How to Use Retinol the Right Way
It’s almost hard to believe that a single product—retinol—could have the power to do so many incredible things for your skin. It reduces the appearance of dark spots, softens wrinkles, lightens sun damage, and improves overall texture and tone.
But the problem with this “miracle” product is that while many of us know its myriad benefits, we often don’t know how to use retinol properly.
There are a few specific rules you should follow when it comes to using retinol. Particularly, if you’re introducing it to your skin for the first time.
You’ll also want to be mindful if you’re combining retinol and vitamin C in your skincare routine. And the same goes for combining retinol and hyaluronic acid. (Not to worry—we go into detail on all of that below!)
Now before we dive into the do’s and don’ts of how to use retinol properly, here’s some helpful info on why you should be using it in the first place.
What are the benefits of using retinol?
Retinol is considered by many to be the crown jewel of anti-aging ingredients. Along with other retinoids (like retinoic acid, adapalene, retinaldehyde and retinyl palmitate), retinol is a derivative of Vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin found in household items like eggs, carrots, and sweet potatoes.
You’ll see retinol available in both prescription-strength formulas as well as over-the-counter options. Of course, prescription retinoids will be more potent. But there are some seriously incredible (and effective) anti-aging serums and night creams available at places like Sephora and Nordstrom that share all of the same benefits without requiring a trip to the derm. (We explain the difference between prescription strength retinol and OTC retinol later in this article!)
In short, the active ingredients in retinol work by increasing your cell turnover and promoting more collagen production.
Using retinol will aid in:
- speeding up skin renewal
- reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
- reducing age spots, sun spots and hyperpigmentation
- oily skin and minimizing breakouts
- achieving a more even-skin tone that’s smoother, fuller and more radiant
Is retinol safe?
Yes, if used correctly. Retinol is a very powerful ingredient and it does require some thought and attention before usage. Just like when using an AHA/BHA exfoliant, retinol use should be gradual and eased into.
If applying retinol too quickly or too frequently, you may face the opposite effect of what you are trying to achieve. And have to deal with issues like reddening, peeling, flakiness or dry skin. The side effects should be minimal if you start slowly and work your way up.
Different dermatologists have different opinions on whether retinoids can be used when facing a lot of sun exposure. Some argue that it makes the skin more sensitive as it thins the top layer of the skin. Others argue that this is a temporary problem.
Whichever you choose to believe, most were in agreement that sunlight will decrease the efficacy of the retinoid product. For this reason, only use retinol at night, and always make sure to apply sunscreen of SPF30 or higher during the day.
How to Use Retinol the Right Way
Begin with a low percentage (.01% to 0.03%) OTC retinol product. Going straight to higher percentages may cause irritation. Also: it is recommended to use retinol in the evening. Below is a suggested nighttime skincare routine that incorporates retinol.
- Start by removing your makeup with an oil or gel-based cleanser.
- Wash your face. (Check out this step-by-step cleansing guide for tips.)
- Apply a toner.
- Next, squeeze a pea-sized amount of retinol onto the tip of your index finger.
- Dot the retinol in nine spots: three on your forehead; three across the center of your face/cheeks; three between your jawline and chin.
- Gently rub the product in. Use your retinol product 2-3x/week during the first week of usage, and gradually increase from there.
- Next, apply your moisturizer. (You’ll want to apply your retinol product before applying your moisturizer, leaving around 10 to 20 minutes in between.)
- If you have dry skin, you can seal in your skincare products by topping them off with a facial oil.
Those with very sensitive skin may consider applying a very thin layer of moisturizer before and after applying retinol to reduce irritation.
Licensed aesthetician Amanda von dem Hagen suggests that the number of nights to use retinol can be guided by your age.
You can start using retinol in your late 20s and throughout your 30s, and apply it three to four times a week.
Users in their 40s can apply retinol every other night and those in their 50s, 60s and older can consider using retinol five to seven nights a week.
Pregnant or nursing mothers should ask their obstetrician before beginning to use retinoids.
How long does it take to see results from retinol?
To begin noticing the benefits of retinol requires patience, diligence, and consistency.
It is not the sort of product that will deliver a quick turnaround. Despite claims from some OTC products, dermatologists suggest that it takes at least 12 weeks of consistent use for any noticeable changes in the skin.
