Trust us when we say that nothing divides a room full of beauty experts quite like a debate over how long to leave between each step of your skincare routine. While some experts insist that formulas can be slapped on one after the other in a matter of seconds, others stand by the viewpoint that in order to get the most out of your products, you should wait a little while before applying the next step.
But what are the benefits of waiting between steps, and why are so many experts concerned about layering them up? To get to the bottom of this issue once and for all, we’ve reached out to a whole bunch of skincare experts to try and make some sense of it all. Essentially, it all comes down to allowing the product enough time to absorb into the skin. Dr Kaywaan Khan, medical doctor and aesthetician at Hannah London Medispa explains: “Risks of not leaving sufficient time for each product to absorb includepilling (when flaky balls form on the face) and dilution of the products used.”
And while it is true that most experts agree with these comments, the issues come to down to how important of a lesson it really is. You see, while some experts insist you should leave anywhere between 30 seconds and 15 minutes between layers, others argue it’s far more important to just get the product on. “If you don’t have the time, it won’t harm the skin by applying products directly after each other. However, I do always recommend massaging the face to allow products to fully absorb,” says Chelseé Lewis, celebrity facialist.
However, after weighing up all of the feedback, it seems almost impossible to give one hard and fast rule. The truth is, the importance of waiting for full absorption varies depending on the skincare product you’re using and the product you intend to apply straight afterwards. To settle the matter once and for all, this is how long you should really be leaving between your skincare steps if you’re serious about maximising results.
Hydrating serums (straight after cleansing, but wait a few seconds afterwards)
Every single expert we spoke to agreed on this one. You should waste no time between cleansing and applying your hyaluronic acid serum. Dr Ana Mansouri, aesthetic doctor at Kat & Co explains: “Hyaluronic acid-based serums benefit from application on slightly damp skin straight after cleansing/toning as they draw in moisture like a sponge.”
However, not allowing a few seconds for the serum to absorb afterwards could jeopardise the rest of your routine. “Pilling is when products are layered on top of one another and build up so much that little balls of product are formed on your face. This means the product is not being absorbed into the skin. It’s not only a waste of good product, but it also means the benefits of your skincare routine aren’t being delivered,” warns Dr Ioannis Liakas, Medical Director at Vie Aesthetics.
Leave-on acids (follow instructions or wait 20 minutes)
When it comes to leave-on acid products, experts are clear that how long you should wait is totally dependent on the formulation, so always follow instructions on the bottle. However, if your chosen acid product doesn’t explicitly state how long it should be left for, Dr Mansouri says it’s better to be safe than sorry. “I recommend waiting 20-30 minutes to ensure the skin is dry and to minimise inadvertent interactions,” she says.
Vitamin C serum (leave to absorb for 1-2 minutes)
Every expert we spoke to agreed that vitamin C should ideally be left from a little while before going in with the next step, but the recommended times varied dramatically. The average time suggested was somewhere between 1-2 minutes. The issue with vitamin C is that it is a very unstable ingredient, meaning products are usually very carefully formulated to keep it as potent as possible. Dr Khan explains: “With vitamin C, you want to get the most out of the product by not diluting it. A couple of minutes should be an adequate time for the product to dry down before you go in with your next step.”
Retinol (leave to absorb for 10-20 minutes)
Retinol is also an ingredient that should be left to absorb sufficiently into the skin before following up with another product. “It is important to leave a 10-20 minute wait time before applying the next product. Retinols are powerful antioxidants and it is important to allow it to fully absorb if you want to avoid your skin becoming sensitive,” says Dr Liakas.
There is a caveat to this rule, however, so always check instructions. Dr Mansouri says: “In some instances, it can be beneficial to apply a moisturiser before or immediately after a retinol as a means to purposefully limit irritation and buffer absorption in patients who otherwise struggle to adjust to common reactions.”
SPF (15-20 minutes before going outside or applying makeup)
OK, this one is actually important. While all experts agree it’s always far better to rush your SPF process than not do it at all, to get the protection promised on the bottle you should ideally allow time for it to settle. “As a rule of thumb, after 15 minutes the sunscreen will have formed an effective layer of protection,” says Dr Liakas. It’s also advised that your SPF is fully absorbed before you apply makeup so as not to risk disturbing it (or even removing some of it).