When To Use Retinol In Your Skin Care Routine

When you apply retinol greatly affects how well it works and the incidence of retinoid side effects.  You should always apply retinol in your routine at night, not in the morning. What step you use retinol in your skin care routine depends upon your Baumann Skin Type and how long you have been using retinol. This blog will give you the advice on when to use retinol that I give my dermatology patients.

Why When You Apply Retinol Matters

What time of day you apply retinol matters because light and sun inactivate retinol.  This is why you should apply it in your night routine, not in the morning.  The retinoids adapalene and tazarotene are not as sun sensitive so they can be applied in the daytime, but retinol and tretinoin should be used at night. Never use retinyl palmitate in the daytime unless you also use a sunscreen because it can break down into a dangerous compound in the sun.

Retinol reacts with other products and ingredients in your routine, so it is important to use retinoids in the correct step of your skin care routine to increase effectiveness while decreasing side effects.

When to Apply Retinol in your Skin Care Routine

Use retinol and tretinoin at night.

When to use these retinoids in your night routine depends upon how long you have been using retinol, what type of retinoid you are using, and how you are tolerating it.

The step that you use retinol in your evening routine depends upon your Baumann Skin Type,  if you are just beginning a retinoid or are increasing the strength of a retinoid, and what other products you are using in your skin care routine.

When you are beginning retinol or Retin A for the first time - use it in the last step of your skin care routine at night on top of a face cream, lotion, or oil.

It is important to consider every product in your skin care routine because ingredients like Vitamin C, glycolic acid, hyaluronic acid (HA), and exfoliants can increase side effects of retinol.

Learn more about using HA, niacinamide, ascorbic acid and retinol together here.

I can help you design a custom skin care routine with retinol in the correct step for your skin type.  All you need to do is take the skin care routine quiz and you will be able to choose products from many brands to build your routine.  This will help you  make sure you have retinol in the right step of your skin care routine and that you are using it with ingredients that work well with retinol. 

When to Use Retinoids

Retinoids are a family of Vitamin A compounds that includes retinol, retinyl esters like retinyl linoleate, retinaldehyde, tretinoin, adapalene, trifarotene, and tazarotene. Retinol, retinyl esters, and tretinoin must be used at night. The other retinoids like adapalene can be used in the am or pm routine. In some Baumann Skin Types they can even be used twice a day.

How much of the retinoid gets in the skin greatly affects the potency, efficacy and incidence of side effects. Unlike most skincare products, most retinoids get into the skin easily- almost too easily when you are beginning them. This is why it is hard to begin a retinoid. So when starting use a retinol for beginners.

When to use any retinoid in your skin care routine depends upon:

 If you are using many skin care products, it can be difficult to decide how to fit a retinoid into your skin care routine.  Different types of retinoids have different potencies. The  amount of side effects you will experience, and the results you get depend upon which retinoids you use and when and how you use them. 

Read more about how to use retinoids properly.

When to use Adapalene

Adapalene (Differin) comes in 2 strengths: prescription and a cosmetic strength. Both are stable and can be used in the morning, at night or 2 times a day.

Follow these instructions when beginning adapalene.

When to use Tretinoin

Tretinoin, also called Retin A, Atralin and many other brand names, breaks down in light and should only be used in the daytime.

It also breaks down when exposed to benzoyl peroxide and hydrogen peroxide, so it is best if it is not used at the same time in he skin care routine as these.  (There are prescription medications with both BP and tretinoin but stabilizers have been added.)

Combination products with tretinoin and Clindamycin or tretinoin and benzoyl peroxide should be used at night.

When to use Tazarotene

Tazarotene (Tazorac, Arazlo) are 3rd generation retinoids that have been improved so they are light stable and can be used in the morning or at  night.  They could also be used 2 times a day but they are very strong.

Retinol Routine Order - Morning and Night

Rules for when to use retinoids:

  • Use retinol and tretinoin at night not in the morning
  • Adapalene, tazarotene and trifarotene  can be used in the morning routine
  • Retinoid strength affects when to use retinoids in your skin care routine. 
  • Follow our custom routine recommendations for if you use before or after a serum
  • Follow your custom routine recommendations for if you use before or after a moisturizer
  • Apply oils before retinoids to decrease effects (not olive oil) and after retinoids to increase effects
  • Use retinoids after moisturizer when you first increase to a stronger one.

