When Should Serum Be Applied? A Guide to Perfect Skincare Routine

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Skincare routines are not so complex if you know the nits and grits. Beyond getting famous brands (no offense if you’re a brand loyalist), you should know how to use your products correctly. For instance, when should serum be applied?

When you apply a skincare product largely determines its efficacy. Serums are lightweight liquid-based products that contain high concentrations of active ingredients. You should apply serum to your skin when your skin can quickly absorb it.

I believe you clicked here to see when you should apply a serum in combination with other products. read along to see how to use serums with different skincare products in different routines.

Does Serum Come Before or After Skin Toner?

Skin serum comes after cleansing your skin. Therefore, you should apply serum to your skin after applying toner.

The best prep you can give your skin is to cleanse it. After using a mild cleanser, there may be residues that the cleanser cannot take off.

More so, some cleansers leave residues that may interfere with the active ingredients in the serum. These active ingredients also depend on your skin pH for efficiency.

Toner should be applied before the serum to help bring your skin to its original pH. A balanced pH will allow the serum to penetrate better and fortify your skin, addressing targeted skin concerns. As a result, your skin improves in texture and appearance.

Does Serum Come Before or After Skincare Essence?

Skincare serum is applied after skincare essence. Just like skin toner, essence preps your skin with moisture to receive the actives in your serum. However, essence penetrates deep down and hydrates your cells.

Consequently, it paves way for the serum to also penetrate deep into your skin and address skin concerns from within. This way, the ingredients are more effective, and you’ll get better results.

The rule of thumb of skincare says that products should be applied from the thinnest to the thickest. And serums are thicker than essences.

Additionally, essences help to dissolve debris that clogs your pores. Serum can penetrate better and work with essence to address skin concerns like fine lines, wrinkles, dehydration, and dull complexion.

Does Serum Come Before or After Moisturizer?

Following the rule of thumb for product application, the liquids come before the creams. Serums are lighter than moisturizers. In essence, you should apply serum to your skin before you layer on your moisturizer.

This allows the serum to be absorbed into your skin and reach the cells to carry out its designated function.

Moisturizers are more occlusive, so, they help to seal in the active ingredients in the serum, allow them to penetrate deep into your pores, and lock in moisture.

The consistency and liquid nature of serums do not allow them to penetrate moisturizers. Applying serum over moisturizer will only render the ingredients useless and ineffective.

Moisturizers are occlusive creams- oil or water-based. On application, they create a protective seal over your skin and prevent absorption of any other product.

Does Serum Come Before or After Body Lotion?

Use body serums after cleansing your skin and before you apply body lotion. There are body serums that look and feel more viscous than body lotions.

However, the serums absorb faster into the layers of your skin to communicate cell turnover, tissue regeneration, and skin lipids renewal.

Applying serum after body lotion will render the active ingredients useless and make your skincare routine ineffective.

In essence, apply your body serum all over your body, then, apply body lotion. As the ingredients in the serum penetrate, they carry the ingredients in your lotion along to yield results.

Does Serum Come Before or After Mask?

Face masks come after the cleansing step of your routine. However, masks serve different purposes. Your mask could either be an exfoliating or hydrating mask.

Exfoliating face masks are part of the cleansing process. After using a cleanser, you should exfoliate your face with your mask, then, apply toner to balance your skin pH and close your pores. Afterward, apply serum all over your face.

After exfoliation, your skin is more open to receiving and absorbing the active ingredients in serums. Hydrating masks, on the other hand, are exceptionally good for dry skin types. They help to replenish lost moisture.

Nonetheless, you should use serum after face masks. Rinse your face after taking off masks and apply serum all over to treat targeted skin issues.

Does Serum Come Before or After Oil?

In every skincare routine, your serum is applied before oil. Oils are occlusive and no other product can penetrate them into your skin.

Oils create a protective layer over your skin that seals in other ingredients like the actives in serum and prevent moisture loss.

Skincare oils can penetrate serums and go down the layers of your skin to enhance skin cells’ immunity and improve your natural barrier.

Moreover, oils enhance the effectiveness of the ingredients in serum by keeping them trapped in the seal it creates over your skin.

Does Serum Come Before or After Acne Treatment?

Acne treatment should be applied after your serum. Spot treatments are usually creams, lotions, or balms and they are much thicker than serums. They are occlusive products that serum cannot penetrate.

Therefore, you should spot-treat after serums. Besides, serums contain actives that can help manage acne. Applying acne treatment after serum will enhance the delivery of the powerful actives in both products.

Consequently, your acne treatment is more effective

Does Serum Come Before or After Tretinoin?

