The Biggest Skin Care Mistakes People Make At Night

Dermatologists break down the common missteps that are counterproductive — and even dangerous.
Dermatologists often seen patients who commit nighttime skin care faux pas.
Cavan Images via Getty Images
Dermatologists often seen patients who commit nighttime skin care faux pas.

We all have a nightly routine, and it includes skin care for many of us. But your evening practice may not be as beneficial as you think.

“Nighttime skin care mistakes are plentiful,” said Papri Sarkar, a Massachusetts-based dermatologist. “Who among us is able to be consistent night after night, especially in 2020 and 2021? I’m guilty of some myself.”

Even if you can’t get it right every time, there are some common mistakes that are worth trying to correct. Below, dermatologists share the biggest skin care errors people make and their advice for fixing them.

Applying vitamin C at night

Just as retinoids are best for nighttime use due to sunlight deactivation and sensitivity, vitamin C serums have an ideal time period for application.

“Don’t apply a vitamin C serum at bedtime,” said Dallas-based dermatologist DiAnne Davis. “As an antioxidant, it should be applied in the daytime to protect the skin from free radicals.”

Farhang echoed her advice, noting that vitamin C can “work synergistically with our sunscreen to fight off those free radicals from the sun.”

Another reason to apply vitamin C serum during the day: It doesn’t go well with topical retinoid, which is supposed to be applied at night.

“They can cancel each other out, rendering them both ineffective,” Davis said.

Not washing your face

“During the day, dirt, oil, makeup and even pollution particles build up on the skin,” said Joshua Zeichner, a dermatologist and the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “Not washing it off means that they can cause skin irritation, inflammation and free radical damage. This contributes to premature aging, dark spots, fine lines and even wrinkles.”

Not washing your face can have harmful health effects — including attracting acne-causing bacteria and impeding your skin’s natural replenishment process — especially if you wear makeup.

“Makeup can also especially damage the eyes by putting them at risk for eye infections, inflammation and corneal abrasions,” said Miami dermatologist Annie Gonzalez.

James Ralston, a dermatologist based in Texas, explained that people who don’t wash their faces at night also build a collection of bacteria and free radicals on their pillowcases, which amplifies the negative impact.

“In general, people should wash their face for 30 seconds at night with warm water and a gentle cleanser that is fragrance-free with neutral pH to avoid irritation and dryness,” he said, and advised talking to a dermatologist to discuss a personalized skin care routine.

New York City dermatologist Jeriel Weitz suggested a two-step cleansing routine if you wear makeup or sunscreen during the day.

“I recommend first to use micellar water or an oil-based cleanser before washing your face with a gentle cleanser to ensure proper removal of products worn during the day,” she said.

At a minimum, don't forget to wash your face at night.
Timbicus via Getty Images
At a minimum, don't forget to wash your face at night.

Failing to moisturize

“If the skin is dehydrated and the surface is dry and tight, this increases oil production as your skin tries to correct the problem naturally,” Gonzalez said. “Dehydration of the skin can also cause redness, sensitivity and irritation, and a moisturizer is an effective way to add water to the skin. In addition, your skin switches to repair mode at night, so applying moisturizer will help maximize absorption and enhance the skin barrier.”

It’s especially important to moisturize during the dry winter months when the skin becomes red, flaky and inflamed.

“Remember to wear moisturizer, especially if you have the heater blaring all night long,” advised Joyce Park, a dermatologist in Northern California. “For my really dry-skinned patients, I even recommend using a humidifier.”

Blair Murphy-Rose, a cosmetic and medical dermatologist and clinical instructor at Weill Cornell Medical College, explained that “our skin undergoes significant transepidermal water loss at night if we don’t take measures to prevent it. It is important to use a moisturizer that’s balanced for your skin type and that helps your skin to repair and regenerate while you sleep.”

Getting too aggressive

Sarkar advised against scrubbing too hard when you wash your face.

“Some folks wash and clean until their skin is squeaky-clean. Usually that squeaky sound is the sound of your skin’s natural oils being stripped away,” she said. “Our skin is supposed to have natural oils in it to help keep it intact and to protect our internal environment from outside irritants. Wash your face at night, but be gentle.”

Sheila Farhang, a board-certified dermatologist based in Arizona, similarly advised against aggressive exfoliation.

“I recommend gentle chemical exfoliation once a week because overdoing it can strip our natural oils, damage the integrity of the skin barrier and affect pH balance,” she said.

Improperly combining products

Take care when combining skin care products.

“Not layering your products correctly can lead to incomplete penetration and lack of efficacy of active ingredients,” said Corey L. Hartman, a dermatologist based in Birmingham, Alabama.

