How to Use Retinol – A Guide for Beginners

by | Updated: January 28th, 2023 | Read time: 5 minutes

Washing your face before going to bed is a must for healthy skin; however, it’s often not enough for fighting acne breakouts and preventing signs of aging, such as fine lines and wrinkles. That’s where a balanced skincare regimen can make a big difference. Regular use of topicals, including serums, toners, creams and moisturizers, helps keep skin soft, taut and smooth – a concern that becomes particularly pressing with age.

Bottles of Serum and Leaves on White Surface to Represent How to Use Retinol

Retinol is one of the best skin-boosting agents you can use for reducing aging symptoms and acne flare-ups. It’s a common ingredient in face and neck creams, as well as under-eye treatments, for nighttime use.

“Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that when applied topically can increase collagen and elastin production, improve discoloration, acne and pore size, and treat and prevent fine lines and wrinkles,” says board-certified dermatologist Arash Akhavan, owner of The Dermatology and Laser Group in New York and assistant professor of dermatology at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

However, retinol’s potency can also make it somewhat abrasive, especially when it comes to skin that hasn’t yet developed a tolerance. Newbies who haven’t tried retinol need to be vigilant with application to protect skin and avoid irritation or other adverse effects.

“Because of the rapid cell turnover rate that retinol promotes, it can have harsh side effects including dryness, redness, flaking and increased sensitivity to the sun,” Akhavan explains.

To make the most of your retinol use and keep skin safe, follow this beginner’s guide to using retinol with some helpful tips to incorporate it into your weekly routine.

How to Use Retinol

Consult with a dermatologist first

Before using retinol, it’s a good idea to consult with a dermatologist or skincare professional. They can help you find the right concentration for your skin type and needs. Starting with a lower concentration and using retinol sparingly during the first weeks will help your skin adjust smoothly and safely to regular use. Concentration ranges from 0.3 percent to 1.0 percent, with the latter being strongest.

“Everyone can benefit from using retinol, but people with really dry and/or sensitive skin may struggle using retinol more frequently or at higher concentrations,” Akhavan notes.

Note that retinol shouldn’t be used if you’re pregnant or nursing, as it increases vitamin A levels which can be harmful to a developing fetus.

Do a patch test

While allergic reactions are rare, sensitivity to retinol can vary, and some people may have adverse reactions or experience irritation when using a product that’s too concentrated or high in strength.

“It is always helpful to do a patch test when using a new retinol to ensure the strength is correct for your skin,” Akhavan says. “We like to advise trying a patch test on clean, dry skin, on your inner forearm, as the skin there should react relatively closely to the way your face might,” Akhavan says.

Remember that only a tiny drop of product is needed for the entire face, so you should be using a very, very small amount of product on the test spot. If you wake up the next day without any redness, flaky skin or inflammation, it’s generally safe to continue use.

A little goes a long way

Do not spread retinol over skin as if it were body butter. It’s strong, and you may experience irritation and dryness if you overdo it.

“I always recommend starting with a pea-sized amount for the entire face just a few nights a week to allow the skin to build a tolerance to the active ingredient,” Akhavan says.

Eventually, skin becomes accustomed to retinol and you’ll be able to apply it nightly without a concern for excessive dryness or irritation. 

Apply to delicate facial areas last

If you’re new to using retinol, start by applying it to the sturdier areas of your face and neck. Thinner areas of skin are more prone to irritation, including dryness, flakiness and redness.

“It’s best to always begin using the cream only on the ‘meaty’ areas of the face, like the cheeks, chin and forehead, while areas like the under eyes, eyelids, around the nose and around the mouth should be avoided for the first few weeks of use until the rest of the face becomes accustomed to retinol application,” Akhavan says.

The idea is to slowly work up to treating more delicate areas over time, aiming for consistency with less sensitive areas first.

Begin with two days a week

Retinol can be applied daily (that’s the goal!), but it’s best to ease into use slowly, starting with just a couple days a week until your skin becomes accustomed to it.

“I recommend starting with twice a week at first, then increasing to three times per week to build tolerance and increase as the skin adjusts,” Akhavan says.

If you aren’t experiencing redness, flakiness or irritation, increase application to every other day – then begin daily use, if your skin tolerates it. Everyone’s skin is different, so the number of days and pace may vary. The key is to start slowly and adjust accordingly.

Avoid using retinol during the day

Retinol should be used at night for best results and to best protect your skin.

“If you do use it during the day (low concentrations only) you should be sure to thoroughly apply a mineral SPF of 30 or above on top to protect your skin from any sun damage,” Akhavan says.

Combine with moisturizers

“To help combat any irritation or dryness, it is best to ‘sandwich’ retinol with either a hyaluronic acid serum or hydrating moisturizer,” Akhavan says.

First, apply hydrating serum or moisturizer, then apply retinol. Let it absorb for about three minutes, then apply another layer of moisturizer to keep your skin hydrated and supple. You also might use products that combine retinol and moisturizing ingredients, such as with Yeouth Retinol Serum with Hyaluronic Acid Vitamin E and Aloe Vera or TruSkin Retinol Moisturizer.

“Look at the percentage (always start low) and go for products with moisturizing or soothing ingredients, like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, glycerin, squalene and green tea,” Akhavan says.

For example, Life-Flo Retinol A 1% is infused with green tea to help soothe skin.

Lastly, avoid products that contain added fragrances, which can be irritating to skin. Pure retinol serums with limited additives or prescription retinoids are always best.

Featured Products

Baebody Retinol Moisturizer
TruSkin Retinol Serum for Face
Life-Flo Retinol A 1%