo: PainterSaba / Getty Images

Your skin's primary job is to act as a barrier to keeps 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. Here, two top dermatologists explain what to apply and when.

Step 1: Exfoliate and cleanse.

Start with a 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 Michele Farber, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. [Try Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser ($14; ulta.com), which soothes and cleanses without harsh surfactants, or DHC Deep Cleansing Oil ($28; dermstore.com), a cult favorite.]

Acne-prone or more oily skinned types should look for a foamy cleanser with ingredients like glycolic acid or salicylic acid, Dr. Farber says. (Here's exactly what glycolic acid products do for your complexion.) [We like La Roche Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser. ($15; ulta.com)]

Once a week, exfoliate before cleansing to eliminate dead skin cells (they make it harder for those active ingredients to penetrate the skin). "Exfoliating before you wash can help to prime your face for the rest of your skin-care routine," Dr. Farber says.

Step 2: Use a toner or essence.

Once your skin is clean, you can employ the aid of a toner or an essence (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," Dr. Farber says. "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. [We love La Prairie Skin Caviar Essence-in-Lotion. ($255; nordstrom.com)]

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 protects the delicate area against any harsh ingredients you apply later.

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. If you have an RX for acne, for example, apply it to pesky areas first. Dr. Zeichner says that this is the best time to apply OTC acne fighters as well as single-ingredient boosters to maximize their efficacy.

Step 5: Apply your antioxidant serum or retinol.

From here, 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." (Check out absolutely everything you need to know about adding retinol to your skin-care routine.) [If you're looking to brighten, try SkinCeuticals Phloretin CF ($166, dermstore.com), which is great for oily types who may break out from a heavier serum. Asari Sleepercell Retinol Serum, ($45, urbanoutfitters.com) is an all-natural formula with an impossibly lightweight texture that works on every skin type.]

Step 6: Apply your moisturizer or SPF.

Now, you can apply a moisturizer, the last step that locks in hydration, says Dr. Farber. She recommends moisturizing while skin is still moist to keep skin as hydrated as possible. While the choices for moisturizer are endless, CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion is a good choice for any skin type. ($23 for 2; amazon.com)

During the day, you want this moisturizer to have at least SPF 30. "It's unquestionably the most important step and the best line of defense," Dr. Farber says. Whether you use a physical (such as zinc) or chemical blocker, it's important to apply it 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 ($43; origins.com), which is spiked with skin-strengthening cactus extract, or EltaMD AM Therapy Facial Moisturizer. ($33; dermstore.com)]

Comments (2)

December 3, 2018
Wait, nothing about face oils? I generally have oily skin, but adding a good face oil in the winter when the air is really dry, feels great. Also, I usually add my sunscreen after my moisturizer if the latter doesn't have SPF protection. I do like the clarification about toners vs. essences. I think a lot of one's regimen is climate and season dependent. I think I've been doing something right, because I'm 67 and don't even have crow's feet yet, let alone wrinkles.
November 9, 2018
That's interesting. For me, the first thing I apply once my face is clean is sunscreen. To me sunscreen is the most important anti-aging product. If you want to look like J-Lo when you're at her age, wear sunscreen and avoid the sun. It is THE best way to age well and prevent wrinkles. Forget about spending lots of money on serum or lotion. Invest it in a high quality sunscreen. I like the Roche Posay suncreen https://amzn.to/2Dy1fmv , but find the one that you like.