Find out when to use retinoids in your routine- either take the skin care routine builder quiz or, if you already did, find your custom routine steps here.

Routine Steps for Retinol Beginners

Beginners should make sure they are using a low dose of retinol. Learn how to find a retinol when you are starting for the first time here.

5 step night regimen steps for when you are beginning retinol:

  1. Cleanser
  2. Eye Cream
  3. Treatment Serum or Soothing Oil
  4. Moisturizer
  5. Retinoid

Skin Care Routine Order For Non-Beginners

If you have been on retinol or another retinoid, then you want to increase absorption of the retinoid to get better results. Follow the instructions at this link to slowly increase your retinoid dose until you get to the strongest prescription-strength retinoid.  Once you get on the strongest retinoid every night without any redness or irritation, you can switch to use your retinoid before your moisturizer.

5 night regimen steps for those who have been on retinol for awhile and do not have stinging skin:

  1. Cleanser
  2. Eye Cream
  3. Treatment Serum
  4. Retinoid
  5. Moisturizer

What Order to use Retinol Serum together with other products such as moisturizers, toners, serums, oils and masks.

What step of skin care routine you use retinol together with toners, face creams, moisturizers, serums, oils and masks is important because other products in your routine affect how well retinoids work. Keep reading to see when to use retinol with these other types of skin care products.

Before or After Serum?

When to use retinol with serum? Retinol is a serum but it cana lso be used wiht other serums. There are many types of serums  with many different skin lightening, anti-inflammatory, or  anti-aging ingredients.  Retinol should be applied after other antiaging serums.

This is the step order to use retinoids with serums and moisturizers when beginning or increasing the strength of a retinoid:

  1. Serum (anti-aging, skin lighting, anti-inflammatory, or acne treatment)
  2. Moisturizer
  3. Retinoid

This is the step order to use retinoids with serums and moisturizers when acclimated to a retinoid:

  1. Serum (anti-aging, skin lighting, anti-inflammatory, or acne treatment)
  2. Retinoid
  3. Moisturizer

Before or After Moisturizer?

It is ok to mix retinol with your moisturizer, but it is best to use it before or after a lotion, face cream, oil or moisturizer so you can control the side effects.

The advice is the same for prescription retinoids such as Retin A that are stronger than retinol.  When you increasing the strength of the retinol you are using, or are moving from retinol to tretinoin, or beginning tretinoin for the first time, the retinoid should go on top of the moisturizer. Prescription retinoids are very strong so it is wise to use tretinoin (Retin A), tazarotene and trifarotene after a moisturizer until you can tolerate the prescription retinoid without getting redness and irritation. Adapalene is less irritating that the other prescription retinoids, but we still recommend using adapalene on top of your moisturizer until you are acclimated to it. 

Oily skin types usually have an easier time tolerating retinoids. Dry and sensitive skin types and rosacea prone skin have the hardest time adjusting to retinoids.

All skin types should follow these dermatologist instructions for retinoids.

When To Use Moisturizer Before Retinol?

When beginning a new retinoid, apply it after your moisturizer. Face creams and lotions used before retinoids decrease how much retinoid gets into the skin. Retinoids absorb very easily into the skin so when you start them for the first time, you want to slow absorption.  When beginning retinol, you want to decrease absorption until your skin is acclimated which can take 2-6 weeks depending upon your Baumann Skin Type and what other products are in your skincare routine.


This is why dermatologists recommend applying retinol and other retinoids on top of your moisturizer when beginning a retinoid for the first time.

These will also affect how fast retinoids absorb in the skin:


The type of moisturizer and cleanser you use is very important and will affect potency and penetration of retinol.  For example, a low pH cleanser or a foaming cleanser with strong detergents will increase absorption of retinoids. A cleanser with saturated oils will decrease absorption.  Ingredients used with retinoids also affect retinoid benefits and side effects. Hyaluronic acid and oleic acid will increase absorption of the retinoid and lead to an increase in retinol side effects

Which moisturizer is best to use before retinol?

