The right order: retinol or retinoid before or after moisturizer?

retinol or retinoid cream before or after moisturizer

Think about your skincare routine. If a retinoid is part of that routine, the order you use it in matters and you’re probably asking if you should use retinol before or after a moisturizer. Here is a refresher of the basic steps of taking care of your skin:

  1. Cleanse to remove impurities.
  2. Treat to address specific concerns about your skin.
  3. Protect to maintain your skin’s healthy appearance.

It all seems so simple, right? Until it isn’t.

So, what comes first? The retinoid or the moisturizer?

It’s an age-old debate in the beauty world reminiscent of the chicken or the egg riddle. Let’s solve this skincare riddle together.

At first glance, it appears you should always use retinoids to treat your skin before applying a moisturizer to protect it. But what if we told you there are some cases where applying a moisturizer first makes sense!  

We know. It’s mind-blowing, right? 

Before we dive into the order of applying your skincare products, it’s important to take a closer look at retinoids and why they’re an essential part of your routine.

Retinoid vs. retinol: What’s the difference? 

Over the years, retinoids have earned the reputation as “the holy grail of skincare.”

It’s used to reduce wrinkles and improve skin tone and texture by boosting collagen. In a nutshell, retinoid is a broader term for topical skincare products containing vitamin A derivatives. 

Retinoids include retinol and Tretinoin: 

  • Retinol is an over-the-counter (OTC), milder form of retinoid. Retinols can be found in many skincare products, including moisturizers, serums, and even cleansers. Because it tends to be less drying and irritating, retinol is recommended for dry or sensitive skin. But retinol doesn’t contain the active ingredient retinoic acid, which is the key ingredient that directly boosts collagen. Because it’s less potent, it takes longer to see visible results.
  • Tretinoin is a retinoid prescribed by a dermatologist that is 20 times more potent than retinol. Over 50 years of research has proven that the proper use of Tretinoin effectively treats photoaging, which is premature aging due to excess exposure to UV light. Photoaging causes enlarged pores, fine lines, wrinkles, pigmentation and uneven skin tone. Tretinoin is the only FDA-approved retinoid for photoaging. It can be drying, so it’s crucial to use a moisturizer if your skincare routine includes a retinoid. 

Retinol and Tretinoin have been shown to: 

  • Improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by stimulating the production of collagen
  • Improve pigmentation of dark spots, freckles, melasma, and sunspots 
  • Make skin smoother 
  • Minimize the appearance of pores 

While they have similar benefits, dermatology-grade retinoids like Tretinoin yield stronger results over the same period. Initially, you may not notice much from using a retinoid, but skin cell turnover increases over time, leading to smoother skin texture and fewer pigment irregularities that result in a more even tone (more on this later).

Why you should always pair a retinoid with a moisturizer

Using a moisturizer isn’t something you should only do in reaction to dry skin. It should be incorporated into your daily and nightly skincare routine. This is something that should become as second nature as brushing your teeth.

During the first month of using retinoids, the skin goes through a process called retinization, an adjustment period when your skin is adapting to a retinoid treatment. You always want to use a moisturizer when applying your retinoid to prevent dryness and reduce the risk of irritation during retinization. 

While going through this process, the skin may become irritated, resulting in: 

  • A burning or stinging sensation
  • Dryness
  • Redness
  • Scaling

The good news is, if you do encounter these symptoms, they don’t last forever. Your skin will eventually get used to the treatment and this process of retinization will slowly happen less frequently.

One study shows that skin irritation can be relieved by using a gentle moisturizing cream, which provided a significant improvement in:

  • Skin dryness
  • Roughness
  • Skin peeling and shedding 

Long-term use of a moisturizer may also delay photoaging. Regardless of your skin type or which product you use first, a layer of moisturizer should always be applied after retinoids. 

Skincare product layering 101

Taking proper care of your skin is a process that requires consistency and patience. You probably already know that you should never skip a step in your skincare routine because it won’t deliver the results you want. When it comes to retinoids, this is no exception. 

Applying your serums and moisturizers in the correct order will give you better results.  Before we get into the specifics about when to apply a retinoid, let’s discuss four rules of product layering:

  • Go from light to heavy. You should move from the thinnest to the thickest texture products. This means you would start with watery products like toners and serums (like retinoids), followed by moisturizing creams, lotions, and oils. 
  • Don’t use oil-based products before water-based. You’ve probably heard that oil and water don’t mix. The same is true when it comes to your skincare regimen. Oil can prevent water from penetrating the skin’s layers, so apply water-based products first and let them absorb into your skin before applying any oil-based product. 
  • Take your time. Take some time between each application to let each product settle on your skin. Don’t rush your skincare routine. This is the time for you to take a break from any stressors in your life and pamper yourself.

The rules of product layering suggest that a retinoid should be applied before a moisturizer, but the truth is — it depends. Before we dive into the order of application, it’s important to note that a retinoid should only be applied at night because they make your skin more sensitive to the sun.  

Another thing to note is the importance of building a tolerance for retinoids slowly. The first week, you might apply your product every other day or even three times per week because your skin needs time to adjust. 

