Few skin-care ingredients are as well-loved and highly regarded as retinol. It’s so popular, in fact, that it currently has over 1.3 billion views on TikTok, proving just how buzzy this expert-recommended active is. But though it may be popular, it comes with its fair share of side effects—including sensitivity, irritation, and the dreaded “purge” (more on that later)—which means beginners need to take extra precautions and ensure they’re using the right formulas when adding the ingredient into their routines for the first time.
Keep scrolling for everything you need to know.
What is retinol?
Retinoids, in general, are vitamin A derivatives that are used to address signs of aging and treat acne. There are a number of different types of retinoids, including prescription versions like tretinoin and over-the-counter options like retinaldehyde and adapalene, but retinol is the one you’ll most commonly find in skin-care serums.
“Retinol is one of the best-studied ingredients we have to improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” confirms Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
The ingredient provides many benefits to the skin, including increasing cellular turnover, enhancing collagen, and lightening pigmentation. “It works to minimize wrinkles by stimulating collagen in the superficial dermis,” explains James Wang, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Los Angeles. “For acne, it helps to shrink the sebaceous glands, which help to decrease oil and sebum.” Plus, it also offers exfoliating effects and has the ability to prevent pigment synthesis in the skin, which also makes it helpful for fading dark spots and hyperpigmentation.
Why retinol rookies should proceed with (measured) caution
Clearly, retinol is a superstar skin-care ingredient, but it doesn’t come without a catch. “While effective, retinol can cause irritation as you first start to use it,” warns Dr. Zeichner. Dryness, peeling, and sensitivity may arise for those who are just beginning to use their retinol products.
While retinol is beneficial for most skin types, its irritation-inducing properties mean that it’s not necessarily for everyone. “Those with skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, and chronic skin infections should see their dermatologist first before trying a retinol,” says Dr. Wang.
Anyone who’s using retinol for the first time may also experience a super-fun process called skin purging, in which dormant breakouts come to the surface of the skin. "Skin purging happens when new ingredients, like retinol, promote increased cell turnover, which causes clogging and worsening breakouts. This is particularly the case as oil and debris that is trapped deeper underneath the skin comes to the surface," board-certified dermatologist Michele J. Farber, MD, previously told Well+Good. While this usually only lasts for four weeks, max, it can be disheartening—which is why it’s extra-important to introduce retinol the right way.
What to look for in a beginner retinol product
1. Low concentrations
Simply put, the more intense your retinoid is, the more likely it is to cause irritation. Dermatologists recommend starting with a mild over-the-counter formulation—something around 0.5 percent often works best. Once your skin has adjusted to the ingredient, you can increase the percentage to something more potent.
2. Moisturizing formulas
Another way to reduce irritation from retinol is to use formulas that are inherently hydrating. Look for cream formulations instead of serums, which are less potent but more hydrating, and keep an eye out for ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid which will keep your skin barrier strong and less prone to sensitivity, or niacinamide which will soothe your complexion. Just be sure not to pair a retinol-moisturizer with any other intense actives in your routine, like vitamin C or exfoliating acid, as this can cause a reaction in your skin.
3. Gentler actives
If you're following all of this advice and retinol is still more than your skin can handle, it may be worth swapping in a gentler alternative. Retinyl palmitate is a precursor to retinol, and though it's less likely to be found on an ingredients list, it's also less likely to cause irritation. Bakuchiol has also garnered attention as a natural "retin-alt," and delivers the same skin-resurfacing benefits without any of the side effects.
How to introduce retinol into your routine
1. Start slowly
In the very beginning, use your retinol every other night. “Using retinol is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Dr. Zeichner. “It can take two to four weeks for your skin to adjust, and if you develop any redness, burning, stinging, or peeling, just hold off a night or two.” Once you feel like your skin has adjusted to the product, you can start using it every night.
2. Only use a little bit of product
Don’t overuse your retinol. You only need to use a pea-sized amount of product for an entire face. “More is not better in this case,” confirms Dr. Wang.
3. Try the “retinol sandwich” method
“Moisturizing the skin can help maintain hydration and barrier function,” says Dr. Zeichner, adding that there is debate among dermatologists on how best to do this. “Some recommend applying a moisturizer first, while others recommend moisturizing afterward,” he explains. “You also can make a “retinol sandwich” where retinol is applied in between two layers of a moisturizer.”
After washing your face, simply apply a layer of no-frills moisturizer, then put your retinol on top of it and seal it in with another layer of moisturizer. "Studies have shown that this base layer of moisturizer does not dilute or reduce the efficacy of the retinoid and helps with tolerability," board-certified dermatologist Shari Marchbein, MD, previously told Well+Good. "Look for ingredients such as glycerin to help hydrate and protect the skin from the drying [effects] of a retinoid."
4. Wear SPF
Because retinol brings fresh, new cells to the surface of your skin, it can increase sun sensitivity and put you at higher risk for damage. To keep your complexion healthy all day long, use retinol at night and be sure to apply (and reapply) sunscreen during the day.
5. Be patient
Keep in mind that it can take a while before results from all your retinol usage kicks in (we’re talking at least four weeks, but maybe more), so be patient and consistent with your routine in order to ensure the best outcome.
5 beginner-friendly retinol formulas
“This product comes in a single-use dose that provides you the right amount for the full face without over applying,” says Dr. Zeichner. “It contains a stabilized form of retinol that is minimally irritating.” By containing the formula within a capsule, the product’s ingredients remain stable and potent. To use, gently twist the capsule open and spread the serum across your face evenly. Follow up with a moisturizer if you’d like extra hydration.
Another ideal drugstore option is this lightweight serum from Pond’s. “This option combines a stabilized form of retinol along with niacinamide,” says Dr. Zeichner. “Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that soothes the skin and evens the skin tone.” Not only does this combination work well together to address signs of aging, it also brightens the complexion with every use.
“The Bliss Youth Got This Serum delivers a stabilized form of retinol in a hydrating formula to minimize skin irritation,” says Dr. Zeichner. “Besides retinol, this serum delivers a blend of squalane, antioxidants, and peptides to protect and strengthen the skin.”
Looking for a retinol option that’ll address signs of aging along your eyes? This powerhouse formula utilizes bakuchiol, a potent-yet-gentle retinol alternative that gives eyes a brighter, firmer appearance. Simply smooth the formula along your eye area each night before bed for the best results.
This cream-based formula is a dermatologist-favorite for a reason. With only 0.5% retinol, it’s on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to potency, making it a good option for beginners and those with sensitive skin. It’s also packed with hydrating ingredients like jojoba oil and shea butter, reducing the risk of irritation.
For more answers to your burning, retinol-related questions, check out this video:
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