A Beginner’s Guide To Retinol

All your questions, answered.
A Beginner’s Guide To Retinol

(Photo: iStock)

Retinol—a derivative of vitamin A that boasts a long list of proven benefits—has been called the holy grail of skincare ingredients. And with results that include improved skin texture, boosted collagen production and diminished dark spots, it's easy to see why.

But the powerhouse active also comes with its fair share of side effects, like irritation, redness and dry skin.

We asked Dr. Julia Carroll, a dermatologist at Toronto-based Compass Dermatology, and Amanda Mizen, a medical aesthetician and founder of Toronto-based North Medical Spa, for advice on how to use retinol.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid, derived from vitamin A. It's naturally produced by your body and aids in boosting cell turnover to kickstart collagen production and help reduce fine lines and wrinkles. It's also a proven treatment for acne and hyperpigmentation.

"Retinol is the sibling to the more powerful prescription topical retinoids," says Carroll. It's a more skin-friendly type of vitamin A that's typically used in mass-market skincare products.

What are the skincare benefits of using retinol?

Retinol helps unclog pores, exfoliate and smooth skin and diminishes the appearance of hyperpigmentation. It also treats fine lines and wrinkles. Improved skin hydration and acne treatment are other benefits. "It is the ultimate selection for getting-it-all-done skincare," says Mizen.

According to Carroll, the active ingredient can also thicken the dermis (the layer below the surface of the skin) over time, which makes skin healthier and more youthful-looking.

Can all skin types use retinol?

Carroll says that any skin type and skin tone can use the ingredient, but sensitive skin types should be extra cautious. It tends to be harder for reactive and allergic skin to adjust. Mizen doesn't recommend it for people who have skin that's been over-exfoliated (from at-home or in-office treatments), or skin that's sun-damaged. Retinol can increase the skin's sensitivity to the sun.

Pregnant people should not use retinol.

When should I start using retinol?

Mizen recommends her clients to start using retinol when they hit their thirties. That's typically when collagen levels in the skin decrease more rapidly. But almost all ages can reap the rewards of the ingredient.

"Dermatologists use retinoids for teens with acne, so when I prescribe it I will often explain the long-term benefits and will recommend that they continue to use the retinoid even after I have cleared their acne," says Carroll.

How do I incorporate retinol into my skincare routine?

"My first tip is to try the low-and-slow approach," says Carroll. "Start with a very small, pea-sized amount, and then wait a few days to evaluate your tolerance."

If you don't get a reaction, Carroll recommends trying it again. If the product makes your skin red and flaky, she suggests mixing the retinol formula with your moisturizer or using it on top of the moisturizer.

In a nutshell, apply retinol once a week at first to see how your skin reacts. Then gradually work up to every other day or three times a week.

Another key tip for using retinol products is to incorporate it into your nighttime skincare routine only, as it makes skin more sensitive to sunlight. Mizen and Carroll both stress the importance of using sunscreen with retinol. "You should be wearing an SPF of over 50 on a daily basis regardless of whether you are using a topical retinoid or not," says Carroll. "The best sunscreen is one that you will wear happily 365 days a year."

She advises looking for a formula that protects against both UVA and UVB rays, as well as one that is recognized by the Canadian Dermatology Association.

Why do some skin types react to retinol?

Retinol can do a lot of good, but it can occasionally cause redness, flaking and dry skin. According to both Carroll and Mizen, there are several reasons why skin might have adverse reactions. They include using it too often, using too much of it, not prepping your skin properly (retinol should always be applied to clean and dry skin) or mixing it with other harsh ingredients, like alpha-hydroxy acids or acne treatments.

What should I do if my skin has a bad reaction to retinol?

"Typically reactions aren’t too difficult to manage—it is often just dryness and irritation," says Mizen. "A mild reaction can be common as your skin adjusts to use."

Both Carroll and Mizen suggest discontinuing use if your skin is irritated. It is also a good idea to stop using other skincare products that contain active ingredients. Pare back your routine to a gentle cleanser to wash your face, a fragrance-free moisturizer and a sunscreen.

Once the reaction has resolved, you can try it again. "Using the product less frequently—but on a regular schedule—can be a way to improve tolerability," says Carroll.

What is the best form of retinol to use on my skin?

With seemingly endless options to choose from, figuring out which one is best for you can be challenging. If you're new, start out with a low dose of around 0.025 percent. (Most product packaging should include this information.) If your skin has no adverse reactions, you can slowly move up to a higher percentage.

Note: The highest percentage of retinol available without a prescription in Canada is one percent.

Choose an encapsulated retinol, which means the ingredient is housed in a carrier system within the cream or serum. This delivery system improves the ingredient's ability to penetrate the skin. She adds that these products tend to be more stable and leave skin feeling hydrated. (Once again, most product packaging will note if the retinol is encapsulated.)

