Here's Why TikTok's 'Retinol Sandwich' Application Method Might Not Work for You

Dermatologists explain the downsides of applying moisturizer right before retinol.

TikTok True or False: Does a Retinol Sandwich Actually Work?
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Retinol is a powerhouse skin-care ingredient thanks to its ability to help with a variety of skin concerns, such as fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and acne. The ingredient is also easily accessible via over-the-counter skin-care products found at local pharmacies and beauty stores.

One of the downsides of retinol, though, is it's a super potent ingredient that many find irritating or drying, according to dermatologists. In an effort to reap the benefits of the popular ingredient without any of the potential side effects, users on TikTok are posting videos of an application method called the "retinol sandwich." It consists of applying a layer of moisturizer before your retinol and following up with another layer of moisturizer afterward to help reduce the risk of dryness, flaking, and irritation. One search for "retinol sandwich" on the app surfaces thousands of videos that have racked up eight billion accumulated views, but does it work?

Technically, the "retinol sandwich" method does protect against potential irritation caused by applying retinol to the skin. However, that's because the first layer of moisturizer acts as a barrier, which keeps the retinol from penetrating the skin and diminishes its effects, according to dermatologists. Ahead, learn more about retinol and tips for how to best apply the skin-care ingredient to enjoy its benefits without irritation.

What is retinol?

"Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that has been scientifically proven to promote healthy collagen production, combat aging, and treat acne," says Anat Lebow, M.D., F.A.A.D., a board-certified dermatologist and dermatology advisor for Codex Beauty Labs. It's a type of retinoid, which is a "blanket term for vitamin A derived products," adds Robyn Gmyrek M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.

There are several type of retinoids that all have the same benefits, but some may be stronger in potency and formulation than others. "Retinoids include prescription retinoic acids, [such as] tretinoin (a topical medication) as well as retinols and retinaldehyde, which are available over the counter," says Dr. Gmyrek. Prescription retinoids (aka retinoic acids) are the most potent and therefore most irritating, which is why they require a doctor's recommendation, she explains. Retinaldehyde and retinol are less potent, which is why they're more easily accessible over the counter. You can find retinol available in a variety of skin-care serums, moisturizers, and gels.

So, how does the ingredient work? Retinol behaves similarly to an antioxidant, explains Azadeh Shirazi, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist. "[It] renews skin cells, protects collagen by fighting off free radicals, and stimulates new collagen and elastin, therefore, plumping up our deeper skin ([known as the] dermis) to reduce fine lines, wrinkles, and pores." (

Does applying moisturizer before and after retinol work to reduce irritation?

Most skin-care routines end with a layer of moisturizer, but the retinol sandwich method changes things up by requiring a layer of moisturizer before you apply retinol to the skin too. While this does help reduce irritation and improve the skin's tolerance for retinol, it does so by compromising the efficacy of retinol itself, according to experts. "The moisturizer applied before the retinol acts as a barrier and reduces the absorption [of retinol]," says Dr. Shirazi.

There also aren't any scientific studies that support this retinol application method, explains Dr. Gmyrek. "My specific concern about a layer of moisturizer prior to retinol application comes from the fact that moisturizers contain occlusives, such as petroleum, mineral oil, paraffin, squalene, dimethicone, shea butter, lanolin, beeswax, and cholesterol to name a few," she says. For some background, occlusives are moisturizing agents that work by creating a physical barrier on top of the skin to keep moisture in the skin, as Shape previously reported. "You may be absorbing very little of your anti-aging retinol, and while you are minimizing irritation, you also may be minimizing your [retinol's] effectiveness," says Dr. Gmyrek.

She ultimately recommends sticking to retinol products that are formulated with moisturizing ingredients to help reduce irritation or searching for skin-care products that have encapsulated retinol. That's when the retinol is enclosed in a protective shell to help slow down its release into the skin, explains Dr. Gmyrek. "Encapsulating the retinol makes it more stable than traditional retinol and provides a gradual release of the retinol overnight leading to less irritation," she says.

You can also try spreading out your nighttime skin-care routine as an alternative, says Dr. Shirazi. Instead of layering moisturizer directly before retinol, give it some time to fully absorb into the skin first. For instance, she recommends patients cleanse and moisturize skin in the early evening, then apply retinol a few hours later before bed. (

Is the 'retinol sandwich' method safe?

Despite its ability to irritate the skin, retinol is a well-studied ingredient that's deemed "safe and effective in improving overall skin health," says Dr. Shirazi. In fact, retinol has shown beneficial results and improved tolerability compared to prescription retinoids, which is why it's the most common type of vitamin A found in over-the-counter skin-care products, says Dr. Gmyrek.

The "retinol sandwich" method in particular is also safe, according to dermatologists. The only potential side effect is reduced efficacy of retinol. "The potential disadvantage is that moisturizers contain occlusives, which are great for locking moisture in, but they may also block the penetration of the retinoid, leading to minimal penetration and therefore possibly making the product less effective and decreasing any potential benefits," says Dr. Gmyrek.

When it comes to retinol application, patience is key. It takes time for your skin to get adjusted to the ingredient and for results to show. However, looking for retinol products with moisturizing ingredients already in its formula can help. Dr. Gmyrek recommends the Farmacy 1% Vitamin A Retinol Serum, which is made with ceramides to "restore the skin barrier," she says.

Applying moisturizer before your retinol helps reduce irritation: true or false?

TikTok True or False: Does a Retinol Sandwich Actually Work?
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Technically, a "retinol sandwich" does help reduce irritation caused by the ingredient, but it might not be the best application method in terms of maintaining retinol's effectiveness. If you want to give the trend a shot, avoid moisturizers with occlusive ingredients, which tend to be thicker in formulation, and opt for lightweight products, such as the CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion. When in doubt, make sure to consult with a dermatologist for the best advice for your skin type and concerns.

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