Apparently You Can Wear Retinol During the Day—But There Are Rules, People

Photo: Stocksy / ohlamour studio

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. Still, it doesn't erase the question for the part of our brain that breaks the rules: can I use retinol during the day? 

Experts typically warn against it, but using retinol can't be that bad, right? The short answer is that it's complicated. So, to help put the temptation to rest, we spoke to dermatologists Joshua Zeichner, MDRachel Nazarian, MDMarisa Garshick, MD, and Daniel Butler, MD, for their tips on the best time to use retinol for great results. 

Experts In This Article
  • Daniel Butler, MD, Daniel Butler, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in Arizona. 
  • Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology and associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital
  • Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York

What is the best time of day to use retinol?

If you forgot to put your active skincare on last night and are wondering if you can use retinol during the day dermatologists say you should think about it. "Retinol traditionally has been used in the evening because the molecule is highly unstable in the presence of UV light," Dr. Zeichner explains. This is because retinoids are a vitamin A derivative, which typically doesn't hold up well in the sun. According to Dr. Nazarian, retinoids are naturally photo-unstable, meaning they break down in sunlight, making them less effective. "

Besides the UV stability dilemma, retinoids make your skin more prone to sun damage. "All retinoids cause a slight thinning of the outermost layer of dead skin cells, making it slightly easier to burn in sunlight," Dr. Nazarian says. With that in mind, most pros recommend slathering on your retinoids at night because your skin shifts into repair mode.

Can you wear retinol in the sun?

Though you'll likely get more bang for your buck using retinoids at night, you technically can use retinol during the day (also if you prefer to live on the edge, which, hats off to you). If you decide to be a risk-taker (which we'd encourage you to err on the side of caution), you'll want to do so with the right products and the utmost care (and the understanding that the formulas may not be doing as much for your skin as they could be while you sleep). Still, if you're wearing retinol during the day, you'll want to keep a few tips in mind.

Find the right product

"Traditional retinol can be deactivated by the sun, which is why it's recommended to be used at night," Dr. Butler explains. However, as formulations have evolved, many products with retinol have become more tolerable during the day. "Advances in cosmetic formulation have 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 retinoid called adapalene (excellent for acne-prone skin and found in OTC products like Differin) is more stable and doesn't break down in sunlight.

Always wear sunscreen

No matter what time of day you use your retinoid, the ingredient inherently thins your skin, making it more susceptible to sun damage. Because of this, it's critical to wear sunscreen any time you're out in the sun—and that goes double if you're using retinol during the day.

"All retinoids cause a slight thinning of the outermost layer of dead skin cells, which makes it slightly easier to burn in sunlight," says Dr. Nazarian. Whether you apply your retinoid in the morning or at night, wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 whenever you're in the sun to prevent burning.

Should you moisturize after retinol?

Sunscreen isn't the only important sidekick to your retinol routine—moisturizing is critical. Because the ingredient can cause skin thinning and sensitivity, pairing it with a moisturizer is important to keep your skin barrier intact and avoid irritation. Dermatologists recommend topping off your retinol with a moisturizer with ingredients like ceramides and glycerin, which helps to hydrate a thirsty skin barrier. 

Does retinol have to be washed off in the morning?

You don't have to worry about washing retinol off in the morning since it absorbs into your skin while you sleep (if applied at night). The only non-negotiable for your using retinol during the day is SPF, which you should use daily to protect your skin (which, again, is more sun sensitive when you're using a retinoid) from UV damage.

What to avoid when using retinol

Alpha and beta hydroxy acids

Exfoliating acids, like glycolic (an AHA) and salicylic (a BHA), pack a punch; mixing them with a retinoid can cause serious irritation and dryness. If you want both in your routine, use them on different nights, alternating a la skin cycling.

Other types of retinoids

Having one retinoid in your routine is all you need to see actual results, so avoid mixing multiple types of these vitamin A derivatives. While you'll most commonly see "retinol" on over-the-counter labels, other forms of the ingredient include adapalene, retinaldehyde, retinyl esters, tazarotene, and trifarotene (which are all OTC), and tretinoin (which requires a prescription). So, if you're already using some form of retinol during the day or at night, you don't have to layer on additional serums that "contain retinol." Just consider your current product one and done.

Vitamin C

According to Dr. Garshick, using vitamin C and retinol together may also cause irritation. Your best bet to keep your skin from flaring up is to use vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night, and of course, use SPF in tandem with these ingredients. 

Final takeaways

Retinoids are best applied at night to work their magic while your skin is in repair mode. Still, if you choose to wear retinol during the day,  that's totally up to you, though you run the risk of irritating your already-sensitive skin. Still, experts say using retinol during the day isn't highly recommended, and nighttime is your best bet for best results. Regardless, if you're utilizing a retinoid, be sure to alternate other active ingredients in your routine, And, again, don't forget to put on SPF. 

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Tolleson, William H et al. “Photodecomposition and phototoxicity of natural retinoids.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 2,1 (2005): 147-55. doi:10.3390/ijerph2005010147

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