If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you already know that I’m 100 percent #teamretinol. When it comes to slowing down (and even reversing) the visible signs of aging, retinol is truly unparalleled. What makes it such a unique ingredient is the fact that it has been studied meticulously for decades. The dramatic anti-aging effects of retinol have been scientifically proven time and time again. Brown spots, fine lines and wrinkles, inflammation, rough texture and enlarged pores (yes, your pores get bigger as you age) can all be improved by incorporating a retinol into your regular routine. No other ingredient out there can make all these claims, so you can see why I’m a believer.
Even though retinol is now pretty widely accepted as a staple skincare ingredient, I still see a lot of confusion about how to use it properly. This is key, though, because using retinol incorrectly means your skin might not be getting all the benefits. And worse, it can put you at greater risk of experiencing some of the unwanted side effects associated with retinol (think dryness, redness, peeling and stinging—no fun). But there is one question in particular that still seems to generate a lot of confusion: “Can I wear retinol during the daytime?” My goal for this blog post is to give you my answer to this question, once and for all.
Background: How Circadian Rhythms Affect Your Skin
Before I answer the question, “can retinol be used during the day?” it’s important to understand the different functions that occur within your skin during the day versus at night. These functions are dictated by your circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a twenty-four hour cycle. Your body is constantly making adjustments based on the time of day. These adjustments are triggered by both your biological or “internal” clock and by environmental factors, mainly daylight.
What Your Skin is Doing During the Day:
On its face, it’s pretty simple: during the day, your skin is constantly exposed to aggressors that can cause it harm, so it’s in defense mode. These aggressors include UV rays, pollution, free radicals, and even stress. These are a few of the physiological changes taking place in your skin during the day:
- Lower Temperature. While your body temperature is higher during the day than at night, the surface temperature of your skin is actually lowest early in the day. Your skin gets a lot of heat exposure from the sun, though, which can increase inflammation, redness, and pigmentation.
- More Sebum Production. Your skin’s production of sebum (oil) peaks in the early afternoon. This is basically your skin creating a natural film to protect itself from intruders.
- Better Moisture Retention. When your skin loses moisture, it’s called transepidermal water loss, which you can think of as a form of evaporation. Some studies suggest your skin is better at holding on to moisture during the day in order to protect itself through improved barrier function.
Best Skincare Ingredients for Daytime
With these functions in mind, here are the best skincare products to use in the morning. All of these help you by boosting your skin’s natural defense mechanisms:
- Sunscreen: No surprise here! The most important step is protecting your skin against harmful UV rays that can lead to free radical damage.
- Antioxidants: Speaking of free radical damage, antioxidants address this concern head-on by preventing unstable molecules from causing cellular damage.
- Makeup: Yes, you read that right! Makeup protects your skin, here’s how.
This simple combination of ingredients is a really effective way of preventing damage to your skin during the day.
What Your Skin is Doing at Night:
If daytime is all about defense, nighttime is all about offense. This is when your skin gets to work repairing any damage that was incurred throughout the day. As your body starts to wind down, it goes into a reparative mode. And while your skin is constantly working to repair itself, these processes definitely peak in the evening. They don’t call it “beauty sleep” for nothing! These are a few of the physiological changes taking place in your skin at night:
- Higher Temperature: As the sun goes down, your body starts to cool, but your skin actually heats up as your body releases heat.
- More Permeable Barrier: Now that your skin isn’t facing an onslaught from the outside environment, its barrier starts to become more permeable.
- Higher Cell Proliferation: This means that at night, your cells are growing and dividing at a higher rate.
- Higher DNA Repair: Your skin gets to work repairing the damage caused to DNA during the day.
Note: We used to think that repair processes in the body and skin only occurred at night while we slept. We now know that these processes actually kick in as soon as the sun goes down, even if your body isn’t in rest mode yet. Because your body’s repair process is synced with its circadian rhythms, the loss of daylight signals to your body that it’s time to start winding down, even if you haven’t gone to bed yet. This may mean it’s actually beneficial to do your nighttime routine earlier in the evening rather than waiting until right before you go to bed.
Best Skincare Ingredients for Nighttime
These are the best products to use at night to boost your skin’s natural reparative processes:
- Antioxidants: Your skin uses up its antioxidant supply during the day in order to defend against free radicals. At night, your skin is actually able to use antioxidants you give it for reparative functions since it isn’t needing to defend itself against environmental aggressors.
- Retinol: Retinol boosts skin cell turnover, which allows the skin to regenerate itself from within.
- Exfoliating Acids: Acids dissolve dead skin cells that have built up on the surface of your skin. These dead cells can make your skin look dull and may make it difficult for other active ingredients to penetrate effectively. Acids also help reduce unwanted pigment and encourage a more even-toned complexion.
Should You Use Retinol During the Day?
So…my official answer is no. You should not use retinol during the day. This is because retinol is a reparative ingredient and it’s best to use it at night when your skin’s natural reparative processes are at their peak. This will allow you to reap all the benefits retinol has to offer. The best strategy is to work with your skin’s natural cycles: use protective ingredients like sunscreen, antioxidants and Vitamin C in the morning and use reparative ingredients like retinol or exfoliating acids at night. Another benefit of using active ingredients at night is your skin’s increased permeability. This will allow your nighttime products to penetrate deeper and work better than they would during the day.
You’ve probably heard that using retinol during the day is a huge no-no because it makes your skin more sensitive to the sun. This photosensitivity is actually a cumulative effect that occurs because retinol increases cell turnover. This means that fresh, new skin cells are constantly being brought to the surface; these cells are more vulnerable to sun damage than dry, dead skin cells. This is why it’s so important to wear sunscreen every day when you’re using a retinol product—even if you use it at night. So while retinol does increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun overall, this isn’t why I recommend using it at night.
As I said, it’s definitely best to work in harmony with your body’s natural cycles as much as possible. Using retinol in your evening routine is definitely a good way to do this. In the end, you never want to work against Mother Nature, you always want to work with her.
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. 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.”