Moisturizer, serum, toner, oh my! When it comes to your skincare routine, it can seem like you have almost too many options. With so many products out there to choose from, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, talk to one of our licensed dermatology providers and they’ll tell you that the best skincare routine for your skin is one that’s not complicated.
We’ll get into the nitty gritty of what Curology’s dermatology experts think make a great skincare routine in a bit, but for now, all you have to know is that there is a right way to layer your skincare products, and it can make a considerable impact on your skincare journey.
Here’s the good news: The correct way to layer your skincare products generally follows a simple rule of thumb. Typically, you apply skincare products starting with the thinnest to the thickest, which helps make sure each product absorbs into your skin. “Layering skincare allows us to maximize the benefits of active ingredients by following their consistency (thin to thick),” says Laura Coral, PA-C, a physician assistant at Curology. “For example, a serum (thin) would be applied to the skin before a thicker topical.”
At Curology, we believe that you don’t need a maximalist skincare routine to help you reach your skincare goals. In fact, a simple skincare routine will typically suffice. Here’s what it should look like:
Wash your face with your cleanser of choice.
Treat your skin with your personalized prescription formula at night.
Moisturize with a hydrating lotion morning and night.
Apply sunscreen if it’s morning. Wearing SPF everyday is important for your overall health!
Your skincare routine will look different in the morning versus at night, but it will generally follow the same order—lighter products first, and thicker products at the end.
Your morning skincare routine can be as simple as washing your face, applying moisturizer, and putting on sunscreen—but if you want to try out a more maximalist routine, that’s fine, too. Just know that more does not necessarily equal better. Other than a cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen, you do not necessarily need to use additional products. A targeted treatment (like a personalized prescription formula from Curology) can be added for specific skin goals. If you want to add even more products to your routine, do so slowly and introduce them one at a time.
Here’s the proper order of products for a morning skincare routine, along with some product recommendations from Curology dermatology providers.
Washing your face with a cleanser can help to clean your skin of dirt and excess oil (aka sebum) that can contribute to acne. The right cleanser for you depends on your skin type: If you have acne-prone skin and deal with frequent breakouts, you may prefer a cleanser with salicylic acid that works hard to fight clogged pores, and if you have dry skin, you may want to reach for a cleanser that helps to maintain the natural moisture barrier of your skin. We typically recommend gentle cleansers that don’t contain fragrance or other potentially irritating ingredients. And remember to wash your face with lukewarm—not hot!—water for about 30-60 seconds. Here are a few face washes Curology’s providers recommend:
Vanicream Free & Clear Liquid Cleanser
Have you ever wondered, “Do I need a facial toner?” The short answer is no. We consider toners an unnecessary step in a skincare routine. That said, certain toners can bring the element of chemical exfoliation into your routine. So, if you’re looking for exfoliation, it’s usually okay to use a toner for this purpose. Just don’t feel like it’s your only option to fight acne and excess oiliness! Here are a few options that our dermatology providers like:
Thayers Alcohol-Free Rose Petal Witch Hazel with Aloe Vera (cleanses and hydrates)
Mario Badescu Facial Spray With Aloe, Herbs and Rosewater (cleanses and hydrates)
Face serums are lightweight products that typically contain concentrated active ingredients (like antioxidants) intended to target specific skincare concerns—so, the type of serum you may choose to use in your skincare routine will depend largely on your skin goals.
Certain serums are also intended for different times of day. So, if you’re wondering, “how can I use a vitamin C serum in my skincare routine?” The answer is: Apply it in the morning, after cleansing, but before moisturizing your face! You can get the most benefits from a vitamin C serum by applying it in the morning because it helps to boost sun protection and neutralize free radicals that contribute to photoaging. It can also have a brightening effect, helping to reduce dark spots. So, when you pair it with sunscreen, it can help to protect your skin from sun damage.¹
Some face serums are fine to use at any time of day. Serums that contain ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid can help to keep your skin hydrated, so they’re a great option for people with dry skin. Ultimately serums aren’t a necessary part of a skincare routine, and the serums you choose will depend on your personal preferences and skin needs. Here are a few face serums that our providers recommend:
Eye cream is pretty similar to moisturizer—it’s designed to hydrate the delicate skin around your eyes. If you have dark undereye circles or puffiness, the right eye cream or eye serum can help de-puff your eye area and have a brightening effect before you get started with your day, especially with the help of ingredients like antioxidants (vitamin C!) and caffeine. Here are a few Curology provider-approved options for your morning skincare routine.
