Updated 08/08/22. Layering and mixing skincare products, especially serums, has become a popular skincare trend lately. It’s sometimes referred to as “cocktailing,” because you combine serums or other products to create a bespoke mix for your skin. At first, it might seem like a great idea. After all, there are so many high-performance skincare ingredients out there these days, why not add some of them together to give your skin as many benefits as possible?
Upon further inspection, though, it’s simply not giving the benefits people think it is. While I understand the appeal of this approach, the reality is that you may not be maximizing your skincare routine as you think. Keep reading to learn why you should reserve your cocktailing for happy hour—not your skin!
First, What Is a Serum?
A serum is a concentrated skincare product that has a water, gel, or light lotion consistency. It contains a high concentration of performance ingredients. It definitely boosts the results of your skincare routine when used under a moisturizer or face mask. While using a cleanser, toner, and moisturizer is still the foundation of a solid routine, serums are an amazing addition.
What’s the Deal With Layering Serums?
Let’s say you have a serum with 10% Niacinimide (a vitamin B3 ingredient), and you apply it to your skin. Then after that, you layer on a serum that contains 15% vitamin C. The first serum penetrated the skin and left behind some residue on the skin’s surface. Therefore, the second serum may be less effective; it’s probably been diluted from the previous serum and its penetration potential has been decreased. This could mean that the vitamin C is now half as effective as it would have been (or possibly even less).
While it’s tempting to load up on multiple products and ingredients, your skin can only absorb so much. Think of it as a sponge; at some point, a sponge has absorbed all it can and water will just pour over it. This happens with your skin as well. Trust me, by using everything but the kitchen sink on your skin all at once, you’ll just end up throwing your money down the drain. 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 your skin at once, you run the risk of irritation. That will only cause damage and undo all the good you were trying to do with your serums.
If you insist on layering, apply one product at a time, and make sure it’s from thinnest to thickest consistency. 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.
What’s the Deal With Mixing Serums?
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 mixing two or three different types of products together in the palm of your hand before applying them to your face.
Mixing ingredients together in your hands just isn’t going to give you the best results. In the case of serums, you’ll get less efficacy from each serum due to dilution. Again, you’d be wasting your money by not getting full benefits from the product.
Let me also make this point. Not all serums are equal. Chemically speaking, one formula may be designed to penetrate via a certain mechanism. 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. You may be making them chemically less efficient, by disrupting their intended processes. Basically, it’s like you’re confusing the serums by mixing them together.
Lastly, if you’re mixing water-based products with oil or emollient-based products, know that oil and water don’t mix easily—and certainly not in the palm of your hands.
How Can You Get the Most Benefits from Your Serums?
It’s true that you’ll get the most out of using a variety of active ingredients, just not at the same time. Here’s the best way to incorporate multiple serums into your routine.
Rotate Your Serums
Instead of using multiple serums at once, I’ve always promoted using serums in rotation. Focus on one specific need each night.
I like to think of it as working out. You don’t want to do the same exercise every day. Instead, you want to do variety of different exercises on different days to give you the best results—that is, a fit body. The same goes for your skin. It requires a variety of ingredients in order to create a positive change and look and feels its best.
Here’s what I suggest doing. First, use a retinol serum, like the Advanced Resurfacing 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 (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.
The night after you’ve used the exfoliating serum, I like to recommend a nourishing serum with peptides, antioxidants, and hydrating ingredients to fortify the skin. I’ve always loved using the Firm + Repair Overnight Serum for this purpose.
Of course, the serums you use will depend on your skin type and its specific needs. 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, you can truly get the best, most well-rounded results.
Look for a Serum With Multiple Beneficial Ingredients
I notice a lot of brands 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.
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 hydrating ingredients to make it easy to tolerate.
A well-formulated serum doesn’t need to be blended with other serums. It should be doing multiple things at once anyway.
What Products and Ingredients Should NOT Be Combined?
Sunscreen + Other Products—NOT a Match Made in Heaven
I 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. A generous and stand-alone coat of sunscreen should be your final application in the morning.
I recommend looking for a sunscreen with a hydrating base. This way you can avoid layering too many heavy products underneath your SPF for extra moisture.
Other Ingredient Combinations
Vitamin C (unstable forms like Ascorbic Acid and L-Ascorbic Acid) + Retinol = not recommended. They have different pHs 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 acids.)
Retinol + Benzoyl Peroxide = not recommended. Benzoyl peroxide oxidizes easily. Retinol does as well, and 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 their job. When you layer on another retinol serum, in an effort to increase the results, you’ll wind up with unnecessary and unwanted irritation.
The Bottom Line
While it’s a big trend to mix and layer products to create a bespoke cocktail for your skin, this isn’t the best way to maximize results for your skin. (It’s not great for your wallet, either). 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 skincare 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. Her hands-on experience as an esthetician and trusted skin care expert has created a real-world solution — products that are formulated for nine different types of skin so your face will get exactly what it needs to look and feel its best. 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.”