Which Strength Of Retinol Do You Really Need?

by Gio
how to choose the right concentration of retinol for you

I can’t imagine I will ever run a marathon (heck, just the thought is enough to give me nightmares), but if I did, I’d start small. Like, really small.

I’d go for ever longer walks for a month before I even attempted a little run. And then, I’d increase the miles slowly, one by one. That way I can get fit without dying in the process.

Using retinol is a lot like that. It’s a long marathon.

I know, it’s frustrating. You want to start big so that you can say goodbye to those wrinkles asap, but that’ll just get your skin an irritation. Retinol does wonders, but requires a lot of patience.

You need to take this budding love relationship very slowly and give your skin time to get to know retinol before fireworks can happen. The good news is that even a little retinol can do a lot of good to your skin.

So, what strength do you need and when can you upgrade to the next level?

But first,

lixirskin night switch retinol 1% review

Why Should You Use Retinol?

I could rave about the awesomeness of retinol all day, but I’ll keep it short (and try not to bore you – you’re welcome).

This form of vitamin A can:

  • Boost collagen production, keeping skin firm and elastic
  • Speed up cellular turnover, helping skin renew itself faster
  • Get (slowly) rid of wrinkles
  • Make dark spots disappear (slowly, too)
  • Brighten your complexion
  • Bust acne

Retinol ain’t optional, ladies. But you have to be very careful with it. Powerful weapons like this can backfire and irritate your skin if used too much too soon.

Ok, so how much do you need?

Related: The Complete Guide To Retinol

medik8 retinol 6 TR 01

Beginners: 0.01%-0.03%

I know, why bother putting in so little retinol, you’ve probably wondering? Well, because even that little bit works.

Such low concentrations are great for beginners who have just decided to introduce retinol into their lives. Or for anyone with sensitive skin.

Frankly, if you have sensitive skin, I’d stay at the beginner’s level forever. There’s a small chance your skin won’t be able to tolerate even that little so let’s not make it even madder by going any higher (yes, sensitive skin is a pain).

Best Picks:

la roche posay redermic r

Intermediate: 0.04%-0.1%

If you’re stuck with deep wrinkles or dark spots, you need to take your retinol game to the next level after a few weeks.

How many weeks? That depends. If you can’t see any redness, peeling, or any other sign of irritation, it means your skin is now ready to upgrade.

A higher dose brings faster benefits. Prepare to look at the mirror in awe.

Best Picks:


Advanced: 0.5% to 2%

At some point, you’ll probably want to go as far as you can with retinol. You know, use the highest possible dose. That’s 2%. But go there only if you absolutely must.

Remember, the higher the dose, the higher the benefits, but also higher the risk of irritations. Even if your skin can tolerate retinol well by now, there’s always the chance that pushing things too far will cause more problems than it’s worth.

As a rule, up your retinol game when the concentration you’re using isn’t working that well (you know, when you’re not seeing the results you should). If a smaller one is doing wonders for you, don’t let greed mess things up.

Ready to go higher? Check these products out then:

Best Picks


peter thomas roth retinol infusion pm night serum 01

Packaging Matters

Whatever retinol product you opt for, make sure it doesn’t come in a jar. Retinol is a diva that loses some of its effectiveness every time it’s exposed to light and air. That’s every time you open the jar basically. Only airtight and opaque tubes and bottles will make it happy and keep it working as it should.

The Bottom Line

If you’re serious about anti-aging, sooner or later you’ll have to incorporate retinol into your skincare routine. Do it like if you were training for a marathon. Start small and work you way up slowly. That way, you’ll get all its awesome benefits without the annoying side effects.

Is it time to update your retinol game? Let me know in the comments below.



Maja October 18, 2016 - 11:44 am

I love retinoids, they have made such a big difference for my skin. I mostly use prescription grade vitamin A cream (Tretinoin), but I also love the Verso product range. It’s pricey, but I see excellent results. What do you think about this brand?

Gio November 26, 2016 - 7:16 pm

Maja, retinoids are awesome, aren’t they? So glad Verso is working so well for you. I’ve heard of it but I haven’t tried it because I don’t find the ingredient lists on their website. It’s difficult to say how well they’re formulated without that.

