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Skin Care Creams and Serums: How Do You Layer?

skin care creams and serums how do you layer

Skin care creams and serums - do you know how to layer them? They are important products in your skin care routine. How you apply them determines how well the active ingredients will penetrate and do their job. I received this question from a reader and I want to share my answer.

How Do You Layer Skin Care Creams and Serums?

Dear Dr. Bailey,

I love to read your blogs! Thank you for all the information you provide for us! I have an issue with how to apply moisturizer too…now my question is, how can you do this when you also have to apply serums like Hyaluronic Acid and Vitamin C?? By the time you put the moisturizer on, your skin will already be dry. I like to do this tip mostly with oils, I mix my own like Extra virgin, coconut, argan, jojoba and grape seed, put them in a spritz bottle and after I wash my face, I leave it damp and put some oil from this combination…however that would mean not applying the serums for that day….

Also, in regards with oils and moisturizers, do we put oils first, and if we do…does the moisturizer penetrate into the skin due to the oil I have applied before? I really hope I can get these questions answered….I have been wanting to know this for a long time! Best, Stella

Dear Stella,

These are great questions and exactly the ones I like to see people thinking about when it comes to their skin care. There are no exact right or wrong answers, which leaves us to figure this out on a case-by-case basis that depends on the specific products were want to use together. I approach the question with the overriding concept that works best depends on what is layered.

skin care creams and serums how do you layer

I recommend that we layer water-based products under more occlusive products such as oils or dimethicone. During the day, we finish layering with mineral sunscreen. Makeup, if worn, is applied on top of sunscreen. - Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey

I use this principle to figure out how to layer products for my patients. I also tell my patients to focus on the end result and experiment. The good news is that we are able to see results on our skin. If a routine is working then the layering order is fine.

It is important to know that it's impossible to study layering the millions of individual products available to you. This means that your at-home experimentation and observation is how you determine if your layering routine is working.

What are the most important skin care products to layer correctly in your skin care routine?

The layering of products is most relevant to those products you use to correct skin problems, moisturize your skin, and sun protect it. The most effective skin care routine involves providing your skin with the 4 essential skin care steps and I call this Complete Skin Care™ because it is so fundamental. The steps are:

  1. Cleanse
  2. Correct
  3. Hydrate
  4. Protect

Steps 2 through 4 are where the details of layering come into play and these are the steps you are asking about. 

skin care creams and serums how to layer best hyaluronic acid serum

With your example, there are some interesting caveats based on the specifics of the products that I use. I typically apply hyaluronic acid rich products such as my Instantly Luminous Multi-Action Serum, right after washing. Hyaluronic acid loves water and my Instantly Luminous Serum is rich in fractionated hyaluronic acid combined with sodium PCA. These ingredients hold water in the skin. You soak up that water when you cleanse your skin. This water-holding superpower helps fight dehydrated, limp and crepey skin. I want the hyaluronic acid to go right in and stratify in the layers of the skin to hold maximum water. 

skin care creams and serums best layered with hyaluronic acid

I prefer to layer my Green Tea Antioxidant Therapy over the Instantly Luminous Serum. This combo provides the best antioxidants to reload the skin's antioxidant reserve on a daily basis. Green tea polyphenols have excellent scientific proof for many benefits to skin including helping to reduce skin cancer risk. These two products feel great on the skin, are light textured and layer well under moisturizer. They come together in my Layered-Up Besties bundle.

I tried many products before I found this wonderful combination. I use it twice daily along with the daily moisturizer. My complexion looks better now than it ever has. It’s smooth and my skin tone is even. Thank you Dr. Bailey! - Holly

Can you layer hyaluronic acid with vitamin C?

Yes, you can. In fact, hyaluronic acid helps the vitamin C penetrate into skin. That said, some vitamin C serums will 'pill' on the skin when layered with other products. 

I actually recommend that people apply vitamin C serums alone because it is a very fragile and often does not 'play well' with a lot of other products and ingredients. I also like to let a vitamin C Serum dry to the touch before even applying moisturizer. 

