Retinol Before or After in Skin Care Routine?

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Retinol is very unstable so what you use before and after it in the skin care routine is very important. Here are some commonly asked “before or after retinol?” questions I hear from my dermatology patients. You can use this as a guide to when to use retinol- before or after these serums.

Retinol is a type of retinoid. The advice we will give on retinol applies to all different strengths of retinoids including tretinoin, adapalene and tazarotene.

We can guide you on the best products to use for your Baumann Skin Type and will show you exactly which order to use your products in.  You will not need to worry about which comes first because we give you products from many brands to choose from and we tell you exactly where in the skin care routine steps to use them.

When to use retinol with my other antiaging serums?

 Each  product in your skin care routine – and the order you use them- will affect how well your retinol works and side effects of retinol:

  • Cleanser
  • Toner
  • Serums
  • Moisturizers 

Lets discuss ingredients in these products and hw they effect retinol.

Retinol Before or After Vitamin C

It is important to apply Vitamin C serums before applying retinol or retinoids because it is very difficult for Vitamin C to penetrate into the skin.

However, it is more important to use Vitamin C in the am to protect your skin from sun exposure. So -apply Vitamin C in the am and retinol at night. If your Baumann Skin Type® needs Vitamin C twice a day, then make sure you apply Vitamin C before your sunscreen and moisturizer in the am and before your retinol at night. Note that your choice of cleanser will greatly affect the efficacy of your Vitamin C serum. Every step in your skincare routine matters- especially when using Vitamin C and retinol. Make sure you are using the best skin care routine order for your skin type.

Retinol Before Or After Hydroquinone

Hydroquinone is no longer available with a prescription. If you are using hydroquinone, it is likely that your dermatologist is prescribing a triple combination cream product like Tri-Luma or a custom formulation to lighten the skin. In these cases, the retinoid and hydroquinone are already mixed together. However, if you want to use a separate retinol and hydroquinone, apply the hydroquinone first and then the retinol. If you are using a moisturizer, apply the hydroquinone first, the moisturizer in the middle followed by the retinol. 

Retinol Before Or After Hyaluronic Acid 


Whether you use retinol before or after hyaluronic acid depends upon your Baumann Skin Type®, skin problems (acne, melasma or aging), and what type of moisturizer you are using with your retinol or Retin A. Also what type of tretinoin you are using matters because some types of tretinoin already contain hyaluronic acid such as Altreno. 

Why does it matter if you use hyaluronic acid with retinol? Hyaluronic acid increases penetration of retinol and retinoids.1 2 That means that using a moisturizer with hyaluronic acid in it can increase side effects from acne medications such as retinoids.

We tell you  know which hyaluronic acid moisturizer to use with retinol and when to use the hyaluronic acid with retinol so you do not ahve to guess.

Once you know when (and if!) to use the hyaluronic acid, you can choose the best from many HA brands. In general, using HA before or after retinol will increase penetration so it does not matter which comes first. What does matter is your skin type. For example,  Dry Skin Types would do better with a barrier repair cream moisturizer than a humectant hyaluronic acid moisturizer in a dry skincare routine.

Retinol Before Or After Niacinamide?

Not all niacinamide is created equal. Cheap, poorly made niacinamide products can cause allergic reactions. This has led to many people worrying about interactions between niacinamide and retinol. However, properly formulated niacinamide does not react with retinol. For this reason- it does not matter if you use niacinamide before or after retinol. What does matter is- what else is in the niacinamide formulation? If it has fatty acids, hyaluronic acid or oils in the niacinamide product, it can affect absorption as discussed in other sections of this blog. Niacinamide is actually a great ingredient to use with retinol because of its anti-inflammatory activity.

Retinol Before or After AHAs such as glycolic acid?

AHAs, also known as hydroxyacids, include glycolic acid, lactic acid and others. These have a low pH which means they are acidic and can irritate the skin and cause inflammation. Retinol and AHAs are both exfoliants that cause exfoliation. Using retinol and glycolic acid (and other AHAS) together can lead to over-exfoliaton. This is why it is so important to get a dermatologist recommended customized skincare routine for your skin type.