Maja November 26, 2016 - 7:24 pm

Yes, they claim that their “Retinol 8” is eight times more effective than regular retinol, but there isn’t any published evidence for that. I guess we just have to trust them, and as I said, the products are pricey. But everybody I know who has tried it is excited about this brand.

Gio November 26, 2016 - 8:00 pm

Do you know what form of retinol they are using? I’ll try and contact the brand directly, maybe they’ll share more information?

Maja November 26, 2016 - 8:22 pm

The website is pretty fuzzy about details. I’d be interested if you find out more about it. http://www.versoskincare.com/retinol-8-how-it-works/

Maja November 26, 2016 - 8:30 pm

I just tried to find the trial mentioned on their website on pubmed (using the key words ‘retinol Nilsson’), but I don’t think I’ve found this specific trial. http://www.versoskincare.com/clinical-trials/

Gio November 26, 2016 - 8:48 pm

Yes, that’s very offputting. Makes you think how special their form of retinol is. Still, retinol and other forms of vitamin A are the best thing you can put on your skin, so it should work well.

Amy October 19, 2016 - 5:22 pm

What’s a good OTC retinol product to use starting out. Something I can pick up at the store and not have to order online?

Gio November 26, 2016 - 7:13 pm

Amy, you can try Neutrogena Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream. It’s cheap but effective and easy to find too, I believe,

Jo January 27, 2019 - 10:23 am

Gio, this Neutrogena product contains parabens and -ates, would you recommend it for sensitive, combination skin?

Gio February 8, 2019 - 4:17 pm

Jo, yes. Parabens are some of the gentlest preservatives around. If anything, you should be warring about products that contain natural or no preservatives as that makes them more at risk of bacterial contamination.

Hannah October 21, 2016 - 4:52 am

Well, I know Olay has some decent products from one of their lines….You’ll just have to read the ingredient lists.

Gio November 26, 2016 - 7:14 pm

Hannah, I agree. I am a huge fan of the Olay line too.

Ginger August 10, 2017 - 2:52 pm

I have been recently reading some scientific articles and studies about combining L-ascetic acid (Vitamin C), lactic acid, and retinol/retinoids. Mixing the acids with the retinol/retinoids will reduce the efficacy of all ingredients. A good number of beauty companies blend them, and thus weaken the formulations. It would be better to alternate retinol/retinoid combined with an extra hyaluronic acid and then a Vitamin C and/or lactic acid every other night. Retinoids are more effective at a higher pH than Vitamin C, and raising the pH of Vitamin C by combining it with the retinoid makes it worthless. Prepping skin with another acid before applying a Vitamin C will improve its efficacy. I’ve started using the Ordinary line recently after years of using other expensive OTC formulations, and I’ve noticed a dramatic difference in skin texture in just a couple weeks (no major anti-aging yet). I use the lactic acid first at night, wait 15-30 minutes, apply the Vitamin C (this combo is not for sensitive skin, pick one or the other if you can’t handle the heavy exfoliation), then the next night use the 2% retinoid with an extra HA compound. In the morning, I use a CoQ10 cream recommended by my doctor (not The Ordinary). My old skin is soft and spongy. It hasn’t been like this in years.

Gio August 12, 2017 - 7:44 am

Ginger, thanks so much for your well-thought out comment. So glad you’ve found a combo that works so well for you!

Re vitamin C, it really depends on what form you’re using. The pure form needs a low ph, but some of its derivatives are stable at a higher ph so you can combine them with retinol without compromising their effectiveness. But, definitely there are many things to consider when using all these powerful activities. You can’t just pick a random vitamin C serum from the shelf and hope it’ll work.

Maya August 22, 2017 - 4:46 pm

What about 0.25%? (It’s not in your scale), I’ve been thinking of getting First Aid Beauty’s 0.25% product.

Gio August 26, 2017 - 7:48 am

Maya, yes, that’s a good one to start with.

Hana October 12, 2017 - 1:04 am

Now that differin is sold over the counter, would you consider adding it to the list? Have you used it or researched it at all? I’m wondering if it is only good for acne and not for anti-aging.

Gio October 14, 2017 - 11:16 am

Hana, I should definitely update this post with differin now it’s available over the counter. Thanks for the remainder.

