How to Layer Serums the Right Way

Serums. The workhorses of your skincare routine and the most effective way to target individual skin concerns.

       Each serum in your collection has been carefully curated to serve a specific purpose: retinol for fine lines and wrinkles, vitamin C for brightening and perhaps lactic acid for exfoliating. So here we have a situation where in any given skincare routine, you’re layering your serums in an attempt to target multiple skin concerns. And so you should. But there’s a few simple rules you’ll need to stick to if you want to get the most out of your formulas and leave the house without a mess on your face… 

        Layering is a fun way to experiment with results and skin finishes, and we are fans of trying something new and exciting when it comes to your routine! Serums generally contain higher concentrations of active ingredients when compared to cleansers, toners or moisturisers. They’re more effective at making long lasting changes to your skin and improving breakouts, sun spots, fine lines or dehydration. A well-formulated serum will contain the best percentage of an ingredient, a delivery system to get it into the skin where it will be most effective, and optimal packaging to keep everything stable. This means that where you place each serum in your routine really matters - the last thing you want is to block the absorption or cancel out any active ingredients within your precious elixir. 

Here is what you'll need to know:

       The sooner you apply a serum in your routine the better: their thin textures are designed to be applied close to naked skin for optimal absorption. If you’re using a toner, this would precede your serums. It would be a waste of your time and money to apply your serum over a moisturising cream, balm or anything that creates a barrier over your skin - they just can’t get through! The first and most important guideline for layering multiple serums is to take note of texture. Thin, lightweight and water based serums should come first. Emulsions (which are a mixture of water and oil based components) can come next. Lastly, anything oil based, creamy or extra thick should be the final serum applied. From here you can enjoy your creams, oils and balms (and of course sunscreen for your morning routine). But what about ingredients that perhaps don’t play nicely together or can’t be used at the same time? Your choices from here on in should take into account three things: 

  • Can the ingredient be used safely during the day or is it best used at night?
  • Can your skin tolerate the formulas you are layering on within the same routine?
  • Do the ingredients in your chosen serums have a complementary pH that won’t destabilise each other? 

         For example, retinoids (forms of vitamin A) are a family of powerhouse ingredients that are best applied at night as exposure to daylight can degrade them. Moreover, they have the potential to be sensitising to the skin - which if exposed to UV rays would result in a less than desirable combination. In contrast, vitamin C serums are potent antioxidants that are able to protect your precious collagen from free radical protection during the daylight hours. Of course, they still work at night but why not get that extra benefit when you need it most? If you’re using this vitamin in its most active form (ascorbic acid) it will be formulated at a lower pH than most other serums so it should go on first and be allowed to absorb before applying a neutral pH product (each product on The Formula has a pH listed on its product page for convenience). 

Still unsure when it comes to ingredients?

         To make happy pairings easier, we recommend keeping the following ingredient families to one serum in any given skincare routine: exfoliating acids, ascorbic acid, retinoids and benzoyl peroxide. These beauties are dependent on a particular pH range to be effective and they’re also the most potentially challenging ingredients for skin to tolerate on their own, let alone together! Any serums containing peptides, antioxidants, hyaluronic acid and other hydrating ingredients can be mixed and matched to your skin’s content. Go forth and layer - remember to listen to your skin and have fun experimenting! 

Have questions about this post?

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