The best retinol formulas to shop in 2024

Marcelle Retinol3 + Probiotic Serum, $36

Marcelle Retinol + Probiotic Serum, How To Use Retinol

This serum combines the benefits of retinol, bakuchiol (a potent plant-based antioxidant that’s often touted as a natural alternative to the ingredient) and peptides to create a next-level treatment that’s safe to use on all skin types. It is also formulated with probiotics to nourish the skin’s microbiome, a.k.a. the microorganisms that live on the surface of the skin.

RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Night Serum Capsules, $33 for 30 capsules

RoC Retinol Correction Line Smoothing Night Serum Capsules, How To Use Retinol

Each one of these biodegradable capsules contains a powerful dose of retinol to firm and smooth the skin, as well as gentle ceramides. Sealed tight to maintain the potency of the ingredient, each capsule provides one nightly application. Throw a few of these travel-friendly micro-doses into your carry-on travel beauty bag.

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum, $23

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum, How To Use Retinol

This wallet-friendly serum pairs encapsulated retinol with heavy-hitters like niacinamide and licorice root extract to calm and brighten the skin. It also contains the brand's signature ceramides to help repair the skin barrier and minimize potential irritation.

Elizabeth Arden Retinol + HPR Ceramide Rapid Skin Renewing Water Cream, $115

Elizabeth Arden Retinol + HPR Ceramide Rapid Skin Renewing Water Cream, How To Use Retinol

Gentle enough for first-time users, this lightweight cream contains a blend of skin-loving ingredients such as shea butter, glycerin, ceramides, hyaluronic acid and nourishing oils. The formula releases retinol over time, which helps cut down on irritation.

Peace Out Retinol Eye Lift Patches, $39 for 5

Peace Out Retinol Eye Lift Patches, How To Use Retinol

Skincare patches can do more than just treat a blemish. These innovative bio-cellulose bandages are infused with retinol, hyaluronic acid and peptides to lift, firm and wake up tired eyes. Simply apply to freshly cleansed skin, leave on for 15 minutes, then pat the remaining serum into your skin.

Dermalogica Dynamic Skin Retinol Serum, $128

Dermalogica Dynamic Skin Retinol Serum, How To Use Retinol

This fast-acting serum targets fine lines, wrinkles and uneven skin texture with its 3.5 percent retinoid complex that allows for a continual release of three types of retinols. In addition to that powerful skin-smoothing punch, the formula also contains squalane to soothe and beta-glucan to hydrate.

Biotherm Blue Pro-Retinol Eye Cream, $80

Biotherm Blue Pro Retinol Eye Cream, How To Use Retinol

The latest addition to Biotherm’s popular retinol-infused line, this eye cream offers up a trifecta of care for the delicate skin around the eyes. With a vegan formula and a melting balm texture, it helps brighten dark circles, soften fine lines and hydrate thanks to retinol, peptides and caffeine.

Peter Thomas Roth Goodbye Acne Treatment Gel, $60

Peter Thomas Roth Goodbye Acne Treatment Gel, How To Use Retinol

Created to tackle stubborn blemishes and prevent further breakouts, this gel is a one-and-done option to help treat acne. Salicylic acid and time-released micro-encapsulated retinol are the star ingredients that help to banish blemishes, while vitamin C works to treat the appearance of post-acne hyperpigmentation.

Vichy Liftactiv 0.2% Pure Retinol Anti-Aging Serum, $67

Vichy Liftactiv Pure Retinol Serum, How To Use Retinol

Formulated with 0.2 percent pure retinol, hyaluronic acid and probiotics, this fragrance-free serum is an excellent choice for sensitive skin types. We love the precise applicator, which makes for mess-free use.

Jouviance Restructiv 3D-Retinol+ Multi-Action Cream, $79

Jouviance Restructiv 3D-Retinol Multi-Action Cream, How To Use Retinol

This cream pairs encapsulated retinol with bakuchiol to target the first signs of skin aging. The addition of peptides helps minimize dryness and irritation.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair 0.5% Retinol Pro+ Serum, $45

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair 0.5% Retinol Pro+ Serum, How To Use Retinol

This serum combines 0.5 percent pure retinol with nourishing emollients to help smooth skin. It softens wrinkles and improves the look of dark spots in as little as two weeks.

Pixi Retinol Tonic, $38

Pixi Retinol Tonic, How To Use Retinol

This gentle, alcohol-free tonic contains retinol and  antioxidants to restore radiance to lacklustre skin. Sweep onto the face and neck after cleansing using a cotton pad or fingers, then layer your serums and creams over top.

Clinique Smart Clinical Repair Wrinkle Correcting Serum, $132

Clinique Smart Clinical Repair Wrinkle Correcting Serum, How To Use Retinol

This powerful serum is gentle enough to be used twice a day on all skin types. It contains 1 percent advanced retinol and 9.5 percent peptides, hyaluronic acid, caffeine and algae extract. The cocktail of ingredients is said to be as effective on fine lines and wrinkles as one laser treatment.

Originally published in 2019, updated in 2024.

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