This Is the Best Way to Apply Moisturizer, According to Derms

A few tricks to maximize your moisturizing game.

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There’s a good chance you’ve dutifully slathered your favorite facial creams for years now, but are you sure you’ve figured out the best way to apply your moisturizer? According to dermatologists, there’s an art to the process that helps ensure you’re getting the most out of this crucial skincare routine step. Read on for the full details, which include everything from how often you should apply moisturizer, where it falls in your regimen, and pro tips for maximizing the moisturizing benefits. 

The Importance of Moisturizer

Your skincare routine consists of the following trinity holy grail: a cleanser, sunscreen, and moisturizer. While serums and retinols and other skincare treatments are worthwhile additions, it’s truly these three core products that lay the foundation for beautiful and healthy skin. 

“Moisturizers are designed to hydrate the skin and support the skin barrier while also working to soften and smooth the skin,” says Marisa Garshick, M.D., board-certified dermatologist. “Moisturizers use key ingredients such as humectants to draw moisture in, emollients to soften and smooth the skin, and occlusives to lock moisture in.” 

Our skin consistently loses moisture through a process called “trans epidermal water loss,” also known as TEWL. We also lose oil that’s naturally produced by our body when we shower or wash our face, which makes it doubly important to replenish moisture levels and foster a healthy skin barrier.

“The skin barrier is the very outermost part of the epidermal layer that protects our bodies from environmental insults and enables the skin to hold on to moisture which prevents inflammatory skin conditions like atopic dermatitis,” notes board-certified dermatologist Lian Mack, M.D.. She adds, “Moisturizers reduce the risk of inflammatory skin conditions and add fundamental structures in the skin, improving the skin’s functionality.”

How to Choose the Best Moisturizer 

Your skin type and needs play a key role in your moisturizer selection. If you choose a product that’s not suitable for your skin type, it can lead to issues such as breakouts, irritation, or not enough moisture. 

  • Acne & Oily Prone: “If you have oily or acne prone skin, reach for a moisturizer that is non-comedogenic to prevent clogging of pores and worsening of acne,” Dr. Mack advises. These are typically water-based and lightweight. 
  • Dry Skin: People with dry skin can and should use heavier moisturizers. “They benefit from a cream, ointment, or thicker lotion,” notes Dr. Garshick. Think shea butter, jojoba oil, glycerin, and hyaluronic acid. 
  • Sensitive Skin: Sensitive skin types should seek simple, fragrance-free formulas with barrier-boosting ingredients such as ceramides and peptides.

“During the cold, winter months, your skin may need a richer moisturizer than during the warmer months,” says Jeanette Graf, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist. Conversely, you may need a lighter product when it’s hot and humid. She adds, “Skincare should provide a pleasant feeling. So, with all of the choices available to you, use what feels good to your skin.” 

How to Apply Moisturizer: Step by Step  

Follow this step-by-step guide on the best way to apply moisturizer. 

Step One: Wash Your Face 

Prep for moisturizing by washing your face. Use a gentle, nourishing cleanser that adequately removes sweat, dirt, oil, makeup, and any lingering skincare products. 

“It is important to always make sure to moisturize skin after it has been properly cleansed, as you want to make sure you are applying product to a surface that is free of bacteria, makeup, and other buildup,” Dr. Garshick explains.

Gently pat dry, but don’t remove all moisture.

Step Two: Apply Other Skincare Products from Lightest to Heaviest 

If you have a full-fledged skincare routine that includes toners, serums, essences, and/or treatment products, apply your products in order of lightest to heaviest consistency while your skin is still damp. 

Note that this doesn’t include sunscreen or makeup. Also, if you’re using a wash-off skincare treatment—such as a face mask or peel—apply that after cleansing and then rinse and apply your other products in proper order. 

If you don’t use other skincare products, you can skip this step.

Step Three: Apply Your Moisturizer  

After slathering your other skincare products, you can apply moisturizer. Aim for about a quarter-size amount and make sure to reach every area, including your ears, hairline, neck, and decolletage. 

Application Pro Tips: 

  • It’s best to apply moisturizer to damp skin, as this helps to lock in moisture. You can even give your skin a quick spritz of water before applying the moisturizer, advises board-certified dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD. 
  • Don’t press hard or rub.
  • Apply in an upward motion to help create a subtle lifting effect. 
  • Creams are best applied by patting them gently into the skin, notes Dr. Mack.
  • Gel or water-based moisturizers should be applied in circular motions until they are completely absorbed.
  • Dr. Mack says, “When applied, moisturizers should make skin feel hydrated but not oily.” If you over-apply, gently pat away excess product with a clean, damp washcloth.

Step Four: Apply Sunscreen and Makeup 

In the morning, finish your skincare routine by applying sunscreen and then makeup if desired. No need to do this at night.

How Often Should You Apply Moisturizer? 

You should moisturize no less than two times per day after washing your face, and any other time you’ve showered or washed (like after exercise or swimming). However, if your skin feels very dry, Dr. Garshick recommends reapplying moisturizer in the middle of the day. You can use a lighter product or even a moisturizing spray that won’t disrupt your makeup. Dr. Mack adds that people dealing with inflammatory skin conditions, like eczema or psoriasis, may also find midday moisturizing necessary.

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