retinol before or after sheet mask

Ever since I started this website, I knew that I wanted to discuss the order of application of skincare products. It has been a question of mine over the years, and I’ve searched for this topic online more than once.

Today, with the increasing popularity of Korean skincare, some routines using K-beauty products may include 10 steps or more!

So what to do and when to do it can be confusing!

This is a skincare order guide that is meant to help you take the guesswork out of introducing new products to your skincare routine or re-evaluating your current skincare routine.

It will help you determine how to apply your skincare products in the correct order.

There are many different thoughts on the order of application of your skincare products. You may apply your skincare in a different order, and you may be pleased with your results.

If that’s the case, then please continue doing what you are doing!

If you have a simple routine, some of these steps may not apply to you. I hope this post will get you thinking about all of your options.

This post on how to apply your skincare products in the correct order contains affiliate links, and any purchases made through these links will result in a commission for me at no extra cost to you. Please read my Disclosure for additional information.


1st Oil-Based Cleanse

The first step of any skincare routine should be to cleanse the skin and prepare it for the products that will help rejuvenate and protect it.

In the morning, when you only have last night’s skincare to remove, a single cleanse should do the trick.

In the evening, when a day’s worth of makeup, dirt, oil, and environmental factors are layered on your skin, you can benefit from a double cleanse.

I prefer to use an oil-based cleanser as my first cleanse.

An excellent oil-based cleansing balm will remove makeup, even stubborn eye makeup, dirt, and grime, while providing moisture and conditioning the skin with its oils.

These days the drugstore has some great affordable cleansing balms that make quick work of dirt and makeup.

My all-time favorite balm cleanser continues to be this one that I purchase on Amazon. I also reviewed it here.

An option for drier skin is Versed Day Dissolve Cleansing Balm, which is enriched with avocado oil, jojoba oil, and vitamin E.

Related Posts:

  • Drugstore Skincare: Cleansing Balms
  • Good Molecules Skincare Review

2nd Water-Based Cleanse

A gentle water-based cleanser is a perfect option for a second cleanse.

If you have oily skin, you can reach for a gel cleanser or foaming face wash, and for dry skin, a gentle cream cleanser is a good way to remove any additional dirt and makeup.

I am always amazed at the additional makeup that the second cleanser removes.

I grimace when I think of all those years of only cleansing once and all of that leftover makeup in my pores!


Physical Exfoliation

When it comes to exfoliation, you have the option of either physical or chemical exfoliation.

A gentle physical exfoliation using a face scrub will remove dead skin cells and prep your skin for the next treatment steps of your skin care routine.

Liquid Acid-Based Chemical Exfoliators/Toners

Liquid acid-based chemical exfoliators/toners remove dead skin cells, help even skin tone, reduce the appearance of fine lines, and can even help with acne.

Sensitive skin types may have an issue with liquid chemical acid-based exfoliators, so you may want to start slowly or test the chemical exfoliator to make sure your skin can tolerate it.

Alpha hydroxy acid toners are a great option for chemical exfoliation.

Lactic acid-based toners such as REN Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Toner may be a bit more gentle than glycolic acid toners since the molecule size of lactic acid is slightly larger than glycolic acid.

As a result, lactic acid molecules will not penetrate as deeply into the skin’s outermost layers causing less irritation.

Once your skin becomes accustomed to chemical exfoliation, you may want to consider a stronger acid in the form of glycolic acid.

A few of my favorites include the affordable The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution and The Inkey List Glycolic Acid Toner.

Related: The Inkey List vs. The Ordinary: Anti-Aging Skincare on a Budget

Alpha-Hydroxy and Beta-Hydroxy Acids

You may even want to look into a chemical exfoliator that combines both alpha-hydroxy-acid and beta-hydroxy acids.

I have heard such great things about cult favorite Biologique Recherche Lotion P50, which is said to exfoliate, hydrate, reduce the appearance of pores, and balance the skin’s pH with its anti-inflammatory anti-acne properties.

