Skip to main content

How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

  1. blog
  2. > Ingredients

When to use retinol in your skincare routine

Ease into this potent ingredient by slowly adding it to your nighttime routine.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
using retinol in skincare routine
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Timing is everything, especially when it comes to your skincare routine. That’s why it’s important to apply potent ingredients, such as retinol, in the evening to avoid an adverse reaction.

Retinol is a powerful tool for treating fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots, and dull-looking skin. Even though it’s been around for decades, there remains confusion about how and when to use retinol in your routine.

Here we’ll explain how retinol works and how to use it for maximum results. Plus, we’ll share expert tips to avoid “retinol burn” and other potential side effects.

What exactly is retinol?

Retinol is one of the three “R’s” in skincare ingredients: retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinoic acid. They’re all technically retinoids—derivatives of vitamin A found in skincare products. Although different retinoids share some common traits, they’re not identical. Retinoids like tretinoin are available by prescription only and are FDA approved to treat acne and signs of photoaging, whereas retinol is an over-the-counter ingredient to help treat signs of aging. Retinol is commonly seen in over the counter anti-aging products as it can help revive photoaged skin by increasing skin cell turnover and boosting collagen production. 

Retinol must be converted to retinoic acid at the cellular level before it can get to work, which is why it is considered to be less potent when compared to other retinoids.¹ Other retinoids go to work right away and tend to have more pronounced side effects.² Those with sensitive skin, dry skin, or conditions such as eczema may find retinol gentler on their skin than prescription-strength retinoids.

In short, retinol is an excellent choice if you’re looking for something to help minimize the signs of aging. Determining how often to use retinol will depend on your goals and how well your skin adjusts. It’s also important to note that retinoid products should not be used if you’re pregnant, nursing, or trying to become pregnant. Always consult your doctor before using if any of the above apply to you!

How to add retinol into your skincare routine

Here are a few expert tips for adding retinol to your skincare routine to help your skin adjust without irritation. 

  • Start slow. Most dermatology providers recommend “starting low and going slow.” Choose a product with a low concentration of retinol and apply a pea-sized amount to the entire face two to three times each week. Slowly work up to nightly application as your skin adjusts. Retinol doesn’t work overnight; it can take 12 weeks to see results.³ If there are no improvements—and your skin is well-adjusted to lower doses—bump up the concentration. 

  • Choose complementary products. Cleansers and moisturizers are pivotal skincare products, but their active ingredients don’t always play nice. Fortunately, a skincare routine with retinol and hyaluronic acid can be very beneficial. Hyaluronic acid attracts water to the skin’s surface and boosts hydration to offset the dry, peeling, and flaky skin often associated with retinol. But with so much conflicting information out there, we asked one of our board-certified nurse practitioners, Laura Phelan, NP-C, to weigh in: “We often recommend avoiding certain skincare ingredients when starting out with retinoids, but hyaluronic acid is one exception! Using retinol and hyaluronic acid in the same skincare routine can help lessen the severity of the side effects that may be experienced when using a retinol product.”

  • Apply moisturizer first. Always start with a clean face and give it time to dry before adding moisturizer or treatment cream. Apply moisturizer before a retinol product if you’re experiencing red, dry, or irritated skin.

  • Use at night. Always apply retinol at night, as it makes the skin more sensitive to UV radiation, and sunlight can diminish its efficacy.⁴ Cleansing, moisturizing, and protecting should be a regular part of your morning routine. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 before going outdoors and reapply throughout the day. If you work night shift and sleep during the day, it’s okay to apply it before bedtime, whatever time of day that might be!

  • Improve results with a vitamin C serum. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant—it scavenges free radicals. It also enhances the skin’s natural cell cycle process. Vitamin C can help even skin tone and texture, reduce hyperpigmentation, lighten dark spots, and boost collagen production. That’s why it’s found in many skin-brightening formulas. Deciding when to use retinol with vitamin C depends on personal preference and how your skin tolerates your retinol product, but these two ingredients complement each other and have been shown to improve anti-aging results.⁵  

Skincare doesn’t need to be complicated, but you should have different morning and night routines. Because retinol gel can leave the skin photosensitive, it should be reserved for your nighttime treatment.

At Curology, we recommend a simple three-step nighttime routine that includes cleansing, treating, and moisturizing. However, some like to use serums to target their skincare concerns. Whether you choose to use retinol before or after serum depends on your skin and the product being used. If you’re using a prescription treatment cream, like Curology, serums are optional. Although serums deliver active ingredients into the skin, there is no need to use a retinol serum if you’re already using a treatment cream containing a retinoid, such as tretinoin—that would be overkill!

