I’ve been a believer in the benefits of retinol ever since I met Dr. Fitzpatrick over 30 years ago. At the time, he was the Chief of Dermatology at Mass General Hospital in Boston. Dr. Fitzpatrick was instrumental in getting tretinoin FDA-approved for the treatment of wrinkles (prior to that, it was only being used to treat acne). I vividly remember seeing how one of his hands—the hand he applied tretinoin to during demonstrations to his acne patients—was significantly smoother and brighter than the other. Eventually, I used what I had learned about retinoids from Dr. Fitzpatrick to develop my own retinol serum.
I’ve been watching my clients get amazing results from retinol for decades. And yet, people are still confused about the proper application techniques. And I get it! Retinol is a powerful ingredient, so how you apply it can affect your skin’s response. In this post, I’ll tackle one of the questions I get asked most often: “How long should I let my retinol soak in before applying moisturizer?”
The answer is a little more complicated than you might think, but hopefully, the information I’m about to share will shed some light. Let’s dive in!
How Long Should You Let Retinol Soak in Before Applying Moisturizer?
After applying your retinol product, it’s best to wait roughly 10 minutes before moving on to the next step in your routine.
When you apply a moisturizer directly after a treatment product like retinol, you dilute the active ingredients. The moisturizer essentially “picks up” some of the product underneath and spreads it around. This is why, to get the most bang for your buck, it’s ideal to let your retinol fully soak in and get absorbed for about 10 minutes. It’s a surefire way to prevent dilution and will make the retinol more potent.
With that in mind, some people may have to take a milder approach, and it often depends on which type of retinol you’re using.
The Type of Retinol You Use Can Make a Difference
There are many different types of retinol, but for the sake of this post, I’ll split it into two basic categories. The first is prescription retinoids, and the second is non-prescription retinol products.
Prescription retinoids are an FDA-approved drug, and they’re much stronger than non-prescription retinol. This is because prescription retinoids are pure retinoic acid, meaning your skin doesn’t have to convert them. They can get right to work. Non-prescription retinol products come in a variety of strengths, but they all have to go through a certain number of conversions before becoming retinoic acid.
Since prescription retinoids are stronger, they’re more likely to cause unwanted side effects such as redness, flaking, dryness, and irritation. This means most people won’t be able to jump right into letting their retinol soak in for 10 minutes before applying moisturizer. Instead, it’s best to work your way up incrementally. Start by using moisturizer immediately after applying your prescription. After a week, wait a minute or two before applying your moisturizer (and so on).
If you’re really struggling to tolerate your prescription, you can even start by applying a thin layer of moisturizer before you apply the retinoid (and then again after). This creates a buffer or a “moisture sandwich,” and it can really help mitigate those nasty side effects. Many people worry that their retinoid won’t work if they apply moisturizer first, but it will—it will just take longer to see the results. If you’re experiencing serious irritation, though, it’s worth the wait to avoid this.
While you should always try to avoid serious irritation, keep in mind that it’s normal to experience flaking when you start using a prescription. Technically, this means it’s working. After you apply retinol, it takes about 48 hours to see flaking. So, if you can tolerate it, allow this phase of retinization to run its course. If you want to avoid flaking or have an event coming up, you can continue to buffer with moisturizer.
Finally, remember that the journey doesn’t have to be linear. You can always make adjustments based on your skin’s needs, taking things like seasonal changes into account. For example, come winter, you might revert to a shorter window between retinol and moisturizer application.
If you’re using a prescription retinoid, here’s how the rest of your skincare routine should change.
Non-prescription retinol products are a little easier since they’re less likely to cause irritation, but they still shouldn’t be underestimated. Always err on the side of caution and slowly work your way up to letting your non-prescription retinol soak in for the full 10 minutes.
You can learn more about how to incorporate retinol into your routine by following this Beginner’s Guide to Retinol and Retinoids.
Should You Apply Retinol to Dry or Damp Skin?
Applying your retinol to damp skin is best (if you can tolerate it). Per my Golden Minute Rule, I always recommend swiping a toner on right after cleansing to prevent water evaporation. Then, I suggest applying your treatment product (in this case, retinol) while your skin is still slightly damp from the toner as this enhances penetration. This also allows the skin to stay hydrated and helps maintain your moisture barrier.
One caveat is that, since applying a product to damp skin enhances penetration, it could potentially also lead to increased irritation (especially with a prescription retinoid). In this case, apply your toner, then let the skin dry for about one minute. You don’t want to wait much longer than that since this is when water evaporation starts to occur, which could backfire and lead to dehydration.
Finally, slugging may be a trendy way to improve barrier function, but you should never slug when using active ingredients like retinol or exfoliating acids. Since petrolatum is so occlusive, it will force those ingredients deeper into the skin, which can quickly lead to irritation. Here’s everything you need to know about slugging.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Her hands-on experience as an esthetician and trusted skin care expert has created a real-world solution — products that are formulated for nine different types of skin so your face will get exactly what it needs to look and feel its best. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”