Assuming that using a AHA and retinol together is the right choice for your skin type- which comes first AHA or retinol? Luckily the low pH of the AHA will not inactivate the retinol. The only issue to consider is penetration/ absorption. Using AHAs and retinol together will increase the penetration of retinol and increase retinoid side effects. It does not matter which goes first as far as the AHA is concerned. However, moisturizing ingredients in the AHA product need to be taken into account. Hyaluronic acid in the AHA product will increase penetration of the retinol while fatty acids and oils in the AHA may increase or decrease penetration. So- to answer the question- which comes first- glycolic acid or other AHAs or retinol- the answer is- it depends upon:

  • Baumann Skin Type

  • Product Type of AHA (Cleanser or Moisturizer)

  • Is AHA a cream, gel, lotion or serum

  • Does AHA have hyaluronic acid in it

  • What fatty acids are in the AHA?

  • What is the pH of the AHA

Retinol Before Or After Toner?

Use a toner before retinol. Using it after retinol will just remove the retinol from the skin. Many toners contain alcohol or exfoliating agents like hydroxy acid. Using these toners before retinol will increase absorption.

Retinol Before Or After Sheet Mask

Retinol Before Or After Sheet Mask

Use retinol before a sheet mask. The sheet mask will increase absorption of the retinol. However, it is really not necessary to use a sheet mask to increase absorption of retinol because retinoids (with the exception of retinyl esters and retinal) absorb very easily into the skin already. Sheet masks with hyaluronic acid will increase absorption of retinol which could increase the side effects.

Retinol And Retin A Before Or After Oil? 

Oils act differently depending upon which fatty acids are in the oils. In general, when retinoids are used before oils, the oils help occlude the skin surface and push the retinoid into the skin. If the retinoid is placed after the oil, the oil will prevent penetration. However, some oils cause tiny holes in the skin such as olive oil.

Olive oil contains the fatty acid oleic acid which is known to increase penetration of ingredients into skin.3 4 5 Using any oil after a retinoid will increase penetration, however, olive oil will increase skin penetration more than jojoba oil, rose hip oil or argan oil. 

When beginning a retinoid, we recommend applying oil such as Argan Oil on top of the retinoid (after the retinoid) until you get acclimated to the retinoid. In addition to having hydrating abilities, argan oil also is an anti-inflammatory oil. This is why argan oil is the best oil to use with retinol.

01-Most oil block absorption into skin

Retinol Before Or After Moisturizer?

Whether you use a cream, lotion, oil, or gel moisturizer, it will affect the penetration of retinols. This will affect the efficacy and the incidence of retinoid side effects. Remember- the type of moisturizer you choose will greatly affect retinoid efficacy, so if you are just starting a retinoid, read more at this link about how to choose a moisturizer when beginning retinoids.

Using retinoids properly is key to great results. There are many tricks to decrease side effects and increase efficacy. You will get the best results if you follow our recommendations based upon your Baumann Skin Type® because we will then be able to give you a choice of retinoids from many brands that are the correct strength for your skin type.

To learn more about when to use retinol in your skincare routine click here

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  1. Baumann L Ch 43 Moisturizers in Cosmetic dermatology (McGraw Hill 2022) 3rd Edition
  2. Huang, G., & Huang, H. (2018). Application of hyaluronic acid as carriers in drug delivery. Drug delivery, 25(1), 766-772.
  3. Touitou, E., Godin, B., Karl, Y., Bujanover, S., & Becker, Y. (2002). Oleic acid, a skin penetration enhancer, affects Langerhans cells and corneocytes. Journal of controlled release, 80(1-3), 1-7.
  4. Weisberg EM, Baumann LS. The foundation for the use of olive oil in skin care and botanical cosmeceuticals. In Olives and Olive Oil in Health and Disease Prevention. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press, 2021 pp. 425-434.
  5. Naik, A., Pechtold, L. A., Potts, R. O., & Guy, R. H. (1995). Mechanism of oleic acid-induced skin penetration enhancement in vivo in humans. Journal of controlled release, 37(3), 299-306.

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