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Dr. Alpana Mohta Ranka, MD, DNB, IFAAD, is a triple-board-certified dermatologist with over 100 research publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals.


Retinol Before or After Moisturizer: Dermatologist Explains

Updated: Jun 23

The order in which you apply retinol to your skin depends on various factors. We'll discuss those factors and figure out what the best method for you is. So, let's delve right into the topic.

Retinol before or after moisturizer?

Should You Apply Retinol Before or After Moisturizer?

Skin type is the primary factor that decides whether you apply retinol before or after the moisturizer. Let's break down what your approach should be based on the different skin types.

Dry or Sensitive Skin

Step 1: Use a non-foaming cleanser

How retinol reacts with your skin depends on the type of cleanser you use.

FYI, if you were thinking that the next step after using a cleanser was a toner, then you're absolutely wrong because toners are useless.

Step 2: Use a serum that complements the effects of retinol

As soon as you're done, immediately top it off with a hyaluronic acid or peptide-containing serum.

If you have extra dry or sensitive skin, you can also layer with snail mucin. Make sure that your face is wet or damp before applying the serum.

Step 3: Use a moisturizer

Follow up with a regular fragrance-free moisturizer with humectants like glycerine and anti-inflammatory agents like aloe vera and camomile.

However, for people with extra dry skin, you can easily get away with a moisturizer containing ingredients like occlusives or emollients like propylene glycol, petrolatum or white soft paraffin, liquid paraffin, or shea butter.

For people with super sensitive skin, use a moisturizer containing ceramides, panthenol, or simply a butt paste containing zinc oxide. Yes, you heard it right. B-u-t-t paste.

Now, wait for a good 15-20 minutes before applying retinol.

Step 4: Apply retinol

Take a pea-sized amount of retinol serum and apply it all over your face.

Step 5: Lock it up with another layer of moisturizer

Follow it up with another layer of moisturizer.

And that, my friends, is what we refer to as the sandwich method. I have explained that again in the section below.

Oily or Acne-Prone Skin

Step 1: Use a cleanser

Start with a cleanser of your choice. You can use a foaming or non-foaming cleanser at your discretion. Just make sure that it doesn't contain any AHA or BHA in it. That's because AHA and BHA will create a lower pH, which will reduce the efficacy of retinol.

Step 2: Apply retinol

As soon as your skin dries, apply retinol serum all over your face. Pay special attention to extra oily areas of your face or dark spots. Apply slightly more in these areas.

That's it. Then go to sleep. Why, you ask? Well, I firmly advise against applying retinol during the daytime.

Now, if you're a beginner, no matter your skin type, I would strongly recommend using the sandwich approach.

Use moisturizers specifically formulated for oily skin to use with the sandwich approach.

What is the Sandwich Method of Application?

The "sandwich method" of retinol application is a skincare technique designed to minimize irritation and maximize the benefits of retinol, especially for those with sensitive skin.

This method involves "sandwiching" the retinol between two layers of moisturizer.

Here’s how it works:

  1. First Layer - Moisturize: After cleansing your face, apply a thin layer of moisturizer. This initial layer of moisturizer hydrates the skin and forms a protective barrier, reducing the likelihood of irritation from the retinol.

  2. Middle Layer - Apply Retinol: Once the first layer of moisturizer has been absorbed into the skin (usually after a few minutes), apply a small amount of retinol evenly across your face. The initial moisturizer layer lessens the intensity of retinol's contact with the skin, which can be particularly beneficial for those new to retinol or with sensitive skin.

  3. Final Layer - Moisturize Again: After allowing the retinol to absorb for another few minutes, apply a second layer of moisturizer. This top layer helps to lock in the retinol and further hydrate the skin, ensuring the active ingredient works effectively without causing excessive dryness or irritation.

Sandwich method of applying retinol

The sandwich method is an excellent approach for those who might experience redness, peeling, or sensitivity from retinol.

It allows the skin to acclimate to retinol's potent effects more gently. However, this method may slightly reduce the potency of retinol due to the buffering layers of the moisturizer.

Therefore, while it's excellent for minimizing irritation, it might take longer to see the full results of the retinol treatment compared to direct application methods.

Which Moisturizers, Serums, and Retinol Products Would Work Well with Each Other?

No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex is a good retinol product. It comes with a post-retinol soother that keeps your skin hydrated.

These products work extremely well with retinol:

  • Hyaluronic Acid Serum My recommendation is the Cerave Hyaluronic Acid Serum. This contains vitamin B5 and ceramides in addition to hyaluronic acid.

CeraVe Hyaluronic Acid Serum
Ordinary Serum with Ceramides and Gallic Acid

Ordinary Multi-Peptide Serum

Avoid applying these products along with retinol:

You can apply them after you've washed the retinol off your face, though.

I have also answered a few queries on what products work well with retinol in my article about retinoids.


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