A Beginner’s Guide To Retinol

All your questions, answered.

A woman against a light background applying retinol moisturizer to illustrate an article about how to use 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. With results that include improved skin texture, boosted collagen production and diminished dark spots, it’s easy to see why beauty lovers all over the world swear by the powerhouse active. But retinol use also comes with its fair share of side effects, like irritation and redness.

We asked Julia Carroll, a dermatologist at Toronto-based Compass Dermatology, and Amanda Mizen, a medical aesthetician and owner of Toronto-based North Medical Spa, for advice on how to incorporate retinol into your skincare routine.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid, derived from vitamin A. Retinol is naturally produced by your body and aids in boosting cell turnover, kickstarting collagen production and reducing fine lines and wrinkles. “Retinols are the sibling to the more powerful prescription 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, diminishes the appearance of hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, improves skin hydration and treats acne. “It’s the ultimate selection for getting-it-all-done skincare,” says Mizen. According to Carroll, retinol 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 can use retinol, but fair or sensitive skin types should be extra cautious as it may be harder for them to adjust to the potent ingredient. Mizen doesn’t recommend retinol for people who have skin that’s been over-exfoliated (from at-home or in-office treatments), or skin that’s sun-damaged. It should also be noted that pregnant women should not use retinol.

When should I start using retinol?

Mizen typically recommends her clients to start using retinol when they hit their thirties, as that is when collagen levels in the skin start decreasing more rapidly. But all ages can reap the rewards of a retinol-infused beauty routine. “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 on one night, and then wait a few days to evaluate your tolerance.” If you don’t get a reaction, Carroll recommends trying it again. However, if the product makes your skin red and flaky, she suggests mixing the retinol formula with your moisturizer. Use retinol once or twice a week at first to see how your skin reacts, and gradually work up to every other day or three times a week.

Another key tip for using retinol is to incorporate it into your nighttime skincare routine only, as it makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight. When using retinol, Mizen and Carroll both stress the importance of using sunscreen. “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?

Yes, retinol can do a lot of good for your skin, but it can occasionally cause redness and flaking. According to both Carroll and Mizen, there are several reasons why skin can react to retinol, including using it too often, using too much of it, not prepping your skin properly or mixing retinol with other harsh ingredients, like exfoliators or acne treatments.

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

“Typically reactions to retinol aren’t too difficult to manage—it’s often just dryness and irritation,” says Mizen. “A mild reaction can be common as your skin adjusts to use.” But if your skin is quite irritated, both Carroll and Mizen suggest cutting out retinol application, along with other skincare products that contain active ingredients, aside for sunscreen. Pare back your routine to a gentle cleanser and fragrance-free moisturizer.

Once the reaction has resolved, you can try retinol 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 to retinol, start off with a low dose of around 0.025%. If your skin has no adverse reactions, you can slowly move up to a higher percentage. (The highest percentage available without a prescription in Canada is 1%.)

Mizen prefers an encapsulated retinol, which means the ingredient is housed in a carrier system within the cream or serum to improve its ability to penetrate the skin. She adds that these products tend to be more stable and leave the skin feeling hydrated.

Originally published in 2019, updated in 2023.

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