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How To Use Retinol: Should Retinol Come Before or After Moisturizer?

  • Wendy Rose Gould
March 13, 2024

When it comes to the skincare questions we get asked most, retinol queries are usually at the top of the list—especially when, how, and why to use retinol in your skincare routine. It makes sense when you think about it: This popular ingredient is a favorite among skincare enthusiasts and it’s backed by numerous scientific studies and reviews. At the same time, there’s also an overwhelming amount of information out there on retinol products, from their potential side effects to the complexion-boosting benefits they can (and can’t) provide.

To help you better understand how to correctly use retinol in your skincare routine, we’ve compiled some of the key myths and facts you should know, ahead. Read on for the lowdown on using retinol serums, moisturizers, and eye creams for smoother, more youthful-looking skin. Plus, we’ll also be sharing some impressive before and after retinol images that showcase why consistency is key if you want to reap the full benefits of this popular ingredient.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A that’s often sold in the form of a topical cream or serum that’s used to target a variety of different skin concerns. You can use retinol for forehead lines, eye wrinkles, uneven skin tone, dark spots, and rough skin texture, just to name a few.

Retinol works by promoting skin cell turnover, which can help refine the skin’s surface and minimize the look of fine lines, wrinkles, and skin discolorations. In a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), topical formulations containing retinoids (a term used to describe vitamin A-based skincare products) showed improved epidermal thickness, improvement of the epidermal barrier, and reduced transepidermal water loss (TEWL).

However, in order to enjoy these benefits, it’s important to choose a gentle yet effective retinol product that is dermatologist-tested and non-comedogenic (meaning it won’t clog your pores), like the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum, 0.3% Pure Retinol. This anti-aging serum with retinol, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin is suitable for all skin types and can help your skin appear smoother, more luminous, and refined.

When Should I Start Using Retinol?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, retinol can address a wide range of skin issues, including acne blemishes, post-blemish marks, skin discoloration, fine lines, and wrinkles. The ideal time to start using retinol can vary from person to person—it all depends on your skin concerns and skincare goals.

For example, the Cleveland Clinic recommends using retinol to help address breakouts and post-blemish marks, which can be common in teens and young adults. When it comes to using retinol for anti-aging, it may be ideal to take a proactive approach—we recommend starting a retinol routine before visible signs of aging become prominent (like wrinkles, fine lines, laxity, and dullness). However, you can start using retinol anytime, even after these signs of aging show up.

When in doubt, speak with your doctor or dermatologist about the best time to start using retinol for your skin’s needs.

How Often Should I Use Retinol?

Retinol is a powerhouse ingredient, but it also has the potential to irritate your skin, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Because of this, retinol should be introduced into your routine gradually, building up to daily application over time as your skin adjusts. Many people start by using retinol products once a week, then bump up the usage every few weeks, based on how their skin reacts.

While you may be eager to compare those retinol cream before and after pictures, it’s important to remember that results take time. With consistent retinol use, you may expect to see results after approximately three months, but results can vary. It’s important to resist the temptation to apply more retinol than is instructed on the label. Not only will this not give you faster results, but it may do more harm than good—resulting in red, flaky, and irritated skin.

Is Retinol Good for Your Skin?

When used correctly, topical retinol can have numerous benefits for your complexion. As mentioned above, this ingredient helps support your skin’s natural exfoliation process, which can result in a visible reduction of fine lines, wrinkles, and dullness.

This ingredient can do a lot of good for your complexion. However, if it’s causing irritation then you may need to decrease usage or potency. In these cases, we recommend speaking with a board-certified dermatologist for advice on whether or not retinol is right for you.

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Retinol Myths and Facts

There’s a lot of talk out there about how to use retinol and what it can do for your skin. To help you get a realistic idea of what to expect with your own retinol before and after results, we’re breaking down some common myths so we can separate fact from fiction.

Myth #1: Retinol is only for mature skin

Retinoids can help address many different skin concerns, ranging from uneven skin tone to rough skin texture. And, although this popular ingredient offers notable anti-aging benefits, it isn’t only for mature skin. Many different age groups can enjoy the benefits of retinol products—from teens battling blemishes to mature adults with deep wrinkles.

Myth #2: You can’t use retinol in the summer

While retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun’s UV rays, you may not have to forego it altogether during the summer months. In fact, starting and stopping usage can impact your overall retinol before and after results. Instead, it’s essential to focus on sun protection year-round, rain or shine. Make sure you’re using a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher every single day and reapply it as necessary, per the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

Myth #3: All retinoids are the same

In the same way that every vitamin C serum or moisturizer is a bit different from the next, every retinoid product is unique. Some retinol formulas have stronger concentrations (like in the case of prescription retinoids) while others have lower concentrations that may be gentler on your skin. You’ll also find various retinol textures and product types, from water-based serums to emollient-based eye creams. We suggest trying a few different retinol products in order to find the one that works best for your skin.

