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A Beginner’s Guide to Retinol

A Beginner’s Guide to Retinol

If you are new to a skin-care, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the options, ingredients, formulations, treatments, and price tags. When it comes to skincare, retinol is one of the top five evidence-based skin-care ingredients and considered a holy grail product. The other top ingredients are sunscreen, hyaluronic acid, vitamin C, and alpha hydroxy acids.  

What is retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid, derived from vitamin A and is an antioxidant. It’s naturally produced by your body and promotes cell turnover that jumps start collagen production, helps to decrease fine lines and wrinkles, a proven treatment for acne, and hyperpigmentation. After applying retinol to the skin, the body has to convert retinol into its active form, retinoic acid.

Retin-A, pure retinoic acid, is about 20 times stronger than retinol and it is only available by prescription. Retinoic acid comes as a cream, tretinoin (Retin-A), or as a pill such as isotretinoin (Accutane).

How is retinol different from retinoids?

Retinoid is an umbrella term for many chemical compounds associated with vitamin A (retinol). Retinoids can be over the counter (OTC) or prescription which come in creams or pills. Healthcare providers prescribe retinoids for acne, hyperpigmentation, and psoriasis.

Even though retinol is not as strong as Retin-A or other prescription retinoids. But when it comes to anti-aging, retinol may work just as well and have less side effects such as dryness, redness, and flaking. Retinol can come in different forms of OTC products and here are some ingredients to look for when choosing a retinol:

  • Retinaldehyde (also called “retinal”)
  • Retinyl esters
  • Retinyl propionate

What are the Benefits of Using Retinol?

Retinol benefits the skin in several ways such as preventing acne breakouts and increasing skin turnover that causes the reduction in the signs of aging. Here are some great benefits of adding it in your skincare routine:

  • Increases cell turnover and accelerates skin renewal 
  • Evens out discoloration and skin tone
  • Smooths out skin damage from skin aging
  • Help to reduce the amount of collagen breakdown from sun exposure
  • Stimulates collagen production 
  • Improving fine and coarse wrinkles
  • Increasing skin firmness
  • Reducing hyperpigmentation
  • Prevent pores from becoming clogged and acne
  • Regulates oil production

When should you use retinol?

If you’re having acne or trying to prevent aging, adding retinol to your skin care routine may be an excellent option for you. There are no set-in stone rules on when you should start to use retinol. For anti-aging, to be preventive you can start to use it in your twenties. If you’re using it for mild acne, you can use it even younger.  

Why is retinol used?  

Retinol is a terrific treatment choice for preventing aging skin because its ability to accelerate skin regeneration. Skin aging occurs for several reasons. Research suggests up to 50 percent of visible signs of skin aging come from factors such as climate, UV exposure, pollution, sleep, diet, and stress. Chronically unhealthy habits can accelerate skin aging beyond what DNA alone would control. Additionally, as we age the rate cell turnover and collagen production slow down. The visible signs of skin aging such as dark spots, fine lines, and wrinkles develop because our skin’s natural defense weakens due to slower cell regeneration and skin healing.

Why is Retinol Used for Acne?

Retinol and prescription retinoids are efficient treatments for acne and works by preventing clogged pores. If the acne is mild acne with a few whiteheads, blackheads, or pimples then an OTC retinol can be good option. With more severe acne cases, a prescription-strength retinoid may be required. Retinol is often used along with other acne medications, like a face wash that has benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid.  

How to Choose Between a Retinol Serum vs Cream?

Retinol and retinoids come in various formulations, like creams, serums, and lotions. When you are first starting to add retinol into your skincare routine, it’s best to select a low-strength version in a formulation that works for your skin type. Keep in mind that serums tend to be thinner and absorb faster. Additionally, serums don’t provide any moisturization as creams and lotions.

Here are the best retinol formulations for different skin types.

Skin type

Best retinol formulation

Oily or prone to acne

Gel or lotion


Serum, cream, or oil


Vary by season: serum or cream for winter, lighter lotion for warmer months

Can you use retinol every night?

Yes, retinoids work best if you use them daily and specifically use the products at night due to light and air deactivating certain types. Additionally, applying retinol nightly has two important benefits due to having minimal sun exposure at night, it decreases the chance of irritation and sun damage. If you experience any side effects such redness or dryness, then it’s best to use it once every 2 or 3 nights. Then as your skin gets used to it, then you can slowly work back to using it nightly.

How to Use Retinol?

Retinol and other retinoids can help with acne, dark spots, sun damage, fine lines, and other signs of aging. The most common side effect is skin irritation, especially when you first start using it. Starting a new routine can feel overwhelming, but it is a major ingredient in most skin-care routines. We have put together some simple steps on how you can get started with retinol.

1. Start slowly: It can take time for your skin to get used to a retinoid. Start by applying it once or twice a week and slowly increase it.  As your skin adapts, you can work your way up to using it nightly. If your skin gets red, dry, or flaky, then you may be moving too fast and slow down. When you can use it nightly then you can also consider increasing the strength of the retinol.

2. Use only a pea-sized amount: A little bit goes a long way when using retinoids. A pea-sized amount is enough for your whole face. You just need to apply it on your forehead, nose, cheeks, and then your chin. Gently rub it in to distribute the product evenly.

3. If you’re prone to acne, beware that ‘purging’ can happen: About 20 percent of people who use retinoids will get a flare up during the first few weeks after starting it. Keep in might that it can take up to 12 weeks until full results are achieved.

4. Stick to mild, gentle skin-care products: In the beginning of using retinoids, there can be skin irritation. To prevent irritation, it’s best to avoid using them with other sources of irritation such as:

  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Salicylic acid
  • Alpha hydroxy acids
  • Scrubs
  • Exfoliators

5. Moisturize the skin: Because retinoids tend to cause dryness and irritation in the beginning. Using a moisturizer can help. Incorporate hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid into your skincare routine to help minimize any irritation that can be caused by retinol. If you have dry or sensitive skin, apply the retinoid on top of a moisturizer.

6. Protect your skin from UV rays: Retinoids make the skin more sensitive to burning, even if only applied at night. It’s crucial to avoid tanning beds and to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily. It should be a broad spectrum (cover UVA and UVB rays) of SPF 30 or higher and reapplied frequently when outside.

7. Stop your retinoid before any facial procedure: Because retinoids increase your skin’s sensitivity, it is best practice to stop using it for 5 to 7 days before waxes, peels, lasers, and other facial procedures.

8. Don’t use a retinoid if you’re pregnant, planning to, or could be pregnant: Most healthcare providers recommend against using a retinoid during pregnancy. There are alternatives that can be used such as OTC alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic or lactic acid) or prescription-strength azelaic acid (Azelex).

9. Don’t Just Stop at Your Face: Don’t forget to apply retinol to neglect your neck or décolletage because it is often overlooked and is notorious for showing signs of aging. If these areas are too sensitive for your current formula just add a pea-size amount of ceramide-enriched moisturizer before putting it on. You can also get a separate retinoid made specifically for the area in question that is a lower dose with zero fragrance.

If you're curious about exploring retinol but want some personalized guidance, come see us in person at Be Whole Wellness Center and schedule an appointment. We are here to help you curate a skincare routine that is specific to your skin care goals!