The 1 Thing You Need To Do Differently If You Use Retinol In The Summer

<span class="copyright">ShotPrime via Getty Images</span>
ShotPrime via Getty Images

Retinoids are a skin care hero for many reasons ― they target fine lines, pigmentation, collagen production and acne. But you’ll often hear that retinoids shouldn’t be used before you plan to spend time in the sun in order to protect your skin from a higher risk of sunburn and irritation that comes with retinoid use. But what if it’s summertime and you plan to be in the sun most days? Should you just cut out retinoids entirely?

HuffPost reached out to skin care experts to answer this and other questions about retinoid use in the summer. 

What Are Retinoids And Retinol?

You may notice different, yet similar-sounding, terms tossed around in this part of the skin care world, such as retinol, retinoids and even retinal.

The vitamin A family is commonly referred to as retinoids, and you can find different strengths depending on your needs. The “pure” form, which is a prescription-only product, is called tretinoin, but if you’re looking for over-the-counter products you can find retinaldehyde (or retinal), retinol and retinyl palmitate (or retinyl ester). Retinoid strengths are like a pyramid and their strength depends on how “far” they are from the pure form (retinoic acid). The milder forms may work slower than the others but are also less irritating.

“It’s recommended to start with a lower concentration and frequency when using retinol products, to allow the skin to adjust gradually,” said Dr. Rahi Sarbaziha, a board-certified integrative aesthetics doctor in Beverly Hills. “It is advisable to apply the cream once a week at night,” she added. 

To learn more, read our complete guide to the difference between all these terms.

Can You Use Retinol In The Summer?

“Many individuals believe that it is in their best interest to cease the use of retinoids in the summer months. This is a misconception,” said Jan Marini, an esthetician and founder of Jan Marini Skin Research.

Marini explained that sun sensitivity occurs when a substance interacts with UV light at any temperature and causes a severe burn ― one such substance is oral drugs in the tetracycline family. “This is not the case with either prescription retinoids (tretinoin) or OTC retinol,” Marini said. Retinoids can even help the skin heal from sun damage or other wounds, per variousstudies, Marini explained. Retinol doesn’t react with the sun to cause burns or damage.

“It’s a myth that retinoids have to be stopped in the summer, but you do have to be aware of this increased risk and have a strategy to avoid it,” said Dr. Kristen Miller, a board-certified dermatologist atSpectrum Skin and Laser.

The idea that you should stop using retinoids in the summer “is a total myth,” agreed Dr. Fadi Haddad, a cosmetic dermatologist atDr. Kayle Aesthetic Clinic. “You can benefit from using retinoids every day all year round, but the effect it has on your skin is determined by the strength of the retinoids and the frequency of use,” he added.

In fact, Haddad explained that research shows there’s no photo-toxicity with retinoids, “meaning they won’t react with sunlight to cause a burn on the skin. The reason SPF is recommended is because the younger, plump skin cells that have been revealed during the cellular turnover are vulnerable and prone to sun damage, so they need to be protected from the UV.”

The Keys To Using Retinol In The Summer

“Unless you have an underlying medical condition or are taking other medications that increase your sensitivity to the sun, in general retinoids are safe to use in the summer months if applied properly,” Miller said.

Of course, being extra diligent with your daily sunscreen application and reapplication is important ― but you should already be doing that year-round.

Stay on schedule with your retinoid usage, and consider spacing apart applications if your skin is irritated or you plan to be exposed to the sun.
Stay on schedule with your retinoid usage, and consider spacing apart applications if your skin is irritated or you plan to be exposed to the sun. Pakin Songmor via Getty Images

“If your skin is already acclimated to use, which it likely is after six months or so, your skin sensitivity is likely back to baseline level,” said Charlene Valledor,  a product developer, co-founder and group president of SOS Beauty. Valledro agreed that for seasoned retinoid users, who are mindful of sun exposure and sunscreen, there’s no reason to stop during the summer holidays.

Here’s where you should rethink your routine: Each person’s skin and resilience to retinoids is different, so it’s best to consult your doctor. But generally, if you are in direct sun for the majority of the summer, you may want to change the frequency of use.

“Depending on how resilient your skin is to retinoids and how much sun exposure you’re getting, you may want to change the cycle in a few more ‘rest and recovery’ days in between your retinoid nights,” Sarbaziha said. Instead of applying your retinoid every other night, for example, you could stretch it out to every three nights.

“Decreasing the strength of your topical retinoid or switching to a less potent retinol product can be a way to reduce your risk of sun sensitivity and burning,” Miller suggested.

Sarbaziha recommended added sunscreen protection when on holiday, like an SPF 70. “Do not use retinoids if you are sunburned, as this can lead to spotting and discoloration,” she added.

Who Can And Can’t Use Retinol In General

Irritation and dryness, or even the dreaded “retinol uglies,” are common when first introducing a vitamin A product. According to the experts, there’s a formula and frequency that’s suitable for everyone.

In terms of skin type, Marini explained that unless someone is allergic to a particular formula, anyonecan use a retinoid. “The important thing is to have a skin care routine that is geared to your skin type. For example, if you are dry, use products in that category and, if you are oily, likewise. Then simply slip a retinoid into your routine in the evening,” Marini said. 

Sarbaziha mentioned that retinoids should only be used at night, regardless of the season. And if you are planning to become pregnant or are currently pregnant or breastfeeding, you should not use a retinoid at all. 

For certain skin conditions, you should take extra caution when introducing a retinoid. “Those with melasma, who may have been prescribed actives such as AHAs and hydroquinone, need to be careful as the irritated skin, if not properly sun protected, can exacerbate the existing condition,” Haddad said.

Are The Rules Different If You Have A Darker Skin Tone?

“Generally speaking, retinol works equally on all skin tones, but the more potent forms such as prescription products could damage the skin if not used correctly,” Haddad explained. “Darker skin tones can be prone to irritation caused by high-intensity skin care ingredients such as vitamin A derivatives, which could result in hyperpigmentation.” He advised speaking to a doctor before incorporating strong actives.

Starting with a lower dosage is the key for all skin types to minimize irritation, Sarbaziha said. “There are no issues with using retinol in darker skin tones, but it’s important to start at a low level and slowly build up.”

Miller agreed: ”Retinol products, when applied properly, are generally safe to use on darker skin tones.”

The general consensus is that if you use retinoids all year and are diligent with your sun care, you can keep using them. If you are planning on spending extended periods of time outdoors ― like a beach trip ― and want to err on the side of caution, you may want to stop using them a few days before and after your trip. Even during a beach trip though, it’s all down to your skin, its sensitivity and resilience, as Sarbaziha explained.