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 • Skincare  • Skincare Guides  • We Asked the Experts Whether Retinol Really is Just a Nighttime Ingredient

We Asked the Experts Whether Retinol Really is Just a Nighttime Ingredient

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Main image – Hindbouqartacha/Stocksy

If you’ve ever wondered about adding retinol to your skincare routine and have done your homework on how to use it, you will have probably come across advice telling you to save it for nighttime only. Afterall, retinol is a powerful ingredient that can play havoc with your skin if it’s not used properly. 

However, in the spirit of playing devil’s advocate (who doesn’t love a second opinion?) I’m asking, does retinol really have to be reserved for after hours? Because, being such a beneficial ingredient for the skin, we want to take as much of it as we can if it’s safe to do so. Right? Hmm…

Our skincare experts Milan Scott, Dr Anna Guanche and Dr Lubna Khan-Salim have the answers to whether retinol can actually be used during the day, if it’s a myth that it should only be used at night and if not, what the benefits to only using it at night really are.


Image – Ohlamourstudio/Stocksy


Why are we told to just use retinol at night?

You’ll often hear that it’s a UV thing. First of all, that sunlight can affect how retinol actually works, and secondly that retinol use in itself can make our skin more sensitive to UV light.

But are both of those retinol assumptions true, or just beauty facts? We asked the experts.


Does retinol actually break down in sunlight?

It sounds like a myth, doesn’t it? But Scott says it’s true. “Yes, exposure to UV rays can cause many retinoids to break down, which is known as photo degradation,” she explains.

“Essentially, UV rays can break chemical bonds through a process called photolysis, or they can rearrange atoms within the retinoid molecule through isomerisation. Additionally, UV radiation has the potential to set off oxidative reactions within the retinoid molecule.”

Not every retinol formula will break down in sunlight though. Dr Khan-Salim explains, “There are some newer retinol formulations that are not deactivated by the sun.”

However, “When retinol breaks down, it can lose its effectiveness and may even become less stable,” Dr Guanche says.

And since it’s not always easy to tell whether the exact retinol formula you’ve bought is one that will break down in UV light or not, as a general rule the experts recommend using them at night unless directed by the manufacturer. 

“It’s generally recommended to use retinol-containing products, such as skincare creams or serums, in the evening or at night to minimise the risk of degradation due to sunlight exposure,” confirms Dr Gaunche.


Image – Hannahcriswell/Stocksy


Does retinol make your skin more sensitive to the sun?

Retinoids encourage the removal of old skin cells and support the growth of fresh ones,” says Scott. “However, this also means that the newly revealed skin might be more sensitive to UV rays,” she confirms.

Dr Guanche agrees. “Using retinol products without proper sun protection can increase UV penetration through the skin, thus risk sun damage, including sunburn and the development of dark spots,” she says.

But is that sensitivity worse if you use retinol during the day?

Retinol can make your skin sensitive regardless of the time of day the actual product is applied due to the mechanism of the ingredient,” explains Scott. This all depends on the strength of your retinol, your skin type and the other products you’re using. 


Then should we only be using retinol at night?

Since many retinols may become less effective in sunlight, the experts agree that it’s easier to simply stick to nighttime use only. And there are actually added benefits to using retinol exclusively at night too, they say.

“The nighttime is often a beneficial time to use active ingredients in skincare because of the fact that your skin experiences more cellular turnover at night,” explains Dr Khan-Salim.

“The skin’s metabolic rate increases at night whilst the body’s own metabolic rate decreases. This is the time when skin goes into regeneration mode in terms of DNA repair and production of new cells increases.” 

So, basically applying your most powerful ingredients to the skin before you go to bed is a no brainer for your skincare to work to its full potential. But what time is optimum for the skin’s regeneration process? 

“Between 11pm and midnight,” says Scott. “[This is when] our skin goes through the highest point of cellular renewal.” And she says that retinol is the ideal ingredient to aid this. 

“Retinol supports this process by promoting cell turnover and optimising skin’s natural regenerative process. This synergy between retinol and the skin’s nightly repair mechanism shows the significance of incorporating these products into your nighttime routine.”

Regardless of when you use it though, the experts all agree that using SPF daily with it is essential.


Image – Ohlamourstudio/Stocksy


The takeaway

Saving your retinol for nighttime isn’t non-negotiable. You can apply it in the morning if you prefer to, as long as you are confident you have a formula that doesn’t break down in sunlight and are absolutely militant when it comes to applying your sunscreen. 

However, as it is advised to only use retinol once a day because of its potency, the best time of day to use it is before you go to sleep. 

Nighttime is when the skin regenerates and can therefore use an ingredient like retinol to its full potential. Using it at night should help you notice better results compared to if you apply it during the day. And whilst retinol can still cause skin sensitivity with or without direct sunlight, wearing it during the day just adds another layer of risk.


Meet the experts

Milan Scott, aka “The Cosmescientist,” is an award-winning cosmetic chemist and the CEO of Keseana Cosmetic Labs, a cosmetic research and development lab. Milan specialises in hair care, skin care, personal care, and cosmetics for independent beauty brands and beauty brands marketed towards dark skin and textured hair.


Dr Anna Guanche is a renowned specialist and celebrity dermatologist, who has appeared on Extra and The Doctors to share her knowledge. She is founder of the state-of-the-art Bella Skin Institute facility in Los Angeles  which provides clients with the newest, most innovative procedures available to perfect skin.


Dr Lubna Khan-Salim is a Yorkshire based surgeon who trained and practiced in plastic surgery before moving into cosmetic aesthetics. Undertaking rigorous training in specialist posts including internal medicine, burns, microsurgery, hand surgery, skin cancer and surgical dermatology during her time in the NHS, she is a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.


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Beauty Editor

The former Beauty Editor of Glamour UK, Philippa has been a beauty and lifestyle journalist for over 16 years, picking up countless tips and tricks from makeup artists, hair stylists, dermatologists and celebrities. In that time she’s written for names like Cosmopolitan, The Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, Grazia, Refinery 29 and Byrdie. Philippa lives in the UK with her husband, two children and their hyperactive cockapoo, Paddy.

Expertise: Makeup, hair care
Education: Oxford Brookes University

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