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When to Apply Retinol In Your Skincare Routine So It’s Actually Effective

Photo by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Much like cell phones or the internet, we wonder how we existed before retinol, or any type of retinoids. While retinol has been an effective name to know for decades, it wasn’t an everyday skincare term until the last several years. Since then, the topical, multifaceted ingredient has been recommended for just about every skincare concern and skin type (sensitive skin, oily skin, and dry skin included). It’s also included in an array of top dermatologist-recommended products for the entire face.  

“Retinol is the vitamin A alcohol derivative of the vitamin A molecule,” says esthetician Rachel Lozina. “It speeds up cell turnover, normalizes cell function, and stimulates collagen, elastin, and healthy cells.”

Because of the above, “Retinol use has been shown to fade hyperpigmentation, acne scars, and dark spots, leading to a more even skin tone,” says founder of BYou Laser Clinic Irena Azaraev. “Its ability to stimulate collagen production can also result in firmer, more elastic skin, reducing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and signs of aging over time. It can also aid in the prevention of acne by regulating oil production and preventing the formation of comedones, the precursor to breakouts.”

Now that you’re aware of how retinol works, the tricky part often lies in understanding how to use retinol effectively. If applied incorrectly, it won’t help with the skin concerns it set out to treat. Keep reading for the expert breakdown on when to apply the powerful derivative of vitamin A in your skincare routine.

About the Experts:
Rachel Lozina is a licensed esthetician who founded Blue Water Spa in Oyster Bay, NY.
Irena Azaraev is the CEO and co-founder of BYou Laser Clinic in New York.

When to Apply Retinol in Your Skincare Routine

While retinol certainly exists in products designed for morning use, the experts agree that nighttime is the primetime for application. 

“Retinol is photosensitizing, so it should only be used at night,”says Lozina. “If you use it during the day, it can cause irritation and sun damage.” That said, there are safe variations of retinol that she recommends for daytime, including retinol palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl propionate (check your labels!).

Once you determine the time of day you’ll apply the ingredient, you’ll need to know at what exact point in the routine to make it happen. If you do go the daytime route, you’ll apply after cleanser and toner, and right before moisturizer. Irena says it's crucial to follow up with a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher to protect your skin from harmful UV rays.

In the evening skincare routine, she instructs to apply retinol after cleansing and toning, and before moisturizer. “This allows the retinol to penetrate the skin effectively and work its magic overnight while you sleep,” she explains. “By incorporating retinol into your nighttime routine, you can take advantage of its anti-aging and acne-fighting properties without exposing your skin to unnecessary risk during the day. This approach maximizes the benefits of retinol while minimizing potential side effects, ensuring that your skin remains healthy and radiant.”

Why It Matters When You Apply Retinol

As we addressed above, application time of day plays integral importance in product efficacy, as does timing in the routine itself. 

“Applying retinol at night allows it to work undisturbed by other skincare products or makeup, maximizing its effectiveness,” says Azaraev. “During sleep, the skin undergoes a natural repair and regeneration process, which is enhanced by the presence of retinol. This nighttime application also aligns with the natural circadian rhythms of the skin, optimizing the absorption and utilization of retinol for optimal results.”

In contrast, using retinol during the day may not only heighten sun sensitivity but “also render it less effective due to potential degradation from exposure to sunlight and other environmental factors,” the expert goes on to say. “Additionally, retinol may interact with certain skincare ingredients commonly used during the day, such as acids or vitamin C, potentially causing irritation or reducing efficacy.”

Ultimately, she says, “Adhering to the recommended nighttime application of retinol ensures not only its efficacy, but also minimizes the risk of adverse reactions and maximizes the overall benefits for your skin.”

Morning and Night Skincare Routines With Retinol

Now, the part you’ve been waiting for—how to incorporate retinol into a step-by-step routine by day and night. The following steps and tips have been compiled by our aforementioned experts and Team IPSY. 

A.M. Routine With Retinol

1. Cleanse

Start your day by cleansing your face to remove any impurities accumulated overnight. We typically opt for something gentle, as you want to effectively cleanse and hydrate without stripping the skin of natural oils. Our pick? The luxurious GROWN ALCHEMIST Gentle Gel Facial Cleanser With Geranium Leaf, Bergamot, Rose-Bud. This plant-based powerhouse helps decongest and tighten pores for radiantly smoother and even-toned skin.

