When we talk about layering, we aren’t referring to your clothes. In the skin care world, layering is essentially adding layers of skin care products with a specific order of application. It can also mean applying the same product multiple times though, so you’re probably wondering…how the heck, when the heck, and why the heck you layer your skincare? 

Not to worry, you’re friends at Spa Sciences are here to help! Whenever we talk to people, they are always asking us in what order their skin-care products should be applied. We understand that getting this sort of thing down, in addition to all your other day-to-day responsibilities and commitments, can be daunting. 

I am sure some of you are asking yourselves "WHY is layering my skin care products even important?” Put simply, properly applying and layering products means you get better, more noticeable results in the long run. And we already know that in terms of our skin’s health, it’s all about the long game. 

If a product you have been using hasn’t yielded the results you were expecting, you just might be applying it at the wrong time of day or in the incorrect order. 

Dr. Harold Lancer  - Beverly Hills Dermatologist

Top dermatologist and skincare titan, Dr. Harold Lancer, is pretty much the heavyweight champion of his field. In the pursuit of eternal youth and beauty, A-listers travel far and wide from all four corners of the earth to see Dr. Lancer. And when the good doctor speaks…you listen. 

So what would Dr. Lancer advise us to do if asked about which order we should be applying, or “layering”, our products in? Let’s see!




Dr. Lancer has this to say about your morning routine and the order in which you should be applying your products: "My general recommendation is to apply your thinnest products first—any serums or liquid treatments. This way, they can be fully absorbed by the skin before any heavier creams are applied," said the pro. "Serums or liquids can be followed by treatment creams, which ought to be followed by a moisturizer, which ultimately should be finished off with a sunscreen.” 

Note: "Sun protection [a.k.a. a proper sunscreen] is critical. Even if you plan to wear cosmetics that have an SPF rating," said the doctor, "make sure you're using a sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays."

The Steps: 

  1. Serums or Liquids

  2. Treatment Cream

  3. Moisturizer

  4. Sunscreen (or a moisturizer with sunscreen in it is very popular)

  5. Makeup


"At night, your regimen should focus on rejuvenating and repairing the skin," stated Dr. Lancer. "Powerful anti-agers like retinol and glycolic acid are best used at night due to their ability to increase photosensitivity in the skin."

“Supporting your skin's renewal while you sleep is also important; I personally like to recommend stem cell-based serum and nourishing moisturizer to ensure my patients wake with hydrated, glowing skin.”

Take This With You: 

"Don't be afraid to layer your products.”, Dr Lancer concluded. "Everyone has unique skin needs, and creating your own skin-care 'cocktail' will give you the results you are looking for."

Well, thank you Dr. Lancer! 

Now comes a reminder about moisturizing: it's all about putting water BACK into your skin. THere are three main types of moisturizers I will just quickly mention briefly. Here’s what we’ve got:

Occlusives – these are greasy oils that block water from evaporating. Common examples are petroleum jelly, mineral oil (both are incredibly effective), lanolin, silicones (e.g. dimethicone), olive oil, carnauba wax, and beeswax.

Humectants – these are water-attracting molecules which grab hold of water and slow down its evaporation. Examples are glycerin/glycerol, hyaluronic acid (if you’ve seen any skin care commercials on television in recent times, you likely know this one), propylene glycol, sorbitol, panthenol, and honey.

Emollients – these lighter oils sink into the skin and replace natural skin oils, helping to bind the skin cells back together into a nice solid layer, which feels soft and smooth to the touch. Examples include silicones, isopropyl palmitate, jojoba oil, propylene glycol, and vitamin E.

The primary scientific concept that’s at play here is pretty simple: oil repels water

You know that when you put oil and water together, the two don’t mix, but instead, separate? Or when you put a greasy spoon into plain water, you can’t scrub the grease off without adding soap? This is exactly how layering works in skin care.

One more thing to remember is that water evaporates, but oils do not.

And so…..LAYERING!


So say you put an oil-only moisturizer (which would have emollient or occlusive actions, right?) directly on some dry, thirsty skin, and then decide to top it off with a water-based moisturizer (which likely contains some humectants). What happens is that the oil prevents the water from passing through to the skin, and even though some of the emollient oils may sink into the skin and make it temporarily feel softer, there’s minimal water reaching your skin before it evaporates into thin air. 

Essentially, your moisturizer isn’t actually doing much moisturizing at all! 

However, your body is full of water. In fact, up to 60% of the human adult body is water. According to H.H. Mitchell, Journal of Biological Chemistry 158, the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones are watery: 31%. So this will still prevent water from evaporating through your skin. But it does mean that it’ll take a lot longer for the water to rise through your skin and build up in the upper layers that need hydration. 

It’s not necessarily all that bad, but also won’t provide you with immediate relief.

But what if we did things in reverse? What if we apply a watery moisturizer first, then top it off with an oil-based moisturizer?! 

Illustration depicting the impact the order in which we apply product has on our skin and its moisture content.

By doing things this way, the water is now next to your skin, while the oil lays on top of it, effectively sealing in the water, giving it the time it needs to enter your skin. Once the watery layer is pretty much all absorbed, the emollient oils then go to work and the occlusive oils keep the whole kit and caboodle locked inside your soft, supple, hydrated skin. You better believe that’s right! 

And yes, while it is true that mineral oil may not actually contain anything of real benefit to your skin, it's still pretty amazing when it comes to trapping water next to your skin for optimal absorption. This at least gives it function, if nothing else. 

I’m going to pretend as though I know you well enough to know what you are thinking at this very moment, and assume you are likely asking yourselves, “But does any of this ACTUALLY matter?”

Almost any and every moisturizer you pick up at the store will have one fundamental thing in common: they will all have water as their main ingredient. What’s more, most will also have a combination of all three types of moisturizer, meaning you shouldn’t actually have to put too much thought into layering, as all three of them will make it to your skin. Oh, yeah, the actual act of rubbing these in will actually make the layers less distinct, too. 

Now, if you use any pure oils in your daily skincare routine (e.g. rosehip, coconut, olive, mineral oil *aka baby oil or Bio-Oil*) or rich, thick, water-free body butters, then bear in mind that if you really want to add moisture to your skin quickly and effectively, you’ll want to make certain you let the water reach your skin.

With this goal in mind, the most effective order of layering your product, assuming our primary goal is absolute moisturization, would be as follows:

Immediately following a shower (when your skin is still nice and damp with water).

  1. Apply a humectant-rich moisturizer.

  2. Add an emollient-based moisturizer.

  3. Seal it all that goodness in with an occlusive oil.

We apply our moisturizers immediately after getting out of the shower (or even in the shower) because doing so traps the water next to the skin – kind of like getting a free moisture boost!

What about treatments? 

Naturally, it seems logical to apply treatments and serums as close to your skin as possible, especially so they aren’t watered down by the time they reach your skin. 

Buuuut what if you have two treatments? What order do you apply those in?

Just stick with what you already know about water...because that is what it comes right down to once again. Your most effective option would be water-soluble ingredients first (if you are trying to play it safe, of-course), and then oil-based ingredients second. An easy-to-remember rule of thumb is to apply the water-based serums first before the oily treatments, and to wait in between applying different treatments. Then after the treatments are on, you can slather on all those moisturizers.

None of these are quick and dirty rules, by any means. If you use a small amount of oil, it’s really not likely to interfere with absorption, and layers on your skin don’t stay intact for that long, so most ingredients will reach your skin sooner or later. But by navigating the avenues of your skin care journey using these general rules should give your products the best chances they’re ever going to have of working as effectively as possible.

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