Your question, answered: Do you apply serum or moisturiser first?

Part of a successful skincare routine is knowing which order to use products.

Written by
Tori Crowther
Medically reviewed by
min read
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Believe it or not, skincare doesn’t actually have to be complicated to be effective, but it is important to master the basics in order to see results.

In fact, ask pretty much any board-certified dermatologist and they'll sing the praises of a simple but well-put-together routine for helping give you comfortable and hydrated skin. 

There are a few things you need when building a successful skincare routine: the right products, consistency, and knowledge. The good news is, you don’t need many products. You just need to know which products to use, and in which order, and be consistent with using them.

We’re going to help with a piece of the puzzle today, specifically talking about moisturiser and serum. 

Sometimes it can feel disheartening when you’ve gone to the effort of deciding which products you’re going to use but then getting confused about the order. We’re here to clear up all of that confusion, particularly when it comes to the conundrum of: do you put serum on before moisturiser?

What is a skin serum?

So, what exactly is a serum? Well, a serum is a lightweight oil or water-based product that is often highly concentrated with ingredients to target a specific concern — whether that’s hydration, breakouts, hyperpigmentation, or fine lines. 

Thanks to it being smaller molecules that are more concentrated than a lot of other products (like a moisturiser), the serum really does all the hard work when it comes to the skincare routine. Basically, think of your serum as a cocktail of active ingredients working together to tackle your skin concern effectively.

Since the serum is the powerhouse product, it’s normally the product that people spent the most money on. A bit like the filling of a sandwich, you want the inside to be the best stuff. The same with a serum, cleansing and moisturisers typically don’t need to be as expensive. 

Does the order of your skincare routine matter?

It absolutely matters what order you apply your skincare. The simple reason is that that’s how each product was designed to be used and will be most effective. The last thing you want is to spend money and time on a routine for it to not work because you’re not applying it in the right order. 

If you think about those active ingredients getting into the deeper layers of your skin to get to work, it makes sense that the ordering matters. You really want those smart ingredients to get into the skin first before locking in moisture.

So, do you put serum on before or after moisturiser?

The golden question: what goes on first, serum or moisturiser? The simple answer is serum goes on first. 

The main reason is that all of the powerful ingredients that help target blemishes, dullness, uneven skin tone, and fine lines are found in small but mighty serum formulas. Serums are an integral part of the journey to glowing skin.

As much as moisturisers serve a very necessary purpose in your skincare routine, they’re not going to treat skin concerns in the same way, which is why serums are always applied first.

How long should you wait to apply moisturiser after serum?

There’s no one big rule about this because it really depends on what you’re applying and what your preferences are. Generally speaking, most experts say 1 minute is enough for the previous product to soak in well enough before applying your moisturiser over the top.

If you’re using prescription creams, always follow the advice of your healthcare provider when it comes to specific instructions, though.  

How to layer your skincare products

Mastering how to layer your skincare products can take your skincare routine up a notch. The general rule a lot of people go by is ordering it by the product’s consistency, starting from thinnest to thickest. Though this isn’t an exact science, it can help clear up some of the confusion. 

Cleansing is always first to make sure your skin canvas is clean. After that it’s time for the watery products, starting with toner, which isn’t a skin essential by any means but some people like to use one for exfoliating. These come in many forms from hydrating toners to exfoliating toners (often referred to as chemical exfoliants).

Then you can move on to your serum, which is pressed into the skin; you don’t need to do any harsh rubbing.

Now, most people just stick to one serum (otherwise mixing active ingredients can get a little confusing), but if you fancy yourself as a bit of a skincare aficionado, you might be cocktailing your serums. It's important to ensure that you're not mixing ingredients that don't interact well together.

This stage is also where you would apply your eye cream if you choose to incorporate one into your skincare routine. You want these active ingredients to get to work on that delicate area before you restore moisture with a cream.

Next up is spot treatment. If you have acne-prone skin and want to target specific breakouts then now is the time to do it. This makes sure that the treatment gets right into those pimples to get to work bringing down inflammation and reducing any redness and acne scars over time.

If pimple patches are the way you like to target your breakouts, Software's AHA/BHA Pimple Patches could be just the thing to add to your skincare arsenal. With microdarts embedded in every patch, our acne stickers penetrate pimples and kill off bacteria deep within the follicle, which helps contain the spread of bacteria and limit new spots from popping up.

Moisturiser follows, which is thicker than your serum. This step is key in making sure all of those products will be locked in for the day or night. The moisturiser you choose might also vary for the daytime versus nighttime with the former a slightly lighter consistency and the latter richer to soak in whilst you sleep. 

The only caveat to this rule is oils. A lot of people with dry skin like to apply an oil over the top of their moisturiser. Doing this can actually help lock in moisture and provide an extra layer of hydration, which when you have dry skin, can make a world of difference. 

Morning vs night skincare routine

Morning skincare routine

Your AM routine doesn’t have to be complex and it can be done in minutes — if that. With just 3-4 steps performed consistently, you will start to see impressive results.  

