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Dermatologists and skin experts all agree on retinol’s amazing benefits in treating acne and signs of aging. Not to mention thousands of studies proving its efficiency! So what’s keeping us from bathing in retinol in retinolville with all the other retinolers? Well, if you don’t know what you’re dealing with, you’re not going to benefit a lot from it. The universal praise for retinol is a well-deserving one. So you’re on the right track. At the same time, it’s a bumpy road. That’s why you need to know how to use retinol and what to expect from it.
And I’ve answered all your retinol questions. For those of you who rely on over-the-counter retinol to manage wrinkles, acne, and textured skin, I’ve put together this guide on how to use retinol without ruining your skin, especially if you’re a beginner.
As someone in her late 30s, I’ve used every single type of retinol product, including prescription retinol. And I regularly use retinol, despite my sensitive skin, without any problems whatsoever. So mastering the art of retinol is absolutely doable no matter your skin type!
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about retinol and how to use retinol for the best results!
What is retinol?
Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, which is retinoic acid. Retinol belongs to the retinoids family, which is the umbrella term for all vitamin A derivatives (1). While retinoids usually refer to the prescription options such as retinoic acid or tretinoin, retinol usually refers to any over-the-counter retinol creams and serums.
Again, retinol is only one form of retinoid. Another name you might be familiar with is retinaldehyde. If you need more information about the differences among these derivatives, refer to my guide on different types of retinoids where I’ve deep-dived into every single one.
What does retinol do?
Retinol increases new skin cell production (2). It renews the skin in an accelerated manner. In the simplest terms, retinol is an incredibly powerful cell regulator. It’s one of the few active ingredients that are directly effective in regulating your skin cell turnover.
In doing so, retinol fires up collagen production. This process thickens your skin, evens out your complexion, reduces wrinkles, shrinks pores, dries out acne, and improves your skin texture. So it’s incredibly anti-aging.
What are the benefits of using retinol?
Retinol is one of those do-it-all ingredients that address a wide variety of skin issues. This multi-tasker is a great addition to an anti-aging skincare routine as it improves skin texture by smoothing out wrinkles and reducing pores.
It’s also great for reducing acne and getting rid of blackheads as it constantly renews the top layer of the skin and keeps pores clear.
Additionally, retinol is incredibly helpful in evening out the skin tone as it regulates melanin production, which is what causes the appearance of dark spots on the skin.
That’s why retinol is effective in improving the look of acne scars, fading dark spots, eliminating dullness, and increasing your skin’s radiance.
How does retinol help wrinkles?
Retinol helps with wrinkles in a few ways. First of all, retinol straight up stimulates collagen production (3). Remember that collagen is what makes our skin look youthful and smooth.
So retinol helps wrinkles and fine lines simply by increasing the production of new, healthier skin cells. Retinol also has a protecting role. So it protects your collagen from degradation, helping you maintain smooth skin.
How does retinol work for hyperpigmentation?
Besides increasing cell turnover, retinol helps with hyperpigmentation by also inhibiting tyrosinase activity (4). This is the enzyme responsible for producing melanin.
Excess melanin causes uneven skin tone with dark spots and discolorations. By stopping the process in its tracks, retinol reduces hyperpigmentation and brightens skin.
How does retinol work for acne and pores?
Retinol regulates skin turnover. So right off the bat, it normalizes excess oil production which is partly responsible for congested skin.
Additionally, faster skin turnover helps renew the outer layer of the skin by getting rid of clogged pores and blackheads (5). As a result, clear, decongested skin is less prone to acne and blemishes.
And clear pores look smaller in size as they’re no longer forced to enlarge due to the build-up of oil and dirt inside.
What are the side effects of using retinol?
Retinol is the ultimate skin transformer. This is common knowledge. What is not so common knowledge is how this renewal process manifests itself. There are some side effects that are associated with retinol and you can expect to see these to a certain degree.
Common side effects of using retinol are dryness, flaky skin, sensitivity, irritation, and breakouts from purging. These are all expected when you’re on retinol. It means that it’s working.
