The Skin Care Application Mistakes You’re Probably Making

Robert Hundley

It’s the end of a long day, and you’re proud that you took the time to cleanse your face and apply your serums, elixirs and other skin care products. Ready to hop into bed, right? Not so fast there, cowboy. It turns out that you need to make sure you’ve timed each product’s application correctly, and that you give it all some time to soak in — before you soak your pillowcase with pricey products.

That’s true not just at nighttime, but throughout the day, too. Below, dermatologists offer guidance on the best times to apply products and how long to let them sink in before applying more.

It’s possible your morning and evening routines are too close together.

Many dermatologists suggest allowing enough time between morning and evening skin care regimens. “Ideally you’ll space them out to be about 12 hours apart,” said dermatologist Dr. Loretta Ciraldo. “My advice is not to wait until after a noontime workout to do your morning routine and then apply a nighttime regimen after dinner.”

How late is too late? “Getting your morning skin care done before noon is ideal, because it gives you enough time between routines,” said dermatologist Dr. Ruth Jobarteh-Williams.

Make sure you’re layering your products in the right order.

Many of us have more than one product to apply. But in which order should they be applied? Here’s a good rule of thumb from Joie Tavernise, medical aesthetician and founder of JTAV Clinical Skincare: The goal is to layer products from smallest molecular weight to largest, so the order should be cleanser, toner, serum, moisturizer and finally oil.”

The skin needs to be ready to receive whatever you’re sending its way, as well. Rachael Gallo, aesthetician and chief operating officer at Silver Mirror Facial Bar, suggested: “Always apply toner on damp skin, because it acts as a conductor to help serums lie on your skin for a slower, all-day penetration. Once your serums are applied over the toner, wait until the skin is dry before applying moisturizer as the last layer of protection.”

If you’re wondering how makeup fits into this schedule, aesthetician Tammy Fender had this advice: “I’m a big fan of waiting at least 10 minutes after putting on your moisturizer before applying sunscreen or makeup. Giving the skin a break is very soothing sometimes.”

Rule of thumb: Wait 60 to 90 seconds between applying each product.

Dr. Michelle Henry, a dermatologist and clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College, explained why “too much, too soon” application methods could make your application less effective. “Waiting 60 to 90 seconds can allow the products to penetrate the surface layer and work their magic,” she said. “If you ‘clump’ three or four different products at the same time, the skin can’t absorb the various ingredients, leading to less-than-optimal results.”

You could just recite “one Mississippi” 60 times while you’re waiting in between applications, but Tavernise had a better idea. “Take the time to give yourself a little face massage while you wait,” she said. “Use all of your fingers to gently tap all of your face. It feels fantastic and will help products penetrate faster.”

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair retinol moisturizer

The Best Retinol Creams, According To A Dermatologist

Retinols have some different rules.

Some people experience irritation, flaking or dryness when using the vitamin A derivatives known as retinoids, especially prescription ones. For this reason, dermatologists often recommend the “sandwich method” when you’re applying them. This means you apply moisturizer, wait for it to soak in, apply the retinoid, and then add another layer of moisturizer.

The idea is that moisturizer applied first will be something of a barrier to combat any irritation from the retinol, and moisturizing afterward can seal in moisture. If you’re following the “thinnest to thickest” order of application, you’ll want to add lighter ingredients like toner and serum before creating that retinoid “sandwich.”

With retinol, you should also be conscious of using it in an appropriate cadence with other products you’re using, said dermatologist Dr. Rebecca Marcus. “When using a retinol at night, avoid applying in combination with other acids, as this can be too irritating,” she said. “Vitamin C is an acid, so it’s often recommended to apply these two ingredients at different times of the day. Vitamin C should be applied in the morning, as its antioxidant activity is helpful to combat free radicals from UV radiation and pollution. Retinol should be applied at night, since it’s broken down and inactivated by UV radiation.”

Is your pillowcase eating up all your expensive skin care?