Choosing a moisturizer such as a moisturizing oil (like jojoba oil or argan oil) or a barrier repair moisturizer will decrease absorption of the retinoid when the retinoid is placed after the moisturizer.  Using one of these face creams will decrease retinol side effects if used before the retinoid. These moisturizer types have occlusive ingredients that will decrease retinol absorption.

The five best moisturizers to use before retinol:

  1. Derma Made Ceramide Barrier Cream
  2. Medature PSL Repair Cream for dry skin
  3. Zerafite Soothing and Calming
  4. Zerafite Wrinkle Defense Barrier Cream.
  5. Zerafite Skin Brightening Barrier Cream

Why Use Moisturizer After Retinol?

Once you get used to retinol , you can use moisturizer or lotion after retinol.  This will help increase the beneficial effects and speed how fast you see results.

6 reasons to use moisturizer after retinol:

  1. You have been on retinol for at least a month
  2. You are not having any retinoid side effects
  3. You are on the strongest retinoid percentage
  4. You want to increase potency of the retinoid
  5. You want to slug the retinoid into the skin
  6. You want to occlude the skin to increase absorption

Best moisturizer to use after retinol at night

You should only use moisturizer after retinol when you are not having retinol side effects.

Choose a barrier repair moisturizer that displays the Maltese cross pattern such as:

Medature PSL Repair Moisturizer if you have dry skin.

Zerafite Barrier Repair if you have eczema or extremely dry skin.

 Zerafite Wrinkle Defense Barrier Cream if you have aging skin.

Zerafite Brightening Barrier Cream if you have dark spots.

Zerafite Soothing and Calming if your skin is sensitive or you have rosacea.

Before Or After Toner?

Many toners or essences contain alcohol or exfoliants like hydroxy acid that will increase absorption of retinoids. Using toner after retinol will just remove the retinol from the skin and waste your time and money.  Only use exfoliating or alcohol based toners before a serum or moisturizer and then follow with retinol.

Use a toner before retinol only if you are not having any stinging, peeling, or inflammation. 

What serums pair well with retinol?

Other ingredients also react with retinoids so you need to know which should come first- retinoids or niacinamide, hydroxyacids, coenzyme Q10 or hyaluronic acid. All of these should go before retinol when you are just beginning a retinoid, however not all of these ingredients are right for every skin type.

When you choose a serum to go with retinol, make sure it pairs well and it is right for your Baumann Skin Type.

These are the 5 best serums to use in the am and pair with nightly retinol:

  1. Essopi Triple Antioxidant Serum if you want an antiaging antioxidant that sooths skin redness and is non-comedogenic.
  2. Medature Hydrobright if you have dark spots on the skin
  3. Derma Made Antioxidant C Serum if you want to protect skin from sun
  4. Alastin Immerse Serum if you want to firm skin in the morning
  5. PCA Acne gel with BHA help clear pores, exfoliate and treat acne. However, this might be too strong for your skin type.

You may choose to buy a serum that contains retinol plus other antiaging ingredients like niacinamide, hyaluronic acid and vitamin C.

To find the best serums to pair with retinol, shop with your Baumann Skin Type.

Before Or After Oil? 

Applying an oil before or after a retinoid directly affects absorption, benefits, and side effects.  When retinoids are used before oils, the oils help occlude the skin surface , slug the retinoid into the skin. and increase effects; both beneficial and detrimental.

If the retinoid is placed after the oil, the oil will slow and decrease penetration. However, the type of oil also matters because some oils can cause tiny holes in the skin such as olive oil which increased absorption even when used before a retinoid.

Occlusive ingredients like shea butter slow down absorption much more effectively than, say, chamomile oil which has negligible viscosity and doesn't slow down absorption.

Oils act differently depending upon which type of oil it is- saturated or unsaturated.

The type of fatty acids in the oils affects how much absorption occurs.  For example, oleic acid is a fatty acid in olive oil that can cause tiny holes in the skin and is used in topical drugs 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 even more than jojoba oil, rose hip oil or argan oil due to the large amounts of oleic acid in olive oil. 

