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Step-by-Step Guide to Incorporating Retinol Into Your Skincare Routine

Retinol has long been one of the most popular skincare ingredients, but there’s a lot of confusion around how to best work it into a routine. In this step-by-step guide, we’re covering everything you need to know about picking out a retinol product and incorporating it into your skincare regimen. 

What is Retinol?

Topical retinol is a vitamin A derivative that addresses many of the most common skincare concerns, which is why it is such a sought after ingredient. It tackles a loss of elasticity and firmness while smoothing the look of fine lines and wrinkles, promoting a more youthful look. It also helps unclog pores to minimize breakouts, and fades discoloration for a more even complexion. 

Choosing the Right Retinol Product

When it comes to choosing a retinol, you have two main choices: an over-the-counter (OTC) product, or a product prescribed by your dermatologist. Prescription-based retinols (often referred to as retinoids) are stronger than what you can find in stores, and a dermatologist will be able to determine which exact potency and formula will work best for your needs.

If you decide to go the OTC route, there are a wide variety of different options and potencies. For those that are new to retinol, it’s best to start out with a low or moderate strength product to allow your skin to adjust to the ingredient. Look for products in the range of 0.01% to 0.3%. Those with dry and/or sensitive skin will want to stick on the lower end, whereas those with combination or oily skin can typically tolerate slightly higher concentrations. 

Beyond the potency, you’ll also need to consider what type of formula you’ll want. There are a range of formulas, from lightweight serums to richer creams. Moisturizing creams are often the go-to for those with dry and sensitive skin, as they often contain a lower concentration of retinol. They are also formulated to deeply moisturize the skin, working to counteract negative side effects. These skin types can benefit from retinol serums, as well – just be mindful of the concentration. 

Building a Simple Skincare Routine

Once you’ve picked a suitable retinol product, it’s time to create a basic routine. Retinol should only be used in the evening, as it can increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun. The sun’s rays can also degrade the retinol, lessening its effects. 

At night, you’ll first want to prep your skin by cleansing away any debris. Once the skin is dry, you can apply your retinol, and then follow up with a moisturizer. This is a great foundational routine, but we’ll talk more about how you can combine retinol with other serums below. 

In the morning, you can use other products that complement the effects of the retinol. For example, those looking to brighten the complexion, minimize discoloration, and further fight signs of aging may reach for a  vitamin C serum

Vitamin C Boost Serum

Application Techniques

As mentioned above, you’ll want to apply your retinol to dry skin, because water can increase the absorption of retinol. While that may sound like a benefit, this can actually increase your risk of experiencing negative side effects like irritation. After washing your face, pat your skin dry with a towel, and wait a few minutes for any residual water to dry.

It’s also important to consider the amount of retinol you use. For your face and neck, all you need is a pea-sized amount. Dot it all over your skin, and then massage it in to create a thin, even layer. 

After application, you’re going to want to let it absorb for at least 10 minutes. After that, you can follow up with any other serums you may be using, and then finish with your moisturizer. 

Incorporating Retinol Into Your Routine

The number one mistake people make when adding retinol to their routine is overusing it. Retinol is a potent ingredient, and you need to give your skin time to adjust to its effects. By starting with nightly application right off the bat, you dramatically increase your risk of experiencing adverse side effects, such as dryness and irritation.

With this in mind, when you are first starting out with retinol, try applying it twice per week. After a few weeks, you can slowly increase your usage up to every other day (so long as you don’t experience negative reactions!). Some people may be able to use it every night, but this will depend on your skin’s tolerance, as well as the potency of the product you are using. 

Combining Retinol with Other Skincare Ingredients

If you already have an established skincare routine, it’s important to be aware of the ingredients retinol plays well with – as well as the ones it doesn’t. As a general rule, you shouldn’t use retinol at the same time as other strong active ingredients, such as exfoliating acids (like glycolic and salicylic acids) or benzoyl peroxide. This will increase your risk of aggravating the skin. 

There are plenty of ingredients that can be combined with retinol. Hydrating serums – like a  hyaluronic acid serum – are especially great, as they can counteract the drying effects of retinol. Gentle calming serums will also help minimize redness and irritation.   

It’s typically best to follow the thinnest to thickest rule when layering retinol with other ingredients. For example, if you use a thinner retinol and a thicker calming serum, you’ll start by applying the retinol, and then the serum (followed by your moisturizer). 

That said, there are exceptions to this rule! Some people – especially those with dry skin – like to apply a hydrating serum (regardless of whether it is thinner than their retinol) before their retinol. This creates a bit of a buffer to further reduce the risk of dryness caused by retinol. 

On the nights when you aren’t using retinol, feel free to bring in other formulas made with active ingredients, such as a chemical exfoliant. You can also give your skin a rest and treat it with gentler formulas, such as a soothing serum or an  antioxidant-powered serum.