This process may seem intimidating for some people. That’s why it’s essential to know what to expect from retinol before using it. But it gets better and is all worth it!
Additionally, retinoids are not suitable for use during pregnancy (6). Whichever vitamin A form you’re considering using, know that retinoids are not pregnancy safe.
Should you use a retinol cream or a retinol serum?
There is a difference between a retinol cream and a serum. You know how serums are more concentrated than creams. In the case of retinol, this translates to retinol serums being a bit more irritating than creams. So, it all comes down to your skin type.
If you have dry skin, go for a retinol cream. They have moisturizing ingredients that’ll reduce sensitivity, irritation, and dryness.
If you have oily skin, a retinol cream may feel heavy on the skin and may even clog your pores. As oily skin is more tolerant, go for a retinol serum and top it off with an oil-free moisturizer.
How should you incorporate retinol into your skincare routine?
Incorporating retinol into your skincare routine should not be taken lightly. There is literally a process called ‘retinization’ where your skin is trying to make peace with this new and kind of irritating ingredient.
During this process, your skin reacts to retinol and shows signs of irritation, sensitivity, and redness. These are the side effects we’ve mentioned. But it’s incredibly important for you to ease retinol into your skin without freaking it out.
The way to do this is by using your retinol serum or cream once a week at first. The idea is to slowly build up tolerance by gradually introducing it to the skin. You don’t need to use retinol every day. So you can try using it twice a week and 3 times a week for the following weeks.
Observe how your skin reacts to it and manage the situation by taking a break from it. If your skin’s looking extra sensitive, do not push it. Being aggressive is only going to make things worse. So, let your skin adjust to it.
And remember, you can use retinol even if you have rosacea. The trick is to be very gentle during the first couple of weeks and take it very slowly.
Can you use retinol every day?
You can use retinol daily once your skin has built enough tolerance for it. But even then, a 7-day frequency may hinder your consistency.
And consistency is the most important factor in achieving noticeable results from using retinol. So just because you can use retinol every day, it doesn’t mean you should do it.
Start using it once a week at first for a couple of weeks. And then gradually take it up to a few times a week. This is where most people are comfortable and able to achieve the desired skin benefits.
Once you get to the point where retinol works for your skin without major side effects like peeling or irritation, then you know it’s the frequency you can maintain.
For most of us, this translates to using retinol 3 to 5 times a week. Remember, your aim is to eventually use retinol as often as your skin is comfortable with.
When do you apply retinol?
Apply your retinol on your clean face before anything else. Make sure it’s dry before you apply. Then follow with your eye cream and your moisturizer. But here’s the thing; when you wash your face, your skin is ready to better absorb your skincare products.
Your pores are open and your skin is bare, ready to take it all in. At the same time, this is when it’s the most sensitive. If you’re a beginner or if you have sensitive skin, don’t apply your retinol cream or serum right after you clean your face.
Give your skin at least 15 minutes to adjust to the climate and get a grip. It does make a difference. It’s all about helping your skin adjust to it, remember?
Should you apply retinol before or after moisturizer?
Normally, you apply retinol on your bare skin to get maximum benefits. But we keep underestimating the effects of retinol until we cause severe inflammation on the skin.
If you’re just starting out with retinol and your skin is still dealing with it, make things easier by applying retinol over your moisturizer.
This is a workaround. You want the moisturizer to soften the blow. Your skin will not absorb much of the retinol but will absorb just enough to get familiar with it.
Try this until you feel comfortable using retinol on your bare face. If you’re using a retinol cream, mix it with your regular moisturizer to dilute it.
RELATED: The Best Moisturizers to Use with Retinol
How much retinol should you use?
Retinol is a potent ingredient and the amount you apply should be no more than pea-size. It’s easy to overuse it because we think that a drop is not going to cover the whole face and isn’t going to do anything.
Well, you’re wrong and you don’t want to test it. It’s not like applying your typical moisturizer where the worst thing that can happen is you over-moisturize your face.
If you use more than the recommended amount, there is a good chance you’ll end up irritating your skin. If you do end up doing that, take a few days off from using retinol until the coast is clear again.
