How to layer products for acne-prone skin

So you read the research, watched the tutorials, bought the products and now it’s time to actually do your skincare routine. But where do you start?

First, let’s go over some general guidelines about product layering and application.

  • Your bookends always remain the same: cleanse at the beginning and use moisturizer/sunscreen at the end.
  • Less is always more. The more products you use, the harder it is to tell if something is doing what it’s supposed to, and also increases the risk of irritation and product pilling. Limit your active products and introduce new products one at a time. A multi-step routine is totally fine, just build up slowly and listen to your skin if it’s telling you to pare back.
  • The closer something is to your bare, clean skin, the more potent it is. Prescriptions and acne treatments are usually applied directly after cleansing so they have the easiest time getting through. On the flip side, this is also why some people buffer their retinoid with moisturizer first to reduce potency and potential irritation.
  • Your skin is more absorbent when wet. Apply acids, retinoids and prescriptions to dry skin to lessen irritation and apply hydrating products on damp skin to increase penetration.
  • Apply products from thinnest to thickest in consistency. This makes it easier for each product to absorb and also makes for a more pleasant application experience.
  • Think about what the product is doing and how you are using it. Is it something you wash off or apply with a cotton pad? Those products will be towards the beginning of your routine before you apply anything you want to stay on your skin.
  • Finally, always listen to your skin and don’t fret if you “mess up” one of these guidelines. If you’ve been applying a thicker serum before a thinner serum and you like the results, keep at it. Your skin is a protective barrier – it’s designed to withstand a lot! It will always tell you if something is wrong. 

The basics of all routines – morning and night, dry skin or oily – are the same: cleanse, treat and protect. To understand what each entails, let’s look at the purpose for these 3 steps, the products you might use to achieve them and other things to consider during your routine:

Step 1: Cleanse

  • Purpose: To have a fresh canvas free of oil, sweat, makeup, dirt and debris
  • Types of products used: Oil/balm cleansers, water-based cleansers, toners and essences
  • Considerations: Not all skin needs to be cleansed in the morning, but it is a good idea to at least do a quick rinse. Oil and balm cleansers are mostly used at night as the first step of a double cleanse, but can be used at other times if that works for your skin. Toners and essences come in many forms. They help to remove additional product residue, re-balance pH and prep your skin to better absorb what comes next. They can also provide benefits that veer more towards the “treatment” step, so it’s okay if you use a toner or essence for that purpose. Just remember: thinnest to thickest.

Step 2: Treat

  • Purpose: Use targeted solutions to address concerns like acne, hydration, wrinkles and redness
  • Types of products used: exfoliants, masks, serums, retinoids
  • Considerations: This is the most customizable step and it can look very different from person to person. The product(s) used during this step are going to have ingredients like acids, soothers, peptides, pigment inhibitors – generally the things that are going to make visible differences in your skin. These treatments might have immediate benefits, such as plumping and reducing redness, in addition to long-term benefits such as a reduction in acne or the appearance of wrinkles. Some products can be used both morning and night, whereas others are best used at certain times. Some examples are antioxidant serums, like vitamin C, which are used in the morning to neutralize free radicals from the sun and retinoids, which are used at night. 

Step 3: Protect

  • Purpose: Defend, strengthen and repair your skin
  • Types of products used: sunscreen, moisturizer, oil, overnight masks
  • Considerations: During the day, you must use sunscreen to protect your skin against UV rays (yes, even during the winter). Some sunscreen products have additional skin-benefitting ingredients and may provide enough hydration that you don’t need to use a separate moisturizer underneath. At night, moisturizers, oils and overnight masks are used to seal in what’s underneath, smoothing the surface and providing an occlusive layer to prevent water loss. You can use the same moisturizer morning and night, though many people prefer to use something heavier at night. 

For acne prone skin, all of the principles above remain the same, but it’s especially important to remember that less is more. Using too many products can overwhelm your skin, increase the risk of clogged pores and exacerbate irritation. This is particularly important when it comes to active treatment products that exfoliate or increase cell turnover, as they make your skin barrier more susceptible and can keep you in that viscous acne cycle. It can be helpful to use a single product that has multiple benefits rather than individual products.

Example Simple Morning Routine for Acne Prone Skin:

  1. Cleanse with something gentle and non-stripping, like our Soothe Operator cleanser.
  2. Treat with an all-in-one serum with hydrators, antioxidants and acne-fighting ingredients, like our Balancing Act serum.
  3. Protect with sunscreen and moisturizer, if needed (look for light lotions and gel-cream textures).

Example Simple Evening Routine for Acne-Prone Skin:

  1. Double Cleanse with an oil/balm cleanser, followed by a water-based cleanser for the most thorough cleanse.
  2. Treat using the same product from the morning or a retinoid, exfoliant, hydrator, barrier strengthening step optimized for your concerns. 
  3. Protect and repair damage from the day using a nourishing moisturizer.

If you’re ready to take it up a notch, here are some ideas. Don’t incorporate them all at once!

  • Add a hydrating essence or mist after cleansing for additional lightweight layers of hydration.
  • Use an additional serum to tackle concerns like hydration, inflammation or hyperpigmentation (thinnest to thickest!).
  • Add in a weekly mask during your treatment step.
  • Start using an eye cream! Apply this after cleansing, before your treatment steps.