Reader Questions: Order of Application and Wait Times Between Products

I had a great time pondering a common reader question in my last post about deciding whether to introduce actives into your regimen! So while I finish up a big old double review post for you guys, I thought I’d take a swing at a couple more reader questions that come up pretty regularly in the comments here (and in the AB community). Today’s questions often arise when people begin expanding their skincare routines beyond the basics.

Skincare Routine Product Order

Grace recently asked:

Heya! I’m a newbie and bought some products few weeks ago and I don’t know the order of application. I’m so confused help me please lol. Currently I’m doing
BIORE Cleansing Water
COSRX Gel Cleanser
OST Vitamin C20 Serum
COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid
COSRX Galactomytes 95 Essence
MISSHA Time Revolution Ampoule
Sheet mask or Moisturizer
Am I doing this right? Thank you so much!

Hi, Grace!

Product order can be very tricky, especially at first!

Quick disclaimer before I talk about how I would do it:

There isn’t actually a credible body of research out there to say, definitively, that X goes before Y and Y goes before Z. I started by following best practices that evolved within the community based on some common sense hypotheses and refined my method and way of thinking about it over time, based on what I observed worked best for me.

After cleansing, I start with actives when I’m using them and generally go from lowest pH to highest. While a ton of reading and conversations with cosmetic chemist types like Stephen from Kind of Stephen have me questioning whether ordering products according to pH even makes a difference to the effectiveness of the pH-dependent products, I still find this basic order the best for me because it places my highest-priority actives closest to my bare skin with the fewest layers of product to work through. So I’d put any vitamin C, BHA, AHA, and serum-format retinoids (as opposed to creams) at the beginning of my routine.

After actives come the rest of the routine: toners, essences, serums, ampoules, sheet masks, and creams.

Here, the commonly accepted best practice is just to go from thinnest to thickest, which generally works out to most watery/least fatty (a toner or FTE, for example) all the way up to least watery/most fatty (generally, creams or sleeping packs). While this is actually not absolute–I like putting sheet masks on as my last step before cream, and an oil before a sheet mask can be a beautiful thing!–it works out nicely as a rule of thumb. Watery products tend to absorb the fastest…as long as there isn’t a fatty or siliconey occlusive layer slowing that process down. So if you want to do your routine as efficiently as possible, thin to thick is the way to go. This also allows your skin to suck up as much hydration as possible before you seal everything in with a cream. If you were to put a watery product on top of a fatty one, some of it would still get through eventually, but you’d end up losing more to evaporation than you would without that barrier in between.

(For sheet masks, I make an exception because I find that the penetration enhancers in the sheet mask essences, combined with the physical occlusion provided by the mask sheets, actually helps to “push” previous layers into my skin nicely. I find that they do more for me immediately before a cream rather than as a first step in my routine, so that’s how I do it.)

Thinking in terms of consistency can also help to prevent some of the confusion that comes from K-beauty and Asian skincare product names. There are essences and first essences and serums and first serums and it’s all so convoluted. Remember, names are mostly marketing! No matter what a product is called, if it’s thin and watery, throw it on early in your routine, and if it’s thicker and more occlusive, put it on later.

So Grace, to answer your question, the order you’re proposing for your routine looks perfect to me! Just remember to go slow when introducing your products. Wait a week or more in between each new product so that if any of them don’t agree with your skin, you’ll be able to figure out which one it is easily and remove it immediately. And thanks for commenting!

Skincare routine product ordr

Personally, I almost never have to stare blankly at my products and do minutes of mental product math to figure out which ones come first!

Wait Times in Between Products

Talking about product order leads us into today’s second frequently asked question. e recently asked:

Hi Fiddy, I’m new to K-beauty and honestly am feeling overwhelmed! I bought a bunch of stuff that you have mentioned in your blogs.
I had a question, how long do you wait between the applications of the various steps? Do you wait until they are completely dry? (which I have not been doing.)

Whee! This one’s easy to answer.

I wait for my actives (vitamin C, AHA, and BHA) to dry completely because they’re so high-priority that I don’t want to dislodge them even a little bit from where I’ve applied them on my skin. Generally I give them about 5-10 minutes. I wait 20 minutes after my tretinoin because that’s what my Curology provider recommends, and with prescriptions you do what the doctor tells you to. But with every other step? Nah. I just pat or let it dry until it’s tacky rather than wet, then move on to the next layer. Things work fine for me, and I get to cut lots and lots of time out of my routine!

Product order in skincare routine

Plus, in the evening, the sheet mask takes care of the final push into my face. Those are tiny cat-shaped sticky notes in fold-up boxes, by the way. Thanks for those, Chel!

The one exception I make to this particular rule is with moisturizer before sunscreen. I always let moisturizer dry down completely before applying sunscreen, because if I don’t, the sunscreen tends to pill up instead of forming an even, non-pilly layer on my skin. Then I wait at least 10-15 minutes after applying the sunscreen before going on to makeup.