Take a pea-sized amount of retinol and dab it on your cheeks and forehead. Make sure your skin is dry. Don’t worry about spreading it on every inch of the face. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a regular retinol user, pea size is the amount to go and it is enough.
Can I apply retinol under my eyes?
You shouldn’t apply your retinol creams and serums under the eye area as these products are meant for the skin on your face. Facial retinol products contain a high concentration of retinol. These can irritate the gentle skin around the eyes.
With that being said, if you want to use retinol for the eye area, consider using a retinol eye cream. The concentration of a retinol eye cream is usually much lower than the concentration of a retinol face cream.
So while it’s understandable to want the eye area to benefit from the anti-aging benefits of retinol, it’s best to avoid doing that, especially when you’re a beginner.
Other sensitive areas that need attention are the sides of the nose and the skin around the mouth such as above the lips and smile lines. The skin on those areas is also thin and sensitive.
Let me put it this way, when you realize that your skin is irritated from using retinol, these areas will be the first ones to start feeling sensitive to touch. So avoid bringing your retinol serum or cream too close to these areas.
How do you deal with retinol dryness?
If you don’t experience any dryness or a bit of flakiness or peeling, you’re doing it wrong. You can’t be on retinol and have unbothered skin; that’s just a fact.
Keeping your skin hydrated and moisturized is more important than ever when you’re on retinol. So try adding a hyaluronic acid serum into your routine to replenish the skin. Hyaluronic acid doesn’t interfere with retinol.
And it’ll help a lot with dehydration. And get a simple drugstore moisturizer and use it generously. Dehydration will make wrinkles and lines more visible on the skin.
It’ll make you think that you’re ruining your skin when in fact, it’s all because you’re not moisturizing your skin enough. To deal with retinol peeling and dryness, hydrate with humectants and moisturize with emollients.
What do you do if your skin breaks out from retinol?
Retinol renews the skin inside and out. It constantly pushes the underlying skin cells upwards. This process causes the underlying impurities to come up to the surface. To be more clear, zits may come up as a result of purging.
And you’ll be tempted to pop them. Do not do it. Because it means that your retinol is working and your skin is going through the process. Don’t interrupt it by picking at your pimples, because you may cause scarring.
Let your skin go through the phase it’s supposed to go through. Yes, you may experience breakouts, but they fade away faster because of faster skin turnover.
How long does retinol take to work?
When you experience purging, dryness, and in some cases, more visible wrinkles in the first couple of weeks, you may feel disappointed.
You may think that retinol made everything worse. You’ll be tempted to quit. Actually, this is where most people quit. But remember that your skin needs to get rid of all that underlying impurities first.
Don’t judge the results based on what you’re seeing now. Stick with your decision to start retinol. As with all other skincare products, you need to give retinol some time to work and improve your skin texture.
Experts agree that at least 12 weeks of regular use is a good time to see some significant results. So, don’t quit before 12 weeks. Having said that, if you’re experiencing severe inflammation or breakouts, you might want to lay it off for a bit.
Can you use physical exfoliants with retinol?
As retinol is constantly renewing and retexturizing the skin, you’ll have a layer of dead skin cells on the surface of the skin. They’re not there to stay but to shed off, obviously.
Additionally, your blackheads become more visible than ever right before they start disappearing. This seemingly intimidating process results in better, smoother, and clearer skin, that’s for sure.
But in practice, it can be difficult to manage all that flakiness. Having said that, exfoliating the skin with scrubs is not an option as it’s going to irritate the skin that’s already sensitive. But there is still a way to get rid of that flakiness.
You can try using a warm cloth to wipe your face off very gently. This is going to help a lot with managing flakiness and getting rid of blackheads that are practically out and open on the surface of the skin. Don’t forget the under-eye area.
Can you use AHAs and BHAs with retinol?
Retinol doesn’t really exfoliate the skin in the sense that we think of it. It does resurface the skin, but not in the way that a glycolic acid treatment would do where it literally removes the dead layer on the surface of the skin.