He recommended applying prescription products first and then going from lightest to thickest, with the most emollient item applied last as a seal.

“This will enhance the skin barrier and improve the effects of all other products,” Hartman noted.

The type of products you use in the same night can also be problematic.

“One common mistake is using benzoyl peroxide wash right before using a retinoid. This dries out the skin even more and can even inactivate certain retinoids; therefore, I recommend a gentle cleanser prior to retinoid use,” said Karan Lal, a New Jersey-based dermatologist and spokesperson for the Society for Pediatric Dermatology.

Dallas dermatologist Elizabeth Houshmand advised against using too many active ingredients at night.

“You should be cautious and use one active ― for example, retinol alone,” she said. “Don’t layer or combine retinol with a glycolic acid or too many of these actives. This can actually lead to irritation and disruption of your skin barrier. Less is more.”

And if you skipped your nighttime routine, don’t try to double up the next day — especially if you’re used to alternating ingredients.

“Often I see patients come in with dry, peeling skin because they meant to use their acne medicine alternating with their retinoid every other night and missed a bunch of days,” Sarkar said. “So they double up and use two very irritating ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, retinoids and glycolic acid all on the same night. That’s a recipe for disaster. Although all of those ingredients serve a purpose for different skin care conditions and help the skin in their own way, they do it best when your skin is healthy and has an intact skin barrier.”

Be mindful of the products you combine at night.
Cavan Images via Getty Images
Be mindful of the products you combine at night.

Neglecting your neck

“The skin on your neck is delicate, and as a result may show signs of aging sooner than other areas and is often neglected,” said New York City dermatologist Marisa Garshick. “In the current era of people concerned about fine lines and textural change, now being referred to as ‘tech neck,’ it is especially important to care for your neck as you do your face.”

Be sure to apply moisturizer to your neck to keep the skin hydrated. You can also buy neck-specific products.

Popping and picking

“A big skin care no-no I’ve seen is going down the rabbit hole of pimple-popping at night because the skin is clean and soft after showering and there are usually the hours overnight for skin recovery,” Farhang said. “The problem is a lot of people don’t know when to stop.”

She noted that people tend to get overzealous with whiteheads and overuse extractors to remove blackheads as well. Instead, Farhang recommends placing a pimple patch on problem spots.

New York City dermatologist Hadley King similarly advised against picking at your skin.

“Picking behaviors often occur at night before bedtime,” she said. “Picking is one of the worst things you can do to your skin. It increases risk of inflammation, infection, discoloration and scarring and it prolongs healing time.”

Ignoring your lips

“Many people aren’t using the right lip product or [are] not using any lip product,” Garshick said.

For those who suffer from dry or chapped lips, she advised layering on a thick ointment like Vaseline Healing Jelly Ointment or Aquaphor at bedtime.

“Not only will this lock in any moisture to help boost hydration, it will also create a protective barrier to reduce any irritation to lips overnight which may occur with lip-licking or drooling, which some people do in their sleep without even realizing it,” Garshick said.

Lal said he commonly sees cheilitis, or inflammation of the lips, which can be worsened by the way we breathe when we sleep.

“Breathing without hydration at night dries out the lips and can cause dry chapped lips,” he said. “It is for this reason I recommend an ointment-based emollient for the lips before bed for all patients.”

Forgetting to change your pillowcase

Evening skin care isn’t just about what you do at your bathroom sink. Your bed also plays a role.

“You may not have realized that your pillowcase should be part of your skin care routine,” Houshmand said. “Many people make the mistake of not changing their pillowcase often enough, which can lead to acne. Even if you wash your face nightly, it is important to change your pillowcase every few days.”

Nina Antonov, a dermatologist in Westport, Connecticut, advised switching to a silk pillowcase.

“This helps to avoid fine lines and wrinkles as well as hair breakage,” she said. “Silk is less likely to absorb the skin care products you’ve applied, so they stay on your skin and not your pillowcase.”

Not getting enough sleep

“I know this isn’t a strictly skin care routine, but staying up to binge your latest TV show or using your phone at night can interrupt our natural circadian rhythms and disrupt sleep,” Sarkar said. “Studies have shown that chronic poor or low sleep quality is associated with increased signs of skin aging and poor barrier function and makes people feel worse about how they look.”

On the flip side, getting the recommended eight hours of sleep each night can greatly benefit your skin.

“While you sleep, blood flow is increased to your skin, which allows collagen to rebuild and repair damage from environmental factors,” Weitz said. “Get your beauty rest!”

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