It is thought that, being a retinoid, differin is an effective treatment for wrinkles too but in truth, its anti-aging properties haven’t been well researched yet. If your main concern is wrinkles you may want to try another form of retinoids.

winston January 12, 2018 - 8:05 pm

I’m using Derma-nu Retinol Moisturizer that has 2.5% retinol. Is that a good product?

Gio January 19, 2018 - 2:01 pm

Winston, yes it is. But the concentration is very high so use it only two or three times a week.

Lisa April 14, 2018 - 1:54 pm

I have been using neutrogena ageless intensives deep wrinkle anti-wrinkle serum in combination with glycolix 20% glycolic acid for just over a month. I use the products daily and have only had one episode of mild flaking.
I am not sure what % retinol is in the serum, i wanted to up the game a little. Suggestions?

Also looking for a good sunscreen that doesn’t roll off in little balls when I put anything else on my face with it – even when waiting for absorption. Currently using neutrogena deep moisture with 20spf – looking for stronger SPF too.

Gio April 19, 2018 - 2:52 pm

Lisa, you can check out my guide on how to increase your retinol dose here: http://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/strength-retinol-need/

Lisa April 14, 2018 - 1:56 pm

Also — is the glycolix brand a good choice – any other suggestions?

Gio April 19, 2018 - 2:53 pm

Yes, it is. But 20% glycolic acid can be irritating for some people, which is why very few brands use this much in their products. If you don’t want to go back to a milder dose, stick with glycolix.

Lisa April 14, 2018 - 1:57 pm

SOrry — to be clear — looking for a moisturizer with sunscreen …

Gio April 19, 2018 - 2:55 pm

Lisa, I don’t recommend using a moisturiser with sunscreen. Cosmetics with SPF aren’t as effective as sunscreen http://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/do-cosmetics-with-spf-offer-enough-sun-protection/

Melissa May 7, 2018 - 1:32 am

What is the difference between “granactive” retinoids vs. regular retinoids? The Ordinary claims that the “granactive” version doesn’t cause any irritation even though it’s moderate strength, but this seems too good to be true. Thanks!

Gio May 18, 2018 - 3:28 pm

Melissa, granactive refers to hydroxypinacolone retinoate, a new retinoid developed specially to prevent irritations. But as it’s so new, there’s not much evidence it works as well as other retinoids. That’s not to say it doesn’t work, it’s just not as well researched as older retinoids.

Nausheen April 22, 2019 - 8:25 pm

Deciem says that the Granactive 2% emulsion has HPR of 1.9% and 0.1% of the encapsulated retinol. Not 1% of each. Have they changed the formula since this article was written?

Gio April 25, 2019 - 6:51 pm

Nausheen, it was 1% when I first tried it. I will contact Deciem and update the post accordingly.

Aynur May 22, 2018 - 8:12 am

Gio, I was wondering, is a compromised skin barrier something to worry about? I’m using The Ordinary’s 1% retinol in squalene every day, and while there isn’t too much peeling, redness, itching or pain, my skin is pretty dehydrated. Is it more advisable to stop the retinol and focus on repairing the skin barrier, or continue using it? Right now I’m at the seventh week, and have been using it regularly for three or four weeks. Thanks!

Gio May 27, 2018 - 7:38 am

Aynur, yes, a compromised skin barrier is definitely something to worry about. When it’s damaged, skin dries out and is more prone to infections/irritations. 1% retinol in squalane is a very powerful product so I’m not surprised daily use compromised your barrier.

For now, stop using retinol. Instead, focus on repairing your skin barrier. Use a hyaluronic acid serum followed by a cream full of natural moisturising factors (ceramides, fatty acids, squalane, niacinamide…). Oils are a good alternative too if you prefer them.

Once your skin is back to normal, introduce retinol back gradually. Use it three times a week first and build up frequency overtime.

Priscilla June 13, 2018 - 4:45 pm

Hi Gio! I recently purchased the Retina Gel 0.1% from (All Day Chemist) after using the cream version (bought from Mexico) for years.
I made the switch after learning that the cream version has Isopropyl Myristate (pore clogging ingredient) and reading more about it from your blog post. (which was very informative)
While I can’t tell/say for sure I experienced breakouts when I used it (as I was battling acne at the time as well), and I only used it sparingly to spot treat or when needed. (Not daily). I always thought I had oily skin, but recently learned from the esthetician that I have combination skin. I am also Acne prone. Hoping the gel will work for me.

