How to Layer The Ordinary Products – A Complete Guide

Christine Steuber
May 18, 2022
Would you like to introduce The Ordinary to your skincare routine but don't know where to start? Check out my guide with tips and recommendations!

I’m sure you must have heard about The Ordinary skincare products, especially its AHA BHA solution and Niacinamide & Zinc serum, which many online reviewers and popular YouTubers like Dr. Dre and Hyram have praised for the effects they deliver for oily and combination skin types. 

But how do you actually use these products on your skin?

It’s a valid question, considering that all The Ordinary solutions contain active ingredients that, when not applied correctly, can cause significant skin damage. I can tell you from my experience that when I first used the overhyped AHA BHA peeling, it left my face red for two days. Should I have left it for longer, I would have got a chemical burn. 

Since that scenario, I researched the topic thoroughly and decided to share my findings on how to layer The Ordinary products properly to get the maximum effect for your skin type. 

Let’s dive in!

3 Benefits of Layering Skincare Products

Product layering is applying your skincare in a specific order. According to SkinCity, you should start first with the solution that has the thinnest texture and is lighter in consistency. Such products also have a smaller structure of the molecules and can penetrate deeper into the skin. Products with a thicker texture (oils, creams) are usually applied last. 

So, you already know one benefit – applying a solution with the thinnest texture first helps get into your skin faster and deeper. But what are other benefits of skincare layering? 

A well-known makeup artist and skincare expert, Bobby Brown, singles out the following advantages:

  • Boosting the performance of active ingredients. That’s why the proper layering routine always recommends cleansing the face first and applying serums afterwards – skin with cleaned pores opens the way to active ingredients in serums. 
  • Combining ingredients safely. There are some components in skincare products that should never be used together. If we’re talking about The Ordinary solutions, it’s AHA BHA and Vitamin C – you should never combine them in the same skincare routine. The same goes for the combo of Vitamin C + Niacinamide/retinol. 
  • Preventing sun damage. Products that contain acids (e.g., AHA BHA) can cause skin pigmentation if you don’t apply at least SPF 30 after using them. 

So, what is the exact order of layering The Ordinary products?

After you use cleanser on your skin to remove dirt and dust and make your face squeaky clean, here’s what you should apply step by step:

  1. Water-based products
  2. Anhydrous solutions
  3. Oils
  4. Emulsions
  5. Suspensions

You can also add powders to your routine, but I’ll tell you about them a bit later. Now, let’s go over to the next section, where I’ve prepared a detailed description of the product layering order above. 

A Step-by-Step Guide to Layering The Ordinary Products

The Ordinary has a very extensive list of products suitable for different skin types. You can definitely put together a skincare routine just by selecting the products from this list, take a look (you can also download it):

Now, I want to discuss each product category based on the layering routine I mentioned above, give you some recommendations and touch upon the pros and cons.

Step #1: Water-based products

The main component of water-based products is aqua, which you will notice in the list of ingredients. These solutions are very lightweight and are necessary for hydrating the skin. The consistency of water-based products is non-greasy, which makes them perfect for any skin type. 

So, the core reason to use water-based products after cleansers is hydration. As a result, your skin will also feel nourished and rejuvenated. However, some organizations consider using water in skincare solutions as not environmentally friendly. Nevertheless, it works as a necessary emulsifier to stop the ingredients from separating. 

Now, which water-based products does The Ordinary offer?

There are plenty, but I’d like to talk about AHA 30% + BHA 2% peeling, Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%, and “Buffet.”

1) AHA 30% + BHA 2% peeling solution

The Ordinary AHA BHA solution
Credit: The Ordinary

This product is a peeling exfoliator containing 30% alpha hydroxy acids (citric, tartaric, lactic, glycolic) and 2% beta hydroxy acids (salicylic, hyaluronic) plus Vitamin B5. Such a combination of ingredients makes this solution great for acne-prone skin and helps you achieve the following perks:

  • Brighter complexion
  • Less congested skin
  • Fewer blemishes and reduced acne scars
  • Better skin texture, less visible pores

The AHA BHA solution is one of the products The Insider beauty review team has been recommending for many years, saying that it has been showing results even on very problematic skin. 

