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How long should retinol sit before moisturizing?

Quick answer

The general guidance is to wait 10-20 minutes after applying retinol before layering on a moisturizer. This allows time for the retinol to absorb into the skin before “sealing” it in with moisture. Applying moisturizer too soon can dilute or deactivate the retinol.

The purpose of waiting before moisturizing after retinol

There are two main reasons why it is recommended to wait after applying retinol before moisturizing:

Allows retinol to absorb

Retinol needs adequate time to penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin where it does its work of increasing cell turnover and collagen production. Moisturizing too soon can create a barrier that prevents proper absorption. Waiting 10-20 minutes gives the retinol enough time to fully absorb.

Avoids irritating the skin

Retinol can be irritating, especially when just starting out. Applying a moisturizer directly after retinol can “seal” the retinol closer to the surface of the skin, increasing irritation and dryness. Waiting allows the retinol to sink in deeper before locking in moisture.

How long to wait based on retinol type and strength

The wait time can vary based on the specific type and strength of retinol:

Retinol Type/Strength Wait Time
Over-the-counter retinol 0.1%-0.25% 10 minutes
Prescription retinoid 0.05%-0.1% 15 minutes
High-strength prescription retinoid 0.5%+ 20-30 minutes

As a general rule:

– Lower strength OTC retinols require less wait time
– Higher strength prescription retinoids require more wait time

Start on the lower end of the wait time range when beginning with any new retinol product and adjust as your skin builds tolerance.

Tips for minimizing irritation when starting retinol

Retinol can cause irritation, redness, peeling, and flaking, especially when first starting out. Here are some tips to help minimize side effects:

Start slow

Begin by using retinol just 2-3 times per week and slowly increase frequency over time as your skin adjusts. Don’t use retinol daily right away.

Use a lower strength

Start with an over-the-counter retinol 0.1% or 0.25% rather than higher prescription strengths like 0.5% or 1%. You can gradually increase strength over time.

Apply retinol after moisturizer

If irritation is still bothersome, try applying moisturizer first, waiting for it to fully absorb (10-15 minutes), then applying a thin layer of retinol. The moisturizer helps buffer the effects.

Avoid irritated areas

Focus application on less sensitive areas like the forehead and chin and avoid the eyes, mouth and nostrils.

Take nights off

Give your skin a break by using retinol every other or every third night. Don’t feel you need to use it daily.

Moisturizing after retinol

After allowing retinol adequate absorption time, it’s important to follow up with a moisturizer. Here’s how to moisturize after retinol:

Wait 10-20 minutes after applying retinol before moisturizing

Give retinol at least 10-20 minutes before applying anything over top. This allows it to fully penetrate into the skin without being diluted or deactivated.

Cleanse and apply retinol to dry skin

Wash face with a gentle cleanser, allow skin to fully dry, then apply retinol. Damp skin can increase irritation. Don’t apply retinol after toner or other leave-on products.

Use a pea-sized amount

A pea-sized amount spread over the entire face is sufficient. Using too much retinol doesn’t increase benefits but does increase risk of irritation.

Apply a moisturizer to “seal” it in

After waiting, follow with a fragrance-free moisturizer to hydrate and protect skin. Look for moisturizers designed for sensitive skin.

Focus moisturizer on drier areas

Target extra moisturizer to the driest areas like around the eyes, sides of the nose and mouth. These areas tend to be more prone to retinol dryness.

Use moisturizer morning and night

Always follow retinol at night with a moisturizer. It’s also important to moisturize in the mornings after cleansing on days you don’t use retinol.

Tips for choosing a moisturizer to use with retinol

The right moisturizer helps provide hydration while minimizing irritation from retinol. Look for these key features:


Fragrance can cause irritation and dryness. Opt for fragrance-free moisturizers.

Hydrating ingredients

Ingredients like glycerin, hyaluronic acid and ceramides help hydrate and repair the skin barrier.

Rich but non-greasy texture

Thicker moisturizers provide more hydration but still absorb well. Avoid heavy occlusive ingredients like petrolatum.

Soothing ingredients

Look for calming ingredients like aloe, chamomile, oats, green tea and niacinamide.

SPF for daytime

Retinol can make your skin more sensitive to UV damage. Use an SPF 30+ moisturizer during the day.

Signs you may need to adjust your retinol routine

Monitor your skin’s reaction to retinol and adjust your routine as needed. Signs to watch for include:

Increased dryness and flaking

If dryness persists even with moisturizer, reduce retinol frequency to 2-3x a week.

Ongoing redness and irritation

Take a break from retinol for several days until skin calms down. Then restart at a lower frequency.

No improvement in skin after 3-4 months

You may need a stronger prescription strength for better results. See your dermatologist.

Worsening breakouts or acne

Cut back to 2-3x a week, ensure you are waiting before moisturizing, and avoid very heavy moisturizers. See your dermatologist if it persists.

Who should not use retinol?

While retinol offers many benefits, it is not suitable for everyone. Avoid retinol if:

– You are pregnant or breastfeeding

– You have very sensitive skin that easily flushes or breaks out

– You take medications that increase sun sensitivity

– You have eczema or rosacea

Check with your dermatologist before using retinol if you have concerns. Those with very dry or sensitive skin may be better suited for a gentler retinoid alternative.


Allowing retinol proper absorption time before layering on moisturizer is important for tolerability and effectiveness. Follow these key tips:

– Wait 10-20 minutes after applying retinol before moisturizing

– Adjust wait times based on retinol strength

– Start slowly and work up to more frequent use

– Always follow retinol with a hydrating, soothing moisturizer

– Monitor skin’s reaction and adjust routine as needed

Following correct application and moisturizing procedures can help maximize retinol’s benefits while minimizing irritation. Be patient as it can take 3-6 months to see results. With consistent use, most people find retinol improves skin’s tone, texture, firmness and radiance.