Layering 101: How to Layer Skincare Products

6 min
by Ben Gentzler
December 06, 2021

Have you heard the phrase “you’re a better door than a window”? That’s what a serum thinks every time it’s placed on top of a moisturizer. How can it penetrate your skin to do its job with a thicker product with larger molecules blocking it?

Short answer: it can’t. 

This is why the order you apply your skincare products matters. To avoid a traffic jam of product sitting on top of other product instead of in the freeway fast lane straight into skin, you have to apply products with a thinner consistency before the thicker, more creamy ones – no matter what their active ingredients are. Products with heavy consistencies can block lighter-weight ones from getting into skin and doing their job. Or worse, if the products are not right for your skin and don’t work synergistically, they can cause irritation. 


There are a couple of things to keep in mind when layering: consistency and active ingredients. Let’s dive in so you can apply your skincare with confidence. 


How to Layer Skincare

Active ingredients range in molecule size and therefore products like peels, toners, and serums that are meant to penetrate the skin barrier, need to be first in line. Any skincare that is meant to support our skin barrier, like lotions, creams, and ointments, should be applied last. An easy way to remember the order of application: apply products from the thinnest consistency to the thickest consistency. 

But first, always start with clean skin. Your skincare will render less effective if it’s blocked by dirt, grime, makeup, or leftover skincare. Once you have a clean canvas, you are ready to start.


A step-by-step guide to layering skincare:

  1. LED light therapy
  2. Liquids (peel pad, toner, anti-acne treatments)
  3. Serums and gels (contains active ingredients like Vitamin C, Salicylic Acid, Hyaluronic Acid, Niacinamide)
  4. Lotions (milky moisturizers with antioxidants or exfoliating acids)
  5. Creams (richer moisturizers meant to hydrate and revive)
  6. Ointments (generally petrolatum-based solids)


Tip: Each step should be fully absorbed before moving on to the next application. Reduce your steps if absorption is taking longer than a couple of minutes. 


What Products Should I Alternate?

Worried about layering certain active ingredients but don’t want to sacrifice any collagen-stimulating, acne-fighting, or barrier strengthening ingredients from your regimen? Dividing them between your morning and night routine is a great way to avoid any irritation. Layering alpha and beta hydroxy acids, retinoids (such as retinol or Retin-A), or benzoyl peroxide in any combination will be overwhelming for the skin and you risk developing redness and inflammation.

This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the benefits of these ingredients, but you shouldn’t be layering them. Reach for your AHA/BHAs in the morning and apply retinol at night (this also makes it is less likely for skin sensitivity to sun exposure).


How Many Skincare Steps Do I Need?

The fact is you don’t need a 12 step skincare routine. Better yet, consolidate steps to alleviate accidental stress on your skin and wallet. With buzzy skincare popping up daily, it can be tempting to add steps to your regimen, but more products do not necessarily mean better results. In fact, products with a clinically studied cocktail of ingredients that work well together will give you the best results without causing any irritation.


How To Simplify Your Skincare Routine

Go back to the basics and take a look at the active ingredients in the products you are using. The most effective skincare routines consist of a cleanser, a serum targeting your biggest concerns, a moisturizer, and sunscreen. You can easily pare down your steps by focusing on the key ingredient pillars for a healthy skincare regimen: Vitamin C, Retinol, Hyaluronic Acid, Niacinamide, and an SPF. If you are not seeing these studied ingredients in your regimen, it is always best to use trusted clinical brands that cocktail ingredients instead of trying to mix and match yourself. 


Discover Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare for All Your Skincare Needs

Discover multi-tasking formulations at Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare and simplify your skincare. For more skincare tips from the experts at Dr. Dennis Gross, check out our blog’s newest contentShop the collection of Dr. Dennis Gross bestselling skincare backed by dermatologists.

Written By

Ben Gentzler

Ben is an Education professional with 16 years of experience in prestige/professional skincare and beauty. Brand, retail, and professional/spa education & training.

Read More from Ben Gentzler

Written By

Ben Gentzler

Ben is an Education professional with 16 years of experience in prestige/professional skincare and beauty. Brand, retail, and professional/spa education & training.

Read More from Ben Gentzler