Whether you want a simple three-step routine for the morning or have time for a full 10-step regimen at night, the order you apply your products in matters. Why? There isn’t much point in having a skin care routine if your products don’t get a chance to penetrate your skin.

Read on to learn more about how to layer for maximum impact, which steps you can skip, products to try, and more.

Quick guide

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Illustration by Diego Sabogal

What should I use in the morning?

Morning skin care routines are all about prevention and protection. Your face is going to be exposed to the outside environment, so necessary steps include moisturizer and sunscreen.

Basic morning routine

  1. Cleanser. Used to remove grime and residue that’s built up overnight.
  2. Moisturizer. Hydrates the skin and can come in the form of creams, gels, or balms.
  3. Sunscreen. Essential for protecting the skin against the damaging effects of the sun.

Step 1: Oil-based cleanser

  • What is it? Cleansers come in two forms: water-based and oil-based. The latter is intended to dissolve oils produced by your skin.
  • How to use it: Some oil-based cleansers are designed to work their magic on wet skin. Others are best on dry skin. Read the instructions before applying a small amount to your skin. Massage in and rinse thoroughly with water before drying with a clean towel.
  • Skip this step if: Your cleanser only contains oil — instead of a blend of oil and surfactants and emulsifiers — and you have combination or oily skin to avoid an increase in oiliness.
  • Products to try: Burt’s Bees Cleansing Oil with Coconut & Argan Oils is super hydrating yet gentle. For an olive oil option, DHC’s Deep Cleansing Oil is suitable for all skin types.

Step 2: Water-based cleanser

  • What is it? These cleansers primarily contain surfactants, which are ingredients that allow water to rinse away dirt and sweat. They can also remove the oils collected by an oil-based cleanser.
  • How to use it: Massage into wet skin and rinse with water before drying.
  • Skip this step if: You don’t want to double cleanse or if your oil-based cleanser contains surfactants that sufficiently remove dirt and debris.
  • Products to try: For a soothing oil-free experience, try La Roche-Posay’s Micellar Cleansing Water for Sensitive SkinCOSRX’s Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser is designed for the morning, but best used after an initial cleanse.

Step 3: Toner or astringent

Step 4: Antioxidant serum

  • What is it? Serums contain a high concentration of certain ingredients. An antioxidant-based one will protect skin against damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicalsVitamins C and E are common antioxidants used to improve texture and firmness. Others to look out for include green tea, resveratrol, and caffeine.
  • How to use it: Pat a few drops onto your face and neck.
  • Products to try: A bottle of Skinceuticals’ C E Ferulic doesn’t come cheap, but it promises to protect against UVA/UVB rays and diminish signs of aging. For a more affordable alternative, try Avene’s A-Oxitive Antioxidant Defense Serum.

Step 5: Spot treatment

  • What is it? If you have a blemish with a head, first look for an anti-inflammatory product to remove it, then turn to a spot-drying treatment to clear up the rest. Anything under the skin is classified as a cyst and will require a product that targets the infection on the inside.
  • How to use it: Use a damp cotton swab to remove any skin care products from the spot. Apply a small amount of the treatment and leave to dry.
  • Skip this step if: You have no spots or want to let nature take its course.
  • Products to try: Kate Somerville’s EradiKate Blemish Treatment has a high sulfur content to reduce spots and prevent new pimples. Origins’ Super Spot Remover is also ideal for the day. Drying clear, it can speed up the healing process and assist with leftover discoloration.

Step 6: Eye cream

  • What is it? The skin around your eyes tends to be thinner and more sensitive. It’s also prone to signs of aging, including fine lines, puffiness, and darkness. A good eye cream can brighten, smooth, and firm up the area, but it won’t completely eliminate issues.
  • How to use it: Dab a small amount onto the eye area using your ring finger.
  • Skip this step if: Your moisturizer and serum are suitable for the eye area, contain an effective formula, and are fragrance-free.
  • Products to try: SkinCeuticals’ Physical Eye UV Defense is a nonirritating SPF 50 formula. Clinique’s Pep-Start Eye Cream aims to depuff and brighten.

Step 7: Lighter face oil

  • What is it? The lighter the product, the earlier it should be applied. Easily absorbable oils are lightweight and should therefore come before moisturizer. They’re especially useful if your skin’s showing signs of dryness, flakiness, or dehydration.
  • How to use it: Squeeze a few drops onto your fingertips. Rub them together gently to warm the oil before lightly dabbing onto your face.
  • Skip this step if: You prefer a maintenance routine. More often than not, you’ll have to try different oils to see which works best for your skin.
  • Products to try: Cliganic’s Jojoba Oil can treat dry skin while The Ordinary’s Cold-Pressed Rose Hip Seed Oil is designed to reduce signs of photoaging.