Retinol makes exfoliating so much easier by cutting everything loose and leaving it up for grabs. However, using alpha and beta hydroxy acids to get rid of dead skin cells is a great way to manage the peeling.
But make sure you’re not using them on the same day you’re using retinol. Try peel pads on your off-retinol day to exfoliate the skin. This method doesn’t interfere with retinol but actually supports the process. It also helps a lot with your foundation use.
If you’re dealing with flakiness, I’ve rounded up incredibly gentle exfoliators to use with retinol. Again, these are not to be used together with retinol. They’re for exfoliating your skin on days when you’re not using retinol.
Can you use retinol with other active ingredients?
Even though there are certain ingredients that you can comfortably use with retinol, it’s best to keep things simple. You don’t want to mix and match too much when you’re just starting out. Hyaluronic acid and niacinamide can be mixed with retinol in the same routine.
For other ingredients like hydroxy acids, it’s safer to alternate and not use AHAs and BHAs with retinol in the same routine. There’s no proper study encouraging people to use the two together. So avoid it if you don’t want to deal with further irritation and photosensitivity.
Similarly, combining pure vitamin C with retinol may increase sensitivity and those two shouldn’t be used together. If you want to keep using it, use it during the day and your retinol at night.
Also, pay attention to your moisturizer when you’re using retinol. Make sure it doesn’t contain AHAs, BHAs, or other potential irritants.
Can you wear foundation when you’re using retinol?
During retinization, your skin is going to have trouble looking smooth. And it doesn’t matter how much coverage you’re going for, your foundation will look flaky, cakey, and just overall terrible.
When that’s the case, there is literally no point in layering foundation over foundation. It just makes things so much worse. Plus, even if you don’t apply retinol to your under-eyes, that area will still be affected by your use of retinol and feel dry.
Your concealer will look flaky just like your foundation. And what’s the point of using a full-coverage foundation or a concealer if it’s not making you look any better?
Here’s the absolute best makeup tip for retinol users. Use an incredibly light foundation or concealer. You’ll see that they look so much better and more natural. Try hydrating tinted moisturizers or CC creams. They’re the best way to go.
And stay away from heavy, waterproof foundations with a matte finish. Try foundation alternatives for healthy and flattering coverage.
Why do you have to wear sunscreen with retinol?
There’s a reason why you need to pay extra attention to wearing SPF when you’re using retinol. Think about it, your skin is exposed, dry, extra sensitive, and going through a phase. It is so vulnerable!
The last thing you want to do is soak up some sun without sunscreen! There’s a great risk of getting sunburn when you’re using retinol. In fact, not wearing sunscreen when using retinol can cause hyperpigmentation, which is a whole new can of worms right there!
And it’s not going to be cute and summery, but more like a burn victim. There’s no way around this. Wear SPF! And it doesn’t have to be picnic weather for the sun to damage the skin.
It can even affect your skin through the windows in your office. Don’t roll the dice on it and do wear sunscreen. Also, consider sunglasses and hats when you’re out and about. Don’t ruin your new skin!
Welp, if you’re a beginner, you now know how to properly use retinol serums and creams. Good luck with your journey! If you don’t know where to start, I’ve rounded up the best retinol products considering your age. Check out these retinol products for your 20s. If you’re in your 30s, make sure to see the best retinol creams for your 30s.
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- Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H. C., Roeder, A., & Weindl, G. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical interventions in aging, 1(4), 327–348. https://doi.org/10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327
- Ganceviciene, R., Liakou, A. I., Theodoridis, A., Makrantonaki, E., & Zouboulis, C. C. (2012). Skin anti-aging strategies. Dermato-endocrinology, 4(3), 308–319. https://doi.org/10.4161/derm.22804
- Bandyopadhyay D. (2009). Topical treatment of melasma. Indian journal of dermatology, 54(4), 303–309. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5154.57602
- Leyden, J., Stein-Gold, L., & Weiss, J. (2017). Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatology and therapy, 7(3), 293–304. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13555-017-0185-2
- Bozzo, P., Chua-Gocheco, A., & Einarson, A. (2011). Safety of skin care products during pregnancy. Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien, 57(6), 665–667.