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Skincare Layering 101: Better Skin Through Hydration

“Why use many products when few products do trick?”

For people new to the Asian skincare scene, the sheer length and variety of many skincare routines can be bewildering. Cleanse and use an all-purpose moisturizer with SPF in it—that’s the kind of skincare routine most of us in the West grew up seeing in beauty marketing and media. If you have acne, use a spot treatment; if you want to be fancy, add in a serum. And that’s it. So when faced with a beauty routine that includes toner, essence, serum, or maybe multiples of one or more of those steps, and that’s before moisturizer and a separate sunscreen, it’s easy to wonder what the point of all of it is.

CosRX Aloe Soothing Sun Cream SPF50 PA+++ $16.00

Why Do Skincare Layering?

It’s true that to simply keep skin clean and functional, cleansing, moisturizing, and adequate SPF are all that’s needed. But for the skincare perfectionist in search of the most juicy, dewy, glowing, and all around optimized complexion possible, layers are where it’s at. In fact, in my opinion, skincare layering is the true foundation of Asian skincare in its current incarnation.

There are many reasons why, but I think the most important one is this: there is simply no multipurpose product that can accomplish everything that a multilayered skincare routine can. It’s physically impossible.

Take, for example, the juicy, dewy glass skin look. That look demands a ton of hydration in the form of water bound to humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid. Asian skincare achieves it via layers of hydrating toners, essences, and serums applied individually before the moisturizer step. Finding a cream that can deliver the same amount of hydration while also providing enough emollient and occlusive moisture to seal the hydration in is not physically possible, because you won’t be able to fit that volume of hydrating ingredients into a cream that also needs to be, well, creamy.

Even if you did find a cream that manages the difficult feat of hydrating as well as multiple layers of hydrating products while also moisturizing enough to lock the water in, it’s unlikely that that cream will also happen to have exactly the right concentrations of exactly the right ingredients to tackle any other skin concerns you might also have, like aging or hyperpigmentation. It’s even more unlikely that such a cream would happen to not contain any of the ingredients that irritate your skin or break you out.

Layering, on the other hand, allows you to pack vast amounts of hydration into your skin via a routine that you’ve curated to address exactly your skin concerns in exactly the way you need it to. You can plump and hydrate while also soothing sensitivity and fading dark spots without setting off a breakout, all according to your own skin’s needs. And that is why skincare layering has become so popular.

With that being said, how to layer skincare is one of the most often-asked questions in the skincare community. So here’s a quick guide.

But first: Terminology for Skincare Layering!

The huge variety of products available in the Asian cosmetics market is bewildering enough without the long list of different product types. The f*ck is an “ampoule”? Why is this clear toner called “lotion”? Why are some essencesthin like water and others are thick like serums?

Pyunkang Yul Moisture Ampoule $28.00

Product names differ not only by country (Japanese brands often call hydrating toners “lotion,” while some Korean brands refer to this type of product as “skin”) but also by brand.

The best advice I have for you regarding terminology is this: pay less attention to what the product is named than you do to how it feels. If a product is called an essence but behaves more like a toner, then put it in the toner slot. If a product is called an essence but feels more like a serum, put it in the serum step. You’ll see what I mean as we go through the steps.

Layering your skincare for optimal absorption and results

As a general rule of thumb, layer your products from thinnest to thickest, placing the ones that are most like water at the beginning of your routine and the ones that are creamy or heavy in oils at the end. Slipping up and accidentally putting a thicker product before a thinner one isn’t the end of the world—generally, both of them will end up getting into your skin enough to help either way—but does extend drying time and can feel less pleasant on your skin.

The one exception I make to this rule of thumb is for actives. Even if you have thinner products in your routine, I always put AHA and BHA chemical exfoliants on immediately after cleansing. My reasoning for this is primarily that since AHAs and BHAs work by ungluing the dead cells from the surface of skin, the more quickly and closely they come into contact with those dead cells, the more effectively they can do their job. Skin also absorbs product better when it was recently wet, as it is after cleansing. I give each acid product about 5 minutes to dry before applying the next one.

CosRX AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner $17

As personal preference, I also put my Curology prescription tretinoin on before my hydrating layers. This isn’t as critical, however, and for people using retinoids in an oil or cream format, it won’t make sense. But acids always go first for me. I give retinoids at least 20 minutes to dry before moving on.

After actives, it’s time for the hydrating layers! No wait times needed with these; I just pat them in a bit and move on to the next layer immediately after the last.

Generally my first step will be a water-like fermentation first essence, like Naruko’s Face Renewal Miracle Essence. This type of product is very thin and absorbs very quickly. Due to its consistency, a first essence also re-wets skin nicely, renewing its ability to suck in more product efficiently.

My typical next step will be a hydrating toner. The high volume of humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid in these types of products makes them thicker than the watery first essences. There’s some debate about whether it’s better to apply these with a cotton pad or with palms only. My take on this is that while cotton pads help with the application of astringent, cleansing-type toners (that I never use), hands are perfectly fine and far less wasteful for applying Asian hydrating toners.

Hada Labo Gokujyun Hyaluronic Acid LotionHada Labo Gokujyun Hyaluronic Acid Lotion $14.00

Essences, serums, and ampoules come next, again in order from thinnest to thickest rather than strictly according to what they’re called. Honestly, a lot of product naming conventions boil down to simple marketing and have very little objective meaning. For example, an ampoule is technically supposed to be more concentrated and therefore more potent than a serum, while a serum is generally thought to be more concentrated and potent than an essence. But since most brands aren’t telling you the specific concentrations of star ingredients in their products, it’s nearly meaningless in practice.

Final Layering Steps

After all of this, I move on to…sheet masks!

This may seem really counterintuitive, given that the essence in sheet masks is often thinner than most serums, but it’s something I’ve been doing for ages and have written about here. I find sheet masks after the rest of my layers actually helps the previous layers absorb more fully for better effects. Part of that is due to the penetration enhancers in the sheet mask essences, and part of that is due to the physical occlusion of the mask sheets themselves.


So now you’ve packed your skin with layers of hydration. What’s left?

It’s time to seal it all in. For that, you’ll need some kind of emollient and occlusive moisturizer—something that provides an oil or silicone component to form a barrier over skin, trapping the hydration within. And once you’ve done that, you’re all set!

Adapting skincare layering for your lifestyle and skin

In the section above, I went through all the common steps you might find in a multilayered, Asian-style skincare routine. Don’t take this as a prescription to do all of them all the time, however. Part of the beauty of the endlessly customizable AB skincare routine is exactly that—you can customize it. Your skin may not need (or react well) to more than a couple of layers at a time. You may also not always have the time to do all those layers. In the morning, for example, my routine is much shorter. I cleanse, apply one hydrating layer if I have time, then moisturize and add sunscreen, and I’m done.

Use only the products you skin needs, checking in with your skin from time to time to assess whether any more layers would be beneficial or not. Don’t get too hung up on doing things exactly the “right” way—as you learn, you’ll get a feeling for what works best for you, which may not be the same thing as what everyone else says is best for them. And feel free to experiment! If you want to try layering but you only have a hydrating toner, you can layer on a few applications of that product and at least see how your skin likes the increased hydration.

That’s the best thing about Asian skincare. There are so many options available that with some time, patience, and trial and error, you can put together exactly the routine that works best for you. And you can have fun doing it!