How Long To Wait Between Applying Skin Care Products

How Long To Wait Between Applying Skin Care Products

Written by:Bryan Barron

Medically Reviewed by:Debra Jaliman MD Board-Certified Dermatologist

We're often asked how long you should wait between applying the various products in your daily skin care routine. It’s a logical question given the wide variety of products you can use. Luckily, in most cases the answer is simple: You don't have to wait. Waiting tends to be more about personal preference than necessity. Let us explain…

How can skin handle so many products all at once?

With very few exceptions, immediately applying your skin care products one after the other won’t interfere with their ability to permeate into skin, nor will it hinder efficacy. Skin can easily handle many beneficial ingredients all at once.

Ultimately, it’s more about preference—some people just like the feel of waiting between skin care steps, while others prefer moving through their skin care routine more quickly.

How long does it take for skin care to absorb?

Short answer: Skin care ingredients penetrate on contact and go to work instantly.

Long answer: There can be nuance as the delivery system factors in. Some skin care ingredients are encapsulated to deliver control release, meaning a small amount of the ingredient is slowly introduced to skin over an extended period of time, usually no longer than 12 hours (1). Regardless, the encapsulated ingredient is still absorbing into the layers of skin where it needs to go, and you don’t need to wait before applying other products.

Generally, the optimal order of skin care application goes as follows:

  • Cleanser
  • Toner
  • Chemical exfoliant
  • Apply the rest of your skin care treatments (including concentrated boosters, serums, and moisturizers) in order of thinnest to thickest textures
  • During the day, always finish with sunscreen as your final step before makeup

How much time should be between serum and moisturizer?

There is no wait time required between applying your serum and moisturizer. You can even choose to mix them together in the palm of your hand before applying. (Exception: a daytime moisturizer with sunscreen shouldn’t be mixed into other formulas since doing so could hinder the level of protection).

How long should I wait between applying retinol and moisturizer?

No need to wait, a retinol product and moisturizer can be applied simultaneously. Doing so will not deactivate the retinol’s effectiveness. More to the point, some people find that applying a water-based, non-occlusive moisturizer before a powerful retinol product helps their skin better tolerate it.

How long should you wait between toner and serum?

You can apply your serum immediately after your toner. As with other skin care products, there is no concern about one interfering with the effectiveness of another.

What about AHA and BHA exfoliants?

A well-formulated AHA or BHA exfoliant will work effectively regardless of what you apply over it or how soon you apply it. In fact, it can pave the way for the products you apply afterwards to work more efficiently.

The concern some people have is that the other products they apply will change the AHA or BHA’s pH, thus diluting and altering its efficacy. The truth? The pH of a product doesn’t shift that fast, especially when the other skin care products you are applying also have an acidic pH (which the products you use should be, as skin’s pH is naturally acidic) or a pH of 7, which is neutral.

Exceptions to skin care wait times…

There are always exceptions to skin care guidelines, but in the case of wait times they’re pretty minor.

When you should wait:

  • If the combination of products you're using tends to roll or ball up when you apply one right after the other, then it's probably best to allow the first product to dry before applying the next product in your routine.
  • Because sunscreen always needs to be the last skin care product you apply, it's a good idea to allow a few minutes for it to set before you apply your makeup. If you’re following up with a foundation or tinted moisturizer that contains SPF 30 or greater, this is less of a concern because layering sunscreen and SPF-rated makeup products has been shown to help ensure adequate protection(2).

Note: We previously advised waiting when using a benzoyl peroxide product alongside skin care formulas rich in antioxidants. This was out of concern that the antioxidants could weaken the benzoyl peroxide, making it less effective. However, based on newer research we now know the efficacy of benzoyl peroxide remains steady regardless, not to mention replenishing skin with antioxidants pre- and post-benzoyl peroxide use has benefit (3).

To learn more about what each product in our line does and how they can be used together, check out our article How to Put Together a Skin Care Routine.

Learn more skin care tips.

Reference for this information:
1. Modern Applications of Bioequivalence & Bioavailability, September 2017, pages 1-3
2. Skincare Research & Technology, September 2021, pages 751-757
3. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, October 2016, pages 1,170–1,173