Is This TikTok Skin Care Trend Making Your Retinol Less Effective?

Dermatologists share the truth about retinol sandwiching.

by Elise Tabin
Delmaine Donson/E+/Getty Images
A Black woman applying cream to her skin.
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In the world of skin care ingredients that actually work, retinol, and its more potent cousin, retinoids, have a track record of scoring an A. The vitamin A-derived ingredients do a great job of stimulating cell turnover to reveal baby smooth skin. But with that new-found fresh skin comes the potential for redness, irritation, and dryness. The ingredients’ notorious side effects are why TikTok influencers keep raving about retinol sandwiching, a hack that involves layering either a retinol or retinoid between two applications of moisturizer to protect the skin from the potential discomfort.

However, dermatologists have varying opinions on the retinol application technique. Some say it's great, while others believe it waters down the efficacy of the retinol or retinoid. That's because, with retinol sandwiching, the first layer of moisturizer acts as a barrier and can prevent the ingredient from penetrating the skin as intended. So, what’s fact and what’s fiction? Ahead, TZR gets to the bottom of retinol sandwiching with the help of top dermatologists.

The Basics Of Retinol & Retinoids

Thanks to TikTok, retinol and retinoids are more popular than ever, but they’ve been a go-to in dermatologists' toolboxes for years. Board-certified dermatologist Corey Hartman says, "retinol is super popular now, but dermatologists hopped aboard the retinol and retinoid trains long before antioxidants were mainstay ingredients. Retinol is the most studied active ingredient in all of skin care and has more science behind it than everything else."

However, not all retinol and retinoids are created equal. According to board-certified dermatologist Doris Day, there are many different types of vitamin A-derived ingredients which generally fall into four categories: retinol, retinoic acid, retinyl esters and retinyl aldehyde. “Retinoic acid is the prescription-strength retinoid and retinol, which is less irritating, is the common over-the-counter version.” When using a vitamin A product, it can be difficult to titrate (limit unwanted side effects by slowly increasing the dose) correctly without the dreaded side effects, which include skin sensitivity, redness, irritation and even a flare-up of breakouts as the skin adjusts to the ingredient.

The stronger the concentration of vitamin A a product, the more likely these irritations ensue. That's why dermatologists always advise retinol virgins to start with the lowest concentration, use it once or twice weekly, and slowly work their way up as the skin can tolerate it. “There's a sequence that takes retinol from one form to the next once it gets into the skin, which is important for it to work correctly and be used without as much irritation,” Dr. Hartman says.

But whether you’re a newbie to retinol and retinoids or a long-time user, only some people’s skin can handle the potential side effects of the ingredients. And that’s where the concept of retinol sandwiching comes in.

How Retinol Sandwiching Works

The basic idea of how to sandwich retinol or a retinoid (the technique gets its name from the layers involved in the application method) is this: apply a layer of moisturizer to clean skin; wait about 10 minutes; use a thin layer of retinol or a retinoid; and immediately top it off with another layer of moisturizer to seal everything in. Board-certified dermatologist Marissa Garshick says sandwiching can help minimize irritation from retinoids and retinol when applying moisturizer before and after by acting as a barrier.

TikTok may have breathed new life into the retinol sandwiching method, but it’s nothing new. "It is just a different way of saying something that we, as dermatologists, have been recommending for many years," Dr. Days says.

The reality is many people use vitamin A-derived ingredients with a moisturizer. “The idea of adding another layer of hydration into the mix stems from the realm of aestheticians and skin care influencers,” Dr. Hartman says. "Dermatologists are more concerned with the skin's health, not trends like glass skin, for example, whereas these other skin care professionals are. So I think retinol sandwiching came from the desire for a finished result on the surface and maybe another layer of fortification to the epidermis." While he says there aren't any scientific studies that support the idea of retinol sandwiching as superior or more effective than applying a good hydrating cream post-retinol-application, he does add that there's anecdotal evidence. "And that alone makes people jump on a trend."

