Updated 07/21/21. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you already know that I’m 100% team retinol. When it comes to slowing down the visible signs of aging, retinol is unparalleled. What makes it such a unique ingredient is the fact that it has been studied meticulously for decades, and its dramatic anti-aging effects have been scientifically proven time and time again. Brown spots, fine lines and wrinkles, rough texture, and enlarged pores (yes, your pores get bigger as you age) can all be improved by incorporating a retinol into your 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 widely accepted as a staple skincare ingredient, I still see a lot of confusion about how to use it properly. This is key 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). There’s one question, in particular, that seems to generate a lot of confusion, and that is, “can I wear retinol during the day?” In this post, I will give you my answer to this question, once and for all.
Background: How Circadian Rhythms Affect Your Skin
Before I answer whether or not you should be using retinol during the day, I need to provide some background. First, let’s talk about 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 24-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, like daylight. In fact, it’s been proposed by researchers that your skin has its own circadian rhythm.
What Your Skin Is Doing During the Day
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 that take 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 the lowest early in the day. Your skin gets a lot of heat exposure from the sun, though, which can increase inflammation, redness, and pigmentation.
- Increased 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 environmental aggressors.
- Improved 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 boost your skin’s natural defense mechanisms.
- Sunscreen: No surprise here! Sunscreen is the most important step in 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. Even though 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: Your skin heats up as your body releases heat.
- More Permeable Barrier: Now that your skin isn’t facing an onslaught of environmental aggressors, its barrier starts to become more permeable.
- Higher Cell Proliferation: At night, your cells are growing and dividing at a higher rate.
- DNA Repair: Your skin gets to work repairing the damage caused to DNA during the day.
Note: We used to think that repair processes only occurred at night during sleep; 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 that it’s beneficial to do your nighttime skincare routine earlier in the evening rather than waiting until right before your head hits the pillow.
Best Skincare Ingredients for Nighttime:
With these functions in mind, here are the best skincare products to use at night. All of these boost your skin’s natural reparative processes.
- Antioxidants: During the day, your skin uses up its antioxidant supply to defend against free radicals. At night, your skin is able to use the antioxidants you give it for reparative functions.
- 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?
Are you finally ready to hear my answer to this question? Here it comes…My official answer is no, you should not use retinol during the day. This is because retinol is a reparative ingredient, so 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 that your skin is more permeable, which allows 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 due to the fact that 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’re only using that retinol product at night.
As I said before, it’s best to work in harmony with your body’s natural cycles. Using retinol in your evening routine is a good way to do this.
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.”