Written by: Divya

Beginners Guide to Retinol: How to Start Using Retinol

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Starting to use a retinol serum in your routine is not the same as starting to use hyaluronic acid or vitamin C. The use of this retinoid, from the same family as retinoic acid or retinaldehyde, involves a whole process of acclimatizing your skin to this very famous active ingredient, so you need to exercise caution.

That’s why we’ve created the ultimate beginners guide to retinol with everything you need to know before introducing it into your routine.

What retinol does do?

This ingredient is a vitamin A derivative that accelerates cell regeneration [1], stimulates collagen production, improves skin texture, lightens blemishes and even treats acne. Retinoids have a lot of scientific evidence to back them up, so it’s worth introducing them into any routine that aims to diminish the signs of aging.

“As a dermatologist, the problem I often see with beginners to retinol use is that they think more is more, they use products that are too strong and complain about the purging their skin is undergoing, which is a myth,” says dermatologist Shereene Idriss on her YouTube channel. [2]

There are many myths about using retinol that you should know about.

benefits of vitamin serums on face

What is retinol?

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that contributes to cell regeneration. It is the most famous of the retinoids, other vitamin A derivatives with which it shares some similarities, such as isotretinoin or tretinoin.

These ingredients have been proven effective in numerous studies in improving skin texture, treating hyperpigmentation, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles [3] and even treating acne. [4]

They are able to penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin and stimulate collagen and elastin synthesis.

Some of these retinoids in high percentages can be purchased only by prescription. On the other hand, there are many others with lower intensity that are available in perfumeries and pharmacies.

Related: These are the most widespread myths about retinol use.

Why be cautious when starting to use retinol?

Even if you purchased your retinol serum or cream over the counter, you are likely to experience some side effects when you start using it, such as irritation, flaking or redness. This stage lasts two to four weeks until the skin becomes fully accustomed to the active ingredient and is known as the retinization process.

This happens because it is possible that we are using a product with a high percentage of retinol, that we introduce it into our routine abruptly or that we have sensitive and reactive skin. It can also occur without any of these conditions being met, although it is less likely.

It is useful to know how to introduce retinol into your daily routine to avoid side effects as much as possible.

beginners guide to retinol
Do I need retinol

How to start using retinol

To start using retinoids and get all their benefits while minimizing the risk of irritation, follow the steps below:

1. Choose a mild retinol

If you are a beginner in the use of retinol, you should start with a product that contains a low percentage of this active ingredient, around 0.01% to 0.03%. Don’t get hung up on the percentages, as they are different for each retinoid, and many are marketed under the same umbrella of “retinol products.”

If you feel you’ve gotten too strong a product to begin with, you can mix a little with your moisturizer to tone it down.

If you have sensitive skin, you can opt for milder derivatives of this same active ingredient, retinol esters such as retinyl palmitate. Look for a percentage of time-release retinol in the packaging. You can also go for a phytoretinol such as bakuchiol, less studied but with potential benefits and a similar mechanism of action to retinol.

2. Introduce it gradually

If we introduce a retinol product abruptly into our routine we can irritate the skin a lot. It is best to start using it gradually. Use it two to three times a week until your skin is fully acclimated to this active ingredient. When you feel it, you can increase the frequency of use to four nights a week. Once this phase has passed and you do not feel any side effects on your skin, you can use it every day.

The time-release formulas release the retinol onto the skin over the hours to minimize the possibility of irritation, especially on sensitive skin.

4. Use it at night

Retinol is known as a “photo-unstable” ingredient, which makes skin very sensitive to the sun. This means the skin may be more susceptible to sun damage such as sunburn, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. Therefore, it is often recommended to use retinol in the evening when UV exposure is lower and you are wearing a broad-spectrum SPF the next day as part of your morning routine.

Apply a small amount of retinol to face (taking care to avoid eye and lip area) and neck after double cleansing. Allow skin to absorb retinol for 3-4 minutes, then always apply a rich moisturizer to help reduce irritation and keep skin hydrated.

Can you use it during the day? Yes, as long as you avoid direct sun exposure as much as possible and protect yourself with a facial sunscreen with SPF +50. If you know you are going to spend a prolonged period of time in the sun during your vacation, it is best to discontinue use until it is over.

what are the benefits of using retinol
Benefits of using retinol

5. Boost skin hydration.

Since retinol decreases oil secretion from the sebaceous glands, dryness can affect skin that is already dehydrated or dry.

It is best to care for your skin with a moisturizer rich in emollient ingredients such as squalane, ceramides and other lipids that help repair the skin barrier.

6. Don’t forget the sunscreen

Even if you use your serum or cream with retinol at night, it is necessary to always use sunscreen on the areas that have been exposed to this active ingredient. Better if it is SPF +50 and broad spectrum.

