Comparison of skin hydration in combination and single use of common moisturizers (cream, toner, and spray water)

What’s the best way to organize your skincare routine? Should we layer from thickest to thinnest? Where does sunscreen go?

I’ve been asked this a lot and I don’t have the answer. Most research on skincare application is done with just one product. Sunscreens are always tested on clean skin with no other products. If you want to get as close to the protection on the label, it’s best to recreate the conditions it was tested on, which means applying it on clean skin and not following it with anything else. The same applies for most cosmetic products as well.

That’s not realistic for everyone and many of us enjoy using multiple products. But the reality with a lot of the advice found online and from experts is that it’s just advice and often isn’t based on evidence – especially scientific evidence.

A group of Chinese researchers performed an experiment looking at the effect of different combinations of three products (moisturizer, toner, and mineral water sprays) and different application routines on skin moisture. Keep in mind that the only endpoint measured was stratum corneum moisture measured by the Corneometer, a capacitance measuring tool often used in cosmetic research. This experiment doesn’t provide any insight beyond skin moisture, like skin penetration of an active affected by combination or routine, for example.

20 female volunteers participated in this experiment. Eight 3-by-3 cm squares were drawn on the legs and forearms of each volunteer and were randomized to receive eight different routines and combinations – including a square with no product applied, acting as a control. The baseline moisture levels of the squares were measured and categorized into ‘normal’ or ‘dry’ by a limit of 35 a.u. (a measurement unit used by the Corneometer).

The 8 different combinations and routines are as follows;

Toner and Toner reapplied every 2 hours (T-T)
Cream then Toner together (C+T)
Toner only (T)
Cream only (C)
Cream then Water reapplied every 2 hours (C-S)
Untreated (Control)
Cream and Toner reapplied every 2 hours (C-T)
Toner then Cream together (T+C)

Stratum corneum moisture levels were measured every 2 hours, including a baseline, and participants were kept in a 22 °C room with a 50% humidity.

The products included in the test were a Winona brand Cream with the ingredients:

Aqua, Glycerol, Butyrospermum Parkii Oil, Dimethicone, Glycereth-26, Tridecyl Trimellitate, Pentylene Glycol, Hexyldecanol, Sucrose Polystearate, Diethylhexyl Cyclohexane, Petroleum Jelly, Tocopheryl Acetate, Prinsepia Utilis Royle Oil, Portulaca Oleracea Extract, Beta Glucans, Sodium Hyaluronate, Cetylhydroxyproline Palmitamide, Alpha Bisabolol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Hydrogenated Polyisobutene, Acrylamide, Acrylamide/ammonium Acrylate Copolymer, Acrylates/c10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer, Tween 20, Xanthan Gum, Disodium Edta, Polybutene, Polyisobutene, Butyl Stearate, Stearic Acid, Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhexylglycerin

a Winona brand Toner with the ingredients:

Aqua, Pentylene Glycol, Glycerol, Glycereth-26, Trimethylpentanediol/adipic Acid/glycerin Crosspolymer,
Portulaca Oleracea Extract, Beta Glucan, Sodium Hyaluronate, Hydroxyethyl Cellulose

and Avene Thermal Spring Water was used as the Mineral Water Spray.

While applying any form of skincare product created an increase in skin moisture in dry and normal skin, some combinations were significantly more effective than others.

Table VI is mislabeled and is the data for Dry Skin

Because the normal or dry categories were determined by Corneometer, there’s no way to self-categorize unless you have a Corneometer handy.

From this experiment, the increase in moisture from Cream then Toner, or Toner then Cream, or Cream only were about the same. This implies that the total amount of cream and toner applied is more important than the order of application. As well, this also implies that the increase in moisture is mostly from the cream and not the toner.

The researchers speculate that the increase in moisture reaches a peak depending on factors like the environment which slowly declines after application. Toner on its own did increase moisture of the skin, but even when combined with cream never surpassed the moisture gained from cream alone.

In terms of supplementation of with Water or Toner, the greatest increase in moisture was achieved with application of a Cream then Toner every 2 hours. Supplementation of Water after Cream application reduced skin moisture with each application. Toner with additional Toner supplementation increased skin moisture over time, but was still less than Cream and Toner.

I think reading descriptions of the effects is likely a bit confusing, so I encourage you to use the interactive charts to compare different applications.

Also keep in mind that this experiment used three specific products and concentration of ingredients will vary between products. So it’s best to use this information as a guideline, but not a rule.

Li Yuanxi, Wei Hua, Lidan Xiong, Li Li, Comparison of Skin Hydration in Combination and Single Use of Common Moisturizers (Cream, Toner, and Spray Water), Journal of Cosmetic Science (2016), PMID: 29394018