A Beginner's Guide To Layering Skincare (And The Products You Actually Need)

Spoiler: a 12-step skincare routine really isn’t necessary. Here are some best buys that will work harder.
When it comes to skincare layering, “less is definitely more”, say the experts.
When it comes to skincare layering, “less is definitely more”, say the experts.

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Heard of the term ‘skincare layering’ but not quite sure what it’s all about? We’re here to walk you through it.

Perhaps your grandma or mum told you to “cleanse, tone and moisturise’. Well, layering is just a step (or two)) up from the same principle: applying multiple skincare products in a specific order to get the very best results for your skin.

But which products and how many layers are too little or too many? To clear up any confusion, we’ve spoken to some skincare experts to get your questions about product layering answered. (Spoiler alert: you really don’t need a mega 12-step layering routine that takes hours to complete.)

What does layering your skincare really mean?

If you take your skincare seriously, chances are you already have a beauty bag – or cabinet – full of lotions, serums, and creams. But is there a process that allows you to maximise their effectiveness? Yes, and it’s called layering.

“Skincare layering is basically an application of skincare products in a certain order,” explains Irina Evans, an aesthetic nurse prescriber who works with skin and medical grade skincare. The main aim of layering is giving the active ingredients in products the chance to work on your skin cells, she says.

Dr Sidra Shakir, a cosmetic specialist at the UK skincare clinic, Sk:n, agrees. Layering enhances the absorption of skincare products so that you can target skin concerns in a more effective way,” she tells HuffPost UK.

How should you layer your skincare?

So, sounds like the extra time it takes to layer skincare *actually* makes a difference. But how should you approach layering your go-to products?

Most dermatologists recommend following a process of: cleanser (some suggest double cleansing), toner, serum, eye cream, moisturiser, facial oil, then SPF for mornings, and retinol for evenings. As Bruce Green, founder of SOS Serum Skincare, says: “The key to layering is first to cleanse, then tone, and then nourish the skin. Start off with a good cleanser (this is the most important step of any skincare routine!), then apply your serum, moisturiser and SPF.”

There are different approaches to the exact order of the layers, but as a general rule of thumb, experts advise the best approach is to layer products from lightest to heaviest formula. “Lighter-weight formulas should be applied to the skin first, followed by the heavier formula,” says Dr Sidra. “This will ensure they are more easily absorbed by the skin to achieve maximum benefits.”

Galina Zhigalova / EyeEm via Getty Images

“It is always important to layer from the thinnest product to the thickest,” agrees Evans. “The purpose of this is to allow products, such as serums, to be absorbed first before the thicker consistency products, as if applied the other way thinner consistency products will not be able to penetrate into the skin cell and will just remain on the top layer.”

Your morning and evening routine should look a little different. Evans recommends that while morning skincare should end with SPF, your evening skincare should be finished off with an application of your retinol of choice.

Retinoids, like retinol, reduce fine lines and wrinkles by encouraging the skin to produce higher amounts of collagen – they also help to improve skin texture and can aid the fading of darker patches.

Products containing higher doses of retinol are available on prescription only, whereas lower dose products can be bought over the counter.

How many products do you *really* need for layering?

If you spend any time on TikTok, you’ll have seen some of the 12-step skincare layering routines that are popular amongst influencers right now, and are probably wondering whether so many steps are really necessary.

The short answer is no. It’s in the beauty industry’s interest to plug as many products to us as possible. But it’s the quality – and how you apply them – that matters, say the skin experts, not the quantity.

“Every person is different,” says Dr Sidra. “However, a good skincare routine with high quality products is key. Ideally, the minimum products should include a good moisturiser which repairs the skin barrier, a vitamin c (serum) and a retinol. An SPF is also a must, even if it is cloudy or snowy outside!”

Green agrees. When it comes to skincare, “less is definitely more”.

So, while you can opt for a seven-seven (or even, gasp, 12-step) routine, you can also simplify things down to just a few key products. One of the great things about layering skincare is the chance it gives you to personalise your skincare to suit your timetable, your budget – and, yes, your skin.

Fancy updating your routine? Here, we round up some best buys for your starter layering routine.

Burt's Bees 99% Natural Sensitive Facial Cleanser with Cotton Extract
This Burt's Bees facial cleanser with cotton extract is another one for the sensitive skin types.

Get it for £9.19 (was £11.49) from Amazon
UpCircle Cleansing Face Balm with Apricot 50ml
This vegan and cruelty-free cleansing balm from UpCircle is made from 100% natural ingredients and is designed to remove makeup, dirt and grime, as well as clearing blackheads. I have this at home and can confirm it cleanses like a dream.

Get it for £15.10 (was £18.99) from Amazon
Simple Kind to Eyes Eye Make Up Remover
If you suffer from sensitive-prone skin, this Simple Kind To Eyes Eye Makeup Remover also makes a super quick and easy cleansing option and is perfect if you're in a rush.

Get it for £1.50 from Boots
Nivea MagicBar Radiance Face Cleansing Bar
If you prefer to use an in-shower cleanser, Nivea's MagicBar Radiance Face Cleansing Bar is the one for you.