7. Avoid using irritating ingredients

While you are getting your skin used to retinol, try to avoid potentially irritating ingredients such as glycolic acid. Using them together could result in a lot of irritation on the skin, so opt to introduce these types of actives later, when your skin is already retinized.

8. Be consistent

“Being consistent is better than using a product that is too strong,” says Dr. Idriss in her video. “I would always recommend using a low to moderate strength retinol product over a long period of time rather than going head first into an overly aggressive product, as it can irritate your skin a lot and make it age worse.”

To see visible results on the skin with retinol requires a long period of time. In general, results can begin to be seen after 6 months of consistent use, although it will depend on the type of product and its strength.

Are all the retinols give same benefit?
Do all the retinols have the same benefits? Are they the same?

How to apply retinol to the skin

To apply a product with this active ingredient correctly and avoid irritation, follow the steps below:

Step 1: wash the face with a gentle cleansing gel and dry it carefully. Apply a little eye cream to protect the eye area.

Step 2: Wait a few minutes until your skin is completely dry before applying your retinoid product. Water on the skin can cause these actives to penetrate more and cause more irritation than they should.

Step 3: Take a pea-sized amount on your fingertips and apply it all over your face, avoiding the eye area and the corners of your nose and lips.

Step 4: Apply your moisturizer and don’t forget to apply sunscreen the next morning.

At what age you should start using retinol?

In general, the best age to start using retinol is between 25 and 30. From this point on, collagen and elastin production begins to slow down, so it is a good idea to introduce this active ingredient to prevent the signs of skin aging.

If you are in your 20s and are not yet showing fine lines and wrinkles, there is no point in introducing a potentially irritating ingredient like this as your skin’s cell renewal rate is very active.

The exception is for young skin with acne, which can benefit from retinoids such as tretinoin, available only by prescription.

is there any alternative to retinol for skin care?
What are the alternatives to retinol for skincare?

How to use retinol on sensitive skin?

If you have sensitive skin, it’s possible to incorporate this active into your routine without suffering from all the irritation that’s usually involved.

“Make sure your skin is completely dry before using retinol, don’t exfoliate your skin on the same night you are using retinol, because it will make it work more intensely, and finally, put a layer of moisturizer before using retinol: this will act as a protective barrier,” says Dr. Shereene Idriss in her video.

Who should not use retinol?

Pregnant women should not use retinol. This is because it is known that some oral retinoids can cause malformations in the fetus, and as a precaution, we should not apply them topically either. Neither should those with extremely sensitive or reactive skin, such as those suffering from eczema or rosacea.

Side effects of retinol

Retinol’s side effects are widely discussed just as much as its benefits, but the pros can undoubtedly outweigh the cons when used appropriately. Known side effects of retinol include irritation, redness, and dryness of the skin.

If you have sensitive skin, it’s advisable to approach retinol use with caution, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it at all.

You may notice adverse effects including flaking, dryness, tightness and redness of the skin.

This is more common when a prescription retinoid is being used, as the formula is stronger than over-the-counter products.

What is the retinization process?

The retinylation process is the period during which the skin becomes accustomed to the use of retinol. During this stage, you may feel a worsening of your skin, but this is a one-off phenomenon and you should not abandon the use of this active ingredient even if it happens.

It lasts between two and four weeks and is best resolved by exposing the skin to retinol gradually, first using it once every three nights until the skin gets used to it and finally introducing it on a daily basis.

Retinol cream or serum, what should I use?
Retinol serum or cream is more beneficial?

How long does it take for retinol to take effect?

Retinol requires consistent, dedicated application for at least 12 weeks before you start seeing results. But this may differ from person to person. It also depends on our skin type and the concentration of retinoids it contains. It can take up to 6 months for results to appear. In the case of prescription products, they usually appear within a few weeks.

You must be patient with retinol (or any other retinoid) as rushed doses or an early increase in frequency can cause side effects.

The first results you will notice will be an improvement in the texture of the skin, which will be smoother and with fewer imperfections. This is visible within a few weeks of use.

Improvement in the appearance of wrinkles and hyperpigmentation takes longer to take place, so don’t give up and be consistent.

Beginners guide to Retinol: Any alternative to retinol?

Yes, there is – bakuchiol! Considered a “natural retinol”, bakuchiol is a revolution in the world of skincare. The benefits of this natural ingredient are very similar to those of retinol, including increased collagen and elastin production without side effects.


Divya Gupta
Divya Gupta

Divya Gupta is a business management and economics professional with a passion for travel and beauty. She holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Management (Tourism & Leisure) from the Indian Institute of Tourism & Travel and a Bachelor of Arts (Honors) degree in Economics from the University of Delhi.
Her business acumen paired with her enthusiasm for new destinations and cosmetics enables her to provide insightful recommendations and reviews.
In addition to her formal studies, Ms. Gupta continually educates herself and stays up-to-date on innovations in the beauty sector as well, allowing her to offer advice on cutting-edge skincare, makeup, and hairstyling techniques.

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