How long does a skincare product really take to work?

A skincare pro breaks it down for us.

From above bottles with various moisturizing products arranged in line on pink background
(Image credit: Anna Efetova/Getty Images)

We're nothing if not impatient when it comes to our skincare products. So knowing precisely how long the best vitamin C serum or best retinol serum will take to work might stop us from switching things up before they've had a chance to work their magic.

Given our feverish obsession with skincare right now, it's only natural to wonder "how long will it take before I see a difference in my skin?" after slavishly applying your products. And with so many different ingredients - antioxidants, ceramides, AHAs -  promising to be the next big thing, it's tempting to chop and change at a clippered pace.  But actually the key to a solid skincare routine is consistency.

To make things clear, Dr Kemi Fabusiwa, junior doctor and medical director at Joyful Skin Clinic, created a useful infographic, in which she breaks down how long it takes for individual skincare ingredients to start working and how long it takes before you see any major improvements.

Hyaluronic acid offers both immediate gratification and long-term results as an "improvement in fine lines and long- lasting hydration takes weeks."

Generally-speaking, "you should notice a reaction in oily skin very quickly after using salicylic acid" while niacinamide can take  a couple of weeks to extinguish redness and inflammation. 

However, skincare heavyweight vitamin C gets to work fast, which explains its enduring popularity for treating dull skin and an uneven tone says Dr Fabusiwa: "You should start to notice a brightening in your complexion after regular use after a month."

She adds that breakouts require some patience as "acne takes weeks to months to see a big improvement." But the go-to ingredient for the job is glycolic acid.

Retinol works best overnight and treats a multiple of skin sins in one fell swoop, including wrinkles, hyperpgimentation and uneven skin texture. The only caveat according to Dr Fabusiwa is: "It depends on what your using your retinoids for. If you’re hoping to see an improvement in acne than you could start seeing results in a month. Hyperpigmentation however can take several months to years."

So stick with it, rather than throw your hands up in frustration after only a few days. A little perseverance may be necessary depending on what skin concern you want to treat. 

Fiona Embleton

Fiona Embleton is a multi-award-winning beauty editor who has tested over 10,000 products in her 10 years +  of writing and shooting beauty stories. For the past four years, she was the Senior Beauty Editor at Marie Claire, having previously worked in the role of Beauty Editor at both Stylist and Cosmopolitan. She has recently gone freelance and alongside My Imperfect Life, she has written for titles including ELLE UK, ELLE Canada, Buro 247, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Vogue Scandinavia, and ES Magazine. Beauty journalism allowed her to marry up her first-class degree in English Literature and Language (she’s a stickler for grammar and a self-confessed ingredients geek) with a passion for make-up and skincare, photography, and catwalk trends. She loves jumping on the latest internet-breaking beauty news, dissecting the best red carpet looks, and having the crème de la crème of dermatologists, make-up artists, and hairstylists on speed dial so she can tap them for the best advice. She’s a discerning beauty shopper and knows it can be confusing trying to navigate what’s hype and what really works. So if she really likes something, you can trust that she has reached that opinion by vetting it against everything else she’s ever tried. Her career highs? Interviewing Cate Blanchett and winning a Jasmine Award for the deeply personal feature Cancer Stole My Mother’s Scent.