Gio June 16, 2018 - 10:06 am

Priscilla, it’s hard to tell but there’s indeed a chance that isopropyl myrystate may have aggravated your acne. If you’re prone to breakouts, it’s one of the ingredients I’d avoid – just to be on the safe side. Switching to the gel was a good idea. Let me know how it works for you. 🙂

grasi July 18, 2018 - 1:18 am

I’d like to know, whats the best strength for the eye area?

Gio July 21, 2018 - 7:46 pm

Grasi, the best strength is the highest your skin can tolerate. Start small and work your way up. 🙂

Rosie July 22, 2018 - 8:59 am

Have Just finished from putting prescription at chemist for .1% and was informed it’s no longer available.
Apparently only .025% and .05% .
I am in South Australia so hopefully can find the strength i want online prehaps.

Gio July 28, 2018 - 6:39 pm

Rosie, I don’t recommend buying prescription online. Find a dermatologist who can prescribe you a dose that’s right for you.

christa October 6, 2018 - 8:56 am

HI, is it okay if I use a stronger formulation (2%) but use it less (for example once a week)? Would that affect the skin the same as using lower concentrations but 2-3 times a week?

Gio October 7, 2018 - 3:29 pm

Christa, there are no shortcuts when it comes to retinoids. If you want the full benefits, you need to start with a low concentration and work your way up. Even if you use it only once a week, a high concentration your skin isn’t used will make it dry and flaky. You’ll wake up with dry, not younger skin the next day. Don’t rush it. Start slow and build your way up.

Tina January 2, 2019 - 4:21 pm

Gio, you make an interesting comment at the end of your post about the type of packaging that retinol products come in, specifically, that retinol should be in airtight containers. The Ordinary’s retinol in squalene formulations come in bottoms. Will the daily exposure to air during use reduce the efficacy of the retinol? On their website, they describe it as a “highly stable” formulation, but I’m curious what you think. Thanks!

Gio January 12, 2019 - 11:35 am

Tina, an airtight packaging is the best for retinol but realistically, there may be reasons (like texture) that make it unpractical.

A good preservative system or encapsulation technology will protect the retinol and make it last longer than it would in contact with light and air. Having said that, actives are best used quickly. You can’t buy them in bulk or leave them in a drawer for months.

So this packaging may not be ideal, but if you use the product regularly and close it quickly after every use, the retinol should remain stable until the bottle runs out.

Patti January 31, 2019 - 3:59 am

I have been using the Granactive Retinoid Emulsion 2% for almost 2 years. The other products from The Ordinary I also use?
Caffeine Solution (just a couple time a week, can be drying)
Hyaluronic Acid + B5
Glycolic Toner
Lactic Acid 10%
Ascorbyl Glucoside Solution 12% (several times a week I add a scoop of the L-ascorbic acid powder to this to make it stronger)
AHA/BHA mask
Moisturizing Factors +HA
I use a richer night cream and eye cream from other companies.
I will be 57 in a few months and my skin is SO clear I don’t need makeup anymore (accept for concealer). My wrinkles on my forehead, around eyes and anywhere else are GONE. If I have time, I will try to use my acids- wait 30 minutes then apply my vitamin C. If I don’t have time I alternate them, meaning I have three routines: vitamin C, Acids, and Retinol (used at night). The only place on my face that shows age is above my lip…. which I tried the Argireline and it did not work for me.
You don’t have to buy all these expensive skin care products. Especially if you are like me and have very normal skin with no acne or sensitivities.
Thank you SO much for all the information I have learned from your articles!!!

Gio February 7, 2019 - 5:20 pm

Patti, thank you for your comments. So glad to hear your skin has improved so much and that my little blog helped. 🙂

I totally agree. You just need a handful of ingredients that work, not a bunch of expensive products.

Nausheen April 22, 2019 - 8:35 pm

Hi Patti
Thanks for your post. Am interested to know whether you had deep wrinkles to begin with? I have deep expression lines in my forehead . And crows feet . I started off with the emulsion but moved to the granactive 2 and then 5% thinking they were stronger and better . But my wrinkles haven’t budged . Sometimes I think my wrinkles around eyes are worse! Am very interested in your routine. I already use most of similar products, don’t top up ascorbic tho, and have been using salicylic acid not glycolic (which I am thinking of ordering) . Any advise will be appreciated !

