Layering and mixing products, especially serums, has become a popular skincare trend lately. It’s sometimes referred to as a “cocktailing” because you combine serums or products to create a bespoke mix for your skin. At first glance, it may seem like a great idea. After all, there are so many high-performance skincare ingredients out there these days, why not add many of them together to give your skin as many benefits as possible?
While I understand the appeal of this approach, unfortunately, the reality is that you may not be maximizing the benefits of your skincare routine as much as you think. Keep reading to learn why you might want to reserve your cocktailing for a happy hour and not your skin!
What Is A Skin Serum?
A serum is a skincare product usually with a water, gel, or light lotion consistency that contains a high concentration of performance ingredients. It definitely boosts the results of your skin routine when used under a moisturizer or treatment mask. While using a cleanser, toner, and moisturizer is still the foundation of a solid routine, serums are an amazing addition.
Layering Skincare Serums
So let’s say that you have a serum with 10% Niacinimide, (a vitamin B3 ingredient), and you layer it on to the skin after cleansing and toning. Then after that, you layer on a serum that contains 15% vitamin C. Since the first serum did most of the penetration with some leftover residue still sitting on the skin’s surface, the vitamin C serum may be less effective through dilution from the previous serum since you have minimized the amount of penetration that can be delivered. This could mean that the vitamin C is now half less effective or possibly even much less.
What’s important to understand is that tempting as it may be to load up on multiple skin-improving ingredients with different products, remember that your skin can only absorb so much at once. Think of your skin as a sponge; at some point, a sponge has absorbed all it can and water starts just pouring over it. This eventually happens with your skin as well. Trust me, by using everything but the kitchen sink on your skin at once, you’ll just end up throwing your money down the drain and this is one of the main problems I see with layering serums.
What’s more, many serums include very active ingredients. When you apply too many strong ingredients to the skin at once, you run the risk of irritation which will only cause damage and undo all the good you were trying to do with your serums.
If you do insist on layering, apply one product at a time, but make sure it’s from thinnest to thickest. It’s best to apply light, water-based products first (due to their fast penetration and smaller molecular structure), then work your way up to a heavier, lotion-based product.
Mixing Skincare Serums
Of course, every good skincare routine consists of multiple steps and therefore multiple products. You can find countless skincare “cocktail” recipes online these days, most of which suggest actually mixing two or three different types of products together in the palm of your hand then applying that mixture to your face.
Mixing ingredients together in your hands just isn’t going to give you the best results either because, in the case of serums, you’ll get half the results from each serum because of dilution. Again, wasting your money by not getting the fully intended results from the product.
Let me also make this point. Not all serums are created equally. Chemically speaking, one formula may be designed to provide delivery in a certain mechanism and another product may not have the same penetration enhancers. So if you are mixing them together (and diluting them, too) you might be losing efficacy. This is not just through dilution but because you have minimized the amount of penetration that can happen on the skin which may be required, where other ingredients may be fine sitting on the skin and having more time to do their job. Ultimately, the mixed serum is confused and just doesn’t know what’s it’s supposed to do.
Lastly, if you’re mixing water-based products with oil or emollient-based products this strategy isn’t efficient either since ultimately oil and water don’t mix together easily—certainly not in the palm of your hands.
What’s the Best Strategy for Getting a Full Spectrum of Benefits from Your Skincare Serums?
While it’s true that the best benefits come from a variety of active ingredients, here’s the best way to incorporate them successfully into your routine.
Use Your Serums in Rotation
Instead of using multiple serums at once, I’ve always promoted using serums in rotation and focusing on one specific need each night.
I like to think of it as working out; you want a variety of different exercises on different days that all work together to give you the best end result, which in the case of physical fitness, is a fit, toned body. The same goes for your skin. It requires a variety of ingredients in order to create positive change to look and feels its best.