So who does sandwiching benefit the most? Dr. Hartman says the additional layer of moisture is helpful for those with dehydrated skin. “However, it's probably unnecessary for every skin type, particularly those with extremely oily skin."

Can Sandwiching Make Retinol & Retinoids Less Effective?

The combination of vitamin A and hydration reduces dryness, irritations and skin sensitivities. But it comes at the expense of diminishing the effectiveness of the retinol or retinoid regardless of the concentration or its prescription strength. The reason: too thick, heavy or occlusive of a moisturizer can create a barrier before the retinol, which Dr. Garshick says, may impact how much it can enter the skin. "If not as much retinol penetrates, it may not be as effective. Exactly how less effective retinol or a retinoid becomes is still unknown because retinol sandwiching hasn't been studied exclusively."

The critical thing dermatologists stress about retinol sandwiching is that it doesn't deactivate the retinol but reduces its efficacy by diluting it. This can make the retinol's effects less impactful to the skin and even waters down the retinol's ability to work into the skin. The barrier prevents absorption, which isn't ideal, but it's less ideal not to use retinol or retinoid," Dr. Day says.

However, not every hydrating ingredient impedes the functionality of retinol and retinoids. It occurs more with heavier moisturizers and ointments containing occlusives like mineral oils, petroleum jelly and shea butter. "You don't want to use those types of moisturizers in either layer of the sandwich because it can obstruct the absorption of the product too much," Dr. Hartman says. Likewise, he adds that there's no reason to occlude a retinoid with petrolatum or an emollient, which can clog the pores.

If you are going to sandwich your retinol or retinoid, use a lightweight moisturizing lotion or face oil since both are less likely to create a barrier on the skin. Dr. Hartman likes moisturizers with ceramides, like CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion, as a safe option for the first layer in sandwiching. “Something with squalene also works,” he says. For the top layer of moisturizer, Dr. Hartman recommends a lighter hydrating product with glycerin or hyaluronic acid.

What To Do If Sandwiching Isn’t Right For You

What's the best approach if you want to prevent your skin from shedding yet still want to reap the maximum effects of a retinol or retinoid? It’s more or less a trade-off between procuring the full benefits with potential irritation and protecting the integrity of the skin in exchange for less substantial results. For starters, find a product that works well for your skin. Dr. Hartman says that not everyone needs to use a retinoid. "I reserve those more for acne treatment and severe fine lines and wrinkles requiring a prescription. But, on the other hand, retinol is great for aging skin that doesn't need anything too strong."

Finding a suitable retinol for your skin is tricky, so consider formulations that are hydrating or are slow-release encapsulated products. “Encapsulated retinol allows for a gradual release of retinol which may minimize irritation," Dr. Garshick explains. “Over-the-counter retinol with moisturizing ingredients may not be necessary to sandwich.”

For dry skin types that don’t want to experience further dryness, look for lower potencies of vitamin A. "There's SkinBetter AlphaRet Overnight Cream, which contains retinol and lactic acid, a non-irritating alpha hydroxy acid, so choose a product designed not to irritate the skin. Or go with lower potency retinol or retinaldehyde, one step above retinol, and incorporate it with a moisturizer,” recommends Dr. Hartman. “Typically, people with dry skin don't have acne issues, so they don't need anything all that strong, but they need to be hydrated and moisturizing anyway with something thicker.”

And since you’re not sandwiching, follow the tried-and-true dermatologist method of slowly integrating the vitamin A product into your routine. Additionally, Dr. Garshick says other ways to reduce dryness and redness from retinol or a retinoid is by applying a thick petroleum jelly-based ointment, such as Vaseline, just to the corners of the eyes, mouth and nasal creases, which can protect those areas from irritation.

The bottom line? Most dermatologists, including the ones we interviewed for this story, don't look at the sandwiching method as bad, per se, as long as it’s not harming the skin. But if retinol sandwiching is the only way you can tolerate using retinol or a retinoid, it may be the only way to incorporate it into your routine. "In that case, some retinol exposure is better than none," says Dr. Garshick.

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