Nausheen April 22, 2019 - 8:40 pm

Oh I recently started using the 0.5% retinol (but still use granactive 5% around eyes) , also use niacinamide some mornings . And I use Olay regenerist mositurisers

Gio April 25, 2019 - 6:49 pm

Nausheen, what’s your skin type? Glycolic is for dry, salicylic for oily/acne-prone. Deep wrinkles are almost impossible to treat with skincare products alone. If you don’t want to go down the filler route, slowly upgrade retinol concentration till you reach 1% and then go to a dermatologist for prescription retinoids.

If retinol is making your skin worse, cut back usage to every other night and moisturise well afterwards. You have to build up frequency and dose slowly. I know it’s frustrating but those wrinkles didn’t form in a day and sadly they won’t disappear in a day. Patience and constance are keys.

maya chukujama February 24, 2019 - 3:29 pm

Hi Gio! I’m 18 with oily and acne-prone skin. Would you advise I start my retinol journey now?

Gio February 28, 2019 - 6:31 pm

Maya, no I think it’s too early for you. Start with salicylic acid and niacinamide.

Debbie October 6, 2019 - 9:25 am

I have never used any products on my skin before , and I don’t wear makeup . But I have spider veins on both my cheeks and just a bit on my nostrils . What product would you recommend or am I better off seeing a specialist ?

Gio November 8, 2019 - 7:24 am

Debbie, you’re better off seeing a specialist and trying laser treatment.

tiffany December 15, 2019 - 3:39 pm

Hi Gio! Your blog has TRANSFORMED my skin and the way I understand skin care. I am no longer mystified by a sales associate’s pitch for certain products and I’m not into the gimmicks (that’s right La Mer – I’m talking about you) 😀
One of my questions:
I am using Drunk Elephant’s A Passioni retinol cream thanks to your recommendation. I absolutely LOVE it – the area around my eyes still gets irritated, but otherwise, things are great.

3 questions:
1) What’s the next level up from DE’s retinol? What brand/item would you recommend? Do you recommend that I up the game once a week but use DE the other times and slowly transfer over?
2) How the heck do you know what the % is if it’s not stated? (ex: Peter Thomas Roth’s retinol PM).
3) After I use retinol – sometimes my skin gets a little bit burney 🙂 I wait around 15 – 30 mins then use DE’s hydra serum (which I find isn’t moisturizing enough) then I use Sunday Riley’s juno oil and then a rich cream on top (Sulwahso mask). Do you recommend a particular item to use on top of a heavier retinol?

Thanks for your amazing blog. You are a lifesaver for me!

Gio December 20, 2019 - 5:33 pm

Tiffany, you just made my day! This is exactly why I’m dong all this. 🙂

To answer your questions:

1. Prescription tretinoin. DE contains one of the highest concentrations in cosmetics, so the next level up is prescription. You can start using it two/three times a week without DE. Tretinoin is harsh and you don’t want to irritate your skin more.
2. The only way is to ask the brand. Unfortunately, not everyone tells you. An evasive answer usually means, “not high enough!”
3. At the beginning, you can use moisturiser UNDER tretinoin. It’ll dilute it a little, but it’ll make your skin tolerate it better.

Thank you for all your support! Hope this helps. 🙂

Kym Mulvey January 12, 2020 - 12:48 pm

Hi Gio!
I bought ‘Passport To Organics’ skincare set last September ( Spring in Australia) but haven’t opened it yet as it’s pretty much Summer for six months where I live with extreme UV ratings most days.
The set contains Vit C ,hyaralonic acid and a retinol cream at 2.5%.
I’ve used a 2% retinol before but gave it up when I developed and sore/ itchy patch of angry red spots on my (previously) ‘good skin’ on the outside of my cheeks.
Each time I tried to resume I would start it back up again. I put it down to my product bring out of date.
So my question- if I combine the new 2.5 % retinol with a moisturiser, wait 1/2 hour after washing my face and apply it over a serum once a week to begin with , do you think I can jump in at that strength?
I have a zinc based daily sunscreen I can use for protection.
My T- zone is oily with enlarged pores. However my skin can be a bit reactive and a little sensitive too.
Many thanks for any advice you can share.

