Can You Use Retinol in the Summer?

·4 min read

It's no skincare secret that retinol is a superstar ingredient. A powerhouse vitamin A derivative, it speeds up skin cell turnover to improve skin tone and texture, tackles blemishes, boosts glow, and softens the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

But for all the good it does, retinol can irritate the skin. When using it for the first time, start with a low percentage and work your way up steadily. "Don't stop immediately if a little sensitivity occurs, as it can take your skin cells a couple of weeks to adapt," says Ewoma Ukeleghe, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in London. "If it's extremely uncomfortable, use only once a week or switch to the lowest concentration you can find."

And what about in the summer when you're out in the strong sun? "Many of my clients find retinol extremely daunting, especially in the summer," Dr. Ukeleghe says. Why? Because the general rule for retinol is that you stay away from sunlight, since retinol makes your skin more sensitive to UV rays (and sunlight decreases its efficacy).

That said, don't retire your retinol to the back of your vanity just yet. We spoke to three dermatologists to find out how (or if) you can reap all the retinol benefits in summer without damaging your complexion.

Can you use retinol during the summer months?

There are two reasons why we're told to stay out of the sun when using retinol. It breaks down in sunlight, and it makes your skin more prone to sun damage. According to Rita Nandi, NHS GP, MBChB, a cosmetic doctor at The Bloom Clinic, it's OK to use retinol year-round. Just a couple caveats: Apply it at night and go heavy on the SPF the next morning. "Be mindful of applying and reapplying sunscreen frequently throughout the day to ensure the new skin cells (brought up to the skin surface through retinol's exfoliative action) are sufficiently protected," says Dr. Nandi.

Dr. Ukeleghe goes even further, suggesting that summer is the best season for retinol use, especially if you experience winter skin issues. "Your skin tends to be less dry, and therefore less prone to sensitivity, than in the winter. Summer humidity lends more moisture, which is very helpful for starting retinol products," she says.

Is it safe to use high concentrations of retinol in the summer?

This depends on your current retinol routine and how long you've been a retinol user. "If your skin is already used to a higher concentration of retinol, then you may get away with continuing the same retinol concentration in the summer months as long as you wear copious amounts of sunscreen," says Dr. Nandi. "But generally, the higher the concentration of retinol, the higher the risk of side effects with sun exposure like irritation, dryness, and sensitivity."

Dr. Chimento recommends erring on the side of caution and "sticking to 0.01 to 0.03 percent in the summer, especially if you have sensitive skin, to reduce the chances of itching, skin distress, or pain." It will still be effective at this dose, since a small amount of retinol goes a long way.

What else should you know before using retinol in the summer?

If you plan to be in the sun for a long time while using retinol, there are some additional rules to follow. "Wear protective clothing like hats and long sleeves, stay in the shade whenever possible, and use sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher," says Stacy Chimento, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology. "Also, make sure to reapply sunscreen every two hours. If you are suffering from sunburns, I would pause the use of retinol until about a week after increased sun exposure."

If you want to play it safe, Dr. Nandi recommends omitting your retinol a few days before and after a summer vacation or beach day to minimize the risk of sun damage. Make this period without retinol even longer if you're planning to get a tan. Better yet, don't do that.)

Can you mix retinol with other skincare ingredients in summer?

The combination of UV rays and retinol is tough enough on skin, so Dr. Ukeleghe recommends sticking to gentle cleansers and deeply hydrating moisturizers. Choose products with ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid, which pair well with retinol. Avoid using other exfoliating products like AHAs and BHAs, plus benzoyl peroxide acne treatments, which can cause your retinol to oxidize and become less effective.

"If you're using any topical acne treatments or prescription skincare, speak to a dermatologist before using retinol," adds Dr. Chimento. "Make sure you're only combining ingredients that work well with retinol. Some toners, astringents, and medicated cleansers can be too harsh and clash when used alongside retinol."

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