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The Step-by-Step Guide to a Morning Skin Care Routine

A jar of moisturizer; two bottles of face cleanser; a bottle of facial oil
Farmacy/Youth to the People/Biossance

You’ve found products you love and learned all about skin care ingredients. Now, all that’s left to do is actually figure out the order in which you should apply them. We’ve got just the expert tips you need to create a morning routine that will perfectly prep your skin each and every day.

Skin care is as much about putting ingredients together in the right combinations and order as it is about choosing products themselves. We spoke to some experts about how to build the right routine for you.

How to Build a Skin Care Routine

After you select the right products for each step in your skin care routine (more on that in a moment), you have to figure out the order in which to apply them. And, according to our experts,  this is the most important part.

“The amount in which a product is actually able to do its job is dependent upon how well it is able to fully absorb,” said Nicole Caroline, master esthetician. “And that is dependent upon what is (or is not) underneath it.”

Regardless of which products you use, there’s one main rule of thumb you can use as a guide.

“In general, the idea is to go from the lightest products that are most absorbed, progressively to heavier products,” said Dr. Hadley King, dermatologist. “So, that means cleanser, toner, essence, serum, moisturizer, makeup.”

This is not to suggest that you absolutely must use every type of product recommended here. This is just meant to serve as a guide regarding the order in which products should be applied.

Step One: Cleanser

A blue tube of foaming cleanser; clear bottles of green liquid cleanser
First Aid Beauty/Youth to the People

Starting your day off right means starting with a clean face! Depending on your skin type and current concerns, you’ll want to seek out a cleanser that best suits you.

Whether you’re looking for a formula to kick-start acne-fighting from step one, or you need something gentle to avoid dryness, a great cleanser can really start your routine off right. Plus, it can boost the other parts of your routine by adding hydration.

“If you want your cleanser to be multitasking and also moisturizing then look for products that are sulfate-free and contain hydrating and moisturizing ingredients,” King said.

For a clean, green face wash, try the Youth to the People Superfood Antioxidant Cleanser. This gentle liquid cleanser includes kale, spinach, and green tea. All of these ingredients work as hard for the skin as they do in your diet, promoting clear skin, offer gentle cleansing, and provide antioxidants.

With a creamy, whipped formula, First Aid Beauty Pure Skin Face Cleanser soothes the skin and works to maintain your natural pH. Aloe and glycerin work to keep everything balanced and soft and avoid the risk of drying.

“Some of the biggest mistakes are not washing your hands before washing your face, using hot water, [and] using a dirty hand towel to dry off your face,” said Taylor Worden, esthetician.

Step Two: Toner

A pink bottle of toner with watermelon slices; a clear bottle with milky liquid drops
Glow Recipe/Laneige

Toner is one of the most overlooked steps in skin care routines, but it’s one that can give a little extra boost. While they’re often used as a way to refresh the skin without actually washing it, they can also work as a post-cleansing step to help balance the skin. These light, water-based liquids are best applied with just a light misting or a swipe using a cotton pad.

If you’re looking to streamline your routine, the toner step can be a great place to start, says King. There are hybrid products that can do the work of cleansing and toning, toning and hydrating, toning and exfoliating, and so on.

A hybrid product would be something like the Laneige Cream Skin Toner & Moisturizer. A two-in-one liquid serves as both a moisturizer and a toner, made with white tea leaves that calm the skin while gently toning and moisturizing.

Hybrid toners can do more than just moisturize—they can also introduce active ingredients that would otherwise be found in serums. The Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA + BHA Toner has two hydroxy acids that minimize pores and exfoliate the skin while toning and preparing the skin.

Step Three: Eye Cream

A white tube of eye cream; a white and yellow bottle of eye cream
The INKEY List/Dr. Jart+

You might be wondering why we apply eye cream so early in the routine. After all, regular moisturizers for the rest of the face don’t get applied until much later.

The answer is simple: It’s all about what your hands have touched. The skin under your eyes is especially thin, delicate, and sensitive. As a result, it’s best to avoid letting other, harsher products come in contact with that skin.

By applying your eye cream at the very beginning, you avoid running any risk of traces of other products getting into your eyes from residue on your hands.

Eye creams can address any number of issues, from fine lines and wrinkles to dark circles, puffiness, and more. Look for ingredients that address those issues without causing irritation.

For instance, The INKEY List Caffeine Eye Cream uses the rejuvenating effects of caffeine to reduce puffiness, bags, and fine lines. Plus, it provides gentle hydration to an area of skin that often is too sensitive for “regular” moisturizers.

Caffeine isn’t the only ingredient that can make a big difference for your eyes! The Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Eye Cream features ceramides and niacinamide to smooth, firm, and hydrate the delicate skin under your eyes without leaving behind any unpleasant residue.

Step Four: Serum

A brown serum bottle with fruit slices around it; a black bottle with clear liquid
Youth to the People/Paula’s Choice

For the next few steps, your skin care routine is likely to get very customized. This is typically where you start applying the “active” ingredients. Using a vitamin C serum? It goes on now! An exfoliating acid? That’s this step, too!

If you use any spot treatments—such as those for acne—that’s part of this step, as well. You’ll want to work your way from thinner products to those with a thicker consistency. This means thinner serums go on before your moisturizer, not after if you want them both to work.

“A larger molecular product will prevent the thinner one from absorbing,” Caroline said.

For acne treatment plus overall skin texture improvement, Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant offers a 2% BHA concentration for maximum effect with minimum worries. The formula also includes green tea for soothing—plus, it’s gluten-free, cruelty-free, and excludes many common toxic skincare ingredients like parabens, sulfates, and phthalates.

