Serum Layering Guide: How, What & When?

Written by: Rebecca Eaton



Time to read 6 min

From knowing what serums are best suited to your skin concerns to knowing which order they should be applied in, there’s a lot to unpack when understanding how to maximise your face serum ritual. 

Yet, if, like most of us, you have a cupboard full of serums you’re not quite sure what to do with, it might be time to delve into the world of face serum layering — the new-age title given to an age-old practice designed to help you get the most out of your skincare routine. 

In this article, we’ll explore the art and science behind face serum layering, how to safely and effectively combine different face serums to unlock their potential, and what to avoid when layering. Whether you’re a skincare novice or a seasoned enthusiast, get ready to discover the secrets of effective face serum layering and how it can drastically improve your skincare results.

The quick guide:

Face Serum Layering

First things first, what is a face serum?

A face serum is a lightweight, concentrated formula containing one or two core active ingredients. Unlike a moisturiser, serums are designed to target specific skincare concerns, such as ageing, pigmentation, hydration, sun damage, and more. Their lightweight texture and consistency allow them to penetrate the skin deeply, delivering the goodness your skin needs to thrive and repair. 

While serums will vary in quality and benefits, it’s common to find ingredients in many formulas, such as Vitamins E and C, Retinol, Hyaluronic Acid, and Peptides.

[Read full article: What Is A Face Serum, And Should I Be Using One?

Why do you need to layer serums?

Face serums are used to treat a specific skin concern. Due to their targeted formulas, you’ll be flat-out finding a face serum that promises to solve all your skin problems in one bottle (and if you do, you’ve likely fallen into a marketing trap that will oversell and under-deliver). 

As face serums have specific goals, generally, you’ll have a few in your bathroom cabinet if you’re on a mission to correct more than one skin concern — from hydration and anti-ageing to pigmentation and scarring. As such, how many face serums you require will largely depend on your skin and what you’re trying to achieve. Remember, all skin is unique and requires a bespoke approach to achieving radiance. What works for your best friend may not be the same winning formula for you. 

When it comes to layering your face serums, the order matters. When ordered incorrectly, your skincare products may pill, result in breakouts, or cause unwanted skin sensitivities. On the contrary, when your face serums are applied in the correct order, it will improve the product’s efficacy and benefits, generally boasting faster results. Yet, it’s not only the order that enhances or hinders your skin — what ingredients you pair together is essential to know, too (more on this topic soon).

How many serums can you layer?

While there are many different philosophies around serum layering, we generally recommend sticking to no more than two serums at a time. In total, this allows for four different serums per day (i.e., AM and PM rituals) to avoid overstimulating your skin.  

It’s important to note that not all ingredients play friendly together, meaning you need to be aware of what you’re pairing together and the adverse effects this can have on your skin. As always, we recommend trusting the advice of your skincare therapist for a more personalised solution (we’ll cover more on this shortly).

Serum Layering Guide: How Should You Layer Serums? 

When deciphering serum formulas, do you find yourself confronted with a complex list of ingredients you aren’t quite sure what to make of? Unsurprisingly, you’re not alone. 

Thankfully, there is a straightforward principle that you can readily apply to structure your AM and PM serum routine. The golden rule is to always arrange your serums from the thinnest to the thickest consistency (i.e., use them according to their viscosity). Wondering why exactly? Serums with low viscosity (i.e., a thin formula) are generally lighter and able to penetrate the skin deeper due to their smaller particle size. Applying these before thicker formulas ensures you aren’t slowing down their absorption rate or effectiveness. 

If you’re faced with serums boasting similar textures and weights, a secondary guideline comes into play: prioritise serums based on their potency, proceeding from the most potent to the least powerful formulas. Assuming you’ve received a prescribed skincare ritual from your skincare specialist, this will generally mean starting with the formula designed to treat your most pressing skin concern. 