The latest version of P50 is formulated with alpha-hydroxy-acid, beta-hydroxy acid, niacin, and botanical extracts.

Those who are fans may even tell you that it’s life-changing. Although it may cause redness and stinging for sensitive skin, a gentler version, Lotion P50W, is available for those with the most sensitive skin.

Even though I have sensitive skin, the more I hear about it, the more I feel the need to cross it off my wishlist! I will update this post when I do!

NOTE: Do not use in the same routine as other direct acids, retinoids, pure vitamin C, or peptides. Acids will make the skin more sensitive to sunlight and UV rays, so it is important to wear sunscreen while using these products.

Really, you should wear sunscreen every day whether it is sunny or not!

Rinse Off Mask

You may want to use a face mask once or twice a week or even once in a while.

For those masks that are rinsed off, this is a good place in your skincare routine to apply it. A clay mask that I have been enjoying is innisfree Pore Clearing Clay Mask 2X with Super Volcanic Clusters.

This mask exfoliates while clearing pores and does not dry out your skin.


I remember my teenage days when I would use Sea Breeze Astringent every day. I can still smell the slightly medicinal scent, and I swore by it as it would always remove any residual makeup.

Little did I know that this type of skincare product wasn’t helping my skin since Sea Breeze contains drying alcohol and potentially irritating essential oils.

Now I know that I should have been doing a double cleanse to remove any leftover makeup, and the toner step is a chance to balance your skin’s pH.

It is especially helpful for combination skin or oily complexions in that it will also help remove dead skin cells.

A gentle and pH balancing drugstore option is Thayers Rose Petal Witch Hazel Facial Toner Aloe Vera Formula.


Essences are somewhere in between a toner and a serum.

They tend to contain more active ingredients than toners and typically are more hydrating.

Secret Key Starting Treatment Essence – Rose Edition contains 94% of Galactomyces Ferment Filtrate, which helps with skin elasticity and uneven skin texture.

Face Mist

You may also want to incorporate a face mist into your routine before serums/treatments.

While some enjoy spritzing a face mist at the end of their routine for the aromatherapy benefits, you can use a hydrating face mist in this step to add moisture to your skin.

Your skin is now prepped to receive all the benefits from skincare serums/treatments in the next step.

Related: Beauty Pie Luxury Skincare Review


I think renowned British beauty blogger Caroline Hirons once said something like, and I paraphrase, when it comes to skincare, your serums and treatments are like your dresses, while a moisturizer is like a good coat.

In other words, the serums and treatments really do the work in your skincare routine, and you should use your moisturizer to help the serum/treatment do its job and seal it into the skin.

The serum is the star of the show, and thus, that’s where you should spend your money.

I love using a vitamin C serum, like one of these, during the day for its antioxidant protection and a retinoid a few evenings every week for its anti-aging benefits.

When applying your skincare from here on out, think about applying products in order from thinnest to thickest. Thicker products tend to be occlusive and somewhat block the absorption of products that follow.

Hyaluronic Acid Serum

When it comes to inexpensive hydrating serums, both The Inkey List and The Ordinary have hyaluronic acid serums that are affordable and effective.

They hydrate and plump your skin and help reduce the look of fine lines.

Spot Treatments

If you use a spot treatment like a salicylic acid treatment, this is the step to apply it. Take note of its texture and consistency, and remember to apply your products from thinnest to thickest consistency.

Retinoid Treatments

This is also the step where you apply a retinol/retinoid treatment (in your nighttime skincare routine only).

I recently found some very effective, inexpensive retinol products that work really well for my sensitive skin: The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion and The Inkey List Retinol Serum.

At the drugstore, you can find Olay’s Retinol 24 collection. I love Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Serum, although I can’t use it more than every other night due to its potency.

Retinol is an active ingredient that really makes a difference in skin tone and texture!

NOTE: Avoid using additional retinoids, acids, vitamin C, and other strong actives in the same routine as retinoids.

If your skin is sensitive, you can apply a retinoid after your serum and/or moisturizer to minimize sensitivity. The other products applied prior will somewhat dilute the retinoid and make it slightly gentler on the skin.