Myth #4: You should stop using retinol if you experience irritation

Retinol helps promote skin cell turnover, according to the Cleveland Clinic, which can result in some skin irritation—including redness, dryness, flaking, and even breakouts. This is particularly common when you first begin using retinol, and/or when you increase the percentage potency. Generally speaking, your skin should acclimate over time, but it’s important to speak with your doctor or dermatologist about any concerns.

Myth #5: You’ll have visible before and after results in 6 weeks

Retinoids may take roughly three months before you notice visible improvements in your complexion. And remember: Consistency is key! As long as your skin is tolerating retinol well, we suggest staying the course for best results.

When To Use Retinol in Your Skincare Routine

Retinol is typically applied at night, but it can also be used in the morning if the formula was made for that (always check the product label and apply per the instructions when in doubt). The L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Triple Power Day Lotion SPF 30 is a great example of a retinol lotion that’s formulated for daytime use. Besides pro-retinol, this moisturizer is also formulated with beneficial ingredients like vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, and SPF 30.

As mentioned above, retinol products can make your skin more sensitive to the sun’s rays. Because of this, it’s important to be extra diligent about sun protection. In the morning, we suggest applying a broad-spectrum SPF formula like the L’Oréal Paris Bright Reveal SPF 50 Invisible UV Fluid after cleansing and before applying makeup. Then, at night, apply your retinol serum and/or lotion after washing your face, onto clean skin.

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Is It Better to Apply Retinol Before or After Moisturizer?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, if retinol is irritating your skin, you can apply a thin layer of moisturizer (without retinol) before applying it to help create a bit of a barrier. If your retinol product isn’t irritating your skin, you can typically apply it before your moisturizer (depending on the formula and each product’s instructions).

Ultimately, though, there is no hard-and-fast rule about using retinol or moisturizer first. The correct order will depend on the actual product you’re using. Retinol can be included in all sorts of different formulas (such as retinol creams and retinol serums) and how you apply them can vary.

A good rule of thumb to follow is to apply retinol products in the same way you would any other skincare product—from the thinnest consistency to the thickest. While we can’t give you a foolproof answer as to whether you should always apply retinol before or after moisturizer, what we can do is break down when to apply retinol, based on the type of product you’re using.

When to Apply Retinol Serum

To apply a serum with retinol correctly, smooth it onto clean skin after you cleanse and before your moisturizer. To use the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum, 0.3% Pure Retinol, apply two to three drops to freshly cleansed, dry skin at night and follow up with your moisturizer. We like this serum because it contains a pure retinol formula and includes hydrating ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid to counteract the potential drying and irritating effects of retinol.

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BMAG InArticle 1 Should You Apply Retinol Before Or After Moisturizer
Night Serum Before and After

Editor’s tip: If your routine consists of more than one serum, apply from the thinnest to the thickest formula, as recommended above. We love pairing our retinol serum with the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 1.5% Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum to promote hydrated, dewy-looking skin. Apply the hyaluronic acid serum first, then layer on the retinol serum before your facial moisturizer.

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When to Apply a Moisturizer With Retinol

If you’re using a moisturizer formulated with retinol, like the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Pressed Night Moisturizer with Retinol + Niacinamide, or the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Triple Power Anti-Aging Moisturizer, application is similar to using your everyday moisturizer. Simply cleanse, apply any serums, and layer your moisturizer with retinol as the last step. In this case, you don’t have separate retinol and moisturizer steps since you’re knocking out two steps in one.

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BMAG InArticle 2 Should You Apply Retinol Before Or After Moisturizer
Triple Power Before and After

Using a moisturizer with retinol is a great way to get the anti-aging effects of the ingredient without the common dryness and irritation that some experience. Keep in mind that if you’re moisturizing with a retinol cream, you may want to avoid using an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) or any other type of exfoliating serum before your moisturizer in order to avoid irritation.

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When to Apply an Eye Cream With Retinol

An eye cream or eye treatment is typically applied before or after moisturizer, depending on the consistency and the specific product’s instructions. A formula with retinol, like the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Triple Power Eye Treatment, should be applied after your serums and before moisturizer because of its lightweight texture.

Apply the eye cream formula in small dots around your eyes. Then, tap gently with your ring finger (because it has the gentlest touch) until it’s thoroughly absorbed. Remember to always treat your eye area delicately since the skin in this area is thinner and may be more sensitive.

If you follow this advice and stick to a consistent skincare routine that leverages this ingredient, you should be on your way to having your own retinol before and after pictures.

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