Remember that skin cell turnover occurs over time. And you need to allow it this time to renew itself so that you can see the changes.
Can you use retinol under your eyes?
Due to the strength of retinol products, it’s a common misconception that retinoids should not be used under the eyes.
The truth though, is that while they may very well cause some irritation when first using them, it may simply be because your skin is not accustomed to it (assuming you have tried a patch test)!
It does not mean that you are unable to apply retinol beneath the eyes. In fact, the delicate skin underneath your eyes is the thinnest on your face. So it would make sense that it is also one of the first places you might begin to notice the effects of aging (hello fine lines and dark circles).
This area can absolutely benefit from the collagen-stimulating effect of a retinoid product.
Check out my blog post on the best retinol eye creams for specific recommendations!
As mentioned above, if extra sensitive, you may want to apply a thin layer of moisturizer or eye cream before, as well as after applying the retinol.
Can you use hyaluronic acid with retinol?
Hyaluronic acid and retinol make the perfect pair.
Since Retinoids (and other Vitamin A derivatives) are known for being quite drying and can be rather harsh on the skin, many people are turned off from continuing use. To combat this, hyaluronic acid is the ideal complementary product as it has powerful water retention properties, making it very hydrating for the skin.
How to combine retinol and hyaluronic acid
- Perform the nighttime skincare routine as directed above.
- After applying retinol to your skin (while it’s dry) allow it to sit for 10-20 minutes.
- Mist your face with water or a facial spray, and then apply your hyaluronic acid. (HA serums are most effective when they’re applied to damp skin.)
- Finally, follow your HA serum with a moisturizer right away. No need to let it dry. (In fact, it’s better to apply your moisturizer while the HA serum is still wet.)
This concept is what skincare junkies refer to as a “moisture sandwich”—it helps lock in all the hydrating benefits of hyaluronic acid.
Can you use vitamin C with retinol?
When used together, Vitamin C and retinol can be a somewhat intense experience for the skin, and are not used for the same purposes.
That being said, combining the two can produce optimal results, however it’s important to follow these two options to avoid any irritation.
The first and preferred option is to separate your Vitamin C routine from your retinol routine.
Vitamin C should be used in the morning, as its purpose is to protect the skin from pollution, ultraviolet light, and free radicals.
Retinol can then be used in the evening.
While not recommended, Vitamin C and retinol can be used in the same routine for those wanting to use them together.
If this is your preferred route, always apply the Vitamin C serum first as it has a lower pH level than retinol.
Then, it’s important to wait 30 minutes between Vitamin C and retinol application, allowing time for the Vitamin C to be absorbed.
Retinol vs. retinoid: What’s the difference?
At this point, you may be wondering if there is a difference between retinol vs. retinoid, as it often seems that the two words are used interchangeably.
The most important thing to know is that retinoid is the umbrella term for any kind of topical product that contains a Vitamin A derivative.
Think of it this way: the term ‘dog’ is used to describe a specific type of animal, but it does not distinguish between breeds. The term ‘retinoid’ can be seen in the same way – it describes the entire category, but it does not distinguish between OTC and prescription products.
Over the counter retinoids:
There plenty of great many retinoid products that are “over the counter” — i.e. you can buy them without a prescription wherever you prefer to buy your skincare products.
Retinol is the most popular and effective of the over-the-counter retinoid options.
OTC retinoids are typically found in lower Concentrations starting at .01%
- Best OTC Retinoids:
Unlike OTC products, prescription retinoids are ordered through a dermatologist, since they’re typically more potent.
Prescription retinoids have a higher concentration of at least .5% – 1%.
- Best Prescription Retinoids:
These prescription retinoids are used for anti-aging properties, but more potent forms can be used to treat acne. It is also sometimes prescribed for psoriasis.
If you’re looking for a prescription retinoid, speak to your dermatologist who can advise on the best retinoid for you.
When to use retinol?
In your late 20s and early 30s you might notice that your skin is starting to age (so fun, I know.) It might need some help extra help looking plump and healthy, so it’s a good time to consider adding retinol to your skincare routine if you fall within this age range.
As far as when you should use retinol, it should always be applied at night.
Where to apply retinol
Squeeze a pea-sized amount of retinol onto the palm of your hand and then rub it evenly over your face and neck. Be especially careful around your eyes, nose, and mouth.