Also, note that its potency will be diminished, but you need to do what works best for your skin.

Related Post: Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream vs Olay Retinol 24 Max Night Moisturizer

Retinoid Alternatives

If you want to skip the retinoids altogether, but still see anti-aging benefits, you can take the route of bakuchiol, which is a plant-based retinol alternative.

I am very impressed with the results I’ve seen from The Inkey List Bakuchiol Moisturizer.

Sheet Mask

A sheet mask is typically drenched in super-charged essences for extra hydration.

They can be applied after your treatment steps since the essence from most sheet masks can be left on your skin after the mask itself is removed.

This way, the residual essence will seal in all of the actives that you previously applied.

SK-II Pitera Facial Treatment Mask is one of the few masks that I’ve tried that makes a noticeable difference in my skin immediately after using it. It’s pricey, but it brightens and plumps like nothing else I’ve tried.

For more affordable options, it’s great to see that the drugstore has lots of sheet masks that treat most skin concerns. Check out the drugstore hydrating sheet masks that I tried in this post.

Related Post: SK-II Facial Treatment Essence Alternatives

Eye Cream

Some say that you don’t need a separate cream for the skin around your eyes.

I like to use eye creams because they are formulated to address skin concerns around the eyes, like crow’s feet, fine lines, and dark circles.

So if you have an eye cream and wonder when to apply it, now would be a good time.

Different eye creams work best for morning vs. evening and depending on your concern.

An eye cream that works well during the day under makeup is e.l.f. Holy Hydration Eye Cream with Hyaluronic Acid + Peptides. It contains hyaluronic acid and a peptide complex (Matrixyl 3000) to address the signs of aging under the eyes.

For the evening, I’m currently loving this luxuriously silky eye cream from Tatcha.

Related: Do You Really Need An Eye Cream?


We are nearing the finish line! We are finally at the moisturizing step of your skincare routine.

There are so many moisturizers on the market, and the one you choose should depend on your skin type and skin concerns.

I look for different qualities in a moisturizer for the day vs. for the night.

I want a moisturizer that works well with my makeup during the day. Olay Regenerist Whip is a favorite for its matte, almost primer-like finish.

Or stick with a rich active-filled cream such as Beauty Pie Super Healthy Skin Ultimate Anti-Aging Cream. I love using it as a night cream, as it firms and lifts overnight while strengthening my skin barrier.

Related Post: Olay Retinol 24 vs Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair

Face Oil

If you choose to use a facial oil, you can apply it on top of your moisturizer to lock in all the goodness from the products applied before the oil.

Remember that face oil tends to be occlusive. It acts as a barrier, diminishing the effectiveness of products on top of it. I like to use face oil at the end of my skincare routine in the evenings.

This face oil was an Allure Best of Beauty Awards winner for an affordable drugstore pick.


Last but certainly not least, you should apply sunscreen. You should apply it in the AM or before leaving the house during the day as the final step of your skincare routine.

Whether you choose a mineral or chemical sunscreen, there are many different options on the market, from creams and lotions to sticks and powders.

Due to the uncertainty of the safety of ingredients in chemical sunscreens, my choice will always be a mineral sunscreen.

A few of my favorites include the lightly tinted Paula’s Choice Super-Light Daily Wrinkle Defense SPF 30 Matte Tinted Face Moisturizer and Etude House Sunprise Mild Airy Finish Sun Milk SPF50+ / PA+++.

Related Post: The Best Drugstore Mineral Sunscreens

Final Thoughts on Skincare Order

There you have it! I know it sounds like quite a process, and it can be, but you can choose how many steps you want to incorporate into your skincare routine.

I hope his skincare order guide has helped you determine how to apply your skincare in the correct order.

For more on layering your skincare products, see my post How To Layer The Ordinary Products.

On that note, it’s time for my skincare routine, so I’m off to follow the steps above to take good care of my skin. Here’s to YOUR good skin health!

Thanks for reading!

Read Next: How To Apply Your Makeup In the Correct Order

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