SKIN PERFECTING 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

Our #1 product worldwide + cult favorite, this clinically proven gentle leave-on exfoliant with salicylic acid quickly unclogs pores, smooths wrinkles & evens skin tone. Clears & minimizes enlarged pores; BHA (beta hydroxy acid) sheds built-up layers of skin; Fluid, lightweight...

A Vitamin C serum can work wonders for brightening the skin and helping to even out skin tone. Try something like the Youth to the People 15% Vitamin C + Caffeine Energy Serum, which combines two powerful, botanical-based ingredients to give your skin a refreshed, healthy glow.

The other trick with this step is to avoid combining ingredients that simply don’t work together. Layering certain active ingredients is a recipe for skin irritation or, in some cases, ingredients counteracting and effectively neutralizing each other. Always research any serums you’re layering to ensure that the active ingredients are safe to combine.

Tip: If you’re using more than one serum, layer the one with the thinnest consistency first.

Step Five: Moisturizer

Three jars of moisturizers
Youth to the People/Farmacy/Biossance

For daytime moisture, most people will want to look for a relatively lightweight, non-greasy formula. Because it will be sitting on your skin all day—and, for some people, sitting underneath makeup—it’s important to choose one that will nourish the skin without looking and feeling too oily. Look for ingredients like hyaluronic acid or squalane for moisture-retaining properties without a heavy feel.

For a vegan and lightweight daytime moisturizer, try the Youth to the People Superfood Air-Whip Moisturizer with Hyaluronic Acid. Kale, spinach, and green tea are the “superfoods” that provide antioxidants to protect the skin. Hyaluronic acid helps to retain moisture, all without adding a bunch of greasy layer to your skin.

The Biossance Squalane + Probiotic Gel Moisturizer is a light gel formula that’s breathable enough for daytime wear, even under makeup. Vegan squalane provides a healthy dose of moisture, while a probiotic complex balances and clarifies, and ginger and red seaweed soothe irritation and fatigue.

The Farmacy Honey Drop Lightweight Moisturizer is more of a hybrid between gel and cream moisturizers. Honey is the key ingredient, with natural antibacterial properties to help clarify the skin. A triple hyaluronic acid complex adds more moisture, with cupuaçu butter beads releasing moisture more slowly to build up the barrier on the skin.

Step Six: Face Oils

A pink bottle of face oil; a golden-colored bottle of face oil

Face oils can be a real game-changer when applied properly, although they might not be part of every skin care routine.

The key is to find a formula that specifically addresses your concerns, whether that’s balancing, hydrating, brightening, or so on. If you do add an oil to your routine, you should always apply it last, right before sunscreen. This is because it essentially acts as a seal on your face.

“Oil should go on last after moisturizer because it’s heavier and it can penetrate through,” said Worden.

Consider a multipurpose oil, like the Biossance Squalane + Vitamin C Rose Oil, which offers three major effects (brightening, hydrating, firming) in one product. Chios crystal oil firms, while vitamin C works on brightening and elasticity. Hydrating squalane and soothing rose petal extract complete the versatile product.

To soothe and revive tired skin, you might like something like the Farmacy Honey Grail Ultra-Hydrating Face Oil. Buckwheat honey offers antioxidant and moisture-retaining properties, while sea buckthorn (with amino acids, vitamins, omegas, and more), and five blends of flower oils hydrate and protect.

Step Seven: Sunscreen

A hand holding a yellow tube of sunscreen; a hand holding a tube of sunscreen against two arms
Sun Bum/CeraVe

Don’t forget sunscreen! We’re all guilty of skipping this step, but it’s absolutely crucial to the health of your skin.

“Most people only apply 25-50% of the recommended amount of sunscreen,” King said. “The guidelines are to apply approximately 2 mg of product per square centimeter of skin. This means one ounce, that’s enough to fill a shot glass, to the exposed areas of the face and body, a nickel- sized dollop to the face alone.”

Even if you’re not going to be outdoors all day, you’ll want some SPF protection for just everyday, environmental sunshine. Look for a lightweight formula with a solid SPF rating. And if you’re really trying to be as “clean” as possible in your skin care, look for a green sunscreen made with botanical ingredients and fewer harmful chemicals.

For a product that’s environmentally friendly but feels like a “normal” sunscreen, check out Sun Bum Face 50 Sunscreen. The broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 50 is also vegan, cruelty-free, hypoallergenic, reef friendly, and free of parabens, gluten, oil, and fragrances. Plus, aloe vera and Vitamin E moisturize the skin while protecting it!

You can also go for a tinted sunscreen, which combines a lightweight foundation with significant sun protection. Try something like the CeraVe Tinted Sunscreen with SPF 30, which is designed to meld into any skin tone without leaving a white cast. The formula is a mineral sunscreen, which means it sits on top of the skin rather than soaking in, but this particular product won’t affect your skin’s texture or appearance.

Many people will follow up the sunscreen step with foundation and the rest of a makeup routine.

Now that you know the proper steps in which to apply your skin care products, it’s time to customize! Once you’ve built a regular routine, you can work in additional steps, like the occasional mask treatment, to address any other issues or just supercharge your skin.

Amanda Prahl Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl is a freelance contributor to LifeSavvy. She has an MFA in dramatic writing, a BA in literature, and is a former faculty associate focusing on writing craft and history. Her articles have appeared on HowlRound, Slate, Bustle, BroadwayWorld, and ThoughtCo, among others. Read Full Bio »
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