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Retinol Before or After Moisturizer?

Not quite sure whether to use retinol before or after moisturizer for your skincare routine?

How long should you wait to applying moisturizer after retinol?

The order of applying skincare products might not seem that important, but small changes can lead to big differences in their effectiveness and to find out why, we need to know a bit about how skincare products actually help the skin!

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Anti-Aging Retinol Serum Texture

What is the purpose of retinol and moisturizer in a skincare routine?

Understanding how the skin benefits from these skincare products can help us answer whether using retinol before or after moisturizer is correct.

How does retinol benefit the skin?

Retinol (also known as Vitamin A) is an incredible skincare ingredient that actively helps the skin improve by:

  • Smoothing wrinkles and fine lines
  • Decreasing hyperpigmentation
  • Increasing protein and keratin synthesis

In fact, our 30 day CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum review shows just how dramatically retinol can transform the appearance of the skin!

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum Product
CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum

The before and after results clearly hints at the fact that retinol directly affects the skin biological processes.

Moisturizers, however, are a bit different.

Is moisturizing important in skincare routines?

Although moisturizers aren’t as exciting to use as active skincare ingredients, they have an important role any solid skincare routine.

It’s simply to keep the skin hydrated!

However, not all moisturizers hydrate the skin in the same way.

For example, The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA uses Hyaluronic Acid and Glycerin to attract moisture to the skin whereas other moisturizers, such as Petroleum Jelly (Vaseline), coats the skin with oils to physically prevent moisture from escaping.

The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA Label
The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA

Now, you might be wondering if this really matters.

Well, it does and has everything to do with absorption.


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Does retinol absorb better before using a moisturizer, or after?

For active skincare ingredients to be truly effective, they need to be absorbed into the skin.

This might seem obvious, but it’s a real issue that brands face when formulating their products!

Consider The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 serum.

The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 Serum
The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5

Hyaluronic Acid molecules can be quite large and not readily absorbable so The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 actually has 3 different forms of Hyaluronic Acid!

Using a blend of low, medium and high molecular weight Hyaluronic Acid helps increase the rate of absorption, thereby improving skin hydration.

This same principle applies to retinol so with this in mind, let’s find out if there’s a noticeable difference when using retinol before moisturizing.


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Skin texture using retinol before moisturizer

We set up a few tests to see if using a moisturizer before a retinol serum has a noticeable effect on absorption.

Comparing these results should give clues to which is the more efficient application method!

Drunk Elephant Sili Body Lotion and CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum Bottles
CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum before Drunk Elephant Sili Body Lotion?

First, we used a simple skincare routine to get our base reference:

The following results show how this retinol serum absorbs into the skin after 1 hour:

Skin right after applying CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol SerumSkin 1 hour after applying CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
Skin after immediately applying CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum (left) vs. skin 1 hour after applying (right).

Although there is a slight residue left on the skin after an hour, the skin felt completely dry and smooth to the touch which indicates how CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum absorbed into the skin!

Now for the comparison, we used a slightly different skincare routine:

  • Cleanse skin with Caudalie Vinoclean Instant Foaming Cleanser.
  • Moisturize using Drunk Elephant Sili Body Lotion.
  • Wait 10 minutes before applying CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum.

Will this small change affect how the retinol serum absorbs into the skin after 1 hour?

Let’s take a look at the results:

Skin after applying Drunk Elephant Sili Moisturizer and CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol SerumSkin texture after 1 hour applying Drunk Elephant Sili Moisturizer and CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
Skin immediately after moisturizing with Drunk Elephant Sili Body Lotion first then applying CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum (left) compared to skin 1 hour after applying (right).

After an hour, we noticed a lot more of the serum left on the surface of the skin.

Not only does the skin surface feel wet and slick, it’s also glossy!

These results suggests that using retinol before a moisturizer might be more efficient, as the active skincare ingredient contacts the skin directly before a layer of moisturizer covers and hydrates the skin.


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Is using retinol before or after moisturizer a priority?

Creating your own skincare routine can get overwhelming at times, especially with the seemingly endless amount of skincare products to choose from!

If this process gets a bit complicated, there’s options to simplify.

Take The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane, for example.

The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane Serum
The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane

This serum blends retinol in Squalane, a plant based oil that helps lock in moisture, effectively eliminating the need to think about using retinol before or after moisturizer!

Of course, the tradeoff for this simplicity is the greasy residue left on the skin after application.

The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane teture on the skin after 10 minutes
Oily residue left on the surface of the skin after 30 minutes applying The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane.

Wanting to create an efficient skincare routine is normal but it’s more important to be consistently use your skincare products and sunscreen!

Remember, discovering new products and finding a routine that works for you should be fun.

If you ever feel stuck and need inspiration, check out some of our reviews:

We’ve discovered some truly amazing skincare products and if you want updates on the latest news, subscribe to Skincare Weeklies!


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