Warning: since we’re talking about acids here, there is a real danger of a chemical burn. That’s why you need to apply this product very carefully and follow the instructions to the tee. I highly recommend watching Cassandra Bankson, a popular YouTuber and cosmetologist, and her tutorial on applying the AHA BHA peeling correctly. By the way, it was one of the solutions that helped her cure her cystic acne. 

2) Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%

The Ordinary Niacinamide + Zinc solution
Credit: The Ordinary

The main ingredient of this serum is Niacinamide or Vitamin B3, the key goal of which is to reduce blemishes and help with pore congestion. When layered on the skin, it creates a thin film for a few seconds, which then disappears as your skin absorbs the product. At least, this is how this product works for me. In tandem with zinc, niacinamide also helps brighten skin complexion. 

I’ve been using this product for almost two years now to help my oily, acne-prone skin regenerate faster. I had hormonal acne, which would often stay under the surface of my skin and cause me a lot of pain. So, I decided to introduce this solution to my skincare routine after a series of peelings at a cosmetologist’s office. Almost two years have passed, and I haven’t had one cystic acne since. 

Warning: Niacinamide must not be mixed with Vitamin C, as mentioned earlier. They are both powerful antioxidants, but they are also not compatible. Dr. Marchbein, a certified cosmetologist, also confirmed this to InStyle. It’s better to use Vitamin C in the morning and Niacinamide + Zinc in the evening. 

3) “Buffet”

The Ordinary Buffet solution
Credit: The Ordinary

This is a peptide serum that fights the signs of skin aging. So, if you have fine lines or wrinkles (or want to prevent them), this product should definitely be in your skincare routine. It is suitable for all skin types and works as an antioxidant as well. 

It is recommended to use “Buffet” in the morning and evening after cleansing your face. The multi-peptide formula also works great on oily skin, reducing sebum and pores. I also recommend this product to young adults (like me) who are afraid of the first signs of aging. I used this solution to reduce my laugh lines, and the results became visible after two months. 

Warning: this solution, like the ones above, cannot be used with some products. For instance, you shouldn’t apply it with direct acids, Vitamin C, and Niacinamide powder. 

Another product I highly recommend you use at this stage is The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution. It has exfoliating effects and improves skin texture. I use it in the PM, avoiding the area around the eyes. 

Step #2: Anhydrous products

Anhydrous literally means “without water,” so we’re moving to the line of skincare products by The Ordinary that are not water-based. 

What do these solutions contain instead?

They include oil-soluble ingredients. Such products are very concentrated, and you don’t need much of them to apply on your skin. Therefore, one package will last you longer. 

Also, if you’re environmentally conscious, you are safe to use anhydrous skincare as it doesn’t contain preservatives. 

You will find many The Ordinary anhydrous products on our list above, but I want to focus on three of them – Ascorbic Acid 8% +Alpha Arbutin 2%, Retinol 1% in Squalane, and Salicylic Acid 2% Anhydrous Solution.

1) Ascorbic Acid 8% + Alpha Arbutin 2%

The Ordinary Ascorbic Acid 8% + Alpha Arbutin 2%
Credit: The Ordinary

This product contains Vitamin C and alpha arbutin, both known for their brightening properties. I also mentioned earlier that Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that evens skin tone and reduces the signs of aging. In its turn, alpha arbutin brings down pigmentation and dark spots. 

So, as you already know, Vitamin C layering can be tricky as it doesn’t combine well with many water-based products, after which this solution should be applied. What should you do in this case?

According to the cosmetologist Dr. Markey, here’s how you should add solutions containing Vitamin C to your routine:

  • In the morning – after cleanser, before moisturizer, and SPF. 
  • In the evening – mixing it with the moisturizer or layering Vitamin C before applying the moisturizer. 