2. Tone (Optional)

If you choose, you can follow up with a toner to rebalance the skin's pH levels and prepare it for subsequent skincare products. We recommend the DERMA E Radiance Toner, an IPSY fan fav, thanks to its alcohol-free formulation, blend of botanicals, and glycolic acid for shedding dead skin cells.

3. Apply Vitamin C Serum (Optional)

Depending on your skin type and experience level, you may not want to overdo it with product application. But if it works for you, we recommend a Vitamin C serum as a precursor to the rest of your routine. In fact, vitamin C pairs exceptionally well with retinol, so this is something you’ll likely want to build up to, if you’re not there already. Vitamin C targets dull skin and stimulates collagen—and we suggest the famous SUNDAY RILEY C.E.O. 15% Vitamin C Brightening Serum.

4. Apply a Retinol Serum Intended for A.M. Use

Because most retinols are designed solely for P.M. use, you’ll want to ensure whatever you’re using is intended for daytime wear. The VERSO SKINCARE Super Facial Serum, for example, is recommended for A.M. and P.M., and contains retinol 8—a stabilized vitamin A complex that’s eight times more effective than standard retinol, yet half as irritating.

5. Moisturize with SPF 

Moisturizer and SPF are key to any daytime skincare routine, so why not combine them? And in terms of post-retinol application, the moisturizer helps combat dryness, and SPF is imperative to combating sun sensitivity. We suggest the KEYS SOULCARE Protect Your Light SPF 30 Daily Facial Moisturizer, as it features squalane and niacinamide to offer soft, balanced skin.

P.M. Routine With Retinol

1. Remove Makeup With a Balm or Oil-Based Cleanser

Begin your nighttime routine by thoroughly cleansing your face with something that will lift makeup, dirt, and excess oil. The ELEMIS Pro-Collagen Cleansing Balm has been a longtime fan favorite, thanks to its mineral, plant-based, science-backed formula.  

2. Cleanse Skin With a Gel or Foam

This next step is utilizing the double cleanse to treat and refresh the skin. Depending on what your skin can tolerate, you’ll typically want an active cleanser with an AHA or BHA. Azaraev recommends the ZO SKIN HEALTH Exfoliating Cleanser because it contains physical and chemical exfoliants to deeply cleanse and refine the skin’s texture. We personally swear by the tried-and-true MURAD AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser, a cult favorite.

3. Tone (Optional)

Toning to rebalance the skin's pH levels and offer a base for further skincare application is once again optional (but can’t hurt if you’ve got it handy).

4. Apply Retinol 

Next, you’ll apply your retinol serum. Azaraev says you’ll get the best results by opting for a product formulated with an AHA. We suggest the lactic acid-infused SHANI DARDEN SKINCARE Retinol Reform Anti-Aging Serum. Not only is Shani Darden one of the most reputable names in the skincare industry, but this product helps visibly reduce fine lines and wrinkles, evens out skin tone, and fades dark spots. All you need is a dime-size amount per application. You’ll want to wait 3-5 minutes for it to absorb before moving on to the final step.

5. Moisturize 

Finish off your P.M. routine by applying a nourishing moisturizer to lock in hydration and support the skin's barrier function. Depending on your skin type, we often opt for something a bit thicker before bed. We’re fans of the IT COSMETICS Confidence In Your Beauty Sleep Night Cream, as it’s also beloved by our IPSY community, and developed by plastic surgeons and dermatologists.

Retinol Before or After Moisturizer?

As we touched on above, a retinol serum should always be applied before moisturizer. “This allows the retinol to come in direct contact with the skin, maximizing its efficacy,” explains Azaraev. “However, it's essential to allow the skin to fully absorb the retinol before applying moisturizer on top. This usually takes a few minutes, depending on the formulation and concentration of the retinol product.”

Want in on all the IPSY retinol fun and more? Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started with your own IPSY beauty subscription. Already an IPSY member? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and TikTok @IPSY.

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About the author
Dahvi Shira
Dahvi Shira
Dahvi Shira is a Los Angeles-based beauty writer, who has a passion for hair, makeup, and skincare. She contributes regularly to Mane Addicts and her blog, Skyelyfe. Her work has also appeared on Glossy, People, E!, Sweety High and more.
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Article Last Updated April 11, 2024 12:00 AM