How to Layer Serums — And How Long They Take to Absorb
Whether you have a four-step skin-care routine or subscribe to the ten-step Korean beauty regimen, there’s an element of layering products that is involved. From applying toners and serums to moisturizers, timing and order matters. To find out more, we turned to Dr. Barbara Sturm, founder of science-first skin-care line Dr. Barbara Sturm Molecular Cosmetics and board-certified dermatologist Dr. Sapna Palep. Ahead, they reveal how long your routine should actually take and how application techniques play into a product’s efficacy.
How Long Does It Take for Products to Absorb?
Turns out, our speedy layering of products, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Your products should absorb pretty quickly, around 30 to 60 seconds,” says Dr. Palep. “If it is taking a longer time, that means that the quality may not be good or you’re not laying it in the right order with the other things you’re using.”
To maximize absorption, Dr. Palep recommends washing your face with lukewarm water to open up pores and starting to apply products while the skin is still damp. “The product either gets taken up through your pores into the oil glands or actually goes into the pores. Once that happens, it gets absorbed into the dermal, epidermal and upper dermal layer.” You’ll feel this absorption happening and see the dryness on your face, says Dr. Palep. Then, you can layer on another product.
Dr. Sturm adds that pressing your products into the skin with the palms of your hands can help with absorption, too. The warmth of your hands will help open up the pores. “Apply your products by starting at the cheekbone area, as this area is usually drier than the forehead, chin and nose. Then bring it down the neck and décolleté,” she says.
What Interferes With Quick Absorption?
The good news? Our routines don’t need to take forever and a day to complete. The bad news? A few missteps can prevent your products from working their best. While time isn’t the biggest factor here, using too much product and not layering your products properly could cause irritation and reduce product efficacy.
Using more of a product doesn’t mean that you’ll receive more of the benefits — especially when using retinol. “Eighty percent of your receptors are going to be hit with your retinol initially, so when you use too much and your receptors are already hit to the maximum point, you’re just causing irritation by layering on additional product,” says Dr. Palep. She explains that using too much of a product, whether it be a retinol or a serum, can also lead to a pH imbalance. “Once that happens, your skin is going to compensate by doing something opposite of what you want it to. So if you strip your skin with too many acids, your body is just going to produce more oil because the pH is thrown off and vice versa.”
Dr. Palep goes on to explain that when the skin's pH is unbalanced, the product layered on top won’t absorb properly. “It’s a constant tug-of-war.” She recommends looking at the ingredients in your skin-care products because layering different serums that have the same actives or overlapping ingredients can be the root cause of an unbalanced pH level. “You don’t want the same ingredients repeated in your routine a million times; that’s where clogging comes in. That’s when you throw off the pH.”
In order to maximize absorption, make sure you’re using high-quality products. As a caveat, high quality is unrelated to price, according to Dr. Palep. “If you’re using a product and it’s not absorbing or it’s not working for you within two weeks, you don’t need that product,” she says. We recommend consulting with a dermatologist about your routine because no one’s skin will react the same to products. She adds that it takes about four to six weeks to see the product’s benefits, but you’ll know within around 14 days if the product is having negative effects on your skin.
While it’s important to let each layer of skin care absorb, what’s more important is layering your products correctly. When serums are applied in the wrong order, it can make it difficult for the actives and benefits to reach the skin. “I recommend applying clear serums first, like my Hyaluronic Serum, and waiting for this to be absorbed before applying a lipid-based serum, like my Glow Drops,” says Dr. Sturm. She explains that lipids can block water-based serums and, as such, should be applied after. Similarly, Dr. Palep says that layering an oil-based moisturizer underneath a retinol will inhibit the retinol’s efficacy. Instead, apply your retinol (after clear serums), we recommend the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum with 0.3% Pure Retinol and then follow it up with a moisturizer, like the La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer.
To help you navigate your skin-care collection, a good rule of thumb is to assess the texture of your products. Dr. Sturm says that clear serums, or water-based serums, typically absorb better and should be at the front of your lineup. Milky-looking, or lipid-based serums, should follow. A moisturizer or face oil will seal everything in, and should be the final step.
Photo: Chaunte Vaughn