Get it for £4 (was £5.99) from Amazon
Aveeno Face Calm + Restore Soothing Toner
This ultra gentle toner from Aveeno is formulated to calm and soothe skin It's just so soft and gentle, and a perfect second step for skin that tends to react easily.

Get it for £5.30 (was £7.99) from Amazon
Elemis Rehydrating Ginseng Toner
This alcohol-free toner tones skin, rebalances the pH level and preserves its natural oils. The spray feature makes it super quick and convenient to use – no spills, no mess.

Get it for £17.95 (was £24.50) from Amazon
Paula's Choice Skin Balancing Pore Reducing Toner
For oily and acne-prone skin, an ideal second step. This toner is formulated to balance skin, reduce the size of pores, and to help to fight blackheads and breakouts (thanks to the niacinamide and glycerin).

Get it for £24 from Amazon
Nip+Fab Vitamin C Fix Serum
It's serum time! This Nip+Fab one brightens skin and evens skin tone, with an antioxidant rich carrot oil and green tea extract that offers a range of anti-ageing properties. It also smells amazing!

Get it for £13.78 (was £19.95) from Amazon
Nivea Q10 Power Anti-Ageing Eye Cream with Anti-Wrinkle Firming Power
Nivea Q10 Power Anti-Ageing Eye Cream is a great low-cost option for an eye cream and a perfect fourth step in your layering routine.

Get it for £5.50 from Amazon
CeraVe Eye Repair Cream
For an eye cream that's designed with sensitive skin in mind, CeraVe Eye Repair Cream is a great option. It targets dark circles and puffiness, while helping to restore the skin's protective barrier.

Get it for £8.40 (was £12) from Amazon
Drunk Elephant C-Tango Multivitamin Eye Cream 15ml
Vegan and cruelty-free and 100% free of essential oils, silicones, and fragrances, this rich and restorative cream features eight peptides, five forms of vitamin c and cucumber extract – this powerful combination helps brighten, refresh and strengthen skin.

Get it for £54 from Boots
Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer
This face cream does double duty, offering intense hydration and nourishment, as well as SPF 15 protection. It's a great multipurpose alternative to using both moisturiser and sunscreen each day.

Get it for £19.70 from Amazon
L'Occitane Shea Light Comforting Face Cream
L'Occitane's face cream is soft and velvety and thanks to a 5% shea butter base, it packs a powerful punch of hydration without being too heavy. If you have sensitivity-prone skin like mine, this is a real winner.

Get it for £25.71 (was £26.54) from Amazon
The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 Hydration Support Formula 30ml
Designed to offer a powerful boost of hydration to skin, this oil-free formula includes a combo of hyaluronic acid and vitamin B5 to help with water retention and give a plump, fresh, dewy glow.

Get it for £5.95 from Look Fantastic
Q+A Super Food Facial Oil
This facial oil from Q+A is rich in vitamins, antioxidants and essential fatty acids, with jojoba seed oil to boost elasticity, berry oils and extracts to protect from signs of ageing, and prickly pear seed oil to soothe and moisturise. The formula is 100% natural, cruelty, alcohol and fragrance-free, and vegan. Plus, it's budget-friendly.

Get it for £8 from Amazon
Kylie Skin Clarifying Oil
This ultra-lightweight oil is designed to help balance skin and create a healthy-looking glow. Created using an expert blend of oils combined with salicylic acid, it's the perfect next step in your layering routine if you have skin that's prone to excess oil and acne.

Get it for £26 from Boots
Simple Triple Protect Moisturiser SPF 30 Protect 'N' Glow
This moisturising SPF 30 is a super lightweight cream designed to offer sun protection, while also giving skin a healthy natural glow, and all without leaving skin feeling greasy.

Get it for £3.49 (was £6.99) from Boots
Green People Scent Free Facial SPF30 Sun
If you’ve got skin prone to sensitivity, this broad-spectrum SPF 30 is ideal. It's full of antioxidant-rich ingredients and is non-comedogenic (so no blocked pores). The formula is also non-greasy and quick absorbing so can be worn and applied under makeup.

Get it for £14.80 (was £18) from Amazon
Boots Ingredients Retinol Serum
It's the retinol step! This budget-friendly retinol serum from Boots is designed to help skin feel more elastic and works to even skin tone. The formula is also cruelty-free and vegan.

Get it for £7 from Boots
The Ordinary 100% Organic Cold-Pressed Borage Seed Oil
This sustainably sourced cold-pressed facial oil (particularly well-suited to skin that’s dry or irritant-prone) is made from 100% pure borage seed oil, offering a soothing and nourishing formula that’s high in essential fatty acids and is naturally calming for skin.

Get it for £4.20 from Boots
Face Theory Regenacalm 2% Retinol and Vitamin C Serum S1
This bestselling serum has been formulated with retinol ester combined with hyaluronic acid and dill and liquorice extracts. The formula targets fine lines, wrinkles, acne scars, blemishes, rosacea and hyperpigmentation. It’s vegan, cruelty-free and paraben-free.

Get it for £18.99 from Face Theory