How to Maximize the Benefits of Retinol: Before or After Moisturizer?


  •  Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that has been proven to be effective in reducing the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines and other skin concerns.
  • There’s a hot debate regarding the efficacy of using retinol before or after moisturizer. 

Ah, retinol. That magical ingredient that promises to turn back the hands of time and give you youthful, glowing skin. Considered a skincare powerhouse, retinol is the gold standard when it comes to anti-aging and other skin concerns.

For a skincare newbie or those who have sensitive skin, the idea of using retinol can be a bit daunting. After all, it gets its bad rep for being drying and irritating. But when used correctly, retinol can be your best friend!

Let's dive in and chat about the maximum benefits of using retinol before or after moisturizer, when to apply it in your skincare routine, and all the works!

The Benefits of Using Retinol

Retinol is a form of Vitamin A that speeds up cell turnover, making it a gold standard in almost any skin type. It has a myriad of skin benefits, such as:

Prevents Wrinkles

Retinol is often hailed as a wrinkle-prevention miracle, and for good reason. This powerful ingredient works to smooth out existing wrinkles while also helping to prevent new ones from forming.

But how does retinol achieve such amazing results? The answer lies in its unique ability to stimulate collagen production.

Collagen is a protein that gives skin elasticity and firmness; as we age, our collagen levels begin to decline. Retinol helps to counteract this process by increasing collagen production, resulting in plumper, more youthful-looking skin.

In addition, retinol also speeds up cell turnover, which helps to brighten the complexion and give any skin type a healthy glow. 

Brightens Dull Skin

While retinol can be used in a variety of products, from serums to face masks, one of its most popular uses is as a brightening agent for dull, sensitive skin.

When applied topically, retinol helps to slough away dead skin cells, revealing the brighter, more radiant skin underneath.

Not only does this help to improve the overall appearance of your complexion, but it also allows other products, such as serums and moisturizers, to be absorbed more easily.

Regulates Oily Skin

Have you ever wondered how retinol regulates oily skin? Well, here's the scoop. Retinol helps regulate sebum production, the oily substance that keeps our skin lubricated. Too much sebum can lead to oily skin and clogged pores, but retinol helps to keep things in balance.

It does this by stimulating the production of new skin cells, which helps control the amount of sebum produced. In addition, retinol also helps to keep the pores clear by preventing dead skin cells from clogging them.

Minimizes Breakouts

On the epidermis (topmost layer of skin), retinol exfoliates to remove impurities, dead skin cells, and oil that can block pores. Consequently, this helps prevent pimples from developing in the first place.

Retinol works by getting under your skin and into the dermis, where it can then stimulate collagen and elastin production. These compounds work together to reduce the appearance of pores and acne scarring.

Eliminates dark spots and hyperpigmentation

Who doesn't love a good brightening skincare routine? These treatments tend to take center stage when it comes to reducing hyperpigmentation.

By removing the dead cells and cell debris from your skin, chemical exfoliants like glycolic acid or alpha hydroxy acids can eliminate dark spots caused by sun damage or other external factors.

But hyperpigmentation sometimes goes way into the deeper layers of your skin. Retinol could be a great alternative if you're having trouble with your present treatment.

Retinol lessens the appearance of sun-caused dark spots and hyperpigmentation by controlling tyrosinase, an enzyme responsible for melanin production in the skin.

Additionally, it strengthens and brightens the skin and can assist with treating indications of aging skin.

Retinol Side Effects

Retinol has been shown to be both safe and effective. But despite its strength, retinol also comes with a host of possible side effects, including: 

1. Skin irritation

Skin irritation is the most common side effect of retinol use. To avoid this, start by using a lower concentration of retinol and apply it every other day, gradually increasing the frequency as your skin builds up a tolerance. 

2. Peeling skin

Another common side effect of retinol use is peeling, sensitive skin. Peeling usually occurs when people start using retinol and then increase the frequency too quickly. 

Always start with a low dose and increase gradually as your skin gets used to this skincare ingredient.

3. Redness and swelling

Redness and swelling typically happen when retinol is first applied to the skin. It can persist for a few days, especially if you have really sensitive skin and use a high concentration.

4. Dryness and itching

Because retinol is so potent, it can send a shock to your skin when you introduce it for the first time. This shock can manifest in the form of dryness and itchiness, formally called "reitinization." 

Of course, this initial shock doesn't last permanently as long as you consistently use a good moisturizer to alleviate the symptoms.

Should You Use Retinol Before or After Moisturizer?

Now that we know the basic properties of retinol, let's answer the burning question: should you use retinol before or after moisturizer?

Both approaches have pros and cons, and basically, it comes down to personal preference. It also depends on many factors such as:

  • skin type
  • product strength
  • type of moisturizer

If you're wondering which retinol skin care routine is right for you, read on for a breakdown of the benefits of each.

If you have dry or sensitive skin, apply retinol after your moisturizer to counteract any potential irritation.

On the other hand, if you have oily or acne-prone skin, you may want to apply retinol before your moisturizer to penetrate deep into your pores and work on exfoliating dead skin cells.

If you're not quite sure how your skin will react to retinol, it's always best to start slow and increase frequency as your skin builds up a tolerance.

However, there is a method that can work for everyone, regardless of skin type.