How to use oil with retinoids

You can use saturated oils before a retinoid to soothe irritated skin. When beginning a retinoid, we recommend not applying any oil on top of the retinoid. Once you get used to the retinoid, you can use an oil after it to increase absorption. If you start getting irritation or side effects, use oils like Argan oil ( not olive oil) before the retinoid.

Best Face Oil to use after Retinol

Choose hydrating saturated oils and oils with the anti-inflammatory fatty acid linoleic acid.

These are the best face oils to use after a retinoid:

Before Or After Sheet Mask

Use retinol before a sheet mask. Apply the retinol and put the sheet mask on top. The sheet mask will increase absorption of the retinol.  It is 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.  Sheet masks with hyaluronic acid will increase absorption of retinol which could increase the side effects.

Why You Should Not Use Retinol, Retinyl Palmitate and Tretinoin in the Daytime

Sun and light break down, destabilize and inactivate retinol and tretinoin so that they are ineffective. Never wear retinol in the sunlight.

It is not dangerous but it will not have any beneficial effects. Never wear products with retinyl palmitate in the daytime unless you also have on a sunscreen.

When retinyl esters like retinyl palmitate break down, they can be harmful to the skin. In fact, there is a fear that retinyl palmitate may increase the risk of skin cancer if worn in the sun without a sunscreen.1 2 3  The second and third-generation retinoids like adapalene, tazarotene and trifarotene are not light sensitive and can be used in the daytime.

What ingredients can you use before and after retinol?

Before or After Vitamin C

Apply Vitamin C serums before applying retinol or a retinoids because:

  • It is difficult for Vitamin C to penetrate into the skin
  • Retinoids absorb easily
  • Vitamin C needs a low pH to absorb- so use a low pH cleanser before the Vitamin C serum.

If you are only going to use Vitamin C serum once a day, use it in the am to protect your skin from sun exposure. Apply Vitamin C in the am and retinol at night.

Before or after Hydroquinone or other tyrosinase inhibitors

Hydroquinone is no longer available without a prescription, so you may choose another tyrosinase inhibitor to lighten dark spots.  If you are using prescription strength 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 a skin lightening tyrosinase inhibitor like kojic acid or arbutin, apply the skin lightener first and follow with the retinoid.

Skin care routine step order to use skin lighteners and retinol :

  1. Skin lightener
  2. Moisturizer
  3. Retinoid

Before or after Hyaluronic Acid 

Using an HA serum with retinol may not be a good idea. Learn more here about how to use retinol, hyaluronic acid, ascorbic acid and niacinamide together.  HA Serums should be used before retinol in most cases.  Hyaluronic acid increases penetration of retinol and retinoids.1 2 Using a moisturizer or serum with hyaluronic acid in it can increase side effects but can also improve benefits.


One of the most common issues we see in our dermatology patients is a sudden reaction to a skin care product because they added a HA serum to a skin care routine with retinol in it.

Retinol serums formulated together with hyaluronic acid are:

Before or after Niacinamide

Niacinamide is a PAR-2 blocker with soothing and skin lightening abilities. Niacinamide does not react with retinol. For this reason- it does not matter if you use niacinamide before or after retinol.  The myth that niacinamide inactivates, destabilizes, or reacts with retinol comes from the fact that there are different grades of niacinamide. Cheap, poorly made niacinamide products can cause allergic reactions. This has led to many people worrying about interactions between niacinamide and retinol.  If you choose to use a niacinamide serum or cream with retinol, think about what else is in the niacinamide formulation. If it has fatty acids, hyaluronic acid or oils in the niacinamide product, it can affect absorption of the retinoid- leading to irritation.

Niacinamide is actually a good ingredient to use with retinol because of its anti-inflammatory and soothing abilities.

These are the best moisturizers with niacinamide to use with a retinol serum:

Before or after AHAs such as Glycolic Acid?

Which goes first- retinol or AHA depends on many factors so the answer is not simple.