If you deal with the occasional pimple—and so many of us do!—then a spot treatment can be a good way to help make it go away, fast. Spot treatments can help you to target individual pimples. For day (or night!) we’re partial to Curology’s Emergency Spot Patches, which help to speed up healing of acne lesions. Because they’re clear, they’re easy (and not very noticeable) to wear throughout the day.
Moisturizers are recommended to help hydrate your skin, but the best moisturizer for you will depend on your skin type. If you have dry skin, for example, you might want to try a moisturizer that’s extra hydrating, and if you have oily skin, you may find that you don’t always need to use a moisturizer. Here are a few options.
Here’s a non-negotiable: Sunscreen is a must every single day! It will help to protect your skin from UV rays that can cause early signs of aging and skin cancer. Apply it every morning as the last step in your skincare routine—even when it’s cloudy outside. The right sunscreen is the sunscreen that you’ll actually want to wear every day, so find one that you like. Here are some of our favorites.
The vast majority of your nighttime skincare routine will look pretty similar to your morning skincare routine. At the end of the day, you’ll want to wash your face and moisturize, just like you do when you get out of bed in the morning. But there are some key differences between your nighttime routine and your morning routine, which we’ll dive into here.
You can use the same cleanser morning and night to wash your face of dirt and excess oil. But one key difference is that, if you wear makeup, you should always remove it before you go to sleep. If your cleanser can’t fully remove your makeup (especially stubborn mascara and eyeliner), it’s a good idea to also have a makeup remover in your arsenal. We like micellar water because it’s gentle yet effective at removing makeup, and it doesn’t strip your skin of its natural oils. Here are some you can try.
Like we said, toner is not a necessary part of a skincare routine, morning or night. But if you do want to add some chemical exfoliation to your routine, you can use a toner for this purpose. If you do opt for a toner, you also don’t have to use it twice a day, or even every day.
Serum is another product that’s totally optional, and you can use it morning, night, or both. But some serums are better intended for night over day. Although it can technically be used at night, we often recommend saving your vitamin C serum for the morning. At night, reach for a different anti-aging or hydrating serum instead, should you wish. Any product that contains retinol, a derivative of vitamin A that helps improve signs of aging, or an AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) should be used at night because these ingredients can increase your skin’s photosensitivity—so keep this in mind! Here are some serums you can use at night.
Just as in the morning, eye cream is totally optional. But if you do want to give the area of skin around your eyes a little extra attention, you can use an anti-aging eye cream at night to help with fine lines. If your eye cream of choice contains an active ingredient like retinol, slowly work your way up to using it every day—start by applying it just a few times a week until your skin builds up its tolerance. Here are a few options for eye creams:
Night is often the best time to use powerful active ingredients—like retinoids—to treat your biggest skin concerns, like acne or signs of aging, like fine lines. Why? Because some of these ingredients can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. Many of these topical treatments, like your Curology custom formula, are left on overnight to work their magic (but as far as results go, patience is key). A licensed dermatology provider can prescribe you a treatment for your skincare concerns and goals, and help you to incorporate it into your routine. This is a product you’ll want to add to your regimen gradually, so your skin has time to adjust!
Morning and night, spot treatments can help you to make individual pimples go away, fast. The same products work both times of day, but cream products—which are more visible than pimple patches—may be better at night than during the day. Here are two options our providers recommend.
Especially after applying a topical treatment that may contribute to your skin’s dryness, moisturizer comes next in a nighttime skin routine. Again, the best moisturizer option for you will depend on your skin type, and you can generally use the same moisturizer morning and night, should you wish—no night cream necessary.
