“Retinol serums should be used at night after you cleanse and before you moisturize,” confirms celebrity esthetician Shani Darden. Since our skin is in repair mode overnight, that’s the most beneficial time to use a retinol serum. Plus, retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it’s best to leave it for nighttime only and make sure you’re wearing sunscreen during the day. (Also, you can consider using a serum like the above from Biossance which features bakuchiol—a plant-based alternative to retinol that is less irritating.)
If you have extra-sensitive skin, however, heed Lee’s advice and apply your retinol OVER your moisturer of choice. “I usually educate patients on putting on treatment serums directly after washing the face, but vitamin A is a strong ingredient, and it can actually penetrate through your moisturizer,” she tells us. “If you’re extra sensitive, you can also use your favorite facial oil a few minutes after you place your retinol on.”
That said, Lee also points out that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised to skip retinol, since what we put on our skin can enter our bloodstream and, in turn, baby’s. But for the most part (and as long as you tread carefully with high-quality formulas!), anyone can use retinol serums.
“Even clients with sensitive skin can benefit from retinol if used less frequently and in lower doses,” she explains. “You have the control, so it’s all about getting started slowly, and graduating in frequency and/or strength as you continue. I recommend my patients to start using a gentle retinol serum once to twice a week for a few weeks, and using it up to three to four times a week as tolerated.”
For best results, it’s also imperative to keep an eye on your skin and how it’s reacting to your retinol application. They’re designed to be exfoliating (that’s where the glowy magic comes from!), so if you get slightly dry or irritated while the dead skin cells are being shed from the retinol use, make sure to use a soothing serum or moisturizer, or even hydrocortisone 1% as a spot treatment.
Lee assures us that this is all par for the course when using retinol—with the right T.L.C., you’ll still be able to reap all the amazing benefits. Oh, and make sure to wear a good sunscreen every single day! That’s non-negotiable.