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Should I apply sunscreen or moisturizer first?

A board-certified dermatologist walks us though a simple three-step skin care routine.
Woman in the bathroom
Always start by cleansing with a product that caters to your skin type. Getty Images

Those first few steps into skin care can feel more like leaps, but once you know the basics it all starts to become second nature. In fact, it can even start to feel a little fun — like a well-earned moment of self-care that begins and ends your day.

But you likely have some questions: What are the must-do steps in a skin care routine? And what order should you be doing them in?

With expert insight from a board-certified dermatologist, we’re outlining a simple three-step skin care routine that will ensure your applying your products in the right order to maximize effectiveness.

A 3-step skin care routine everyone should follow

If you’re a skin care newbie, start with these three simple steps.

Step one: cleanse

Select a gentle cleanser that doesn’t contain alcohol. There are lots to choose from, so choose one that caters to your skin type (dry, oily, acne-prone, sensitive, combination, balanced) and that you enjoy using.

“First, wet your face with lukewarm water, then use your fingertips to apply the cleanser,” said Dr. Annie Gonzalez, a board-certified dermatologist at Miami’s Riverchase Dermatology. “Resist scrubbing your skin since [doing so] will irritate it. Then rinse the cleanser off with lukewarm water and pat your skin dry with a soft towel.”

Step two: hydrate

Once your skin is cleansed and patted dry, it’s time to hydrate. Again, you have many formulations to choose from, so seek a product for your skin type. Oil-free lotions and water-based gel creams are generally ideal for oily, acne-prone, or combination skin types. On the flip side, slightly weightier oil-based creams are preferred for dry, balanced or combination skin.

“Squeeze a pea-sized amount of moisturizer into the palm of your hand, then use the other hand to spread the moisturizer around in your hands to ensure an even application,” advised Gonzalez. “Use gentle, circular motions to apply the moisturizer to your cheeks. Next, apply the moisturizer to the rest of your face and forehead using light upward strokes.”

Step three: protect

A broad-spectrum sunscreen is the crucial final step in your skin care regimen, and it should be applied over your moisturizer. It protects your skin from UV damage, which can cause skin cancer and premature signs of aging, including fine lines, wrinkles, sunspots and skin laxity.

A nickel-sized dollop of 30 SPF or higher is recommended for your face, and you can apply it with the same technique as your preferred moisturizer. Allocate two ounces (about a shot glass worth) of sunscreen for the rest of your body. Don’t forget your shoulders, neck, back, arms, legs and behind your knees.

Last step: apply makeup

After sunscreen, you can apply your cosmetics. And yes, you do still need to wear sunscreen underneath your makeup even if your cosmetics contain SPF.

“Usually, SPF levels in foundation or other makeup products aren't quite as strong as they claim to be. In addition, SPF mixed into makeup is not as effective as pure sunscreen, and makeup comes off easily and isn’t always applied evenly,” explained Gonzalez. “Also, you need to place sunscreen in places you probably aren’t putting your makeup on, such as your neck, jawline and hairline.”

This advice holds true for moisturizers containing SPF, as well. Moisturizers often do not provide adequate UV protection.

Sunscreen should be applied about 15 minutes before exposure and should be re-applied every two hours when in the sun, or every four hours when inside. For re-applications, a powder or spray sunscreen can help keep your makeup intact while providing you with needed protection.

Adding to your skin care routine

Once you’ve got your three-step skin care regimen nailed down you can incorporate a few specialty products — such as vitamin C serum (a.m.) or retinol (p.m.) — into your rotation should you desire. The goal here is to target specific skin care concerns, such as fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and/or dullness.

Follow the on-label usage instructions for any of these skin care additions. Also, as a rule of thumb, skin care products should be applied in order of thickness starting with the thinnest formulation. The following order is usually advised: cleanser, toner, serum, lotion/cream (including SPF) and oil.

An example of an easy morning regimen with a specialty product would be cleanser, vitamin C serum, moisturizing lotion/cream, SPF and makeup. For nighttime, you could switch up your regimen to include cleanser, retinol serum or cream, moisturizing lotion or cream and/or oil.

A simple skin care regimen can go a long way in terms of the health and beauty of your skin. While you’re at it, don’t forget to tend to the rest of your body with lotion and SPF to ensure it stays healthy, too.