In your skincare routine, tretinoin, a form of retinol, should come in after serum and before moisturizer. Vitamin A derivatives can be quite reactive with your skin and as such, you should layer them properly.

Tretinoin cannot be applied underneath a serum because serums are not occlusive. Therefore, they cannot moisturize your skin and prevent the common drying effect of tretinoin.

Applying serum before tretinoin will open your skin to receive this form of retinol and enhance the effective delivery of the ingredient to your skin.

Does Serum Come Before or After Sunscreen?

Sunscreen is usually the last touch to your daytime routine before you apply makeup. Serums come before sunscreen.

Sunblock works to protect your skin from the harmful UV rays that can penetrate your skin and result in the formation of free radicals.

The free radicals in turn lead to the development of early signs of aging like fine lines, wrinkles, and sagging skin. Also, these harmful UV rays can cause sunburn.

Additionally, your serum contains actives, some of which may make your skin photosensitive and cause irritation. Some of these actives include alpha-hydroxy acids, retinol, salicylic acid, and benzoyl peroxide.

But when you use sunscreen over serums that contain these actives, your skin is protected, and the ingredients remain effective.

Does Serum Come Before or After Primer?

Makeup primer is applied after serum, just before you begin makeup application. You should use your actives to hydrate and protect your skin before the cosmetic section of your routine.

Whether you are using a regular primer or face oil as your primer, it should come after serum. Moreover, a hydrating serum will help primer make your makeup look better.

Dry, dehydrated, or too oily skin can make your makeup look patchy or cakey and even begin to fall apart. If you have any of these skin concerns, you should not skip serum before applying primer to your face.

Does Serum Come Before or After Foundation?

Serum should come before foundation just as with primer. After sealing the first half of your routine with sunscreen, your makeup begins.

The first part of your routine, beginning with serums, is the part where you treat your skin. When your skin’s oil and moisture levels are balanced, your makeup will look better.

Does Serum Come Before or After Microneedling?

Microneedling is a collagen induction procedure that helps to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by enhancing collagen synthesis and plumping your skin back to its youth.

This procedure leaves your skin swollen and fragile, especially immediately after. Although your serum should be applied after microneedling, it should not come right after microneedling. Your skin is still sore, revealing a sensitive layer.

Applying a skincare ingredient at this stage can irritate your skin and cause damage. However, if your serum contains only hyaluronic acid or niacinamide, you may apply it a few hours later to enhance collagen production.

On the other hand, you should apply retinol and vitamin C serums at least 48 hours after microneedling. Vitamin C will aid the healing process and retinol, the anti-aging boon will enhance the effect of the procedure.

Does Serum Come Before or After Derma Rolling?

You may use a serum before or after derma rolling. Using serum before derma rolling will aid the absorption of your serum and make this skin treatment more effective.

Derma rolling can leave your skin hurt; this is where using a serum post-derma rolling comes in. Serums that contain soothing ingredients will help to calm your skin and return it to normalcy.  

How to Apply Serum in Your Skincare Routine

  • Start your routine by cleansing your skin with a mild cleanser to remove any debris that may interfere with the ingredients in your products
  • Afterward, dampen a cotton pad with a toner that suits your skin type. Gently sweep across your face and neck to double cleanse and balance your pH
  • Then, pump out the serum and release about 5 drops onto your palm
  • Gently tap the serum into your skin until it is evenly distributed
  • Wait for 30 seconds to a minute for the product to fully absorb into your skin
  • Thereafter, layer on moisturizer to seal in moisture
  • Follow up with other creams and oils
  • Finish up your routine with sunscreen to protect your skin from sun damage


Should you apply serum to wet or dry skin?

Apply serum to wet skin (not dripping wet skin) to aid the absorption of the active ingredients. Also, it prevents actives like hyaluronic acid from turning on your skin and drawing moisture from your skin, leading to dehydration.

How often should you apply serum?

Use serum two times a day, every day to get results. Apply serum to your skin during your AM and PM routine, after cleansing, and before you layer on moisturizer to seal in moisture and the ingredients in your serum.

Can you leave serum on your skin overnight?

Yes, you can. Serums are lightweight products that quickly absorb into the skin. Moreover, serums are leave-on products; you do not need to rinse off after application. The actives absorb into your skin and address specific skin concerns.


When apply serums in any skincare routine matters a lot, especially when combining it with other products or procedures in a special routine. Serum should come in after cleansing and just before heavier products that it cannot penetrate.

For special routines and procedures like microneedling and derma rolling, you’ll need an expert’s guide to apply a serum before or after the procedure.

Most importantly, the rule of skincare order still applies. Always apply your products from the thinnest (water-based) to the thickest (creams and oils) and remember to layer SPF to protect your skin.

Thanks for reading.

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