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Your Every Question About Layering Skin-Care Products, Answered

Whether you're assembling a rainbow cake, styling an outfit, or putting together a skin-care routine, proper layering is critical. (Just ask anyone who's struggled to stuff a too-thick sweater under a denim jacket.) And in the case of skin care, layering the right way can make all the difference when it comes to getting the most out of your products.

Of course, this isn't a new phenomenon. The layering of products — resulting in a multistep skin-care routine — is at the core of traditional Korean beauty. That's why we decided to tackle the topic of layering on the first of three K-beauty-themed episodes of Allure’s The Science of Beauty podcast.

With the help of dermatologist Marie Jhin, cohosts Michelle Lee, editor in chief, and Jenny Bailly, executive beauty director, are peeling back the, uh, layers of this sometimes-confusing topic and delivering definitive answers on important questions you might have, like "Wait, does face oil go first or last?" Read on for the highlights of their enlightening conversation, then listen to the full episode wherever you get your podcasts.

The History of Skin-Care Layering

We've established that in South Korea, there is a deep cultural affinity for skin-care layering. But during the 1980s and into the 1990s, the products being sold there were, according to Allure contributor Euny Hong, who grew up in South Korea, "packaged unattractively in dusty tubs and smelled like carpet deodorizer." In other words, these were not products that women in other parts of the world were dying to get their hands on (or slather on repeatedly).

But a major shift took place in the mid-1990s. The South Korean government decided that if it wanted to be economically viable in a global economy, the country needed to have a seat at the cool kids' table. It needed to become cool, and then it needed to export that cool. This gave way to the multitude of K-beauty products we all know and love today — and marked the birth of super-sized regimens that could include up to 17 steps.

Meanwhile, Americans were primed and ready for the multistep skin-care revolution, thanks to brands like Clinique. In 1968, the company introduced its now-iconic 3-Step Skin Care System — consisting of cleansing, toning, and moisturizing — and taught the world the importance of a consistent routine. So in 2014, when Allure published a six-page feature on the layering trend that was making its way to the United States from Asia, it was all systems go, and many women began to adopt routines that swelled to 10 (or even more) steps.

But then, in 2019, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, and "skip care" was born. Products became multitaskers, and followers combined numerous hydration steps to achieve similar results in one go — thus paring down their regimen.

Today, the typical routine has settled somewhere in between, to about four or five steps. So while figuring out the best way to layer your products may no longer require a degree in chemistry, it’s still a pain point for many of us.

How to Layer Your Skin-Care Products

You're going to want to screenshot this. The typical K-beauty routine involves layering your products like so: oil-based cleanser, water-based cleanser, exfoliator, toner, essence, serum, sheet mask, eye cream, moisturizer, and SPF. As important as simply using each product is applying each one in its proper order — aka layering. The idea is that in order for products to absorb most effectively, active ingredients (which are typically found in serums, the workhorses of any routine) go on earlier in the regimen, then you seal it all in with richer formulas. "It's always about cleansing the skin, treating the skin, and then protecting the skin," adds Jhin.

We know what you’re thinking: If those basic tenets are what it’s all about, how do routines balloon to 10, 12, or even 17 steps? Jhin says it’s because many people like to load up on serums (each with different benefits, like brightening or firming), which causes the steps to add up.

Of course, there are also bells and whistles in the form of so-called extras, like essence, which is closely associated with K-beauty. Jhin says essences — used after cleansing and toning — help with hydration while also preparing the skin so that other ingredients can absorb better.

Guidelines for Skin-Care Layering

If you have a product that doesn't fit into one of the categories above, a good rule of thumb is to slot it in based on its consistency. "I always say to go from more watery to thicker substances," says Jhin. The reason harks back to absorption — if you applied a thicker, richer formula first, it could prevent thinner ones from penetrating.

But because this is life, there are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Jhin tells patients who are treating skin conditions with a prescription product to put it on right after cleanser, toner, and essence — no matter its consistency. That's because you want the active ingredients that are treating the skin condition to have the best chance of going deep, she says.

Here's yet another special case: Face oil, should you choose to use it, should always go last. That's because oil is occlusive — meaning it creates a barrier. "Oil can get through moisturizer, serums, and lotions," says Jhin. "But it doesn't [work] the other way around. If you put oil on, nothing can get through it. So you want to apply it last."