When incorporating serum layering into your routine, you’ll want to focus on the following order: 

  1. Cleanse your face —> Dr Tanya Miracle Day Cream
  2. Apply eye cream —> Dr Tanya Eye Lift Tightening Serum 
  3. Apply your thinnest serum —> Water-Based or Thin Serum
  4. Apply your thickest serum —> Dr Tanya Holy Basil Face Serum 
  5. Apply moisturiser —> Dr Tanya Holy Basil Day & Night Cream 
  6. Apply Sunscreen (AM ritual) —>  Always SPF50+

[Read Full Article: How to Build a Skincare Ritual: The AM to PM Guide to Glowing Skin]

What ingredients should and shouldn’t be layered? 

Understanding what order products should be applied based on their consistency is just one piece of the puzzle. The other piece of knowledge required to successfully master serum layering is to understand what products can and can’t be paired together based on their makeup. Let’s get started. 

  1. Ingredients that can be paired together 

The following combinations are listed in order of application: 

Ingredient One: Ingredient Two:  Benefits: 
Hyaluronic Acid Retinol Great for: Keeping your skin hydrated and youthful. Consider this the ultimate anti-ageing combo! 
Vitamin C Hyaluronic Acid Great for: Brightening your skin and boosting plumpness. 
Vitamin C Niacinamide Great for: Brightening your skin
Retinol Niacinamide Great for: Strengthening your skin and promoting youthfulness.  
Vitamin B5 Niacinamide  Great for: Repairing your skin and promoting plumpness. 

Quick Ingredient Breakdown:

  • Hyaluronic Acid — Plays an essential role in supporting moisture retention in the skin (i.e., skin hydration). Hyaluronic Acid use is suggested to support skin smoothness, complexion, and plumpness. 
  • Retinol — Most notably regarded for its anti-aging benefits. Retinol promotes cellular turnover and collagen production, which can help improve skin tone and texture and minimise the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 
  • Vitamin B5 — A humectant that supports moisture retention to improve the skin’s hydration. Vitamin B5 is important in repairing and hydrating the skin and is most beneficial for dry and sensitive skin types. 
  • Vitamin C — This incredible ingredient is shown to brighten the skin, protect your skin against free radical damage, promote collagen production, and more. It’s another excellent choice for those wanting to combat the signs of ageing! 
  • Niacinamide — Helps to strengthen the skin’s barrier, promote hydration, regulate oil production, and soothe irritated skin. This ingredient is particularly beneficial for those with sensitive and acne-prone skin.

2. Ingredients that require layering with caution

As we’ve mentioned, not all serums play fair together. When combined they may cause irritation and sensitivities. Let’s take a closer look at what ingredients you need to mindful of when considering your layering routine:

Ingredient One: Ingredient Two: Benefits:
Vitamin C Salicylic Acid Reason: It can be unnecessarily drying. Although, depending on dosage, you may be able to layer these two safely. 
Vitamin C Retinol Reason: These two can be layered with caution; however, both serums are most beneficial when used at different times of the day. Vitamin C is best used in the AM, while Retinol is most effective in the PM due to its repair benefits and sensitivity to the sun. 
Retinol  AHAs, LHA & Salicylic Acid Reason: Retinol and Acids certainly can be done safely; however, when combining more potent formulas, you’ll want to tread lightly as it can cause skin irritations. We recommend consulting your skincare expert before experimenting alone. 
Woman applying face serum to her face

Serum Layering in Practice: Dr Tanya’s AM to PM Skincare Ritual

Step one: Double cleanse! I start by using an oil cleanser to remove my makeup effectively. It helps to get rid of all the impurities from the day. Then, I follow it up with my Miracle Cream Cleanser, which gently cleanses and nourishes my skin.

Step two: Serum time. During the day, I use a hyaluronic acid serum to keep my skin hydrated and plump. And at night, I switch to my Night Repair Serum, which contains powerful ingredients like Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Niacinamide, and Hyaluronic Acid. It's like a magical elixir for my skin!

Step three: Moisturise. I opt for the Radiant Day Cream as my go-to moisturiser during the day. It not only hydrates my skin but also contains AHAs and BHA, which help prevent breakouts and keep my skin glowing. And for my nighttime routine, I rely on the Holy Basil Day and Night Cream or the Luxe Recovery Gel, used as a mask to rejuvenate and nourish my skin while I sleep.

And of course, we can't forget about sun protection. I always finish up my daytime skincare routine with a layer of sunscreen to shield my skin from harmful UV rays.