Your morning routine should be just as simple: three steps. Just replace the treatment cream with sunscreen to protect your face from harmful UV rays. Sunscreen is always the last step and should be applied at least 15 minutes before heading outdoors and reapplied every two hours or after excessive sweating. 

Potential retinol side effects

Over-the-counter retinol has some potential side effects, especially during the adjustment period. Typically, these are temporary and resolve completely within 12 weeks. Avoid using exfoliants, such as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), for potentially faster resolution.

Here are potential side effects of topical retinol and tips to help ease their severity:

  • Sun sensitivity. Retinol increases skin cell turnover, leaving skin more vulnerable to sunburn.⁶ Always apply retinol at night and SPF during the day. 

  • Dry, itchy, flaking, and peeling skin. Retinol increases the speed of your skin’s cell turnover, which may cause dryness, itchiness, or peeling and flaking skin. It’s only temporary and can be minimized by easing into the retinol slowly and applying moisturizer before retinol cream throughout the adjustment period. 

  • Irritation and redness. Skin cells initially shed faster than they replenish, so the skin may become red and irritated. It’s important to use a hydrating moisturizer morning and night, such as Curology’s Cream Moisturizer. And always protect your face with sunscreen when going outdoors.

Curology can help

Retinol can be obtained over the counter, so you don’t need to consult your dermatology provider before using it. But if you want to use a more powerful retinoid—such as acne-fighting tretinoin—you’ll need to consult a dermatology provider. That’s where Curology comes in!

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

curology bottle
curology bottle

Curology’s skincare experts can guide you through the process and provide the treatment you need to address your skin concerns. We’re here to help take the guesswork out of your skincare routine. Our licensed dermatology providers work with you to examine your skin, assess your skincare goals, and provide custom treatment options.*

If you’re ready to see what a prescription-strength retinoid can do for you, give Curology a try. 

FAQs

What is retinol?

Retinol is one of the three “R’s” in skincare ingredients: retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinoic acid. They’re all technically retinoids—derivatives of vitamin A found in skincare products. Retinol is commonly seen in over the counter anti-aging products as it can help revive photoaged skin by increasing skin cell turnover and boosting collagen production. 

Should I use retinol in the morning or at night?

Skincare doesn’t need to be complicated, but you should have different morning and night routines. Because retinol gel can leave the skin photosensitive, it should be reserved for your nighttime treatment.

What are the potential side effects of retinol?

Over-the-counter retinol has some potential side effects, especially during the adjustment period. Typically, these are temporary and resolve completely within 12 weeks. The potential side effects of topical retinol include sun sensitivity, dry, itchy, flacking and pilling skin, as well as irritation and redness.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: An overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. (December 2006).

  2. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: Active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology. (August 2019).

  3. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: An overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

  4. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: An overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

  5. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: An overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

  6. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: An overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

Laura Phelan is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Benedictine University and went on to get her post-master’s certificate as a Family Nurse Practitioner at the University of Cincinnati.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Image of Laura Phelan Nurse Practitioner

Laura Phelan, NP-C

Related Articles

How to remove makeup without makeup remover wipesThe complete guide to face cleansers for every skin typeSkincare tips for dry skin, according to dermatology providersWhich face cleanser is right for you?The 6 best chemical exfoliators for glowing skin

Popular Articles

Ask Curology: Is my cold breaking me out?Slugging: The dermatologist-approved skincare hack going viral on TikTokTretinoin vs retinol: What’s the difference?How to create a self-care routine that actually sticksYour 2023 skincare horoscope
Try prescription skincare
30-day trial. Subject to consultation. Cancel anytime.
Get routine essentials
A display of Curology Custom Formula bottles on a white shelf.

Good skin days ahead

Join the 1M+ patients who’ve tackled everything from acne, to fine lines, to hair thinning with prescription-powered treatments, personalized by a Licensed Dermatology Provider.
Ingredients proven to tackle
  • Breakouts
  • Redness
  • Fine lines
  • Dark spots
  • Hair thinning
$29.95/month
*Subject to consultation. Cancel anytime.
Get StartedShop ProductsWhy CurologyGuidesOur StoryCommunity
All Rights Reserved 2014-2024 Curology Inc.
Terms of ServicePrivacy Notice
Do Not Sell My Personal Information