After about four weeks of use (or when your skin starts getting used to the treatment), you can increase the frequency until you find what works best for your unique skin type. This varies from person to person, but you may start seeing results in six weeks after sticking with it consistently! 

And after six months of retinoid use, you may see a significant reduction in the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation (skin darkening). Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. 

Any side effects you experience while using a retinoid is temporary. Staying consistent with your skincare routine long term will help you maintain healthy, naturally glowing skin for life. 

Now, let’s look at some of the recommendations for when to apply a retinoid.

The routine order for applying retinoid

To help your retinoid work better, some dermatologists recommend applying it directly after cleansing before any other treatment serum or moisturizer.  

Here are the steps commonly recommended for a nightly skincare routine including a retinoid:

  1. Wash your face and dry it completely. This is important because the retinoid will be able to absorb more deeply into your skin when it’s wet, possibly causing irritation.
  2. Dab a pea-sized amount of retinoid serum onto your forehead, cheeks, and chin, then pat into the skin. Do not use more as it will increase your risk of dryness, irritation and redness. Less is more when it comes to applying a retinoid. Dabbing is a gentler, less irritating way to apply a serum.
  3. Apply a moisturizer to prevent dryness and irritation. Don’t skip this step because retinoids may make your skin dry until it builds a tolerance. 

When is it okay to apply moisturizer before retinoid?

While moisturizing before applying a retinoid is a common practice, it does not work well for everyone! 

Some dermatologists recommend applying a moisturizer first and then the retinoid. This is because some people’s skin could be too dry or sensitive to apply it before any other products — especially if using a higher-strength product. 

If you’re starting out using retinoids or have sensitive skin, it’s probably best if you start by moisturizing first. This will help soothe any potential dryness and irritation from using this ingredient for the first time. 

Some people with sensitive skin may find that using their retinoid causes irritation, redness, and peeling. Applying your moisturizer first creates an extra layer between your skin and the retinoid. This will reduce dryness while still allowing the retinoid to do its thing! 

If you’re looking to experiment with moisturizing before and after applying a retinoid, the “sandwich” method may be just what your skin needs! Taking this approach allows you to enjoy the benefits of using a retinoid while reducing the risk of skin irritation. 

Here is what a skincare routine using this method looks like:

  1. Wash your face.
  2. Apply moisturizer, then let it set in and absorb into the skin.
  3. After 20 minutes, apply a pea-sized amount of your retinoid.
  4. Apply another layer of moisturizer.

Another option is to mix your retinoid with a moisturizer. Doing this will hydrate your skin and act as a buffer by diluting the retinoid and making it more tolerable.

If you’re wondering if applying moisturizer before a retinoid reduces its effectiveness, studies show this isn’t the case. It actually makes a retinoid more tolerable to the skin.

Types of moisturizers to use (and avoid) when using retinoids

Applying moisturizer is a crucial step in any skincare routine. But it’s even more important when you’re using retinoids. Using the right moisturizer will help:

  • Keep your skin soft and smooth
  • Increase skin hydration
  • Improve your skin’s appearance
  • Prevent and treat photoaging

As you can see, a moisturizer not only hydrates your skin but also helps maintain and protect it. When it comes to finding the best moisturizer to hydrate your skin, you want to look for moisturizers that contain emollient, occlusive, and humectant ingredients.  

  • Emollients hydrate and improve the skin’s flexibility, softness and smoothness. Common emollients include butters, fatty acids and ceramides.
  • Humectants bind water to the skin. Common humectants include glycerin and hyaluronic acid.
  • Occlusives lock in hydration and prevent water loss by creating a protective barrier. Common occlusives include petroleum jelly and bath oils.

These are some of the ingredients you want in a moisturizer, but there are also some you want to avoid. Avoid products that contain any actives like alpha or beta hydroxy acids, which can dry and irritate the skin when used with retinoids.

Take the guesswork out of your skincare routine with Night Shift

If you’re looking for a retinoid that’s tailored to your skin, Dear Brightly’s Night Shift is a dermatologist-formulated Tretinoin serum tailored for you by doctors online. 

This serum contains hyaluronic acid to draw in moisture and combat dryness, minimizing the side effects of starting retinoids. The process of getting a retinoid tailored for you is simple. We also have a set available that includes a moisturizer that complements retinoid use, making it convenient to get it all in one place.

When it comes to solving the riddle of what comes first in your skincare routine, one thing is clear.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to skincare. 

The order you apply your retinoid depends on its strength and your skin’s sensitivity. But the one thing that anyone using retinoids should always include in their skincare routine is a gentle moisturizer that will help keep the skin healthy and hydrated.  

Choosing the skincare products that are right for you is personal. That’s why we’re committed to making the process less overwhelming and more empowering. 

We’re here to help you find the right products for your skin goals and lifestyle every step of the way! Still have questions? Let us know because we’re here to help.


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Laquieze S, Czernielewski J, Rueda MJ. Beneficial effect of a moisturizing cream as adjunctive treatment to oral isotretinoin or topical tretinoin in the management of acneJ Drugs Dermatol. 2006;5(10):985-990.

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