“Applying any type of product and immediately jumping into bed can instantly transfer the product onto the pillowcase,” Henry said. “Along with depleting our skin of the expensive and rejuvenating ingredients, that could allow pillowcases to collect various skin care products. If you’ve experienced new breakouts in the morning, chances are your product-rich pillowcases are the culprits.”

How long is too long to wait? Michelle Wong, a chemist and science educator at Lab Muffin Beauty Science, suggested it can’t hurt to wait a while: “If you really want to make sure your product doesn’t go to waste, waiting an hour after application before going to bed is safest.”

“How quickly products are absorbed depends on your skin type,” Gallo said. “A drier complexion will absorb in minutes, and an oily complexion may take longer. We recommend washing your face right after dinner, beginning your self-care routine early, then relaxing with a good book and some light-emitting diode (LED) therapy.”

Silk pillowcases were suggested by a couple of the experts, including Jobarteh-Williams: “Silk and satin are gentle on the skin, and they don’t absorb as much moisture as cotton.” Marcus concurred, citing research that silk tends to absorb less face cream than other fabrics. Another nighttime tip from Marcus: “Try to sleep on your back. This is best practice to prevent wrinkles and creases in your skin on your face and chest.”

Looking for some dermatologist-recommended serums to boost your skin care routine? Take a look at some picks below.

HuffPost may receive a share from purchases made via links on this page. Every item is independently selected by the HuffPost Shopping team. Prices and availability are subject to change.


iS Clinical Super Serum

I am absolutely devoted to this powerful vitamin C serum. My esthetician recommended adding iS Clinical’s Super Serum to my lineup, and now I can’t imagine my skin without it. It’s an oil-based vitamin C-rich serum that not only has the potential to help reduce typical signs of aging like fine lines, wrinkles and sun damage, but can help to reduce scarring as well. While it costs a pretty penny, I think it’s absolutely worth it. Not only are the quality and the results unbeatable, but a little goes a long way, making it less of a financial burden than one might imagine. It’s definitely worth the splurge.

Promising review: “Love this stuff. It might be a tad expensive, but it has done wonders for my skin to even it out and make it so smooth. Lines seem to have almost vanished (I’m 57). I have sensitive skin and this was not harsh, nor did it break out my skin. VERY happy with this product and would recommend this to anyone with sensitive skin who wants their skin to feel soft and look radiant. I get SO many compliments on my skin. Have been using for 5 months and will continue to do so.” — Kindle Customer


Sunday Riley Good Genes serum

I’ve been using Sunday Riley’s Good Genes for nearly a decade, and despite testing hundreds of other comparable products, I always come back to it. I’m particularly obsessed with the high content of lactic acid, a unique chemical exfoliant that encourages quick cell turnover in the surface layers of the skin, leaving it smoother and helping clear up blemishes. It’s paired with licorice and lemongrass in this formula, which can help brighten up the look of dark spots, sun damage and other discoloration, and prickly pear extract that can help soothe redness and calm sensitive skin. It’s the perfect example of a product with a fairly common active ingredient that is perfectly formulated with other complementary ingredients to make it even more effective than many other options.

Promising review: “Hands down the best skin product I’ve ever used. Worth the price. I don’t write reviews on amazon but if I can help anyone justify the price given the magic it’s done to my skin – worth the time! My 35 year old skin looks at least 10 years younger. I will buy this for life. (I could care less about the smell and honestly, don’t really smell it? weird?)” — Patricia Izquierdo

The Inkey List

The Inkey List 10{5c5ba01e4f28b4dd64874166358f62106ea5bcda869a94e59d702fa1c9707720} azelaic acid serum

Dr. Adeline Kikam, a board-certified dermatologist who shares advice on @brownskinderm, is a huge fan of this particular azelaic acid serum. She told HuffPost that “it is gently formulated with azelaic acid at 10{5c5ba01e4f28b4dd64874166358f62106ea5bcda869a94e59d702fa1c9707720} and allantoin at .3{5c5ba01e4f28b4dd64874166358f62106ea5bcda869a94e59d702fa1c9707720} for extra moisture.” It can help soothe and calm irritated skin and help to reduce the appearance of redness. It’s also formulated with micro-fine green color particles that can help to mask the look of existing redness as well, acting almost like a color corrector.

