Step 2: Use a toner or essence.
Once your skin is clean, you can employ the aid of a toner or an essence (a creamier, more hydrating toner). Use the former if your skin is on the oily side, the latter if you’ve got a drier complexion.
“Toners are great for getting rid of excess dead skin cells,” Dr. Farber says. “Look for ingredients like glycolic acid to even out skin tone, but don’t use too much since they can be drying.”
Alternatively, essences—concentrated formulas that help to optimize serum and cream absorption—also target fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin texture. Unlike a toner, which you’d apply by putting a few drops on a cotton pad and swiping across the face, you can apply a few drops of essence using your fingertips, gently tapping into skin until its absorbed.
Step 3: Apply your eye cream.
Before using any other products, Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Department of Dermatology, suggests layering on your eye cream first so that the area—the most sensitive on your face—doesn’t get overrun with harsh acids or other ingredients not suited for use there. Essentially, the eye cream protects the delicate area against any harsh ingredients you apply later.
Step 4: Use any spot treatments or prescriptions.
Spot treatments and prescriptions are the most potent formulation of active ingredients, and you really want them to work. If you have an RX for acne, for example, apply it to pesky areas first. Dr. Zeichner says that this is the best time to apply OTC acne fighters as well as single-ingredient boosters to maximize their efficacy.
Step 5: Apply your antioxidant serum or retinol.
From here, you can apply a serum, though you may want to have targeted formulas for both morning and night. “Serums should go on before your moisturizer to help hydrate, brighten, and reduce fine lines—they provide targeted, specific results depending on what you’re looking to get from your products,” says Dr. Farber. “Look for ingredients like vitamin C, a brightener best used during the daytime under your moisturizer, or retinol, a wrinkle-reducer and fine-line fighter that works wonders while you sleep.