Retinol Before or After Moisturizer? Which Goes First?

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Whether we’re racing against the sands of time or battling a chronic skin issue, having a top-notch beauty routine is important to our skin health and our self-esteem.

Among the several beauty trends, one item has become a household name. Retinol. You might have a hazy notion of what it does, but how much do you really know about it? How exactly should you work it into your regimen? Should you use retinol before or after moisturizer?

You should use retinol before your moisturizer.

Let’s delve into the world of retinol and transform confusion into clarity.  


What is Retinol?

The Ordinary Retion

Retinol is a byproduct created from vitamin A and it is used in many skin creams and serums. This nutrient’s claim to fame is the ability to transform skin. As you’ll see, it seems to do everything. 

It can exfoliate the epidermis, the top layer of skin, and unclog pores. This in turn reduces acne and prevents blemishes and breakouts. 

Furthermore, it goes deeper into the middle layer of skin to improve the chemical balance of cells by neutralizing free radicals. This slows down natural damage to our skin that happens during the aging process.

Retinol stimulates the production of fresh new cells, strengthens the skin, and increases the amount of collagen and elastin. The result? Smoother, firmer, brighter skin with fewer wrinkles and a more even tone. 

This miracle vitamin can also reduce dark spots, shrink large pores and take away excess oil while adding necessary moisture to the skin! Basically, it will help your skin achieve an all-around healthier, younger appearance.

It really does deserve its star on the beauty industry’s walk of fame!

Retinol vs Retinoid

You may have heard of ‘retinoid’ and wondered if it is the same as retinol. Retinol is considered a member of the retinoid family.

In general, when someone mentions the term retinoid, they are referring to a more intense, potent version of retinol.

There are some over-the-counter versions of retinoid . But many retinoid products have to be prescribed by a doctor.

Which one should you use?

That depends on the condition of your skin and what you are trying to accomplish. For those who are just curious and want a general improvement of the skin, it might be wise to go with a retinol first.

If you have fairly drastic needs, your dermatologist may prescribe a retinoid product because it has a more concentrated amount of retinoic acid – the key active ingredient in both.

When should I apply retinol?

Retinol Cream

In terms of the age at which you should begin applying retinol, there’s no textbook answer. Since skin cell renewal decreases faster in our 30’s, this might be a good time smart time to start.

However, many acne sufferers begin in their teens and middle-aged beginners can still enjoy youthful outcomes. 

The best time of day to use retinol is nighttime. Retinol makes the skin more sensitive and at risk of damage from UV rays; its positive effects on skin regeneration also decrease when exposed to sunlight. Therefore, the sun is retinol’s kryptonite.

Apply it at night and during the day be sure to use sunscreen. Consider skipping your retinol treatment altogether during prolonged times in full view of bright, summer rays.

See also:

How often should I use retinol?

If you’re new to retinol, this is not a time to take a running start and cannonball, screaming, right into the deep end. Try a gradual entry to play it safe. Apply retinol one or two nights per week and as you observe your skin’s reaction and feel comfortable, increase slowly from there.

If your skin adapts easily, you can eventually work up to once a week. 

Pause if you start noticing harsh side effects (commonly known as the “retinol uglies“). But keep in mind: first-time users often report an increase in dryness or acne. This is just a normal, temporary state as your skin adjusts to a new product.

Give it time and soon your face will adapt.

As for seeing positive changes in the quality of your skin? Give this time as well. You won’t wake up to a sudden ‘hallelujah’ transformation during week one, but it’s worth it to stay patient.

You’ll see. 

Should I Use Retinol Before or After Moisturizer? 

Yeouth Retinol Serum

Retinol should be used before moisturizer. This is because retinol tends to have a drying effect on the skin. It requires a moisturizing product after application to lock in hydration and protect the outer layer of the skin.  

How long after retinol can I apply moisturizer?

You should apply your retinol, and wait 10 or 20 minutes for the retinol to completely absorb into your skin. After that, you’re ready to moisturize.

Stick with this order and you won’t go wrong:

  1. Follow your usual skin cleansing/toning routine. Just be sure not to wash with an acidic cleanser or a harsh scrub, as using it with retinol might aggravate your face.
  2. Apply a small (think pea) dab of your retinol product to the face and neck. Avoid getting it in the eyes.
  3. Follow up with brighteners, serums, and moisturizing creams.
  4. Then, nighty night! 

What happens if I don’t use moisturizer after retinol?

If you skip the moisturizer, you’re weakening your skin. The moisturizer provides an additional layer of resilience to your skin, particularly after the super-drying retinol is fully absorbed.

If at all possible, don’t skip the moisturizer if you’re using retinol.

Is retinol harsh on skin?

Retinol can certainly be harsh on the skin.

When it comes to retinol use, there are skincare experts who advise clients to proceed with caution. Skin sensitivity can arise, especially when one is exposed to aggravations like sunlight and pollution.

Some users complain that the vitamin A derivative is responsible for dryness, redness, irritation, and in few cases even flaking. 

On top of this, you may feel uncomfortable with using synthetic products rather than natural sources. Retinol has not been on the market for a very long time, so little is known about the potential long-term effects of this synthesized substance.

Although deemed safe by authorities and experts, there could be a small inherent risk involved with a product that speeds up skin cell renewal at an ‘unnatural’ rate.

Our suggestion? Do your research, speak with your physician if you have health or skin conditions (e.g. sensitive skin, rosacea, dark spots, pregnancy), and follow product application guidelines.

Use small amounts with low retinoic acid concentration and start slowly by applying it a couple of times per week.

Always put on quality sunscreen when you’re outdoors during the day since your skin will be more affected by ultraviolet rays when using retinol. 

 What can you not mix with retinol?

You may be wondering about dangerous combinations. Is there a substance or product that should never be used alongside any type of retinoid? Yes. Beware of the following items when retinol or retinoid is part of your weekly routine:

  • Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) – This anti-aging ingredient already stimulates collagen and renews skin cells. Too much of a good thing can be too harsh. Unless you find a specially formulated product that combines the two in a harmonious balance, avoid using both. Or at least don’t use them both on the same day, or you’ll experience redness and irritation.
  • Salicylic acid – Used to fight acne, this acid clears pores, rids the skin of dead cells, and encourages new cell growth. Sound familiar? It already carries the risk of dryness, so don’t ramp that up by using it with retinol. If you have both, apply them at opposite ends of your day.
  • Benzoyl peroxide – Another anti-acne tool, this ingredient can exfoliate the skin, just like the others. What it might do to retinol is break down its molecules and render your retinol product ineffective. Why waste your time and money? Avoid it entirely or use it in the morning only. 
  • Vitamin C – Although this vitamin has no issue with retinol, retinol doesn’t work well with vitamin C. Vitamin C is too acidic for it to be effective. Reserve it for day use only. 

Are you curious about other skincare combinations that spell trouble? Take a minute to inform yourself with this list. It might help you rethink your regular beauty purchases and protocol, and save you from wasting money and making painful, unsightly mistakes.

We hope you use retinol wisely – in the correct amounts, at the right time, and in the best combination with other products. Remember to start small, moisturize after retinol application and stay protected from the sun the next day.

And enjoy the anticipation of seeing age-defying beauty benefits for your skin!     

Written by Kayla Young

Kayla is the founder of LuxeLuminous. She has worked professionally in the tanning industry for years. She has been interested in esthetics since childhood, and has tried every hair, skin, and makeup product ever produced (more or less).