And yet! There’s an exception to that exception. While oil should be the last step in your nighttime routine, when it comes to your morning regimen, sunscreen — whether your formula of choice is chemical or physical — should always, always go last. "Other [products]…have a mission to get to the skin and get absorbed and be efficacious. But sunscreen is a shield," says Jhin. "You want it on the top because it's blocking the rays from penetrating the skin." And seriously, no exceptions. (We mean it this time.)

If you're using multiple active ingredients in your routine, you should always (always!) consult a dermatologist to be sure they can be safely paired. That said, Jhin says she often gets questions about these combos:

While you can use these ingredients at the same time, Jhin suggests waiting at least 30 minutes before applying retinol over vitamin C. That's because the two ingredients work best at different pH levels (the measure of acidity), so using them together means they may not work as well. But instead of twiddling your thumbs for a half-hour, Jhin suggests using vitamin C in the morning (since it's an antioxidant that helps protect skin from environmental stressors) and retinol in the evening.

Jhin cautions that this pairing can cause irritation. So consider using vitamin C in the morning and AHAs in the evening.

Call them sworn enemies or star-crossed lovers — either way, these two simply cannot be together. Benzoyl peroxide, an ingredient commonly used to treat acne, causes vitamin C to degrade, or oxidize, rendering it useless. Womp, womp.

The acne avenger strikes again. Don't pair the ingredient with retinol, as the two "cancel each other out," says Jhin.

Now that you've got the order of application down, it may be tempting to slap on product after product in quick succession. But you wouldn’t be doing yourself any favors: Jhin says a good rule of thumb is to wait 30 seconds to a minute between layers to maximize absorption.

Doing so also helps lessen the chances that the formulas will "pill," as in ball up on your face. (It's the same phenomenon that occurs on a well-worn sweater.) Certain ingredients, like silicones, are more prone to pilling than others, but pressing pause between layers can help prevent the problem. Jhin also advises being careful not to apply too much product, as that can also cause pilling.

Our Hosts' Favorite Ways to Layer Skin-Care Products

If skin-care layering is an art form, Michelle is Picasso. At the moment, her routine begins with a gentle cleanser like CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser, Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser, or AHC Aqualuronic Cleanser. At night she does a double cleanse by adding a balm like Then I Met You Living Cleansing Balm (“It sort of smells citrusy, which I love,” she says). Next up is AHC Aqualuronic Toner, followed by Tata Harper Hydrating Floral Essence. Her treatment steps begin with AHC Aqualuronic Emulsion, which she follows with SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic antioxidant serum. (At night, she'll swap out the latter for a retinol, she adds.)

In the homestretch of her routine, Michelle applies Dr Loretta Tightening Eye Gel (subbing in an eye cream at night) and RéVive Perfectif Even Skin Tone Cream-Dark Spot Corrector SPF 30, which acts as a moisturizer. Though that formula has SPF, she still tops it all off with EltaMD UV Daily Tinted Broad-Spectrum SPF 40. And…that's it. Phew!

Jenny starts her routine with cleanser, preferring both creamy, foaming formulas like AHC Aqualuronic Cleanser, and solid balms, like Drunk Elephant Slaai Makeup-Melting Butter Cleanser. She, too, uses SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic, AHC Aqualuronic Emulsion, and EltaMD UV Daily Tinted Broad-Spectrum SPF 40 sunscreen, though she’s been known to play the field when it comes to SPF: She also keeps Fenty Skin Hydra Vizor Invisible Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Sunscreen and Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40 on her desk. But no matter which one she's using, she waits a few minutes before applying it in an effort to avoid pilling ("the bane of my existence," she says).

Her evening additions include SkinMedica TNS Essential Serum, formulated with growth factors to help rejuvenate skin, as well as the brand's HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator with hyaluronic acid. And she never forgets RoC Retinol Correxion Eye Cream.

The Bottom Line

It's not just about what skin care you're applying, but how you're applying it. If you keep in mind some basic rules of thumb (and avoid pairing ingredients that don't play nicely), you can maximize the benefits of your skin-care products.

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  • Posted on February 11, 2021