Promising review: “Helped my rosacea and PD. I bought this 3 days ago and am actually super surprised and impressed with this product. I’ve used azelaic acid before but found it irritating and heavy silicones in those formulas broke me out. I struggle with perioral dermatitis and rosacea. I was going through a pretty bad flare 3 days ago and as of today it’s 90{5c5ba01e4f28b4dd64874166358f62106ea5bcda869a94e59d702fa1c9707720} gone. I have some tips for how to best use the product: 1. Apply to dry skin only. Applying azelaic acid to wet or damp skin makes it super itchy and can cause irritation. … I’m super impressed. This really helped clear up my latest flare and I’m excited to have found something that finally works for me. I’ll continue using and buying this as long as these results continue!” — Becca


Dieux Deliverance serum

Find out why Dieux’s cult-favorite Deliverance serum keeps flying off the shelves. It’s formulated to address three main skin issues: irritation, uneven tone and the look of fine lines. The lightweight formulation helps leave skin soft, soothed and delightfully glowy. It’s a great starter serum for anyone looking to amp up their routine or a wonderful addition to an already-established regimen. It harnesses the power of cannabinoids, niacinamide, peptides and more to leave skin looking and feeling its absolute best.

Promising reviews: “Phenomenal. I’m still currently using it but I’ve been using it a few weeks and it’s already made such a huge difference in my skin. my redness isn’t as severe and my skin glows! LOVE this product!” — Grace B.

“Saving grace. I have struggled with hormonal acne for years and have searched high and low for a product to help my skin (also very dry and sensitive). This product has changed my skin, slowly but surely. I absolutely notice more hydration. I’ve started breaking out less, and marks from old breakouts fade quicker than usual. Charlotte never misses.” — Mary T.

“One of those products where you start to freak out a little when you realize you’re almost out. So good. Any time I fall off my routine I realize how potent this serum is and effective.” — Allison M.

Vintner’s Daughter

Vintner’s Daughter active botanical serum

This award-winning face serum is ideal for anyone wanting to harness the power of plant ingredients. It’s chock full of moisturizing fatty acids, nourishing omegas and antioxidants that fight free radicals and help to restore and strengthen the skin. This active botanical serum leaves skin moisturized, nourished and renewed — it’s as luxurious as it gets.

Promising review: “If I had to choose to reduce my skin care routine to one product and feel confident that my skin will get all the nutrients it needs, it would be the Active Botanical. I have tried many products over the year, I work in fashion and are exposed to quite a bit of them. The active Botanical is the one for me.” — Verified customer

“This serum is insanely expensive, but also insanely good. It’s like a bottle of love for your skin. Hyperpigmentation? It fades dark spots. Acne? I haven’t had a zit since I started using it 6 months ago. Sensitive skin? I can now start using chemical exfoliates, which I’ve never been able to do. This stuff is amazing! It’s expensive, but I no longer need serums and oils and moisturizers – just this stuff.” — BKOMC

True Botanicals

True Botanicals chebula active serum

Address dull, uneven skin, rough texture, fine lines and dark spots with this powerful True Botanicals serum. This brand is beloved by celebs, skin care enthusiasts and everyone in between. The chebula serum is a hydrating serum that can help to reduce the visible signs of aging while helping to support and strengthen the skin’s natural moisture barrier. It’s definitely a splurge, but one that you likely won’t regret.

