It turns out that the secret to amazing skin isn’t all in the products you use—it’s how you use them that truly matters. You can make the go-to goodies in your routine work better and faster by adding a simple step before (and, in some cases, after). Follow along to see how you should be revamping your skin regimen for fewer lines, stronger protection, and more dewiness:
Before a moisturizing serum… apply a peel
Dermatologists are hyaluronic acid’s number-one fans. That’s because it’s a potent moisturizer, holding 1,000 times its weight in water. Newer serums, like Pestle & Mortar HA Pure Hyaluronic Serum are made with low-molecular-weight versions of the ingredient that penetrate below skin’s surface to “reduce inflammation at a cellular level,” says New York City dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD.
Any dead cells on skin’s surface could block the hyaluronic acid, though, so New York dermatologist Robert Anolik, MD, advises using an at-home peel first, like First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Intensive Peel ($40, sephora.com), which is infused with a gentle combo of lactic and salicylic acids, to clear a path. Any resurfacing-spurred redness is quelled by the serum’s hydration, but you should use this combo only three times a week to avoid irritation.
Before SPF… use an antioxidant serum
Sunscreen ain’t perfect—and, no offense, but you’re not perfect at applying it. For this reason, says Zeichner, it’s important to have a “safety net underneath in the form of antioxidants.” Consider Goldfaden MD Brightening Elixir ($80, goldfadenmd.com)—which contains both vitamin C and anti-inflammatory vitamin E (a duo that’s scientifically proven to work better together), along with firming ferulic acid—an insurance policy for your sunscreen.
By neutralizing free radicals, the antioxidant molecules give your broad-spectrum ‘screen an extra hand in shielding against damage from UVA and UVB rays (which cause lines, discoloration, and cancer). But they also have their own side gig: They help protect skin from other free radical mayhem caused by pollution and infrared and visible light rays. Wait 60 seconds after smoothing on your serum—time for it to absorb—before layering on a generous dose of sunscreen. We like CeraVe Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Face Lotion ($8, amazon.com), a clear-drying formula laced with micro-fine zinc oxide.
Before a serum or cream…
Olay Luminous Miracle Boost Concentrate ($25, at drugstores) softens skin’s surface and makes it more absorbent, via ingredients like niacinamide, which—as a bonus—targets dark spots and boosts your glow.
Before a mask…
Skin like sandpaper? Similar to an aesthetician using steam to expand pores prior to a fancy facial, Origins Maskimizer Skin-Optimizing Mask Primer ($15, amazon.com) spritzes on conditioning marine algae—turning a dense mask into a spreadable one.
Before a retinoid (for oily/combination skin)… use a gentle cleanser
Aside from sunscreen, this vitamin A derivative is arguably the most important anti-ager. In order for it to seep in and do its job (namely, regenerate collagen to fade wrinkles), you need to erase all that excess sebum and oil from your face first. You may be tempted to reach for your acne wash, but keep in mind: “Benzoyl peroxide, a common ingredient in acne cleansers, can deactivate a retinoid,” says Anolik. Instead, stick to mild formulas like Garnier The Gentle Sulfate-Free Cleanser ($12, garnierusa.com) that won’t strip skin of its protective moisture, which could visibly anger your complexion.
After patting your face dry, apply a gel-based retinoid that is less emollient (and pore-clogging) than a cream, like Differin Gel ($12, amazon.com). “This format enhances penetration, making the retinoid stronger and more effective,” adds New York City dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD.
Before a retinoid (for dry/sensitive skin)… apply a ceramide lotion
Skin can become red, raw, or flaky within the first two to four weeks of using a retinoid, explains Zeichner. This causes irritation-prone types to fall off the wagon before the fine-line-fighting ingredient can produce noticeable results. But there is a solution. First, prime with a hydrator, like Aveeno Skin Relief Moisture Repair Cream ($13, at drugstores), which contains barrier-repairing ceramides (protective lipid molecules). This reduces the ouch risk by acting as a buffer between the retinoid and your skin without hindering the ingredient’s performance.
Start slow and use a milder form of vitamin A, like an over-the-counter retinol, advises Mona Gohara, MD, a dermatologist in Danbury, Connecticut, She says even her most sensitive clients, including those with rosacea, can use the soothing, mineral water-spiked Eau Thermale Avene Retrinal 0.05 Cream ($61, amazon.com).
Before an acne treatment… use a charcoal mask
Think of this the next time you’ve got a pimple so big it could have its own Instagram account: A charcoal mask—like Yes to Tomatoes Clear Skin Detoxifying Charcoal Mud Mask ($3 each, at drugstores)—acts like a magnet for toxins, pollution, and excess sebum that allow bacteria to thrive, explains Engelman. The carbon in charcoal attracts these nasties and pulls them out of pores. Even better, it gently exfoliates and softens your complexion, allowing zitzapping actives like benzoyl peroxide, found in Clean & Clear Persa-Gel 10 ($8, amazon.com), to penetrate deeper and get straight to the source of acne. Just avoid charcoal mask formulas containing aggressive ingredients like glycolic acid that can overdry and strip already irritated skin, Engelman says.