Warning: remember that Vitamin C doesn’t mix well with Niacinamide and AHA BHA acids. So, it’s better to use it separately, e.g., in your morning routine.  

2) Retinol 1% in Squalane

The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane
Credit: The Ordinary

Retinol is another important component of the skincare routine for someone who wants to reduce the signs of skin aging. In this product, it is combined with squalane, a moisturizing agent that helps keep your skin refreshed. 

But here’s the thing – retinol is also quite dangerous. It can cause redness, swelling, and peeling of the skin, which are all normal and indicate that your skin is building up tolerance. However, to avoid these unpleasant sensations, you can use a lower concentration of Retinol (0.2% or 0.5%) which The Ordinary offers. 

Warning: retinol makes your skin more sensitive to UV rays. That’s why experts recommend applying it in the PM and heavily using SPF during the day. 

3) Salicylic Acid 2% Anhydrous Solution

The Ordinary Salicylic acid 2% anhydrous solution
Credit: The Ordinary

If you’re someone who prefers water-free solutions for acne-prone skin, this is the one for you. It contains salicylic acid – perfect for congested pores and acne scars. It also facilitates the shedding of the dead skin, helping it regenerate. 

As someone who’s struggling with balancing oily skin, I can confirm that this product has been one of the best in my skincare routine. However, I should mention that I use it occasionally and don’t mix it with Niacinamide + Zinc solution. I also don’t use it after peelings when my skin is very sensitive. 

Warning: salicylic acid is a BHA solution that can make your skin sensitive to sunlight. So, it’s essential to use SPF religiously to prevent sun damage. Also, the product should be used on dry skin in a very moderate amount.

Step #3: Oils

The next step in skincare layering is applying oils, and they bring your skin tons of benefits. For instance, according to Verywell Health, some oils contain Vitamins A, C, E, D, polyphenols, Omega-3 fatty acids, and botanical antioxidants. As a result, using oils on your face can bring the following advantages:

  • Strengthening skin barrier
  • Evening out skin complexion
  • Regulating sebum
  • Cleansing the skin

However, the same resource also says there are particular risks associated with using this ingredient, especially essential oils – they can cause irritation. Also, if you have extremely oily skin with frequent breakouts, oils can clog your pores, resulting in even more acne. 

Nevertheless, the advantages of using oils often outweigh the cons. And, The Ordinary offers a wide range of products. Let’s take a look at two of them – 100% Organic Cold-Pressed Rose Hip Seed Oil and 100% Cold-Pressed Virgin Marula Oil.

1) 100% Organic Cold-Pressed Rose Hip Seed Oil

100% Organic Cold-Pressed Rose Hip Seed Oil
Credit: The Ordinary

Rose hip seeds are rich in linoleic acid, linolenic acid, and Vitamin A. All these components are known as beauty ingredients and help rejuvenate and revitalize the skin. Thanks to the technology of cold pressing, these compounds don’t degrade. You can use this product for dehydration, dullness, and signs of aging. It also works well to support skin balance in general. 

The best part about this oil is that it is compatible with all the products we’ve already reviewed. However, if you have sensitive skin, this product can cause irritation. So, I recommend following The Ordinary’s patch test guide to make sure you’re not allergic to the main ingredient. 

Warning: this solution comes in a package with UV protection, so avoid placing it in direct sunlight. 

2) 100% Cold-Pressed Virgin Marula Oil

100% Cold-Pressed Virgin Marula Oil
Credit: The Ordinary

Our skin needs antioxidants to remain soft and young-looking, and they help it fight radiation and pollution. Marula oil creates a protective barrier on your skin and is rich in antioxidants. Flavonoids also help maintain skin hydration. 

Reviewers point out that they use Marula oil to even out skin complexion. You can also use it for pigmentation and dark spots. Some customers also use this oil on hair, applying it directly after washing. It adds extra shine, making your hair look stronger and healthier. 

Also, good news – this product fits every skincare regimen and can be used on all skin types. 
Warning: as with the previous product, patch testing is required, especially if you have sensitive skin.