Step 8: Moisturizer

  • What is it? A moisturizer will soothe and soften skin. Dry skin types should opt for a cream or balm. Thicker creams work best on normal or combination skin, and fluids and gels are recommended for oilier types. Effective ingredients include glycerine, ceramides, antioxidants, and peptides.
  • How to use it: Take a slightly bigger than pea-sized amount and warm in hands. Apply to cheeks first, then to the rest of the face using upward strokes. Skip this step if: Your toner or serum gives you enough moisture. This is especially true for those with oily skin.
  • Products to try: CeraVe’s Ultra-Light Moisturizing Face Lotion is a lightweight SPF 30 formula that should work well on oily skin. For those with dry skin, look to Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost Gel Cream.

Step 9: Heavier face oil

  • What is it? Oils that take some time to absorb or simply feel thick fall into the heavy category. Best suited for dry skin types, these should be applied after moisturizer to seal in all the goodness.
  • How to use it: Follow the same process as the lighter oil.
  • Skip this step if: You don’t want to run the risk of clogging your pores. Again, trial and error is key here.
  • Products to try: Sweet almond oil is considered to be heavier than others, but Weleda’s Sensitive Care Calming Almond Oil claims to nourish and relieve skin. Antipodes combines a light and heavier oil in its anti-aging Divine Rosehip & Avocado Face Oil.

Step 10: Sunscreen

  • What is it? Sunscreen is a critical final step in your morning skin care routine. Not only can it reduce your risk of skin cancer, but it can also fight against signs of aging. The American Cancer Society recommends choosing one rated SPF 30 or higher.
  • How to use it: Spread liberally over your face and massage in. Make sure to apply it 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside. Never apply skin care products on top, as this can dilute the sunscreen.
  • Products to try: If you don’t like sunscreen’s usual texture, Glossier’s Invisible Shield may be the one for you. The product is also recommended for darker skin tones. La Roche-Posay’s Anthelios Ultra-Light Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50 absorbs fast with a matte finish.

Step 11: Foundation or other base makeup

  • What is it? If you want to wear makeup, a base layer will give you a smooth, even complexion. Opt for foundation — which comes in a cream, liquid, or powder form — or a lightweight tinted moisturizer or BB cream.
  • How to use it: Use a brush or sponge to apply makeup. Start at the center of the face and blend outward. To seamlessly blend the edges, use a damp sponge.
  • Skip this step if: You prefer to go au naturel.
  • Products to try: If you have oily skin, Giorgio Armani’s Maestro Fusion Foundation is considered to be one of the industry’s best. Prefer a sheer look? Try Nars’ Pure Radiant Tinted Moisturizer.

Focus on repairing the damage done during the day with thicker products at night. This is also the time to use anything that makes skin sensitive to sunlight, including physical exfoliants and chemical peels.

Basic evening routine

  1. Makeup remover. It does what it says on the tin, even removing the makeup residue you can’t see.
  2. Cleanser. This will get rid of any lingering dirt.
  3. Spot treatment. Breakouts can be effectively treated at night with anti-inflammatory and drying products.
  4. Night cream or sleep mask. A richer moisturizer to assist with skin repair.

Step 1: Oil-based makeup remover

  • What is it? As well as dissolving the natural oils produced by your skin, an oil-based cleanser can break down oily ingredients found in makeup.
  • How to use it: Follow the specific product instructions. You may be advised to apply the makeup remover on wet or dry skin. Once applied, massage in until skin is clean then rinse with water.
  • Skip this step if: You don’t wear makeup, have oily skin, or would prefer to use a water-based product.
  • Products to try: Boscia’s MakeUp-BreakUp Cool Cleansing Oil aims to gently dissolve makeup without leaving an oily residue. Even waterproof makeup should disappear with Tatcha’s One-Step Camellia Cleansing Oil.

Step 2: Water-based cleanser

  • What is it? Water-based cleansers react with makeup and dirt on the skin in a way that allows everything to be rinsed away with water.
  • How to use it: Follow the instructions. Usually, you’ll apply it to wet skin, massage in, and rinse off.
  • Skip this step if: Double cleansing isn’t for you.
  • Products to try: Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost Hydrating Gel Cleanser transforms into a lather that should leave skin squeaky clean. If you want skin to look less oily, Shiseido’s Refreshing Cleansing Water may help.

