As a retinol devotee, I’ve learned a few key things about the all-star acne-fighting, glow-inducing skin-care ingredient: The most important of which is that vitamin A derivatives should go on once the sun goes down. That’s why I was surprised and intrigued that some new retinols instruct users to slather them on in the a.m. and p.m. Gasp! Wondering what to make of the rule-bending intel, I consulted dermatologists and skin-care gurus alike.
“Retinol traditionally has been used in the evening because the molecule is highly unstable in the presence of UV light,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. This is because retinoids are a derivative of vitamin A, which doesn’t really hold up with the sun. “Retinoids are naturally photo-unstable, meaning they break down in sunlight, making them less effective,” says Rachel Nazarian, MD, a dermatologist with New York’s Schweiger Dermatology Group.
“Retinoids are naturally photo-unstable, meaning they break down in sunlight, making them less effective. —Rachel Nazarian, MD
Besides the UV stability dilemma, retinoids also change your skin in a way that makes it more prone to sun damage. “All retinoids cause a slight thinning of the outermost layer of dead skin cells, and therefore makes it slightly easier to burn in sunlight,” says Dr. Nazarian. Hence the true need to wear sunscreen at all times (but TBH, you should be doing that anyways). “Regardless of whether you apply your retinoid in the morning or at night, you should have a broad-spectrum minimum SPF 30 on when in the sun to prevent burning.”
Facialist Michaella Bolder recommends retinols only be used at night, because that’s when your skin is rejuvenating anyways. “Retinol carries strong ingredients so you should use it at night for best results, whilst your body and skin does most of its hard work rejuvenating, repairing, and restoring its goodness ready for the next day,” she tells me. “Vitamin A gets to work in an uninterrupted environment on cell turnover, collagen stimulation, tightening of the pores, and a regulation of oil production as well as reducing fine lines and helping to manage skin maintenance.”
However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use them during the day per se, because as formulas have gotten smarter, they’re also easier to wear whenever. “Advances in cosmetic formulation has now brought in a generation of products with stabilized retinol so that it can be used morning or evening,” explains Dr. Zeichner. Dr. Nazarian adds that a third generation retinoid called adapalene (which, by the way, is a good, strong retinoid that’s great for the acne-prone) is more stable and doesn’t break down in sunlight: “You can use this one in the day if you like,” she says. This, she notes, is the type of retinoid found in ProactivMD ($30) and Differin ($15), for example. “It used to be a prescription product, but last year was moved to over-the-counter,” she says.
Dr. Zeichner points to another brand new retinoid that’s UV stable as well. “A new prescription retinoid lotion called Altreno was just brought to the market to treat acne, and has been shown to be stable in UV light, giving flexibility on when you can apply it,” he says. There’s also Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream ($74), which uses a vegan form of the retinol molecule and Neutrogena’s Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream ($26), which features a proprietary, patented retinol stability technology to “maintain efficacy of the highly unstable retinol molecule, even after exposure to air and light when the jar is opened, day after day,” the brand explains.
This miraculous stability is due to the molecule itself. “It’s an inherent quality of the molecule if it’s stabilized,” Dr. Nazarian explains. “Tretinoin is a different molecule than adapalene—adapalene doesn’t degrade when exposed to UV light. These different retinoids have different mechanisms of actions and attach to different retinoid receptors in the skin.” So whichever retinoid you go with, read the label and make sure it’s a type that’s safe to use in the daytime. And, no matter what: Always. wear. sunscreen.
Now that you’re savvy about retinoids, here’s the DL on hyaluronic acid, which boosts your skin’s hydration. And this is what to know about rice water in skin care, which is also key for moisture (and is huge in K-beauty).
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