A GUIDE TO SKINCARE LAYERING PT.1 : BEYOND THE 'THIN-TO-THICK' APPROACH
Updated: May 6
Layering our skincare products in the right way is crucial to ensure we get the maximum benefits, and active ingredients don't just sit on top of our skin and do nothing.
You may have heard the popular advice that you should layer your products based on its consistency - thinnest (i.e water-based products) to thickest (i.e. oils and heavy creams). While this is a great advice for a basic skincare routine (1. toner, 2. serum, 3. moisturizer), it is not actually that simple. Of course this will get complicated with more products you use, how many active ingredients you use (and the formulation), "buffering", using prescription products (check with your dermatologist), and the list goes on. For example, retinol is also formulated in oil (e.g. The Ordinary 1% Retinol in Squalane), but although technically oil is heavier in consistency, I will put this underneath my lightweight, easily absorbed gel moisturizer.
I am a big believer in keeping my routine very simple, but making sure that I use the right ingredients to target my skin concerns, layer them correctly and apply it at the right time in the day. Here's a few things I consider when layering skincare:
1. How deep do the active AND main ingredients of that product need to go into the skin?
I always prioritise my active ingredients and that's where I invest. I always apply my actives on cleansed skin because they have to go into the skin in order to initiate biological processes that can transform our skin. Actives are usually formulated in a lightweight toner or serum formula, but some are formulated in heavier, oil or other water-free, formula. Examples include The Ordinary Vitamin C 23% suspension and their Retinol 1% in Squalane. Though they're probably heavier in texture compared to some of my moisturizer, I'd always apply them first then end with my moisturizer. Think of moisturizer as a seal. It NEEDS TO sit on top of your skin, to lock in those actives and prevent water loss. Even if my facial moisturizer contains a tiny bit (<8%) of vitamin C or perhaps, 0.1% retinol, I would still treat it as a moisturizer and apply it last because the neither the Vitamin C, nor the retinol is the main ingredient of this moisturizer.
2. Keep it simple
Layering skincare definitely gets more complex with more products you use, especially active ingredients. Some recurring questions I get are: "Can I layer Retinol with Vitamin C" or " Can I use AHA toner, then a Retinol serum?" I am going to delve deeper into active combining in the next post, but if you're starting out with actives, I always recommend using 1 good quality, potent active at a time. So let's say you want to use AHA and Retinol, both are potent actives (especially at higher concentrations), so I suggest using them on alternating nights to prevent irritation. As for Vitamin A and C, some products are formulated with both. For example, the Paula's Choice Retinol 1% is formulated with Vitamin C and peptides. Though technically you can combine the two ingredients, your skin may undergo "purging" for some weeks with just 1% retinol only products (breakout, redness, peeling, slightly inflammed). Layering it with acidic products like Vitamin C or hydroxyacids can feel so stingy and uncomfortable on the skin. So, definitely keep it simple!
This tip is great for those starting out with active ingredients that may have side effects and for sensitive to extra sensitive skin. Retinol, especially, can often cause redness or flakiness at first. It's not a pretty sight! This tends to put people off trying retinoids. There is, however, a way in which you can dampen the side effects and this is called "buffering" - adding your retinol to a moisturiser to dilute it before applying it on the skin. If you want to reap the benefits from retinol with minimal irritation, while hydrating the skin at the same time, try mixing it with your moisturizer first for a while. Buffering is also useful if you want to introduce more than one actives in your skincare regime. Perfect for dry-sensitive skin!
I hope you find these tips useful. I will discuss more about actives combining in Part 2. In the meantime, check out more articles from The Skin Press here.
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