Pro Tip for Vitamin C Serum: The half-life of vitamin C in skin is 4 days and I like it applied every third or fourth day and my Layered-Up Besties applied on the other days. 

How hard should you rub when applying your skin care products?

Use a light touch when applying your skin care products. Each product, when subsequently layered, should be applied lightly so as not to "lift off" the preceding layer. Products slowly absorb into the skin over time and do not need to be rubbed vigorously to do that. 

do you need to let a skin care product dry before applying another

Do you need to let a skin care product dry on your skin before applying another?

Ideally you want to let each layer sit for a few seconds or so before applying the next product. That said, your routine has to be practical! With any good skin care regimen, it's the regular everyday use that brings results. Many people don't have time to let every product dry and that's OK. Most of my products are designed to be entirely compatible when layered and sitting on your skin for 8 to 10 hours. Even ingredients that are not compatible mixed in a container work well together on your skin. Vitamin C is the one ingredient that is an exception. I call her "a princess" and she really should dry and be applied pretty much on her own under a moisturizer and sunscreen.  

How do you layer facial oils with your moisturizer?

This is a great question. Oils are actually the "active" ingredients in many moisturizers. Classically, mineral oil was the most common ingredient in dermatologic moisturizers. The other was petrolatum, which is technically not an oil but is occlusive like one. 

Botanical oils, mineral oil and petrolatum work as moisturizers by preventing the evaporation of water from the skin. - Dr. Bailey

I like your spritz with oil, that's a nice way to disperse a thin layer of potentially more occlusive ingredients. 

best face oil to layer with skin care creams and serums

My favorite way to use a face oil is to add some drops of a beautiful botanical oil formula to a facial moisturizer to "boost" the lipid content. I do this with my Omega Enriched Face Oil. I add a few drops to my Daily Moisturizing Face Cream

Some people like the oil applied directly without the moisturizer and that's ok too. Realize that the ingredients in many moisturizers have other goals, which is why I like the oil applied with the moisturizer. These ingredients include ceramides, squalane, glycerin and others.

Sunscreen is layered on top of your skin care creams and serums

how do you layer sunscreen with skin care creams and serums

After you 'hydrate' skin with your moisturizer, I recommend letting your products dry to the touch by doing something for a few minutes. Then apply your sunscreen. 

Click her for the sunscreens I recommend that can be layered over skin creams and serums.


Another important vagary to this whole skin care routine process is that there is no hard and fast definition of a 'serum'.

You will find products of varying consistency labeled as serums. People expect a 'serum' to contain high concentrations of powerful ingredients, but even this is not regulated or always true. What usually is true about serums is that they are expensive!

In my routine, the Instantly Luminous Serum and the Vitamin C Serum are powerful. They also have a light consistency. One is clear and the other is white. They are designed to be applied under a moisturizer that serves as the 'hydrate' step in your skin care routine. I think this is how serums should be defined - powerful, light textured and appropriately applied under moisturizer. 

I hope my answers help. We don't have specific answers guided by science for every product combo. My answers are based on my clinical knowledge and 35 years of being privileged to observe my patients skin as we've tried different layering combinations. 

Warm Regards,

Cynthia Bailey MD, Dermatologist

Disclaimer: Please realize that availing yourself of the opportunity to submit and receive answers to your questions from Dr. Bailey does not confer a doctor/patient relationship with Dr. Bailey. The information provided by Dr. Bailey is general health information inspired by your question. It should not be a substitute for obtaining medical advice from your physician and is not intended to diagnose or treat any specific medical problem (and is not an extension of the care Dr. Bailey has provided in her office for existing patients of her practice). Never ignore your own doctor’s advice because of something you read here; this information is for general informational purpose only. This post is adapted from an excellent comment that Stella sent to me in a blog post.  I wanted to be certain everyone had a chance to see it because I know that many people share this question.