Thanks for your question, e!

Please keep the questions coming, and let me know if you’d like to see reader question posts become a regular thing on this blog in the future!

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23 responses to “Reader Questions: Order of Application and Wait Times Between Products

  1. So you put sunscreen on as the last layer before makeup? Or does it depend on how thick the consistency of the sunscreen is? I have been using the Biore Aqua Rich Watery Essence you recommended.

    Thank you all the information you share…it is incredibly helpful!

    Like

  2. Hello, great post!

    I heard that using ph-balance toner before using actives is better than using it right after cleansing. Do you use any?

    Thanks 😊

    Like

    • Hi! It really depends on your preference. I personally don’t really care for pH prep toners as I don’t see any substantial difference in the effects of actives when I use them, and I find my actives effective enough without an extra boost. Others do swear by them though. If you’re curious, I think the Mizon and Cosrx AHA/BHA toners or the Pixi Glow Tonic would be worth a try!

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  3. Thanks for clarifying that! Been following you for sometime now. Question though. I do my morning skincare up to sunscreen before leaving the house, proceed to do yoga for an hour, then wash my face with only water after, then do my make up, then off to the office (which is in the same bldg as the yoga studio). Have i just wasted all that routine or has it already absorbed? I can’t bring them with me to the ofc to donit again 😦 help pls..

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What about Vitamin C and Niacinamide potentially cancelling each other out? I’ve been waiting 30 mins in between applying my 20% vitamin C serum and applying the rest of my routine because I read that it decreases the likelihood of niacinamide breaking down into niacin. I saw you posted a link about it being okay to use both on r/AB, but the link you referenced is no longer an active site so I’m a little confused. Is the wait time necessary?

    Thanks as always for your awesome posts!

    Like

  5. This was incredibly helpful! Although I’m still a bit confused lol because I’m also new to Korean Skincare, and I recently purchased (sooo many) products, that I stare at my counter and wonder what exactly am I suppose to do with them all??!! I am using the consistency rule as my guide.
    I love the idea of seeing reader questions, it’s very educational!
    Thank you!

    Like

  6. Dear Fiddy, could you please write a post about skincare for pregnant women? I’m kinda of planning to have another child and would like to plan my stash according to that. I’d highly appreciate it.

    Like

    • I’d love to see this, or links to someone who knows this. Both times I’ve been pregnant my Drs (different practices) get to what to avoid in skincare, and when they ask about my routine and I start explaining they shutdown and say “stop using all of that and just use a cleanser.” Needless to say I don’t exactly ‘glow’ during my pregnancies after abandoning my routine. This time I’ve started adding stuff back in after the first trimester, avoiding aha/bha, but I’m still hesitant. Is there any info out there in English on what Korean OBs recommend for Korean pregnant women?

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  7. Thank you so much for clarifying my question, Fiddy! It’s been few days-almost a week since I’ve started that routine and I think it’s going nicely, no visible results yet but no breakouts or negative effects either.
    As always, your posts are really helpful. I’ve already listed more products I want to try based on your recommendations. Thanks again!

    Like

  8. Hi Fiddy! I’ve heard rumours that LAA + Niacinamide and niacinamide + BHA/AHA doesn’t work too well together. Since I’m quite new to all this skincare stuff and there’s lots of thing I’m unsure of, I would really like to hear your take on this! 🙂

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    • My Curology is a serum format retinoid, yup! So the way I do my actives is that I alternate my vitamin C (currently C20 vitamin C serum) and my AHA (Naruko’s 20% mandelic)–one night I’ll do C20, the next night AHA, then C20, etc. And I put my Curology on after I let the C or AHA dry.

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  9. Hey fiddy ! I meant to buy the moisturizing booskin that you recommended but I bought the Tone Up by booskins by mistake. Could this still be used as a hydrating toner? Unlike western toners are Asian toners almost always used as a hydrating step before the rest of the routine ? I also bought the natural BHA returning a sol you posted about and I’m so excited to see how it works the next few weeks. Thank you for any information you can provide ! 🙂

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  10. Dear Fiddy, I am relatively new to Korean skincare and I love your blog. So helpful. I promise you I have been binge-reading most of your posts studiously, but still feel a little overwhelmed. My biggest skincare concern is hyperpigmentation (NOT caused by acne)…. it’s more related to freckles, sunspots, pregnancy (had a baby 6 months ago) and such. It’s become so bad that my skin looks dirty. I don’t find a lot of people talking about this, so could you please recommend some products specifically for those issues? Sorry for being so long-winded. I have dry-combination skin, btw, and have just been going crazy over whitening products because that seems to be the only recommendation I can find. Not seeing too many results though 😦

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  11. Pingback: Exfoliation Part II: Chemical Exfoliants – I buy crap so you don't have to.·

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