What is the best time of day to use retinol?
"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.
With that in mind, most pros recommend slathering on your retinoids at night, because that's when your skin shifts into repair mode anyway. "[At night], 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," says Michaella Bolder, a facialist in New York City.
Can you wear retinol in the sun?
Though you'll likely to get more bang for your buck using retinoids at night, that doesn't mean you can't use them during the day—you'll just 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).
- 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
1. Find the right product
"Traditional retinol can be inactivated by sun which is why it's recommended to be used at night," says Daniel Butler, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Arizona. However, as formulas have gotten smarter, they've also become easier to wear whenever. "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 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 is 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; SuperGoop! Daily Dose ($48), which pairs bakuchiol (a sun-safe retinol alternative) with SPF 40; and Neutrogena's Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream ($26), which features a proprietary, patented retinol stability technology to "maintain the 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.
2. Always. Wear. Sunscreen.
No matter what time of day you're using 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, and therefore makes it slightly easier to burn in sunlight," says Dr. Nazarian."Regardless of whether you apply your retinoid in the morning or at night, you should wear a broad-spectrum minimum SPF 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. Because the active can cause skin thinning and sensitivity, it's important to pair it with a moisturizer to keep your skin barrier intact and avoid irritation. Generally speaking, dermatologists recommend topping off your retinol with a moisturizer (in the morning or at night) that contains skin-strengthening ingredients like ceramides and glycerin.
That said, these days there are plenty of retinol-infused formulas that have built-in moisturizing benefits, like Paula's Choice Resist Intensive Repair Cream ($38) or Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Moisturizer Cream ($25), which won't have the same irritating effects and may not require additional moisturization.
Simply put, the retinol you use and the time of day you use it is entirely up to you. Traditional retinoids are best applied at night so that they can work their magic while your skin is in "rest and repair" mode, but there are plenty of next-gen formulas that are safe to use during the day too—just be sure to listen to your skin so you'll know you're giving it exactly what it needs. And, as always, don't forget to wear sunscreen.
- 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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