While they’re not necessary, facial oils can help dry skin to retain moisture when applied after a moisturizer, and they can give skin a boost of healthy fatty acids. But not all oils have the same impact! Avoid comedogenic (pore-clogging) oils like coconut oil, which may contribute to acne. Instead, consider these:
As a rule of thumb, we recommend a three-step skincare routine—so while you can introduce other products to your routine, by no means are they necessary: Cleanser, moisturizer, SPF in the morning. Cleanser, treatment, moisturizer in the evening.
There are no hard and fast rules about how many skincare products you can layer, but it’s important not to go from zero to 100—new products that contain active ingredients or exfoliants should be added to your routine gradually. You also likely don’t want to use all of your products every single day: For instance, when first starting off with an exfoliant (like an AHA or BHA) you may want to skip your other actives that day. When in doubt, talk to a dermatology provider who can help you figure out a routine that works.
It’s important to layer your skincare products in the right order to maximize their efficacy and to ensure they’re properly absorbed. When layering skincare products correctly, you can reap a few key benefits.
More personalization. “Layering different skincare products allows for flexibility and personalization within your routine to utilize multiple products that may each target different skincare concerns,” explains Elise Griffin, PA-C, a physician assistant at Curology. “Layering allows for the most efficacious use of multiple active ingredients to help meet your skincare goals.”
Reduce irritation due to active ingredients. While skincare should generally be layered from lightest product to thickest, there is one exception to this rule: You can apply a topical treatment (like your custom formula) after your moisturizer at night, especially as you build up your tolerance to it. “Using a moisturizer before an active ingredient can act as a barrier and reduce irritation and dryness that you may experience from active ingredients in your products,” says Nahal Niakan, NP-C, a nurse practitioner at Curology.
Target multiple skincare concerns. Even if you have a simple, three-step routine, there are still benefits to layering your products correctly. “You can target multiple concerns by layering skincare products,” says Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C, a physician assistant at Curology. “For example, you can hydrate with a moisturizer and then protect with sunscreen in the morning.” A simple routine may be the best one for you—remember, more products does not necessarily lead to better results.
The best skincare routine for your unique skin type is the routine that you’ll stick with—skincare is all about playing the long game! Especially if you’re dealing with a skin concern like acne, being patient as you stick with your skincare routine is key; you don’t want to bounce around from product to product. While you may have heard of the skin cycling trend (which involves using an exfoliator one day, a retinoid the next, and then having two recovery nights before repeating the process), we think that a consistent routine leads to overall better results. It is important to note, however, that because everyone’s skin is different, what works for one person might not work for your skin—a person with oily skin likely wouldn’t have the same routine as a person with dry skin, for instance.
A custom skincare routine can cater to your exact skincare concerns. Through Curology, you can work with a licensed dermatology provider who can prescribe you a personalized formula with three active ingredients that work hard to help you reach your personal skincare goals, whether you’re battling acne, dealing with rosacea, focused on preventing early signs of aging, or looking to keep your skin healthy overall. Plus, as your skin changes, your provider can work with you to tweak and update your skincare routine, depending on your needs.
Through Curology, you can get access to custom skincare with effective ingredients, formulated to address your skincare concerns—but we’re more than just a subscription service. Curology offers full-service skincare, which means that you’ll have access to a dermatology provider who can support you throughout your skincare journey, make recommendations, and answer any questions you may have along the way.
Getting started is simple. All you have to do is take a short questionnaire about your skin history and goals, snap a few selfies, and you’ll be paired with a licensed dermatology provider in your state who will work with you to find your perfect skincare routine. Even better, your first month’s on us—just pay $4.95 to cover shipping and handling*, and you can try any of our recommended skincare products, including our SPF 30 sunscreen and our vegan lip balm, in addition to our personalized custom formulas.
1. Telang P. S. Vitamin C in dermatology. Indian dermatology online journal. (2013).
*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Trial is 30 days. Results may vary.
Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C