Whether To Apply Skin Care to Wet or Dry Skin

Whether To Apply Skin Care to Wet or Dry Skin

No matter how amazing your skin-care products are, they can only work to their full potential if you’re putting them on correctly. Some ingredients work best when applied to slightly damp skin, while others require skin to be totally dry to reach peak performance. And if you don’t adhere to these specifics, Shirley Chi, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Southern California, says you won’t be getting the most out of your regimen.

“Your skin-care routine should take several minutes,” says Dr. Chi. That’s because you may have to wait for one step to dry before you can proceed with the next to get the most effective results. Below, Dr. Chi breaks down which ingredients should go on damp skin and which ones need dry skin.

1. Moisturizing ingredients: damp skin

“Moisturizers should really be placed on just slightly damp, freshly washed skin,”  says Dr. Chi. “The way they work is that they trap moisture, so if you are putting moisturizer on skin that’s fully dry, I mean more than 30 seconds dry, then it really doesn’t do that much to moisturize.”

If your facial routine is simple and you’re just applying a moisturizer after you cleanse, you’ll want to do this ASAP, while your skin is still wet. The same goes for any moisturizing serums you may layer into your routine, like hyaluronic acid, squalene, or niacinamide.

2. Active ingredients: dry skin

Anytime you’re applying an active ingredient (aka an ingredient that actively changes the skin) like retinol, glycolic acid, vitamin C, or hydrocortisone, you want to apply it to a dry complexion. That’s because you want the ingredient to be able to fully sink in instead of just sliding around on top of wet skin. This is especially true for any cream or oil-based actives, as we know oil and water do not get along.

“It’s more effective if you’re applying it and it stays where you need to put it,” says Dr. Chi. For example, “if you have a prescription topical, brightening oil, or an anti-inflammatory medication, dry skin is better, because if it’s wet and there’s any oil at all in the medication, it just slips off.”

So if you want to use a moisturizing serum (like the ones mentioned above), apply that right out of the shower while your skin is still wet, and let your skin air dry for a few minutes before following up with your active. Then, you can apply your moisturizer right on top of that. Your skin should still be moist enough from your active serum to allow it to penetrate properly.

Here’s where it gets tricky: Some serums include both moisturizing and active ingredients—like a vitamin C serum that’s formulated with hyaluronic acid or a retinoid that’s also got squalane. In these cases, when you apply should depend on what benefits you’re looking to get out of the serum. If you’re focused solely on moisturizing, apply them to damp skin, but if you want to make the most of the actives, wait until your complexion is dry.

3. Sunscreen: dry skin

Most importantly, your sunscreen needs to go on dry skin. Whether it’s chemical or mineral, sunscreen and wet skin do not mix. “If you put a mineral sunscreen on wet skin, it doesn’t go on,” says Dr. Chi. And while chemical sunscreen may blend into wet skin, it’s not going to work as well. “The way chemical sunscreens work is that they actually interact with your stratum corneum, with the top layer of your epidermis, to absorb ultraviolet rays so that they don’t go into your skin and do damage. If you’re applying it to wet skin, then that’s going to affect the absorption of the chemical sunscreen.” And in effect, how well it’s able to absorb UV rays.

Need some routine inspo? Here’s how a dermatologist cares for her skin:

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