Hydroxyacids, including glycolic acid, and lactic acid, are acidic and can irritate the skin and cause inflammation. Retinol and AHAs are both exfoliants that cause exfoliation. Using retinol and acids together can lead to over-exfoliaton.The low pH of the AHA will not inactivate the retinol. The only issue to consider is penetration/ and absorption. Using AHAs and retinol together will increase the penetration of retinol and increase retinoid side effects.  The moisturizing ingredients in the AHA product and the type of moisturizer need to be taken into account. If Hyaluronic acid is in the AHA product this will increase penetration of the retinol while fatty acids and oils in the AHA may increase or decrease penetration.

If an AHA and retinol together are the right choice for your skin type- which comes first -AHA or retinol?  The answer depends upon:

  • Your 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?

It is hard to figure this out by yourself!  Let us help you build the best skin care routine for your skin type.

Before or after Bakuchiol?

You can use retinol before or after bakuchiol if they are both serums.

These serums combine retinol and bakuchiol together:

Before or after Ubiquinone (Coenzyme Q10 or CoQ10)

Coenzyme Q10 toners like Medature Energizing Q Toner can be used before retinol.

These serums have both CoQ10 and retinol together:

Which ingredients and products you use before and after retinol will affect the skin benefits, results and side effects. Don't waste your time and money buying the wrong skin care products or using them incorrectly!


How to get the best results from retinol

Besides using retinoids in the day and step of your routine, here are other things you can do to make retinol work better in your skin care routine.

  1. You know your Baumann Skin Typ
  2. You are using the best retinoid cream for your skin type
  3. You are applying the retinoid cream properly
    1. Using the best strength for your skin issues
    2. Using the proper amount
    3. Using the proper type
    4. Using the proper frequency
    5. Using a good brand
    6. Using the right form of retinoid
    7. Applying in the correct step of your routine
  4. You are using the correct cleanser
  5. You have matched your moisturizer to your skin type
  6. You are not combining the retinoid with treatments like peels, facials, microdermabrasion or microneedling
  7. You are using no more than 1 or 2 other exfoliating products in your regimen.

If you take the skin care routine quiz you will get personalized advice from our dermatologists on your Baumann Skin Type. (There are 16!) This makes it much easier and more accurate for you and we can guide you on your skin care journey.


Level up your skin care knowledge with medical advice from dermatologists

Best References and peer reviewed publications on when to use retinoids in your skin care routine:

  1. Baumann, L. Chapters 35 and 45 in Baumann's Cosmetic Dermatology, 3rd edition (McGraw Hill 2022)
  2. Mei, N., Xia, Q., Chen, L., Moore, M. M., Fu, P. P., & Chen, T. (2005). Photomutagenicity of retinyl palmitate by ultraviolet A irradiation in mouse lymphoma cells. Toxicological Sciences, 88(1), 142-149.
  3. Wang, S. Q., Dusza, S. W., & Lim, H. W. (2010). Safety of retinyl palmitate in sunscreens: a critical analysis. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 63(5), 903-906.
  4. FU, P. P., HOWARD, P. C., CULP, S. J., Xia, Q., WEBB, P. J., BLANKENSHIP, L. R., ... & BUCHER, J. R. (2002). Do topically applied skin creams containing retinyl palmitate affect the photocarcinogenecity of simulated solar light?. Journal of Food and Drug Analysis, 10(4).
  5. Pinnell SR, Yang H, Omar M, Monteiro-Riviere N, DeBuys HV, Walker LC, et al. Topical L-ascorbic acid: percutaneous absorption studies. Dermatol Surg. 2001;27(2):137-42.
  6. Barry BW. Mode of action of penetration enhancers in human skin. J Control Release. 1987;6(1), 85-97.
  7. Brown MB, Jones SA. Hyaluronic acid: a unique topical vehicle for the localized delivery of drugs to the skin. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2005;19(3):308-18.
  8. Ghaffarian R, Muro S. Models and methods to evaluate transport of drug delivery systems across cellular barriers. J Vis Exp. 2013;(80):e50638.

Comment 1

Hafiz Sami on

Retinoids, which are derivatives of vitamin A, are known for their effectiveness in addressing various skin concerns, including fine lines, wrinkles, and acne.

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