How to Layer Skincare: Dry or Dull Skin

If you’ve got dry or dull-looking skin, it can be tempting to pile on the products: creams, balms, lotions, masks, ointments, moisturizers, milks, oils — and more. Though we’re pretty certain that this technique (finished off with a healthy dollop of petroleum jelly) was trending on TikTok not too long ago, we wanted to explore a healthier routine that brings out a dewy glow — without clogging pores.

Layering products to combat dry or dull skin follows roughly the same thinnest-to-thickest consistency rule we’ve outlined previously — though things can get tricky when something like moisturizing face oils are thrown into the mix. So what’s the best way to layer these products? Here’s what Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) — a dry/sensitive type herself — recommends.

A woman layering on skincare for dry or dull skin

8 minute read

 

How to layer products for dry skin

According to Dr. Lee, what we call dry skin may fall into one of two categories (or a little of both):

  • Dry skin lacks natural oils (aka sebum): it looks dull, and feels itchy or tight.
  • Dehydrated skin lacks water: it feels tight, and may look flaky or even oily.

Because we’re not always aware of what’s causing our dry skin, Dr. Lee suggests using a combination of hydrating and moisturizing ingredients, along with lifestyle choices like drinking plenty of water, and bathing in warm (not hot!) water. Her routine follows her cleanse, treat, moisturize philosophy.

How to layer your essential dry skin products

AM: Cleanser + Hydrating Treatment(s) + Moisturizer + Sunscreen
PM: Cleanser + Hydrating Treatment + Retinol Treatment + Moisturizer

 

Cleanse AM/PM
Dr. Lee favors a gentle chemical exfoliant like salicylic acid for this step, because it helps refine skin texture and tone, while also keeping pores clear. If you have extremely dry skin, try using a gentle cleanser only at night, and splashing lukewarm water on your face in the morning.

 

Treat AM/PM
After cleansing, apply a hydrating serum to draw water into the skin. Dr. Lee recommends hyaluronic acid, because it’s found naturally in the body, making it very well tolerated by all skin types.

 

Treat PM
Even if you have dry skin, Dr. Lee highly suggests adding retinol to your routine, because of its proven ability to minimize the signs of visible aging (which also affect skin health). Only use retinol at night, since it breaks down in sunlight.

Applying your hydrating treatment before using retinol, or choosing a moisturizing formula, should help with any associated dryness. But if you experience irritation (beyond the typical first few weeks), try dialing your retinol application back to every other night, or just a couple of nights weekly. 

 

Moisturize AM/PM
Layering on moisturizer is particularly important for those with dry skin — especially at night, when transepidermal water loss (TEWL) peaks. Moisturizing ingredients support the lipids near the skin’s surface, helping to lock in moisture to prevent water loss. In the morning, apply sunscreen after your moisturizer, or use a combination moisturizer/sunscreen product.

SLMD skincare to try:

SLMD Plump, Prevent, Protect Essentials

How to layer additional products in your dry skin routine

Here are some additional products (in bold) that you can incorporate into your dry skin routine described above, and where to layer them in. Dry skin is prone to irritation, so start slowly, and definitely don’t overdo it — give your skin downtime, especially after exfoliating.

AM: Cleanser + Toner + Exfoliant + Antioxidant Serum + Hydrating Treatment + Face Oil + Moisturizer + Sunscreen
PM: Cleanser + Toner + Treatment Mask + Hydrating Treatment + Retinol Treatment + Face Oil + Moisturizer

 

Tone AM/PM
Toner helps balance skin’s pH levels and can provide hydration prior to treatments. If you’re also using an exfoliant, make sure your toner does not contain one, or you’ll risk causing irritation. 

 

Exfoliate AM
If you’re using a face wash that’s formulated with a chemical exfoliant, you might not need additional exfoliation — especially if your skin is very dry. But if your skin is looking a bit dull, and/or your pores are clogged, Dr. Lee recommends incorporating a toner or a treatment pad that contains either an alpha or beta hydroxy acid. 

If your cleanser is formulated with BHA, try adding AHA (like glycolic or lactic acid), and vice versa. Go slow with chemical exfoliants, and watch out for irritation — a sign that you’re over-exfoliating.

 

Antioxidant serum AM
If you have chronically dry skin, says Dr. Lee, there’s a good chance your skin barrier may be compromised. Adding a gentle antioxidant formula (look for niacinamide, plus milder versions of vitamins C and E) will help protect skin from environmental damage. 

 

Face Oil AM/PM
Facial oils have been gaining in popularity, though incorporating them into your routine can be confusing. Because they’re often relatively liquid in consistency, layering rule of thumb implies they might go before a slightly thicker antioxidant or hydrating serum. 