Promising review: “Skin feels great. At 52, I have tried all types of skin care products. Some seem to work for a short time, others feel too thick and heavy. This product feels light and amazing on your skin. It has replaced all other moisturizer products and my skin feels healthier than ever before. I use less makeup and feel more confident.” — Blustar70


The Ordinary mandelic acid 10{5c5ba01e4f28b4dd64874166358f62106ea5bcda869a94e59d702fa1c9707720} + HA

Mandelic acid is a game-changer for acne-prone skin like mine, and The Ordinary makes it easy to pick up a high concentration of this anti-bacterial AHA exfoliant without breaking the bank. It’s recommended for sensitive skin by two board-certified dermatologists, Dr. Purvisha Patel in Memphis, Tennessee, and Dr. Jennifer MacGregor of UnionDerm in New York City. The addition of hyaluronic acid brings skin extra hydration, making this a great formula for introducing your skin to mandelic acid. It’s ideal for acne-prone skin, reducing the look of fine lines and chemical exfoliation.

Promising review: “Skin type: 30s, cystic acne prone, hyperpigmentation, redness, combination skin, CANNOT use salicylic acid, glycolic or lactic acid. I never thought I had sensitive skin until a product with salicylic acid broke me really badly a month before my wedding. Curse you, salicylic acid, you are not for me. But this product is – mandelic acid. I can’t remember how I heard about it, but what really got me interested was the fact that’s is recommended for Skin of Colour, like mine 😀 FIRST USE: I applied four drops on my face (forehead, cheeks, nose/chin) after cleansing (oil and foam), then allowed it to sink in before continuing with the rest of my routine (toner, serum, moisturiser). Honestly, it takes a little while to sink in your skin, don’t use too much, you’ll be waiting a LONG time. The next morning I was washing my face and I was like, omg, my cheeks are baby soft. So soft, my skin was legit renewed, it felt like a miracle was happening. Basically, any sort of decongestion was dissolved and I was left with smooth skin. Yes, it works, if you need an acid that won’t irritate your skin, this may be the one for you.” — PS


Sunday Riley A+ high dose retinoid serum

HuffPost shopping writer and beauty devotee Tessa Flores swears by Sunday Riley’s A+ retinoid serum, and she’s not alone. It’s a great way to introduce a powerful active ingredient into your routine. And while it’s definitely an investment, a little goes a long way. The results also speak for themselves, making it worth every penny.

Promising review: “Sunday Riley’s A+ retinol serum initially caught my eye because it was advertised as an advanced strength retinoid that was suitable for both individuals with sensitive skin and experienced users of the ingredient that might be in search of a stronger product. The formulation contains a 6.5{5c5ba01e4f28b4dd64874166358f62106ea5bcda869a94e59d702fa1c9707720} retinoid blend, a relatively high percentage compared with other retinol products on the market. After using this product consistently for two months, I’m noticing a significant reduction of my keratosis pilaris in that the texture is smoother, less red and with fewer clogged hair follicles. I’ve also noticed less congestion in my T-zone, fewer sun freckles and an overall increase in skin plumpness — all without those telltale signs of retinol-induced irritation.” — Tessa Flores, shopping writer


SkinCeuticals C E ferulic acid serum

If you’re into skin care, you’ve likely heard people sing the praises of this cult-favorite serum, and with good reason. The SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic serum has been praised by dermatologists for its ability to help lighten fine lines, firm skin, provide environmental protection and brighten a dull complexion. The stabilized formulation means all ingredients are working at the peak of their powers, in tandem with each other.

Promising reviews: “I have tried many vitamin c serums and keep coming back to this one. It’s been highly effective on my skin, and while it’s pricey the results have been well worth it. One thing I have especially noticed is that it helps fade my acne scars pretty quickly.” — GG

“When I first bought this, I was so apprehensive because of the price. But it really is amazing! You have to use it consistently for a few weeks to see the results, but it’s worth it. My skin has never looked better. A little goes a long way, so the price is worth it.” — Emma


Paula’s Choice 10{5c5ba01e4f28b4dd64874166358f62106ea5bcda869a94e59d702fa1c9707720} azelaic acid booster serum

Also recommended by Kikam, this serum from Paula’s Choice is a lightweight, oil-free cream-gel formulation with .5{5c5ba01e4f28b4dd64874166358f62106ea5bcda869a94e59d702fa1c9707720} salicylic acid to boost skin brightening. It’s great for redness, irritation, acne-prone or otherwise distressed skin. The formula is lightweight and won’t clog pores or leave skin feeling heavy. You can use it as a spot treatment or all over your skin, depending on what it needs.

