Should You Be Using Retinol in the Morning, Too?

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Basic skin care instructs us to apply retinoids at night to prevent ineffectiveness and limit sun sensitivity. But as new stabilized formulations launch, some dermatologists now say it’s okay to wear a retinoid or retinol during the day (and at night too) as long as it’s paired with sunscreen and moisturizer.

How can you know if what you’re applying is safe to use in the morning? And what’s the right way to do it? Here, we’re shedding much-needed light on this oft-confusing subject and getting to the bottom of it with help from expert dermatologists.

The Confusion Behind Retinoids

First, a quick crash course on retinol and retinoids. According to New York dermatologist Doris Day, MD, all retinoids are forms of vitamin A that fall into four basic categories: retinol, retinoic acid, retinyl esters and aldehydes. The skin does not need to convert prescription-strength retinoic acid in order to make use of it, whereas retinol and retinyls do. Not every skin type needs a retinoid, which is where retinol comes into play. “They’re a common over-the-counter version that’s less irritating and can be combined with other ingredients for added benefits,” Dr. Day adds.

“Dermatologists have been touting the benefits of retinoids for decades,” Dr. Day says. “We still believe it to be one of the best ingredients to prevent acne and acne scarring and help with collagen production to treat wrinkles. The original products wouldn’t make the skin burn more easily if applied during the day. But they would be less effective when exposed to the sun.”

Can You Safely Use a Retinoid During the Day?

The short answer is yes. But the long-winded explanation of how to do it is a little complicated.

Not every skin type can handle using retinoids day and night. “It depends on the retinoid and your skin’s tolerance to them,” Dr. Day says. “Many of the original retinoids were not stabilized and would degrade when exposed to UV light.”

New York dermatologist Marina Peredo, MD says today’s retinoids and retinols offer more UV stabilization, allowing for daytime use. One example of a sun-stable retinoid is adapalene, found in Differin Gel. “Altreno [tretinoin] is stable in the sun, too, and safe to use during the day,” she shares. For an over-the-counter daytime product, she recommends Drunk Elephant Retinol Cream ($74).

While it may seem like a good idea to use a retinoid during the day, it comes down to the issues at hand. “If I have a younger patient with oily skin, and I’m treating acne, blackheads and large pores, I may recommend them to use it twice daily,” Dr. Peredo says. “If I am using retinol or retinoid for an older patient with thin, mature skin, I’ll probably have them use it at night only.”

But, in general, she recommends using retinoids at night. “If the skin can tolerate it twice a day, that is okay as long as it is paired with SPF.”

Of course, check that any retinol or retinoid is safe for daytime use before applying it. Delray Beach, FL, dermatologist Dr. Janet Allenby stresses that everything in this class of ingredients can cause sun sensitivity, so protection is a must.

Day, Night or Both?: How to Do It

Dr. Peredo says all retinoids used during the daytime should be stable. She recommends starting with a low concentration, such as 0.25%, and seeing how the skin reacts. “Then, gradually work your way up to twice a day, if needed, once the skin adjusts.”

Proper application is critical. Dr. Peredo says first to wash the face with a gentle cleanser and wait 20 minutes. “Then, apply a pea-sized amount of retinoid over the entire face, and finish with SPF 30 during the day.” This process will prevent the skin from becoming irritated or dry. “The outermost layer of skin becomes more compact from retinoid use, which can increase the risk of burning, so SPF is important,” Dr. Day adds.

Pairing vitamin A–derived ingredients with other skin-care ingredients should also follow a rule of caution. For example, Dr. Allenby says ingredients like benzoyl peroxide can deactivate retinol, “which is why you need to use them separately.”

For now, Dr. Day instructs her patients to use a retinoid-containing product once per day (morning or night). “I am starting to have them use it five days per week,” she says. While this is her current approach, it may change in the future. “My advice will evolve as the science evolves.”

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