Picture this: You overslept, showered at the speed of light, and rushed through your morning skincare routine before making a mad dash out the front door. It’s a familiar situation for many of us. Once settled at work, you may notice that your skin feels a bit tacky, or your usually-smooth makeup isn’t sitting quite as nicely as it should. It happens to the best of us—and it might leave you wondering whether speeding through your skincare routine was the best choice. It begs the question, how long do you need to wait between skincare steps? And the truth is, there’s no universal answer.
Everything from the formulas you’re using to how involved your routine is can influence how long you should wait between steps. That said, there are some general guidelines that apply to the majority of skincare routines. To help break it down, we spoke with board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rachel Nazarian. Ahead, Dr. Nazarian lends her expertise on applying different products and ingredients and helps answer your questions on wait times.
What Are The Basic Skincare Routine Steps?
Before you can learn how long to wait between skincare steps, you need to know what those skincare steps are. While Dr. Nazarian says “there are many different ways to build a skincare regimen,” there are a few steps that are non-negotiable. First, cleansing: Dr. Nazarian says that everybody, regardless of their skin type or concerns, should start by “gently cleans[ing]” their face. We suggest Ultra Facial Cleanser, which contains squalane and glycerin and removes dirt and other impurities without stripping the skin’s natural moisture barrier. It’s pH-balanced and suitable for all skin types and makes for an ideal first step in any skincare routine.
Other can’t-miss steps include moisturizing and applying sunscreen (yep, even in the dead of winter). The overarching goal, Dr. Nazarian says, is to “cleanse, protect, and prevent.” Of course, you can feel free to add in other products, such as serums, oils, and eye creams, too: Targeted products like these can help address your individual skin concerns, such as visible aging or unevenness.
How Long Should You Wait Between Skincare Steps?
There’s no hard-and-fast rule that says you should wait a specific amount of time between skincare steps, Dr. Nazarian says, but it is important to apply your products in the correct order. She recommends using “the lightest, water-based products first and the heaviest, oil-based products last.” Applying your products in this order will help ensure each layer absorbs as effectively as possible. Keep reading for a deeper dive into how to layer your skincare products.
Cleansers and Toners
Milk-Peel Gentle Exfoliating Toner
As we mentioned earlier, cleansing should always be the first step in your morning and nighttime skincare routines. If you’re using a toner, you’ll want to use that immediately after, as the purpose is generally to help balance your skin and remove any impurities left behind after cleansing. For added benefits, try our Milk-Peel Gentle Exfoliating Toner. The unique formula with lipo-hydroxy acid gently exfoliates and helps refine the skin, leaving it visibly brighter, smoother, and clearer with consistent use.
Essences and Serums
You can apply your water-based essences and serums immediately after toning—in fact, Dr. Nazarian recommends applying your products to damp skin. Note that in most cases, less is more: You want to apply just enough to cover your face and neck but not so much that your skin is tacky or it takes more than a minute to sink in.
As for which serums to use, Dr. Nazarian recommends those with antioxidants such as vitamin C or vitamin E. Try Powerful-Strength Vitamin C Serum, which boasts 12.5% vitamin C and hyaluronic acid. The concentrated serum boosts radiance and helps visibly diminish fine lines and wrinkles. It also firms the skin, giving way to a smoother appearance over time.
Lotions and Creams
According to Dr. Nazarian, applying moisturizing products while your skin is still damp can help seal in moisture—which, ultimately, is the goal of moisturizing in the first place. To hydrate your skin without weighing it down, we suggest using a lightweight moisturizer as soon as your serum absorbs. For gentle hydration, try our cult-classic Ultra Facial Cream with Squalane. The iconic formula delivers up to 24 hours of hydration and helps restore the skin’s natural moisture barrier. It’s suitable for all skin types, absorbs quickly, and can be used morning and night for soft, healthy-looking skin.
During the daytime, sunscreen should always be the final step in your routine. While you can apply it immediately once your moisturizer absorbs (30 seconds to a minute is generally fine), you do want to make sure you apply the sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going outside. You can opt for a chemical or a mineral sunscreen, Dr. Nazarian says—just pick a formula that’s broad-spectrum and has an SPF of at least 15. We’re partial to Super Fluid UV Defense Daily Facial Sunscreen SPF 50+, which offers broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays and boasts added antioxidant defense.
How Long Should You Wait Between Using Skincare Ingredients?
How long you wait between skincare steps matters more if you’re using specific ingredients, Dr. Nazarian says. Unless they’re “specifically formulated together,” using certain key ingredients back to back can contribute to irritation, particularly if you have sensitive skin. Retinol, in particular, is one that you want to be careful about, as it can be irritating if used alongside physical or chemical exfoliants like alpha or beta-hydroxy acids. If you’re using retinol and want to exfoliate with a face scrub or acid, Dr. Nazarian suggests doing so “on a separate day” to minimize the risk of irritation.
Fast Release Wrinkle-Reducing 0.3% Retinol Night Serum
To add retinol to your routine, we suggest starting with a gentle formula designed for tolerance, like Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum with Ceramides and Peptide. It contains a precise daily dose of pure retinol and produces visible anti-aging results with minimal dryness, redness, or peeling. Plus, it’s uniquely designed to be easily incorporated into your existing skincare routine. For those already acclimated to retinol, we also have Fast Release Wrinkle-Reducing 0.3% Retinol Night Serum, which is clinically-demonstrated to visibly diminish wrinkles in as little as two weeks.* Both serums should be applied to clean, dry skin.
*Based on expert grading in a 10-week clinical study of 27 panelists.
How Long Should You Wait After Skincare To Apply Makeup?
Generally speaking, you should be able to start putting on your makeup “within a minute of applying your skincare [products],” Dr. Nazarian says—everything should be sufficiently absorbed by then. “If you’re finding that things are pilling, you’re applying too much stuff in general,” she explains. Similarly, using too much product or applying your skincare in the wrong order can result in a sticky, tacky feel.
Ultimately, if you’re struggling to figure out when to apply products and how much to use, you may want to seek out help. If you stop by a Kiehl’s store, you can ask one of our Kiehl’s Customer Representatives (KCRs) for help—they’ll tell you the best way to use the products you’re interested in. Alternatively, Dr. Nazarian says to consult your dermatologist. They can help you reevaluate your routine, determine if you’re applying your products properly, and offer advice on how to get the most out of your routine. “They’ll help you work all those things out,” she concludes.
Next: If you’re looking to switch up your skincare routine—or transition it for a new season—our article How To Curate The Best Fall Skincare Routine can help.