This is particularly true for those with sensitive skin types, you'll often find your best skin health is through a basic routine.

Step 1

In the morning, your first step is to gently wash off any sweat from the night and leftover skincare. Some people like to use a cream cleanser, while others prefer to simply wash their face with a bit of water — it’s mostly down to your preference and what you feel your skin likes. 

Our Essential Skincare Routine contains a gentle cleanser, moisturiser and Daily Sun Defence SPF50+, which protects your skin with UVA and UVB filters. If you're on the hunt for a simple but effective skincare routine, these are the 3 most important products.

It's important to note that cleansing in the morning is an optional step — those with dry skin often choose to skip a morning cleanse as it can be too drying to cleanse twice a day and washing your face in the evening is far more important.

Step 2

Follow-up cleansing with a hardworking serum. In the morning, many experts advise applying a vitamin C serum like Software’s Vitamin C + Ferulic Serum, which acts as a protection against free radicals in the daytime.

Vitamin C is a potent ingredient, especially when combined with ferulic acid, which helps to combat dullness, dark spots, and discolouration. It’s a simple addition to your routine that can transform your skin to appear much brighter. 

Another popular daytime serum is hyaluronic acid, for those who have dry skin and want to support the skin barrier. Software's Hyaluronic Complex Serum is designed to instantly hydrate, thanks to the addition of 4 types of hyaluronic acid which help combat dryness and dehydration.

Natural Moisturising Factors (NMF) and sodium hyaluronate crosspolymer attract water from the atmosphere to maintain hydration all day and help keep external stressors at bay by strengthening the skin's surface.

Step 3

Next up is moisturiser. Here you’ll use a moisturiser suited for your skin; people with oily skin typically prefer gel formulas and people with dry skin often opt for creamy formulas. 

Step 4

Finally, the most important part of your morning routine is the very last step: sunscreen. Along with wearing UV clothing and staying out of the sun during peak hours, sunscreen is an important way to protect yourself and your skin.

Software's Daily Sun Defence SPF50+ is a lightweight, non-greasy facial sunscreen that is formulated with UVA and UVB filters, which may reduce the risk of photoageing, sun spots and some skin cancers. Plus, our formula is non-comedogenic, fragrance-free, and cruelty-free and it layers perfectly under makeup.

Evening skincare routine

First off, let’s forget trying to attempt a 10-step routine if you’ve overwhelmed by it. Your routine doesn’t have to be super complicated to be effective — promise!  

Step 1

Just like your morning routine, the first step is always cleansing and making sure you have a clean canvas so the rest of your skincare can get to work. Now, your cleansing routine does differ a little from the morning and that’s because, well, to put it frankly, your face is dirtier.

Makeup (if you wear it), grime and sweat from the day have built up and it needs to be properly removed. If you’re wearing makeup and SPF, an oil-based cleanser or gel cleanser is great for breaking down the leftover products on the skin.

Massage the cleanser into your skin and gently wash it off with a cloth. To really make sure your skin is clean, you can then repeat the process with the same product, or use a creamy cleanser to cleanse a second time. 

Step 2

The next step is where your serum comes in. This is where all the hard work takes place when it comes to products.

You might apply a hydrating serum like hyaluronic acid if you have dry skin and want some hydration or a product containing niacinamide to target breakout-prone skin.

Serums are often a combination of different ingredients working in synergy to tackle your specific concern while you sleep. 

Following your serum, this is where you'd apply your retinol or any prescription treatments. Most prescription treatments are cream or gel formulas so don’t technically fall under the serum category but they’re all the hard workers that are applied before moisturiser. 

Step 3

After you’ve given your serum a minute to soak in, you want to lock in all that goodness, which keeps skin hydrated.

Software's Ceramide Repair Balm contains nourishing ingredients like ceramides that support the skin’s barrier, hyaluronic acid to deeply hydrate, and squalane, a plant-derived hydrating fatty acid that moisturises, making it the perfect cream for day or night.

When performed consistently, this 3-step routine will help you achieve your skin goals. Once you’ve mastered this, you can take it up a notch and add in an exfoliating product once a week.

A chemical exfoliator contains ingredients like salicylic acid or alpha-hydroxy acids, which can help to unclog pores, slough off dead skin cells and reveal brighter, clearer skin. 

Software's Salicylic Acid Foaming Wash is a chemical exfoliator that can be used 2-3 times per week to target acne, unclog debris and trapped oils in the pores and inject hydration. Plus, this formula can be used on the face as well as the body so you can treat any pesky body acne that you may experience.

You can also add an eye cream to the mix here if you wish. Because it's a thin product packed with active ingredients, eye cream is applied during the serum stage, before thicker creams in your skincare regimen.

That's because this area contains really delicate skin, where ingredients penetrate deeply so you want to make sure all of the eye cream goodness gets to work before your night cream.

Adopt those 3-4 steps in a basic routine, using targeted active ingredients and you'll start seeing your consistency pay off.

Image credit: Getty Images

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