Confused about how to layer actives in your routine? Don’t be. Read on to learn about the order I follow to layer actives.
First, consider actives to be an extension of your cleansing step and layer actives before all other products. Yes, this even applies to actives suspended in oil – they go on first, but you just need to let them absorb a little longer.
Second, actives do not follow the “thinnest to thickest” order of operations. Instead, they should be layered from lowest to highest pH because they are pH-dependent (i.e. they work best at certain pH levels).
Third, wait times are a matter of personal preference. Some advocate for waiting 20-30 minutes between actives steps, others say wait time aren’t necessary. I usually only wait long enough to feel the products have absorbed, which takes a few minutes. If your skin is sensitive, you may wish to wait longer.
Finally, if you’re new to actives, start slow! Use only one active at a time, and only use it twice a week until you build up a tolerance to it.
So, how to layer actives? After cleansing, follow these steps:
Step 1: Acid Toner
An acid toner adjusts the skin’s pH down after cleansing, gently exfoliates the skin, and prepares it for the rest of your actives. It is safe for daily use, often even twice-daily. I currently use Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 1970 lactic acid (primarily) toner (pH 3.5) am and pm, twice daily. Since P50 doesn’t contain glycolic acid, I replace it with every three nights in my pm routine with Krave Kale-lalu-yAHA glycolic acid toner (pH 3.5-4). As the weather cools, I may reduce the frequency of use of P50 to pm only, but this rotation has been serving me well, so far.
Step 2: L-Ascorbic Acid Vitamin C (pH 3-3.5)
If you’re using an LAA Vitamin C, use it before the rest of your treatments. I use vit c every morning, but you can also use at night if you prefer.
Step 3: BHA Treatment (pH 3-4)
Beta hydroxy acid (BHA), e.g. salicylic acid, is applied before alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) for two reasons:
- It is oil-soluble and must be allowed to penetrate the pores to break down sebum
- It has a lower pH than AHA
BHA can dehydrate skin, which can manifest itself in the form of redness and sensitivity. For that reason, I only use it a few times a week, as needed, and only on my t-zone. I currently use Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid.
Step 4: AHA treatment (pH 4-4.5)
AHAs not only exfoliate the skin, but also aide in moisture retention. They can be used both am and pm, but probably not in the same day as that would be too much exfoliation. I currently use Sunday Riley Good Genes every 3 days in the am because I like the instant plumping effects of lactic acid and don’t want to waste them on bedtime. I also use Farmacy Beauty Honeymoon Glow every 3 nights in the pm, but I don’t use both within the same 36 hours.
Step 5: Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate Vitamin C (pH 6-7)
If you’re using SAP Vitamin C, it would go after the BHA and/or AHA steps. There is no need to use two vit cs in the same routine, so pick your poison. SAP is gentler than LAA and isn’t susceptible to the same oxidation that LAA is.
Step 6: Retinoids (pH 5-6)
Retinoids should be applied at the end of your actives steps. While some people can handle both a hydroxy acid treatment and a retinol in the same routine, I would not recommend it to beginners or those with sensitive skin. If your skin can handle it, an acid toner is great before retinol because it preps the skin for retinol. I have loved using PCA Skin Intensive Clarity Treatment 0.5% pure retinol night every three nights, but have recently switched it out for Instytutum Powerful RetinOil, which I can use more frequently because it is suspended in oil and therefore doesn’t have the same drying effects as traditional retinol.
Now that you’re done with your actives, you can proceed with the rest of your routine.
Final Thoughts on How to Layer Actives
Whether or not to layer actives is a matter of personal preference. Some people only use one active per routine, while others layer them on. I often use multiple actives in one routine, but listen to your skin and don’t overdo it, especially if you’re new to actives.
I like to layer actives all over my entire face, including my mouth and around my eyes. Obviously, be careful not to get the actives IN your actual eyes, or to ingest them. I’ve found that using actives on my lips has drastically improved their dryness.
Important note: While you should always use sunscreen, it is of extra importance to use it when using AHAs and retinoids because they increase photosensitivity. I also refrain from using photosensitizing actives when I’m out in direct sunlight for extended periods of time, like on a beach.
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