Step #4: Emulsions

An emulsion is a water-based product with a gel-like or milky texture. Its goal is to moisturize your skin, and it can be applied instead of creams or facial oils. So, if you don’t like the greasy feeling after using oils, you can substitute them with an emulsion. 

Here are some benefits of including emulsions in your skincare routine:

  • Faster product absorption
  • Hydrating and locking the moisture in the skin
  • Delivering nutrients deeper into the skin

Apart from that, emulsions are not comedogenic like oils, which makes them perfect for acne-prone skin. 

I’d like to take a look at one product in this category – Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion.

1) Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion

The Ordinary Granactive Redinoid 2% Emulsion
Credit: The Ordinary

Previously known as Advanced Retinoid, this emulsion contains HPR, a retinoid that helps fight signs of aging. It also doesn’t cause irritation as much as the usual retinol products do. The goal is to help reduce fine lines, wrinkles, and boost skin rejuvenation. 

Much like all retinol products, this one also makes your skin UV-sensitive. So, make sure you have good sunscreen for protection. Also, this product is not suitable for acne-prone skin. In fact, according to The Ordinary website mentioned above, it can cause even more breakouts. 

If you decide to try this product, use it in the evening after water-based solutions but before heavier treatments. Also, do preliminary patch testing to avoid irritation. 

Warning: As with all retinol products, don’t use Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Step #5: Suspensions

Suspension is a formula that binds the ingredients that usually don’t mix. Typically, these ingredients come in liquid and solid forms. Such a mixture provides the following benefits:

  • A more even skin tone
  • Reduced dullness
  • Less visible skin texture irregularities

However, suspensions need to be carefully introduced to your skincare routine because they often contain components that don’t combine well with some ingredients, like acids. 

The Ordinary has a line of suspensions, among which is Azelaic Acid 10% and Vitamin C 30% in Silicone. Let’s take a closer look at them. 

1) Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%

The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%
Credit: The Ordinary

Azelaic acid is produced by yeast, common in normal skin. In other words, it is naturally produced by your epidermis but can be reduced because of the harmful impact of the environment. 

Adding the Azelaic Acid Suspension to your skincare regimen reactivates its natural production and delivers the following benefits:

  • Brightens the skin
  • Reduces the signs of aging
  • Evens the skin tone
  • Works as an antioxidant
  • Removes textural irregularities

Experts at Deciem Beauty suggest using this product in the evening, but if you use it in the morning, make sure to apply moisturizer and SPF afterwards. Melissa Van Dijk shows how to use this suspension in your skincare routine:

Warning: there should not be any scratches or acne wounds on your skin when using this product. If you use it on broken skin or after dermaplaning, it may cause irritation.

2) Vitamin C Suspension 30% in Silicone

The Ordinary Vitamin C Suspension 30% in Silicone
Credit: The Ordinary

As I already mentioned, Vitamin C is an excellent antioxidant that repairs the skin and reduces wrinkles and fine lines. By adding silicone to this product, The Ordinary managed to achieve a soft texture that leaves your skin soft and hydrated. 

Here, Deciem experts also recommend using this suspension in the PM. But applying it in the morning is also possible if you use sunscreen afterwards. Dermatologists warn that there can be a strong tingling sensation within the first two weeks of use, but you can minimize it by mixing this product with your moisturizer. 

If you’re wondering how to apply this product correctly, Melissa Van Dijk has a tutorial for this one as well:

Warning: this suspension doesn’t mix with peptides, “Buffet,” Niacinamide, direct acids, retinol, and retinoids.

Extra: Powders

Alright, since I promised you to talk about powders in skincare, let us discuss this topic a bit. 

Usually, powders are not a must-have in a skincare regimen, and you can easily substitute them with serums. The trend of using powders originated in Korean beauty, which became popular in the past couple of years. 

It is considered that powders contain a higher concentration of ingredients. So, if you want to treat a specific issue, using powder will help you achieve the result faster. 

