The Science of Layering Your Products for Maximum Results

Skincare is getting complicated. Even if you’re not onboard with the rigorous multi-step skincare situation Korean women swear by, you’re likely using more than one product in your skincare routine. Even if it’s just a serum and a sunscreen, it’s crucial to apply them in the right order to avoid negating the benefits.

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Dr Low Chai Ling, founder of beauty haven SW1 Clinic agrees. “Truthfully, it could be wasteful of your time, money, and effort if you don’t apply products in the right order.”

Some products may render your subsequent products un-penetratable as they form a barrier on your skin. “It all comes down to penetration,” explains Dr Low, who is also the creative brain behind her SW1 and CHAI cosmeceutical line “If you put on a heavier cream, it will usually have a wax in it, so any water-based material applied after will have a hard time getting through.”

Others simply neutralizes the benefit of each other out. Nowadays, with a multitude of skincare available, you may find more than a handful of products in your arsenal touting a similar result—like brightening, acne clearing, or hydration—but the methods and means of the ingredient delivery can vary wildly.

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Leftover makeup or BB cream form a barrier on your skin. No matter how potent the ingredients in your bottle is, it will do no good for your skin if it cannot get through to the dermal cells. First things first, remove all that gunk from your skin before you lather all your expensive serums on, and you will be giving your potions a run for their money.

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The best rule of thumb is to apply your products from lightest or thinnest to heaviest or thickest. “The exceptions are oils and sunscreen,” says Dr Low. “Even though they feel runny, oils should go toward the end, right before sunscreen, which is always last.”

Assuming you’ve already washed your face, follow up with the lightest, most watery product you have. Usually that will be some form of toner or essence. It’s essential to let that sit and penetrate before moving on to the next step.

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“Start with anything that has the same fluidity as water,” advises Dr Low. This allows the thin fluid to sink deeply into the skin and also preps for the following step. “Water is a great solvent, so if your skin is moist, you are opening more channels for it to receive product.” In fact, Dr Low teaches her patients to apply face and body moisturizer on damp not dry skin for greater hydration.

Is toner or essence absolutely necessary? Experts say that all depends on how deep your pockets are and what sort of skin goal you are aiming for. Light as they may feel, toners and essence can pre-charge your skin so they can absorb the next layers more optimally. They do so by hydrating the top layers of your skin as well as restoring the pH of your freshly washed face. “When we cleanse, we can strip our skin’s natural acid mantle and change the pH, which is not the ideal setting for skin to behave properly,” explains Dr Low. “Toners and Essences such as Unicorn Tears gets it back to a normal pH and functioning at its best, which enhances everything else.”

Unicorn Tears also contain new age actives such as tranexamic acid and  retinol that will kickstart skin whitening and anti-aging benefits. What’s not to love?

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Serums are usually packed with strong ingredients that can really change the skin—they’re the workhorse of skincare products. As such, it’s best to apply them as early as possible so skin can directly absorb as much of the product as possible. It us therefore ideal to apply serum after you have prepped your newly washed skin with toner or essences and it’s in the best state to absorb all that goodness from your serum.

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Serums packed with antioxidants such as Citrine is one of the main workhouses of many a dewy complexion. Mix the fresh vitamin C powder with the activator and massage it into your skin using your fingertips.

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While some lotions are on the thicker, heavier side, most formulas are fairly thin (and which you choose comes down to personal preference). You may not use a lotion, but if your skin is particularly dry, consider applying it pre-cream or oil. Emulsions are either oil-in-water or water-in-oil. Because of the oil found in the formula, it is better to save these for after your serums to help further hydrate the skin and seal in the goodness of your preceding skincare.

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In general, the thicker the cream, the more likely it is to rely on waxy ingredients that create a moisture-retaining barrier. “Creams really lock in hydration,” Dr Low says. “They are your sealants. Oils act as barrier protection, essentially working to keep moisture in and the bad stuff out. While they do add a little hydration, it’s not nearly as much as a thick cream that contains glycerin or hyaluronic acid. They also deliver instant softness, leaving your skin silky smooth.”

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No matter whether your preferred formula is light or heavy, sunscreen should always be applied last. “It forms a uniform film on top of the skin to shield it. If you put anything other than makeup on top, you may disrupt the film and open it up for the sun to penetrate,” instructs Dr Low. Sunscreens come in physical or chemical blockers. Physical blockers such as Umbrella are chemical free and is ideal for sensitive skin. Dr Low uses Umbrella for her patients post-laser to enhance her treatment outcomes. Chemical blockers such as Beach Hat are lighter in formulation and is suitable for normal skin types of daily use.

Give your skin a few minutes to settle and for some of the extra moisture in the formulas to evaporate (they’re meant to) before diving into your foundation.

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If you notice your skin tends to ‘pill’ or ball up with product, wait until each layer dries before applying the next. Overloading product can result in more moisture than your skin can absorb, causing a chemical reaction that pushes ingredients out in a manner you can visually notice. And once that starts to happen, says Wilson, you really have to start all over again.

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Are there certain combinations to avoid? Every once in a while, certain ingredients don’t play nice together and can cause a reaction on your skin. If you’re going to layer multiple strong ingredients that all have the potential to irritate, like benzoyl peroxide, glycolic acid, retinol, and vitamin C, do a small patch first behind your ear to see if your skin can withstand it.

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