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A Beginner’s Guide to Retinol

Everything a retinol newbie needs to know about how to use the anti-aging ingredient.

Few anti-aging skincare ingredients can claim they’ve been lauded since the 1970s, but retinol proudly can. Retinol started off as an ingredient in over-the-counter skincare products and continues to be featured in a wide range of products from retinol serums to retinol creams. It’s widely regarded for its ability to tackle signs of aging, making it an ingredient that dermatologists love to recommend. While retinol is beloved, it can cause irritation when it’s not introduced into a skincare routine properly. Here is our beginner’s guide to retinol, in which we outline how to use retinol and what it can do for your skin along with tips on how to introduce it into your nighttime skincare routine for best results.

The benefits of retinol

So, what is retinol exactly? It is a form of vitamin A, which is naturally produced by the body and decreases with age. Along with treating acne and tackling signs of aging, retinol is a true multi-tasker. It thickens the epidermis (the top layer of your skin) and can visibly reduce sun damage, brown spots, fine lines and large pores. It resurfaces the skin to look smoother and more even toned. Retinol also unclogs pores, which minimizes breakouts. Given all it can do, you might be tempted to bathe in it. (But don’t.)

Who should use retinol

In terms of age, your mid-20s is a great time to start using retinol because that’s when elastin production starts to slump. That said, it’s never too late to get on board with this powerhouse ingredient given how much it can get done in one fell swoop—it can prevent signs of aging as well as correct existing damage. However, it’s not for everyone. If you have skin that’s easily irritated or highly sensitive, you may find it difficult to adjust to, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. You’ll just have to tread very lightly and look for the right formula. Only those who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid it.

How to incorporate retinol into a routine

Because retinol can be extremely irritating if used too frequently or if the formula is too strong, it’s critical that you ease your way into it. Begin with a product that has the lowest percentage, such as SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3 Refining Night Cream, which is one of the best retinol creams for beginners. Use a pea-size amount for the entire face (forehead, nose, cheeks and chin), applying it to clean, dry skin once a week. And include your neck and décolleté, as these areas can benefit from it, too. It should also be applied at night because retinol not only makes your skin more sun-sensitive (so do not skip sunscreen the following day) but it also breaks down in the presence of sunlight, rendering it ineffective. And be sure not to exfoliate on the same day as it will only heighten your skin’s sensitivity. Bear in mind there will be some peeling and redness—that should be expected. These are side effects of retinol working at an intense level to influence gene expression. It’s not a sign to stop; your skin is merely adapting. Soon you can work your way up to a few times a week—with days off in between—but without increasing the amount. If it’s well tolerated, you can reach a point where you use it every night.

Know when to back off and what to do

While side effects like dryness, mild irritation and sun sensitivity are to be expected, issues like burning, redness and extreme flaking mean you should dial it back. Stop using retinol as well as any other active ingredients (like vitamin C, AHAs or benzoyl peroxide) and use a mild cleanser and a repairing moisturizer like SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2 until skin has returned to normal. Try it again—this time less frequently but consistently. You can also try this: Apply a hyaluronic acid serum first to act as a buffer, layer retinol over it and then follow that with a ceramide moisturizer. It can take weeks or months to see the results, but once you do, you’ll be glad you stuck with the program.

Become a Skintellectual in 5 Steps

1. Start off with our beginner's guide
2. Learn how to layer retinol in your skincare routine
3. Learn which ingredients to pair with your retinol
4. How to introduce retinol in your nighttime routine.
5. Don't be swayed by common myths about retinol

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