4 Dermatologists Break Down Exactly What Happens To Your Skin When You Add Retinol Into Your Routine

Photo: Getty Images / Justin Lambert
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If you ask any dermatologist to name the "gold standard" of skin-care ingredients, they'll say it's a retinoid. The vitamin A derivative—which goes by names like retinol, adapalene, and tretinoin—stimulates cellular turnover in your skin, helping with a range of skin conditions including acne and signs of aging. Retinol is one of the least potent (and most common) retinoids that you can access without a prescription. Slather it on at night before bed and let it work its magic while you sleep.

"Retinoids work by binding to and turning on receptors in the skin called retinoic acid receptors that then impact how the skin behaves," says Caren Campbell, MD, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Napa and San Fransico, Califonia. "It takes time for these changes to begin and impact the way the skin is behaving, which is why retinoids take time to work, on average, six weeks for acne and six-plus months for anti-aging."

While it takes some time for you to notice the retinol benefits, you might notice some not-so-great side effects after night one.

"Retinoids can cause dryness and irritation,” says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD. “Retinization is the adjustment period during which the skin adapts to the use of topical retinoids. During this time the skin may become irritated, resulting in dryness, peeling, scaling, and redness or a burning or stinging sensation."

So what happens when you use retinoids every day? Deirdre Hooper, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Louisiana, says the results can be amazing... but there are a few things you should know before you slather it on your skin all 365.

The benefits of using retinol in your daily routine

"When you put retinol on your skin, it's absorbed into the nucleus of the cell, which is basically your cell's brain, and it starts changing things that your skin does," says Dr. Hooper. "It was invented in the '60s to treat blackheads and it works to do that—it changes the consistency of your sebum, or the oil of your skin. But it also turns out to do a lot of other things."

One of the big things it's responsible for is stimulating cellular turnover, which brings healthy new cells to the surface of your skin as a means of replacing old, dead ones.

"Topical applications of retinoids impact how the skin's cells behave," says Dr. Campbell. "They speed skin-cell turnover and remove the top layer of dead skin cells which helps keep these cells from clogging our pores and causing blackheads and acne." And without a buildup of dead skin, you also end up with a glowing complexion.

Retinol also stimulates collagen synthesis. This leads to thicker skin, explains Dr. Hooper, which makes fine lines and wrinkles less visible. It also helps to micro-distribute blotchy pigment in your skin.

"Sun damage is your body trying to protect you by producing pigment," says Dr. Hooper. "And when you're young, that looks like a tan, but when you get older, it starts looking like blotchy spots. This comes from the melanin, and one thing retinoids do is help to break up that melanin."

Retinol side effects and why you might not want to start off using it daily

When you first start using retinol, you may experience some irritation like dryness and flaking skin. Plus, you may notice an uptick in pimples, making your complexion a bit angry before it gets better through a process that's often referred to as "purging."

"Skin purging happens when new ingredients, like retinol, promote increased cell turnover, which causes clogging and worsening breakouts," says board-certified dermatologist Michele J. Farber, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group. "This is particularly the case as oil and debris that is trapped deeper underneath the skin comes to the surface."

So if you start using retinol every day out of the gate, you can end up with some painful inflammation and a damaged skin barrier, negating any potential positives. One way to avoid that irritation is to start slow, explains Ranella Hirsch, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Boston. "For most people, using retinol every day is something to work towards," she says. Maybe you start every other day. Or every third day. Listen to how your skin is feeling and pick up the pace when feel like your skin can handle it.

You can also experience irritation if you're using too much retinol or too high of a concentration, says Dr. Hooper. "What usually happens with people who think they can't tolerate retinol is that they're just using too much, too often, too quickly and they need to ease into the product better."

How to apply retinol to minimize irritation

Retinol should always be applied at night. It can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, increasing the risk of sun damage, and it is actually deactivated by UV rays, so you won't get the full impact if you apply it during the day.

So before bed, wash your face, dry it off and let it air dry to completion. That way when you apply the retinol, the skin can soak it in right where you applied it instead of it seeping to other areas.

Now, you're ready for the retinol. Dr. Hopper says to start with a small amount, and if needed, make a retinol sandwich by applying a moisturizer before applying your retinol to serve as a barrier between the ingredient and your skin. If you don't want to go the sandwich route, apply the retinol right to dry skin. You can also limit the retinol to your T-zone to start. "If anything feels red and sensitive, you can skip it on those areas, but almost never does your T-zone become red and sensitive," says Dr. Hooper.

When you should start using retinol for the first time

Summer is a great time to start retinol because your skin is usually stronger in the warmer, more-humid months than it is during the cool, dry months of winter. However, your skin will be more sensitive if you've just spent a ton of time in the sun. Plus, retinol makes your skin more sensitive to sun damage.

"You may want to drop your retinol products for a week or two before and after you take a summer or beach vacation to minimize the risk of sun damage to the skin, in particular, if you plan to sunbathe or spend a lot of time on the water, or at the beach or out outside in the elements,” says Terese Linke, director of education at Amala Beauty.

Even though you apply retinol at night, make sure you're diligent with sunscreen application during the day.

Shop six retinols below

Below, you'll find six gentle, beginner-friendly retinols that are made with additional moisturizing, skin-strengthening ingredients (like retinol with niacinamide) that make it easier for your skin to tolerate the retinol. INcorporate these into your routine slowly and give it a few weeks to see if the new addition is making a difference with your skin.

Fab Skin Lab Retinol Serum .25% Pure Concentrate, use retinol every day
First Aid Beauty Fab Skin Lab Retinol Serum .25% Pure Concentrate — $58.00

The First Aid Beauty Fab Skin Lab Retinol Serum .25% Pure Concentrate combines retinol and peptides with hyaluronic acid, colloidal oatmeal, aloe, and ceramides—all ingredients that Dr. Hirsh says are soothing.

Absolute Joi Skin Refining Night Oil with Retinol and Vitamin C + E — $57.00

The Absolute Joi Skin Refining Night Oil with Retinol and Vitamin C + E is a blend of retinol and soothing oils like jojoba, argan, and moringa. It also includes moisturizing squalene. Note that it also includes rosehip oil, so you may want to avoid it if you’re sensitive to rose, or more generally, to fragrance in skin care.

CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum — $27.00

All CeraVe products also have ceramides and hyaluronic acid so you know immediately that this retinol’s formula with be super nourishing. It also has glycerin and shea butter to provide tons of moisture and niacinamide to regulate oil production and soothe skin.

Three Ships Dream Bio-Retinol + Shorea Butter Night Cream — $29.00

The Three Ships Dream Bio-Retinol + Shorea Butter Night Cream is made with vegan squalane and seed butters like shorea and murumuru to moisturize your skin while promoting cellular turnover with a gentle plant-based retinol derived from Picão Preto, a medicinal herb that’s native to Brazil.

Kate Sommerville +Retinol Vita C Power Serum Firming & Brightening Treatment, use retinol every day
Kate Sommerville +Retinol Vita C Power Serum Firming & Brightening Treatment — $98.00

Kate Sommerville +Retinol Vita C Power Serum Firming & Brightening Treatment pairs retinol and vitamin C which “have synergistic benefits, plus a nice antioxidant profile,” says Dr. Hirsh.

SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3
SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3 — $67.00

Dr. Hirsh is a huge fan of the SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3. It is a “retinol in an extremely stable preparation,” she says. “It’s an excellent overall product.”

Get more retinol info:

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