Retinol Before or After Serum? What’s the Right Order?

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The confusion about which skincare product to apply first continues. With multiple skincare steps, multiple skincare products, and multiple gurus to follow, finding the right order is a confusing mess!

One common suggestion is to apply the thinnest products first until you end up with the thicker cream. However, with products like retinol and serum, the consistency could be pretty much the same.

So do you apply retinol before or after serum?

The brief answer is that it depends on your skin and what your serum is made of.

Read on for a detailed explainer of how to use retinol and serum in your routine. 


What Is Retinol Cream?

Retinol Cream

The best way for you to figure out the order of products to put on your face is to understand what those products do to the skin. In this case, we’ll focus on what retinol is and its effects on the skin.

You might have heard about the retinol hype from a friend or a favorite beauty guru. It isn’t magic, there is a scientific explanation as to how it can help greatly improve your skin. 

Retinol is a term that is used for products that contain a vitamin A derivative. Retinoids can help improve the skin mainly by increasing cell turnover and increasing collagen production.

They come in various formulations. Some are already included in creams  and serums .

Many people swear that their skin has gotten better due to retinol — it’s really a game changer.

There are a few things that retinol could do to improve the skin. The first is by smoothing fine lines and wrinkles. While doing that, it also helps minimize the formation of new lines.

(Note that retinol in eye creams can lead to more wrinkles if there’s not enough moisturizer).

Risk of Irritation with Retinol

Many retinol users have to travel through the dark valley in order to reach the shining light of clear skin. Users of retinol commonly report that retinol causes their skin to purge, a phenomenon known as the “retinol uglies“.

It can last a couple of weeks to a month, and typically involves acne flare-ups, dryness, redness, and irritation, and sensitivity — particularly to UV light.

It can feel like retinol is making your skin worse, but eventually, it gets better.

Note: even after the purge is complete, your skin will still be more sensitive to the sun.

The Power of Retinol

Skin improvements can be due to the brightening effect of retinol. It can exfoliate and cleanse the skin at a cellular level.

With this, older and dull skin cells are efficiently removed from the skin’s topmost layer. This reveals brighter, newer, and smoother skin. 

Additionally, dark spots are also remedied. Pigmentation like acne scars, hyperpigmentation, and sunspots are faded out. That also helps make the skin look blemish-free and more even, even without costly and complex chemical peels.

Acne is another common problem many of us face. And the great thing about retinol is that it can help out with acne as well! It helps with oil regulation and prevents the pores from clogging. That prevents infection of the pores that could produce pimples.

It also helps prevent blackheads and cysts from forming on the skin.

Serums and Light Therapy

Many combine light therapy with the use of serums containing retinol and retinoids, and light therapy. Light therapy involves shining certain wavelengths of light onto the skin in order to induce various positive changes.

Retinol Before Or After Serum? When Should You Apply Retinol In Your Skincare Routine?


Now that we know what retinol  is and what it does to the skin, we can now focus on how to use it, specifically how to include it in your skincare routine.

Working out the order to apply these skin care products is always confusing!

What step do you put retinol on?

The truth is, you can use retinol either before or after serum. This will depend on what your retinol is, what your serum is, and on your skin type.

Regardless of whether you decide to use the retinol before or after serum, you almost certainly want to use it during your nighttime skincare routine. That’s because of its function of building collagen and repairing the cells. 

Apply your retinol at night.

Let’s go over how to determine which should go first.

1. Apply Retinol Before Serum

Moisturizing Serum

Retinol can be used before you apply your serum. Many people do this especially when they are using a moisturizing serum .

Dermatologists advise that whenever you use retinol, you should apply a moisturizer afterward. 

Can I use a serum after retinol?

Yes! It just so happens that serums can act as moisturizers! There serums with ceramides or hyaluronic acid work over a period of weeks to hydrate the skin and help keep the moisture on after using retinol.

When you apply the retinol before applying any moisturizers, the potency of the retinol stays the same. This means you’ll get maximum potency from the retinol, it won’t be degraded by the serum.

How long after retinol can I apply serum?

You should apply a pea-size amount of retinol. Wait around 10 minutes for your skin to absorb the product. Let your skin dry completely and allow the retinol to absorb more deeply.

At that point, you should be able to apply a serum or other moisturizer.

2. Apply Retinol After Serum 

Retinol can also be used after applying moisturizing serums. This is advised for people with sensitive skin.

If your skin feels irritated, you should apply the moisturizer first. This technique is called buffering. It can reduce the side effects brought about by the retinol-containing products. You’ll reduce the risk of irritation when used in this order. 

What’s the downside?

By using retinol after a serum, the potency of the retinol is reduced. However, that doesn’t mean that the retinol won’t work. It will just be gentler on the skin.

The impact of the retinol (and the order it is applied) can also depend on the power of the retinol product you are using. If you have sensitive skin, best to stick with those having lower concentrations. 

Tips For Using Retinol Skincare Products

Slowly And Gently Add Retinol to Your Skincare Routine

Now that you know when to insert retinol into your skincare routine, you shouldn’t just apply it. It is best to start slowly so that your skin gets used to it. You can worsen your skin, and increase the dark spots.

If you use retinol too often, too much, and too high of a concentration for your skin, then it could get irritated.

Start with a pea-sized amount once a week. Then gradually increase the frequency of use. This helps your skin get acclimated to the product. 

Also, remember that retinol works, but it works gradually. So don’t rush your results. It takes time for your skin to get used to the product and show results, especially when it comes to wrinkles. Typically it takes at least a week to see results.

That’s also why there is no use using too much, too often, or too highly concentrated retinol for your skin at once.

Don’t Combine With Other Exfoliating Products

Retinol is already a good exfoliant, so you don’t have to use another one. If you are using gentle acids, don’t combine them with retinol.

Skip using the retinol a day before you exfoliate. This will prevent your skin from being overly irritated. 

Watch Out For Side Effects

Retinol is known to dry skin. This is why most will advise using a moisturizer afterward. However, it’s also possible for your skin to react more to this product. If you observe burning and redness or if you already have skin conditions like rosacea, keep a close eye on what retinol does to your skin.

If it has harsh side effects. Just stop using the product or at least lessen the frequency of use. 

As we mentioned above, one common occurrence of Retinol is the retinol purge, or the “retinol uglies“. Basically, all the bad stuff comes to the surface, before it is shed.


Typically, the “retinol uglies” last for 5-20 days.

Final Thoughts

Retinol is one of the skincare trends that actually works. If you want to add it to your skincare routine, you could use retinol before or after serum.

Just make sure to hydrate with a moisturizer afterward. 

Using it before a moisturizing serum doesn’t affect the potency of the retinol.

Using it after a moisturizing serum could reduce its potency. After would be best for those who have sensitive or irritated skin. It reduces the effects of retinol, so the skin can better tolerate it.

And if you want to get details personalized to your skin, you could always try something like Curology, which we looked at here.

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).