Gio January 16, 2020 - 4:44 pm

Kym, I’m a bit confused. I checked out the Passport to Organics serum. The marketing copy says it contains 2.5% retinol, but when you look at the ingredient list, retinol is nowhere on the list. Instead, the serum has retinyl palmitate, the weakest form of Vitamin A. I usually don’t recommend retinyl palmitate because it doesn’t do much, but this is the first time I see it used in such high doses, so this may be the exception.

I would say never jump in with 2.5% retinol. That’s a recipe for disaster. But you may be able to use that much retinyl palmitate without problems as it’s gentler on the skin.

Sarah March 9, 2020 - 1:53 am

Hi Gio!

In the morning after washing my face I use hyaluronic acid serum followed by Vitamin C serum, moisturizer and last sunscreen. In the evening I alternate nights between Okays Retinol24 and glycolic acid, followed by hyaluronic acid and last moisturizer. Am I applying all of these in the most effective order? Thanks!

Sarah March 9, 2020 - 1:54 am

I’m sorry for the typo, I meant Olays Retinol24 serum

Gio April 4, 2020 - 7:37 am

Sarah, use vitamin C before hyaluronic acid. Everything else is fine.

Amanda May 17, 2020 - 5:04 am

I have an issue I’m hoping you can help me with. I was unaware of how to start using retinol and started at what I believe is a 2%. I went for almost a month, daily use, before my neck started getting red and itchy. I stopped the retinol immediately… it’s been over a month since I stopped and my neck still itches soooo much. I’ve tried anti itch locations and moisturizers, as well as Cortizone cream. Nothing works long term…maybe a couple of hours and then it’s back. I understand that I’ve angered the skin on my neck but I truly thought that, after more than 4 weeks, it would’ve calmed down by now. Do you have any other recommendations of what I can do to get my skin back to normal? Or have I damaged it forever and I’m doomed to live with this? 🙁

Gio May 17, 2020 - 2:28 pm

Amanda, you haven’t damaged it forever, but you need to give it time to recover. Only use cleanser, moisturiser and sunscreen until it recovers. If things don’t get better, consult a doctor.

Amanda May 18, 2020 - 3:23 am

Thank you so much. You’ve probably mentioned it somewhere but is there a cleanser and moisturizer you recommend for a situation like mine? Thanks again!

Ally June 16, 2020 - 1:30 am

I am 22 and started to notice some fine lines on the sides of my forehead. Is it too early to start using retinol? My skin is very sensitive and gets oily quickly, so I am worried about adding too much to my skin routine.

Gio July 14, 2020 - 9:41 am

Ally, it’s not too early. But if your skin is sensitive, use only a very small %.

Vips June 29, 2020 - 12:25 am

Hi Geo,

Thanks so much for your blogs. They are such a great help, I must admit I got hooked to skincare only after bumping into one of your posts on FB. I have started using a vitamin c serum (art naturals) and follow it up with accure vitamin c cream in the daytime when I am indoors or their sunscreen when I have to step out. In the night time, I use the same art naturals c serum and follow it up with acure whipped night cream which is a peptide cream. I also use Pacifica’s glycolic acid with vitamin c serum along with a moisturiser once a week usually in the night. Doing just this for the past 2-2.5 months has helped my skin. I feel its a lot smoother now. I am 37. I want to incorporate retinol into my schedule now – do you have any recommendations?
PS: even though I have an oily skin with large pores and sunspots coz of years of neglect paula’s choice 2% salicylic acid did not work for me (made my skin rough and gave me a bunch of black spots) instead the glycolic acid makes my skin feel smoother.

Gio July 14, 2020 - 11:17 am

Vips, I’d recommend you start with Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum With Retinol a couple of nights a week. Don’t exfoliate on nights you use it.

Vips June 29, 2020 - 12:31 am

Also what is accelerated retinol? I see Neutrogena has some moisturizers with them

Grachel Mae Polestico July 2, 2020 - 11:05 am

Hello Gio! is the ordinary 0.5 % retinol in squalene okay to use for beginners like me? im 29 y/o and I have oily skin. the ordinary 0.2% is out of stock. im using this brand because i’m on a budget.🙂

Comments are closed.