Follow these two golden rules.

By Amy Lawrenson
April 29, 2021
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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 here's the thing: Summer skin and retinol seem like two things that just don't mesh. 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). "Many of my clients find retinol extremely daunting, especially in the summer. Less than half know exactly what it is, while the others find the percentages and different types difficult to understand," says Ewoma Ukeleghe, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in London.

But don't retire your retinol to the back of your vanity just yet. We spoke to three dermatologists to find out whether there is a way to reap all the retinol benefits in summer without damaging your complexion.

Can you use retinol during the summer months?

Let's get to the crux of it: Retinol, for all the good it does, can irritate skin. Regardless of the season, Dr. Ukeleghe recommends starting with a low percentage, working 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. However if it's extremely uncomfortable, use only once a week or switch to the lowest concentration you can find."

There are two reasons why we're told to keep away from sunlight when using retinol. One, retinol breaks down in sunlight, and two, 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 totally OK–and encouraged!)–to use retinol year-round. Just a couple caveats: apply it at night and go heavy on the SPF the next morning. "You need to 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 even goes as far as to say 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 to 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 really depends on what your current retinol routine looks like and how long you have 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, such as irritation, dryness, and sensitivity when the skin is exposed to sunlight."

In other words, it's best to err on the side of caution. Dr. Chimento recommends "sticking to 0.01% to 0.03% in the summer, especially if you have sensitive skin, to reduce the chances of itching, skin distress, or pain." Don't worry; it'll still be effective. Just a small dose of retinol goes a long way for your skin.

What else should you take into consideration when using retinol in the summer?

If you plan to be exposed to the sun for long periods of time, there are some additional rules to follow if you're on retinol (a worthy sacrifice for anti-aging). "Try and wear protective clothing like hats and long sleeves to shield yourself from the sun, 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 temporarily pause the use of retinol until about a week after increased sun exposure."

If you want to really 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 to the skin. And, if you are planning to suntan, this period should be longer, for example, one to two weeks before and after. (Or better yet, don't tan.)

What other skincare ingredients should you use and avoid with retinol, especially in summer?

The sun's UV rays and retinol in tandem are tough on skin, so Dr. Ukeleghe recommends sticking to gentle cleansers and deeply hydrating moisturizers. Be on the lookout for ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid, both of which are great to pair with retinol. You should also 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. "You want to make sure you are only combining other ingredients that work well with retinol. Some toners, astringents, and medicated cleansers can be too harsh and clash when used alongside retinol."