4 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Retinol

Retinoids are some of the most powerful anti-aging ingredients out there—but they are also some of the most unstable: Exposure to air, light, and heat can render them useless. Here’s how to keep them fresh so they do their job.

1. Keep it covered. We sometimes forget to tightly screw the lid back on our skin-care products. But exposure to air and light can convert retinols to an entirely different type of compound that’s useless to your skin. For the same reason, choose retinols packaged in dark glass, opaque plastic, or sealed tubes—they’re typically better at preserving the formula inside than a clear-glass pump bottle.

2. Pop it in the refrigerator. Just like air and light, heat alters “the chemical structure and composition of retinol, making it less biologically active,” says Gary Fisher, a professor of dermatology at the University of Michigan Medical School. And that means the refrigerator—or even the bedside table in your air-conditioned bedroom—is a better storage spot than a muggy bathroom.

3. Know when to toss it. Here’s something we bet you didn’t know: Skin-care bottles and boxes often display an icon that’s in the shape of a jar, with a number and the letter M inside of it (sounds very Sesame Street, we know). It tells you how many months after opening the bottle it expires—12M, for example, indicates that the product stays good for one year. If you’re using a retinoid that was prescribed by your dermatologist, look for the expiration date on the bottle.

4. Pay attention to your skin. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to tell when a retinol has expired. “There’s no magic indicator, no visible cue, no change in odor—nothing that you can see,” says Randy Schueller, a cosmetic chemist and the founder of thebeautybrains.com. Great. What you can do is monitor what your face looks like: If you’ve been using a retinoid for a few months and you’re not noticing results, there’s a chance you might be using one that’s expired. (There’s also a chance that you simply need a more potent prescription formula, so you should probably talk to your derm.) The good news? Don’t freak out if you find you’re using an expired product. It won’t be harmful to skin—it simply isn’t going to work, or at least not as well as it should.

See Also

  • The 11 Biggest Retinoid Myths

  • The Best Retinoids Under $30

  • 4 New Anti-Aging Retinols to Try