Step 3: Exfoliator or clay mask

  • What is it? Exfoliation removes dead skin cells while decongesting pores. Clay masks work to unclog pores, but can also absorb excess oil. These masks are best applied at night to remove leftover dirt and help the skin soak up other products.
  • How to use it: Once or twice a week, apply the clay mask all over or to specific problem areas. Leave on for the recommended time, then rinse with warm water and pat dry. Exfoliants have different application methods, so follow product instructions.
  • Skip exfoliating if: Your skin is already irritated.
  • Products to try: One of the most highly reviewed clay masks is Aztec Secret’s Indian Healing Clay. For exfoliators, you can go physical or chemical. ProX by Olay’s Advanced Facial Cleansing System contains an exfoliating brush, while Paula’s Choice’s Skin Perfecting Liquid Exfoliant houses 2 percent beta hydroxy acid to even texture and tone.

Step 4: Hydrating mist or toner

Step 5: Acid treatment

  • What is it? Dousing your face in acid may sound scary, but this skin care treatment can encourage cell turnover. Beginners may want to try glycolic acid. Other options include acne-busting salicylic acid and moisturizing hyaluronic acid. Over time, you should notice a brighter and more even complexion.
  • How to use it: Start once a week with the goal of using every night. Do a patch test at least 24 hours before first use. Add a few drops of the solution to a cotton pad and sweep across the face. Make sure to avoid the eye area.
  • Skip this step if: You have particularly sensitive skin or experience a reaction to a particular acid.
  • Products to try: Glycolic acid can be found in Alpha-H’s Liquid Gold. For hydration, choose Peter Thomas Roth’s Water Drench Hyaluronic Cloud Serum. Oily skin types may safely layer acids. Apply thinner products and lower pH levels first.

Step 6: Serums and essences

  • What is it? Serums deliver powerful ingredients directly to the skin. An essence is simply a watered-down version. Vitamin E is great for dry skin, while antioxidants like green tea extract can be used on dull complexions. If you’re prone to breakouts, try retinol or vitamin C.
  • How to use it: Carry out a patch test 24 hours before using a new serum or essence. If skin looks good, dispense the product into your hand and press into your skin. You can layer multiple products. Just apply water-based ones before oil-based and wait around 30 seconds between each.
  • Products to try: To refresh the look and feel of skin, try The Body Shop’s Vitamin E Overnight Serum-in-Oil. If a brightening effect is what you’re after, Sunday Riley’s C.E.O. Brightening Serum contains 15 percent vitamin C. Some experts believe it’s advisable not to mix vitamin C or retinol with acids or each other, or vitamin C with niacinamide. However, there’s little evidence to support these warnings. In fact, recent researchTrusted Source has found the combination of retinol and acids to be highly effective.

Step 7: Spot treatment

  • What is it? Anti-inflammatory products are for blemishes with a head. Follow with a spot-drying treatment. Ones that dry visibly are great for nighttime use.
  • How to use it: Make sure skin is clean. Apply a small amount of product and leave to dry.
  • Skip this step if: You’re spot-free.
  • Products to try: Mario Badescu’s Drying Lotion uses salicylic acid to dry up spots overnight. Alternatively, stick a pus-absorbing COSRX AC Collection Acne Patch on before bed.

Step 8: Hydrating serum or mask

  • What is it? Some products can clog pores, but hydrating masks aren’t one of them. With the ability to pack a real moisture punch, they’re ideal for dry skin.
  • How to use it: These masks can come in various forms. Some are serums. Others are Korean-style sheet masks. And some are even designed to be left on overnight. If this is the case, apply it at the end of your routine. Just follow the instructions on the pack and you’re good to go.
  • Products to try: Designed to deliver long-lasting moisture, the ingredients list of Vichy’s Mineral 89 Serum boasts hyaluronic acid, 15 essential minerals, and thermal water. Garnier’s SkinActive Moisture Bomb Sheet Mask also contains hyaluronic acid plus goji berry for a hit of hydration.

Step 9: Eye cream

Step 10: Face oil

Step 11: Night cream or sleep mask

  • What is it? Night creams are a totally optional last step, but they can be worthwhile. While day creams are designed to protect the skin, these rich moisturizers help cell repair. Sleep masks, on the other hand, seal in all your other products and contain hydrating ingredients mild enough to be kept on overnight.
  • How to use it: Warm a small amount of product in your hands before distributing it evenly across your face.
  • Skip this step if: Your skin already looks and feels its best.
  • Products to try: For gentle exfoliation, apply Glow Recipe’s Watermelon Glow Sleeping MaskClarins’ Multi-Active Night Cream may appeal to dry skin in need of extra moisture.

Ten-step routines aren’t to everyone’s taste, so don’t feel pressured to include every step in the above lists.

For many people, a good rule of thumb is to apply products thinnest to thickest — for however many products that may be — as they move through their skin care routines.

The most important thing is finding a skin care routine that works for you and that you’ll follow. Whether that involves the whole shebang or a simplified ritual, have fun experimenting.