Promising reviews: “The holy grail. If you had to buy one skin cream in the world, it would be this product. Absolutely love it!!! This product moisturizes my face SOOOO well that I glow and it minimizes my redness. I definitely will repurchase!!” — Kate

“It works! My dermatologist recommended this product for my sun-damaged face. I cannot believe how great this stuff is! I had hypoplasia and this moisturizer really works and my skin looks great now! I will be ordering this again.” — Deb O.


Naturium mandelic topical acid 12{5c5ba01e4f28b4dd64874166358f62106ea5bcda869a94e59d702fa1c9707720}

This is also on Kikam’s list of must-haves. She explained that it’s “a lightweight serum with 10{5c5ba01e4f28b4dd64874166358f62106ea5bcda869a94e59d702fa1c9707720} azelaic acid boosted with other calming ingredients like niacinamide, vitamin C and coffee seed extract to help with oil control and discoloration.” It’s designed to slowly penetrate the skin, encouraging cell turnover and leaving the complexion looking brighter, radiant and more youthful.

Promising review: “Gentle yet effective. Great for those with sensitive skin looking to clear out your pores. I have really sensitive skin. I can no longer use Salicylic Acid. This is what i use now. It’s amazing. During the winter though I’m sticking with the PHA, and may just use this once a week or every other week as i have acne prone skin but sensitive skin as well.” — Jenny Marie

“I have used hydroquinone for a long time and this fades spots better than any high-end hydroquinone formula I’ve ever used. I have acne scars and sun spots and both have faded significantly more with this product than clinical hydroquinone products I have used in the past.” — Kennedy


Sunday Riley Luna sleeping night oil

I happen to be obsessed with using Luna oil in conjunction with Sunday Riley’s Good Genes; it’s a powerful duo that leaves me swimming in compliments and glowing skin. If you’ve been on the fence about trying an oil or retinoid, then this is the perfect place to start. Soothing botanicals like blue tansy and German chamomile are paired with an advanced retinoid ester that supports skin health and elasticity, evens out redness and fights fine lines and wrinkles. Avocado seed oil plumps up the skin and delivers a healthy dose of antioxidants. It doesn’t clog pores, which is perfect if you are acne-prone like myself.

Promising review: “I’ve been skeptical of Sunday Riley since their review debacle. I use other high-end skincare and wasn’t looking to add anything but this came highly suggested from a friend I trust. Now I can’t go a night without this beauty! The natural scents of chamomile are so relaxing and great part of self care to any nighttime routine to tell your nervous system ‘it’s time for sleep.’ It’s a very soft texture in the skin that feels nourishing and I love the deep blue tansy color that easily fades into skin as you apply. It’s a gentle retinoid that doesn’t irritate or interact with my other skincare. Overall my skin always looks bright and even in the morning. Love love this product, bought another for my mom for Mother’s Day! Can’t go wrong with adding this to a luxurious nighttime routine!” — shelby k


Caudalie Premier Cru anti-aging serum with niacinamide and hyaluronic acid

This lightweight serum from Caudalie is perfect for anyone looking for a deeply nourishing blast of powerful niacinamide. Hyaluronic acid keeps the skin hydrated and quenched while the serum plumps, moisturizes and helps repair damaged skin.

Promising reviews: “I have noticed a visible reduction in my fine lines since using this product. It also doesn’t leave my face oily or sticky like other serums can and do. I also really love that it has clean ingredients and does not have hardly any fragrance at all for those who are sensitive to fragrances like myself.” — Daniii89

“Loved it! Excellent product !!! I’ve been using it since I bought it and I can see the difference in my skin. Highly recommended.” — Kary9103

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