Here is what I suggest doing. First, use a retinol serum for two nights. It takes about 48 hours for that retinol to increase cell turnover from within and push the old skin cells to the surface. At this point, two nights later, you’ll want to use an exfoliating acid serum with lactic and glycolic acids, and maybe salicylic acid if you’re prone to clogged pores. This serum will dissolve the old, expired skin cells, even if you don’t visibly see any surface dryness. On the next night after you’ve exfoliated with the serum, I like to recommend a nourishing serum with ingredients like peptides, antioxidants, and hydrators to fortify the skin. When you use this type of product, it will work really effectively for the new, fresh cells to ensure they are getting what they need to thrive.
Of course, the serums you use will depend on your skin type and its specific needs, and you can always tailor your serums to what your skin requires at the moment. Generally, I find that focusing on one serum a night and letting it do its job is the best strategy. By rotating serums that provide specific benefits to the skin, you can truly get the best, most well-rounded results.
Look For a Well-Formulated Serum With Many Beneficial Ingredients
I notice a lot of brands lately focusing on a single “hero” ingredient, then including that ingredient in a serum at a high percentage. We’re wired to think that the more of something we’re getting, the better it will be. But when it comes to ingredient percentages, higher isn’t always better. I see this trend of high percentages more as a marketing push. After all, the skincare industry is so saturated that brands have to do something to set themselves apart from the crowd from a marketing perspective.
What I suggest looking for instead is a well-rounded serum that will ultimately benefit your skin in more ways than one. For example, these exfoliating acid serums include ingredients like glycerin, allantoin, and aloe to soothe and hydrate, offsetting any potentially irritating effects from the acids. This retinol serum includes anti-aging peptides to enhance the overall firming effect of the formula as well as hydrators to make it easily tolerated by sensitive skin.
A well-formulated serum will not need to be blended with other serums because it should be doing multiple things at once anyway. Note: Always use a moisturizer over a serum to lock it into the skin.
Sunscreen Mixed with Other Ingredients—NOT a Match Made in Heaven
I do want to make a separate note about this because it’s so important. I’ve seen videos on Youtube of people mixing serums, moisturizers, and oils into their sunscreen before applying it. Generally speaking, you never want to mix your sunscreen with any other product because you run the risk of not getting the full SPF number listed on the bottle. Sunscreen is an FDA-approved drug and mixing other products into it is just not a good practice. Again, layering is the best approach, and a generous coat of sunscreen should be your final application in the morning.
I recommend looking for a facial sunscreen with a hydrating base, this way you can avoid layering too many heavy products underneath your SPF.
Other Ingredient Combinations
Vitamin C (unstable forms like ascorbic acid and l-ascorbic acid) + retinol = not recommended to use together. Different pH’s that can conflict with one another.
Vitamin C (unstable forms like ascorbic acid and l-ascorbic acid) + AHAs = can be used together but may cause irritation for sensitive skin types. Proceed with caution.
Vitamin C (stable forms like magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, ascorbyl methylsilanol pectinate, and tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate + AHAs = can safely be used together without the risk of irritation. (But I do recommend using vitamin C in the morning and AHAs at night. Learn more about exfoliating AHAs.)
Retinol + Benzoyl Peroxide = not recommended to use together. Benzoyl peroxide oxidizes easily and since retinol does as well, it could make them both less effective.
Retinol + Retinol = not recommended to double dose. If you’re using a well-formulated retinol serum, it should engage your retinol receptors to do its job. When you layer on another retinol serum, in an effort to increase the results, you’ll wind up with unnecessary and unwanted irritation.
It’s becoming a big trend to mix and layer products into a bespoke cocktail for your skin, but this isn’t the best way to maximize skin health—or your wallet. First, be mindful that your skin can only absorb so much at one time. Second, remember that mixing ingredients in your bathroom isn’t the same as mixing ingredients in a lab. (You might want to read why I’m NOT a fan of DIY at-home recipes!) It’s important to differentiate between truth and trend and realize that layering on more products isn’t guaranteed to give your skin better results. This is why I always suggest following the manufacturer’s directions for usage.
I hope you found this post helpful and enjoyed my take on the skincare cocktailing trend! #ObeyRenee 🙂
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”