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12 Layering Mistakes That Make Your Skin Care Stop Working

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In the skin-care rulebook, there is no chapter that’s as confusing—and as debated—as the one on layering product. “It’s about cleansing the skin, treating the skin and then protecting the skin,” says celebrity aesthetician Veronica Barton Schwartz. “I always tell my clients to go from more-watery to thicker, which comes down to absorption. If you apply a richer, thicker formula first, it would prevent thinner ones form penetrating.” Here is the game plan the experts say to go by in the quest for a radiant complexion:

Serum Step

Repeat: Always apply serums before moisturizers. The reason: “In order for products to absorb most effectively, active ingredients, which are usually found in serums, must go on first,” says Barton Schwartz. “Pay attention to the vehicle used and apply things in an order that will best absorb into the skin,” adds New York dermatologist Jody A. Levine, MD. “Cleanser, toner, serum, cream is a good order.” One small exception, Saddle Brook, NJ dermatologist Dr. Frederic Haberman calls out: “Apply creams and lotions after serums, except if you’re using a bleaching cream which, should be applied first before all other creams.”

Bloomfield Hills, MI dermatologist Linda C. Honet, MD also prefers that prescription formulations are applied first so that any dilution is minimized. “The only exception is how and when to apply moisturizer, which is an essential element in any skin-care regimen. I tell my patients to try to always ‘normalize’ their skin canvas—meaning that, if after cleansing, their face feels dry, then lightly moisturize as the first layer.”

The Water Way

Sounds simple enough, but the mantra, “Always use your water-based products before any oil-based products,” is one Miami dermatologist Dr. Deborah Longwill says must be followed.

Retinol Rules

“If you are using tretinoin, do not use any benzoyl peroxide products at the same time as this will deactivate the tretinoin,” Dr. Longwill stresses, adding that, in her opinion, it’s smart to stay away from applying tretinoin in the daytime. “This is one common layering mistake that I see all the time. People use too many products that have the same effect such as acids and retinoids,” adds New York aesthetician Vicki Morav. “Use one or the other, but not both at the same time.”

Wipe Out

Whether you love them or hate them, Dr. Longwill says DO NOT apply skin-care products post makeup wipes. “Instead, properly clean skin before applying.”

Eye Spy

Davie, FL dermatologist Marianna Blyumin-Karasik, MD recommends applying an eye cream as the step after cleansing, then follow that with your other skin care. The reason: “Many critical ingredients can be blocked or dissipated by layering on other products prior.”

Over Don’t

Dr. Levine says one of the most common layering mistakes she sees is simply using way too much, especially as it relates to actives. “I think the biggest mistake is layering too many ingredients that, together, can cause dryness and irritation and, therefore, not enable to skin care to work effectively. A benzoyl perozide product layered with a vitamin C serum, an alpha or beta-hydroxy acid or a retinol can cause excessive dryness. Each product alone can be effective, but may be too irritating when layered with one or more of the other ingredients. It is best to use one product in the morning with one of these effective ingredients and a different product in the evening, or alternate days and nights of each product.”

Also pointing to BP specifically, Fort Lauderdale dermatologist Dr. Matthew Elias notes that the combo of hydroquinone and benzoyl peroxide can actually lead to staining of the skin. “Also, stay away from mixing benzoyl peroxide and vitamin C, as the peroxide can oxidize the vitamin C and make it less effective.” Morav points out that the same rule goes for peptides: “Using peptides and acids at the same time is not a good idea, as acids eliminate the function of peptides.”

The one exception, Dr. Levine says: “It is OK to use a cleanser with one of these ingredients—such as benzoyl peroxide or AHA/BHA—as the cleaner will be washed off before the next product is used, hopefully leading to less irritation.”

Tone Poem

While Dr. Longwill isn’t against toners, she does recommend refraining from using harsh ones, as this will strip oils from your skin, and that can throw off anything you apply on top.

Just a Minute 

Has anyone invented a skin-care stopwatch yet? (If not, please count this as our unofficial move to copyright.) According to Dr. Longwill, always give your products a few minutes to penetrate into the skin before applying your next product, “as you do not want any ingredients to ‘deactivate.’” A good rule of thumb is to wait 30 seconds to a minute between layers to maximize absorption, Barton Schwartz adds. “This helps lessen the chance that the formulas will pill and ball up on your skin. Also, applying too much product can cause pilling. Gently press products into the skin if you’re layering.”

Damp Do

A close relative to the “press,” Dr. Longwill recommends “patting” your skin dry and applying skin care while damp for better penetration.

Oil Spill

According to Barton Schwartz, the final step of our skin-care routines in the evening should be face oil. “Face oil always goes on last. That’s because oil is occlusive, which means it creates a barrier. Oils go through moisturizer, serums and lotions. Nothing can get through oil, so it always goes on last in your p.m. skin routine.” Morav adds that, “Oils have to be used as the last step since they have large molecules and can’t treat the skin, but rather condition the epidermis.”

SPF Stage 

Likewise, Barton Schwartz says, in the morning, switch it up so sunscreen goes on last—no exceptions. “Whether your formula is chemical or physical, sunscreen should always go on last. You want it on top because it’s blocking the rays from penetrating the skin.” And, if you want to make your SPF work even better, Dr. Haberman likes a vitamin C product, plus sunscreen. “But let the vitamin C soak in for a minute before going to the SPF step.”

Pair Shape

Always ask your dermatologist or aesthetician about ingredient combinations to avoid. If you’re using multiple active ingredients in your routine, be sure they can be safely paired. “There is a definite art to layering skin care, and following some basic rules will help to maximize efficacy,” Dr. Honet says. “But my best piece of advice is that using any skin care is better than not using it at all. It will do very little for your skin sitting in a bottle or jar on the countertop.”

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