Here’s How Much Skincare Product You Should Use, From Vitamin C to Retinol

Keep this handy skincare cheat sheet close.

If you’ve ever stood in the hallowed halls of a beauty store, there’s a chance you’ve felt acutely aware of just how much stuff surrounds you. From tiny bottles of vitamin C serum to retinol creams that promise they’re as gentle as they are effective, it’s a lot to take in. Should you buy one of everything or pick out a few choice products? How much product should you squeeze out per application? (Surely it can't be the same amount of retinol as moisturizer?) And where do you even begin once you’ve added everything to cart, checked out, and are staring at your haul at home? 

To help streamline your skincare routine and ensure you’re using the right amount of each product, we put together a skincare cheat sheet featuring input from board-certified dermatologist and skincare pros.

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Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that belongs in everyone's skincare regimen. “It helps defend your skin from environmental damage, including pollution and UV exposure,” explains Geeta Yadev, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Facet Dermatology. “It also inhibits your skin from overproducing melanin, or skin pigment, [which helps in] reducing the appearance of hyperpigmentation and dark spots.” Science also tells us that vitamin C promotes college synthesis, which can help minimize the look of fine lines and lend to firmer skin. 

  • When to Apply Vitamin C: In the morning 
  • How Much to Apply: For serum, apply four to six drops. For thicker products, a dime-size amount. 
  • Where it Falls in Routine: After cleansing/toning and before moisturizer and sunscreen. 
  • Ideal Frequency: Daily 

Retinol

After sunscreen, retinol is easily one of the most scientifically-backed skincare ingredients and dermatologist-recommended must-haves. “It’s the only skincare ingredient clinically proven to fight all signs of aging, including fine lines and wrinkles, discoloration, and skin laxity,” notes Dr. Yadev. “It also helps regulate oil production, making it a valuable tool in the fight against acne.” 

  • When to Apply Retinol: In the evening  
  • How Much to Apply: A pea-sized amount
  • Where it Falls in Routine: Before or after moisturizer, depending on how easily sensitized your skin is. Dr. Yadev recommends a retinol sandwich, where you apply a thin layer of moisturizer before and after you apply your retinol. This creates a moisturizing barrier and minimizes irritation. 
  • Ideal Frequency: Start slow with twice-weekly application, then build up to daily usage as skin acclimates. 

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) 

Alpha hydroxy acids come in many forms and concentrations. “They’re naturally occurring acids derived from fruit, sugarcane, and milk, and are typically used for exfoliation, texture, brighting, and reduction of hyperpigmentation,” says Gary Dickman, lead aesthetician at The OleHenriksen Face/Body Spa.in Los Angeles.

  • When to Apply AHAs: Higher percentage treatments should be used in the evenings. Some cleansers and toners have small percentages of AHAs and you can use these in the morning. 
  • How Much to Apply: A dime-sized amount 
  • Where it Falls in Routine: After cleansing / toning and before moisturizer. 
  • Ideal Frequency: Once or twice weekly. Alternate with retinol versus using both on the same evening. 

Salicylic Acid (BHA)

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that targets acne via exfoliation. “This ingredient will help expedite cellular turnover and also can reduce swelling and redness,” notes Corey L. Hartman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Ala.

  • When to Apply Salicylic Acid: Salicylic acid can be applied during your morning and evening skincare routines. 
  • How Much to Apply: A pea-sized amount, or spot treat pimples with a pinhead-size amount
  • Where it Falls in Routine: Apply salicylic acid after cleansing. “Wait to apply a moisturizer until the salicylic acid has fully dried on your skin, which is usually around five to 10 minutes,” says Dr. Hartman. 
  • Ideal Frequency: Salicylic acid can be applied daily, as it is a gentler active ingredient. That said, work your way up to daily usage. 

Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is an anti-inflammatory that targets mild to moderate acne. It works by killing the p.acnes bacteria responsible for acne. “Benzoyl peroxide also helps prevent acne by exfoliating the skin, and can help minimize redness and inflammation,” notes Dr. Hartman. “It can also help reduce inflammation from cystic acne, which appears as those hard, often painful and red bumps that do not come to a head.” 

  • When to Apply Benzoyl Peroxide: In the evenings 
  • How Much to Apply: A pea-sized amount, or spot treat pimples with a pinhead-size amount
  • Where it Falls in Routine: After cleansing. Wait to apply a moisturizer until the benzoyl peroxide has fully dried on your skin, which can take about five to 10 minutes. 
  • Ideal Frequency: Start slowly by using the product one to three times per week. You can increase frequency to four to five times a week as your skin acclimates.  

Niacinamide

Also known as vitamin B3, niacinamide is heralded for its ability to reduce hyperpigmentation and even out skin complexions. It also has a host of other juicy benefits. Dickman says, “Via the lipid barrier, niacinamide helps retain moisture, minimizes redness and blotchiness, minimizes pore size, helps refine fine lines and wrinkles, and helps reduce inflammation in acne, too.” 

  • When to Apply Niacinamide: In the mornings and/or evenings 
  • How Much to Apply: For serum, apply four to six drops. For thicker products, a dime-size amount. 
  • Where it Falls in Routine: After cleansing/toning and before your moisturizer and sunscreen. 
  • Ideal Frequency: Daily 

 Hyaluronic Acid

Unlike the two types of acids mentioned above, hyaluronic acid is a thick, gel-like substance that hydrates skin. Dr. Hartman says, “When used in skincare products, hyaluronic acid pulls moisture from deeper layers of the skin to hydrate the skin.”

  • When to Apply Hyaluronic Acid: Morning and evening 
  • How Much to Apply: For serum, apply four to six drops. For thicker products, a dime-size amount. 
  • Where it Falls in Routine: If using a hyaluronic acid serum, apply the serum to freshly washed face after cleansing and before your moisturizer. “If using a moisturizer, apply after your serum or another active product like a retinol, has dried on the skin,” says Dr. Hartman. 
  • Ideal Frequency: Daily, but be mindful of how many products you’re using that include hyaluronic acid. It’s best to stick to one or two. 

Ceramides

Ceramides are lipid fatty acids that help keep the skin barrier healthy and strong. This, in turn, can help with a host of common skin concerns, says Dickman, including prevention and relief from skin dryness, redness and irritation, and acne. It can also help soothe skin conditions such as eczema, rosacea, and dermatitis. 

  • When to Apply Ceramides: Morning and evening 
  • How Much to Apply: A dime-size amount
  • Where it Falls in Routine: Ceramides are typically formulated into creams and ointments, which should be applied following cleansers, toners, and serums. 
  • Ideal Frequency: Daily

Non-Active Moisturizer

Moisturizer is critical to healthy, balanced skin. “Our skin barrier, the top layer of skin, works to prevent moisture from escaping your skin. That layer also helps to shield your skin from external irritants, blocking them from penetrating the skin,” notes Dr. Yadev. “If the skin barrier is not well nourished, it can't function effectively. This will cause your skin to be dehydrated, irritated, and more prone to concerns like acne.” 

  • When to Apply Moisturizer: Morning and evening 
  • How Much to Apply: A dime-size amount
  • Where it Falls in Routine: After cleansers, toners, and serums, but before sunscreen. 
  • Ideal Frequency: Daily
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