But that’s not the case: applying an oil immediately after cleansing and toning will create a barrier that prevents water soluble ingredients (like hyaluronic acid) from penetrating properly. So use face oil after serums and other treatments, and before moisturizer.

 

Treatment mask PM
Evening is an ideal time to try a deep hydration or intensive moisture mask. For dry skin, sheet masks are an optimal choice, since you don’t have to rinse or wipe them off, which could be drying. Avoid masks containing clay, charcoal or granules of any kind, as they are also drying/irritating. 

SLMD skincare to try:

SLMD Retinol Serum, Dual Defender, Dark Spot Fix

How to layer products for dull skin

People often use the terms dry and dull interchangeably — however, while dry skin is almost always dull-looking, dull skin isn’t necessarily dry. Dullness is another way of saying your skin isn't properly reflecting light. This could be because surface skin cells are shriveled and flaking (i.e., they’re dry), or there’s a thick layer of dead cells and sebum, or even because of hyperpigmentation (or some combination of these factors).

If your skin is dull because it’s dry, follow the skincare layering protocol above for dry skin. If your skin is dull but your skin type is normal or combination, below are the layering guidelines Dr. Lee recommends for you (oily types, find layering advice here).

How to layer your essential dull skin products

AM: Cleanser + Antioxidant Serum + Moisturizer + Sunscreen
PM: Cleanser + Hydrating Treatment + Retinol Treatment + Moisturizer

 

Cleanse AM/PM
Dr. Lee again suggests her favorite all-purpose exfoliating ingredient here, salicylic acid, to help keep pores clear, as well as to promote a more even-looking skin tone.

 

Antioxidant serum AM
Incorporating brightening ingredients, like potent antioxidants such as vitamin C, can help boost skin’s natural radiance over time. Look for formulas that also include hyaluronic acid, to add hydration and plump skin.

 

Hydrating Treatment PM
Again, Dr. Lee favors hyaluronic acid here, because it’s very hydrophilic (read: has a high affinity for water) and won’t clog pores.

 

Retinol Treatment PM
Because they speed cell turnover and promote blood flow, retinoids are an ideal option for those trying to promote glowing skin. If your skin is dry, opt for a moisturizing formula. If you experience irritation (beyond the typical first few weeks), scale back your retinol application to every other night, and adjust from there. 

 

Moisturize AM/PM
Dr. Lee reminds everyone not to skip this step, even if your skin doesn’t feel dry. Choose a lightweight, non-comedogenic formula so it won’t cause breakouts. In the morning, apply sunscreen after your moisturizer, or use a combination moisturizer/sunscreen product.

SLMD skincare to try:

    How to layer additional products in your dull skin routine

    Here are some additional products (in bold) that you can incorporate into your dull skin routine described above, and where to layer them in. It can be tempting to overdo it with chemical exfoliants when you’re trying to get skin glowing — but start slowly or you’ll risk a reaction.

    AM: Cleanser + Toner + Exfoliant + Antioxidant Serum + Hyperpigmentation Treatment + Moisturizer + Sunscreen
    PM: Cleanser + Toner + Hyperpigmentation Treatment + Hydrating Treatment + Retinol Treatment + Moisturizer

     

    Tone AM/PM
    Toner helps balance skin’s pH levels and delivers active ingredients (particularly protective antioxidants) prior to treatments. Don’t use a toner with alpha or beta hydroxy acids (or any other exfoliants) if you’re also layering another exfoliant afterwards.

     

    Exfoliate AM
    Using a mild chemical exfoliant is an ideal way to combat dullness, says Dr. Lee. Start slowly to gauge your skin’s tolerance, by incorporating a toner or a treatment pad that contains either an alpha or beta hydroxy acid. Dial it back if you see signs of irritation.

     

    Hyperpigmentation treatment AM/PM
    If your skin dullness is due in part to patches of discoloration, try incorporating a serum that addresses hyperpigmentation. This would typically come after an antioxidant serum. If you’re layering potent antioxidants, keep a close eye on how your skin reacts. Layering hyperpigmentation products with retinol can also be irritating for some people, so consider alternating these products every other night.

    SLMD skincare to try:

    Dr. Lee’s last word

    Layering skincare is straightforward when you’re only using three products — but it can get complicated when you’re trying to address several skin concerns at the same time. If you have dry skin (like me) you can add in some extra hydrating and moisturizing treatments toward the end of your routine. If your skin is dull, try incorporating exfoliating and brightening products after cleansing. As always, listen to your skin!

    —Dr. Sandra Lee

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