The Retinol Sandwich Method

The retinol sandwich method is a term coined by beauty bloggers and skincare enthusiasts to describe a particular way of applying retinol without experiencing the side effects. This way, you won't have to decide whether or not to use retinol before or after moisturizer.

And best of all, it works on any skin type!

Here's how you do it:

Step 1: Proceed with your usual double-cleansing skin care routine.

Step 2: Apply your hydrating serum.

Step 3: While your skin is still damp from the serum, apply your first layer of moisturizer.

Step 4: Follow your retinol product's instructions and apply it as directed while avoiding sensitive locations such as the eye and lip corners.

Step 5: Wait a few minutes till the retinol is absorbed by the skin, and then apply another layer of your moisturizer to "seal the sandwich," then proceed with the rest of your skin care routine.

The second layer of moisturizer might be the same consistency as the first, or it might be thicker depending on how much moisture your skin needs.

A retinol sandwich is a fast and easy method to alleviate discomfort during the "retinization" process (dry skin early on in using retinol).

Not only does it help to reduce the irritation, but it also maximizes the benefits of using retinol by trapping moisture in the skin and allowing the retinol to work more effectively.

What's the Difference Between Retinol, Retin-A, and Retinoids?

You might be wondering what the difference is between retinol, Retin-A, and retinoids.


All groups of compounds derived from Vitamin A are called Retinoids. There are six types:

  • Bexarotene
  • Alitretinoin
  • Tazarotene
  • Adapalene
  • Tretinoin
  • Retinol

So yes, in essence, retinol and Retin-A are all kinds of retinoids.


A natural form of vitamin A, retinol serum is mostly found in many over-the-counter (OTC) beauty products and skincare routine treatments.

The enzymes within the skin are necessary in order to convert retinol cream into retinoic acid before it has any effects on the skin. However, you need to be really consistent with your routine in order to see results.


Retin-A is the brand name for tretinoin, a powerful retinoid only available through a prescription from your dermatologist.

Tretinoin is the active ingredient in Retin-A, and it works by binding to retinoic acid receptors on the surface of skin cells.

Retin-A's active ingredient, tretinoin, is also used to fade hyperpigmentation, brighten the complexion, and treat fine lines and wrinkles.

Retinol Use FAQS

Still have questions about using retinol? Check out some of the most frequently asked questions below.

Q: How long does it take for retinol to work?

A: While everyone's skin is different, you may start to see results after 4-6 weeks of regular use. However, it can take up to 12 weeks to see the full benefits of retinol.

Once you get past the initial "retinization" process, you'll likely find that your skin responds well to retinol, and you can start using it more frequently.

Q: Can I use retinol every day?

A: Because retinol can irritate the skin, it's important to use it sparingly at first and gradually increase the frequency of use as your skin becomes accustomed to it.

For most people, using retinol once or twice a week is sufficient. However, if you have very sensitive skin, you may need to use it only once every two weeks or even less frequently.

If you decide to use retinol every day, be sure to start slowly and use a very low concentration product at first. You can then increase the frequency of use as your skin tolerates it.

Q: When should you use retinol? Day or night?

A: To fully maximize the benefits of retinol, it's best to use it at night since that's when your skin does most of its repair and regeneration.

Retinol can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so using it during the day could make you more susceptible to sunburns.

If you do use retinol during the day, be sure to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to protect your skin from the sun's harmful rays.

Q: Can I use retinol with other products?

A: Yes, you can use retinol with other skincare products. In fact, many dermatologists recommend using retinol in combination with other anti-aging treatments, such as vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, and peptides.

Using retinol with other products can help to boost its effectiveness and improve your overall results. Just be sure to introduce new products slowly into your routine to give your skin time to adjust.

Q: Can I use retinol while pregnant?

A: While retinoids like retinol are generally considered safe for use during pregnancy, there's not enough research to say whether or not they're completely safe.

If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, it's always best to err on the side of caution and avoid using any type of retinoid unless your doctor specifically tells you otherwise.

Q: Do I need a prescription for retinol?

A: No, you don't need a retinol prescription. However, some stronger formulations may only be available through a dermatologist.

If you're interested in trying a prescription-strength retinoid, talk to your dermatologist about whether or not it's right for you.

Q: How long does retinol last?

A: Retinol products typically have a shelf life of about 12 months. However, once you open a retinol product, it will start to degrade and lose its potency over time.

To help extend the shelf life of your retinol products, store them in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight. You should also avoid letting them come into contact with air as much as possible.

The Bottom Line

Retinol is a powerful anti-aging ingredient that can help to improve the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and other signs of aging. While it can be irritating to some, using retinol the right way can help to minimize any potential side effects.

Retinol can help you achieve healthier, more youthful-looking skin when part of a well-rounded skincare routine. So, if you're looking for a way to turn back the clock, don't be afraid to give retinol a try.


My skin got quite irritated after using it but i don’t ant to stop it because i see the results. Tell me what to do

Jyoti Dara January 23, 2024

I’ve been reading lots of articles about retinol and found your blog to be very helpful and informative.
I use cerave products because my dermatologist suggested them to be the best for my skin type, condition and age, 79.
I’ve never been on a regular daily routine for my skin and it shows. I guess it’s never too late to start.

Teri January 23, 2024

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