Thursday, 9 May 2013

Ask the Experts: Product Order

You've probably heard the old adage, "Beer before liquor, never been sicker. Liquor before beer, you're in the clear." Pretty obvious, right? So why isn't there a similar catchy saying for the order in which you use beauty products? And why do I ALWAYS forget that saying and wind up with a massive hangover? It is these existential questions that are occupying my waking thoughts lately....(kidding...mostly).

It all started when I was drooling over reading the lovely beauty regimen of Megan, author one of my favorite natural beauty blogs, Seed to Serum. Her routine prompted me to ask--what is the best order in which to layer your products? Water-based before oil? Vice versa? Creams then oils? Where do serums fit in? 

Megan helpfully posed this question to the founder of La Bella Figura and wrote a blog post responding to my question, which can be seen here

In short, LBF says that your most active product should go first--makes sense to me, sort of. But I was still a little puzzled--what about water/oil interactions? What about molecular size of the products? How do we really know that our products are working if we layer them incorrectly??

Ask the Experts:

Soooooo I asked several companies that I appreciate for their scientific approach to skincare. I sent the same email to Sibu Beauty, Osmia Organics, Yuli Skincare, and Mad Hippie, as well as Spirit Beauty Lounge . Each expert had interesting feedback and, to my frustration, not all were in agreement.

Sibu Beauty (shout-out to my local company!) took a scientific approach to the issue, which I appreciate. They say, "Skin care products range from water-based to an emulsion to an oil base.  Did you ever do the chemistry experiment to determine the density of fluids?  Pour some water into a glass and then pour some oil in to see which one stays at the bottom and which one floats on top.  You'll find that water is the heavier fluid and the oil will float.  For this reason, you always want to apply your skin care products starting with the water-based to the oil based.  Moisturizers are an emulsion of water and oil so they fit into the middle of the spectrum... If you apply a water-based product or serum after an oil or emulsion, it will not penetrate the oil barrier to absorb into skin.  The actives from the serum or water-based product would be lost. If you apply the water-based product first you will seal those nutrients in when you follow with the oil-based product....[The] order of product application is as follows:  Cleanser, Toner, Serum, Moisturizer, Oil."

Sarah Villafranco, MD from Osmia Organics, agrees: "I would almost always want to apply a water soluble layer before an oil soluble layer or an emulsion...[We] are all trying to get more water into our skin, period.  Water goes first, oil &/or cream provides a protective layer to slow the evaporation of the water based product, and the water in our skin in general....I would put the product with an oil phase on last."

Mad Hippie ended up with a similar conclusion but came at it from a different angle. "We recommend applying the products thinnest to thickest (serums first, then creams)," they replied, then went on to say, "[We] feel that putting on an oil under other products prevents the other products from absorbing properly.  By applying the oil last, you are locking everything in."

To confuse things a little, Yuli Skincare confirmed what I suspected: There are a variety of factors that play into creating an ideal product order so as to fully utilize each product to its fullest potential. "Moisturizers like your typical lotions are mainly there to perform a singular function: keep skin hydrated," Yuli said. "Our skin cells have a semi-permeable membrane meaning that molecular size can dictate what is absorbed and what 'sits on top'. Moisturizers usually sit on top because they are designed to form a barrier to seal in hydration. Their molecules tend to be larger....[A]nything layered on top of an 'effective' moisturizer is not going to get absorbed well."

Yuli further offered a counter argument to what the previous three companies advised by stating, "[Oil] molecules in general tend to be smaller to penetrate the semi-permeable membrane rather than just sit on top of skin.... There should be minimal obstacles between serums and your skin so that they are unhindered in penetrating the dermal layers. The toner should go on first to condition skin so it is optimal for accepting the treatments. Then the serum should go on, then the oil. Allow to absorb. Then add the moisturizer which will seal off the barrier so skin can absorb the remaining nutrients."

Interestingly, Spirit Beauty Lounge agrees with Yuli: "All emulsified products, moisturizers and creams regardless of their potency or intended efficacy should be layered over deeper penetrating oils and serums. Lotions and creams will always work on the superficial layers of the skin and also act as a protectant and barrier over the products applied before helping to prevent them from evaporating or being leached out of the skin by the environmental climate."


Thus, it would appear that there is contradictory opinion even amongst experts that I trust. Therefore, as with many product-related decisions, it's ultimately up to the consumer to educate oneself to decide what works best for him or her. 

For me, I weighed the experts' opinions against my own knowledge and product list, and this is what I decided: currently I'm only using my DeVita sunscreen as a moisturizer, and as a physical block I want that on top of everything (which brings up another question--I didn't ask about where sunblock plays in!). So, I'm following this regimen: Andalou toner (soon to be replaced by Yuli!!!), Mad Hippie serum, Sibu sea buckthorn oil. WAIT for oil to absorb. THEN apply Devita sunblock/moisturizer.

What's your take on this topic?

Many thanks to the experts for taking the time to respond to my emails!


  1. It's a good questions! I always did oil/serum, followed by moisturizer, but I recently heard that Acure recommends moisturizer than oil, so I tried that. I do find my skin improved when I switched to that order, but it leaves more of an oil coating. So, what I do is moisturizer, then oil at night, but oil, then moisturizer in the morning. That way my makeup sits better for day, but I still get the benefits of the reverse order at night!

  2. I agree with Yuli & Spirit Beauty Lounge. Moisturizers aren't just 'water' based so all those experiments with water/oil and weights between the two are pointless. Moisturizers contain heavy ingredients and 'sealing' ingredients like shea butter, beeswax, etc which will absolutely not let oil penetrate through. Even Sarah from Osmia says the barrier created by moisturizers prevent water from evaporating so how do she think an oil is just magically going to sink to the bottom? She is an MD but not in terms of skincare knowledge, she's relatively new.

    If we used the logic the first 3 companies applied, the oil should still be absorbed. Have you ever pat on some facial oil after you put on your makeup to add some dewy glow? You'll notice immediate glow because that is the oil sitting on your skin since it cannot penetrate down.

    I appreciate the different opinions but Sibu's 'scientific approach' isn't really applicable since we're not dealing with water vs oil here. Sure your skin will soak up the water, but the other ingredients in the moisturizer that prevent the water loss will prevent the oil from sinking into skin. Mad Hippie is right that your last layer should lock everything in, but that's what a moisturizer does not a facial oil!

    Comparatively, an oil barrier is much thinner than the barrier provided by moisturizers. Our skin has its own natural oils which form a protective barrier. Many good facial oils are biologically similar to this. So if your moisturizer/serum cannot be effective when applied over this then you need to rethink how effective your moisturizer is. This is basic knowledge and it really shows which companies truly understand skin such as Spirit Beauty which really knows the products they're selling and Yuli which has a very science based background.

  3. Caitie--sounds like you've found a system that works for you!
    Cocobeaute--thanks for your feedback. It's always fun to get lots of minds working on the same question!