So, what does The Ordinary offer in this category?

The first and probably most interesting product is 100% Niacinamide powder. Obviously, it is already more concentrated than the serum we mentioned earlier, which contains only 10% of this ingredient. 

How does it work?

Essentially, you add a quarter scoop of the spoon provided with the powder to your water-based products, mix them well together, and apply to the face. 

Another powder created by The Ordinary contains L-Ascorbic Acid, which you can use to brighten your skin and even out your skin tone. The product application in this case is the same as with the Niacinamide powder. 

The Ordinary products you should not mix

I already mentioned that, due to the high concentration of the ingredients, you absolutely should not mix some The Ordinary products. I’ve listed those cases here and there in the previous section, but let me reiterate what I said with this handy graph below:

So, before you use The Ordinary products, make sure to take a look at this graph (you can even download it if you want). Trust me, it will be of great help if you want your skincare routine to deliver the maximum results.

How to Layer the Ordinary to Achieve Your Goals?

Alright, since we’ve covered the basics of layering The Ordinary products along with some dos and don’ts, let’s now discuss how to combine them into a skincare regimen to achieve different goals. 

After browsing through the internet meticulously, I’ve picked four skincare goals people try to achieve with The Ordinary products. These are just my personal recommendations, so if you have any other products to suggest for a specific skincare goal, drop me a reply in the comment section!

Let’s dive in!

For acne

The Ordinary has a wide range of products for acne-prone skin. I don’t impose any of these products on you – feel free to include any lotions or moisturizers you love in your skincare as long as they have a positive effect on your skin. However, I found that the regimen below really changed the quality of my skin and helped some of my friends:

The Ordinary Skincare Regimen for Acne-Prone Skin - Firstforher

You can use the same routine for the AM, just make sure to add sunscreen. Also, I recommend taking a 30-minute break between the toner and the serum to let the skin absorb the ingredients.

For hyperpigmentation

Next, if you would like to get rid of dark spots, The Ordinary has a bunch of products you can take advantage of, such as Vitamin C and acids. However, make sure not to use both within the same skincare routine. 

Here’s what I’d suggest:

The Ordinary Skincare Routine to Treat Hyperpigmentation - Firstforher

So, the start for this routine is the same as in the previous section, but I’d like to highlight the differences between the AM and PM regimens. I recommend using Vitamin C in the morning and applying a lot of sunscreen after the moisturizer. In the evening, I’d advise going for a suspension.

For dehydration

Now, what if your skill feels too dry and obviously requires more moisturizing? In this case, you need to steer clear of the solutions that would dehydrate your skin and strip it of moisture and heavily go into oils and hydrating products. 

Here’s what you can opt for:

Skincare routine for dehydration - Firstforher

As you can see, I’ve added an oil-based product to this regimen for the skin that needs extra hydration. However, make sure to use it after water-based serum. This regimen also works for the AM, but make sure to add sunscreen.

For anti-aging

Finally, let’s talk about what The Ordinary products you can use for anti-aging treatments. Warning: this routine will include retinol, which can cause irritation. So, make sure to consult your cosmetologist and/or dermatologist before using solutions with retinol or retinoids. 

I’ve divided the anti-aging routine into the morning and evening:

Anti-aging skincare routine for day and night - Firstforher

As you can see, along with preventing aging, the goal is also to moisturize your skin heavily. Using hyaluronic acid with the retinoid solution will help prevent irritation. Here, you can also see that I broke the skincare layering rules a bit by listing the emulsion first and then going to a water-based serum and oil. This is done for the purpose of maximizing hydration. 

However, I’d like to emphasize it one more time – make sure to talk to a professional before using this skincare routine.

Over to You

So, here you go – a full guide to layering The Ordinary products. At first glance, it may seem extremely difficult to add them to your skincare routine correctly, especially for a layman. But I learned from my mistakes, and I hope that this article will help you improve your skincare game as well. 

Interested in more articles like this? Make sure to check the entire Beauty block on my website – I’ve got some great gems there!

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