Retinol is the most effective OTC treatment for wrinkles. Bar none. While most skincare products work by filling in or plumping up fine lines and wrinkles, so they temporarily look smaller to the naked eye, retinol has a three-pronged, anti-wrinkle effect that, used regularly, reduces their size and depth.
No wonder everyone wants to jump on the retinol bandwagon! After years of being relegated to dermatologist’s lines, it’s now a mainstay of drugstore and department stores. We literally can’t get enough of it!
And yet, there’s still a lot of confusion about what retinol is, the best way to use it, which strength gives you the best results without turning your face into a red and flaky mess… Let’s be honest: if we were in a relationship with retinol, our FB status would say “It’s complicated”. And so, it’s often misused. *sighs*
In this complete guide to retinol, I demystify this hero ingredient and set the record straight on everything you need to know to add retinol to your skincare routine and make the most of it for younger-looking skin:
- What Is Retinol?
- How Does Retinol Work: Benefits For Skin
- Does It Have Any Side Effects?
- How Do I Incorporate Retinol Into My Skincare Routine?
- Mix And Match: What Can I Use It With?
- What Are The Best Products?
- The Bottom Line
What Is Retinol?
Retinol is the most commonly used form of Retinoid (Vitamin A) in OTC skincare products. By itself, it doesn’t do much for your skin. As you now know, the magic happens when the enzymes in your skin convert it into Retinoic Acid (a.k.a. Tretinoin), the active form of vitamin A that busts wrinkles and acne. The conversion looks like this:
Retinyl Palmitate ==> Retinol ==> Retinaldehyde ==> Retinoic acid
Retinol hits that sweet spot where it’s close enough to Retinoid Acid to work and yet far away not to cause severe dryness and irritation (unless you misuses it). Plus, it’s much easier to formulate with than Retinaldehyde (this is why Retinaldehyde products cost an arm and a leg, while Retinol creams and serums can easily be found at the drugstore these days).
Related: What Form Of Vitamin A Is Best For You?
Retinol VS Retinoid: What’s The Difference?
When it comes to retinol, it’s confusing from the beginning. What is retinol? Is retinol the same thing as retinoid? If not, what’s the difference between retinol and retinoid? Argh!
Retinoids is not the same as retinoid, but it’s part of it. Let me explain. Retinoid is the catch-all term for all forms of Vitamin A – the only active proven to reduce wrinkles (not just their appearance).
The most common forms of Retinoid used in skincare products include:
- Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate (a.k.a. Granactive Retinoid)
- Retinoic Acid (the pure active form, a.k.a. Tretinoin)
- Retinyl Palmitate
In other words, if it has “retinol” somewhere in the name, you can count on it before a retinoid. But not all retinoids are created equal. Some are more effective than others. Retinoic Acid is the most powerful (and the most irritating).
With the exception of Granactive Retinoid, all other forms of Retinoid must be converted into its pure form to work against acne and wrinkles. The conversion looks like this:
Retinyl Palmitate ==> Retinol ==> Retinaldehyde ==> Retinoic acid
As a rule, the closer a retinoid is to Retinoic Acid, the better it works (and the more irritating it is).
Struggling to put together a skincare routine that minimises wrinkles, prevents premature aging, and gives your complexion a youthful glow? Download your FREE “Best Anti-Aging Skincare Routine” to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):
Retinol VS Tretinoin VS Retin A: Are They The Same Thing?
Tretinoin and Retinol A are NOT the same thing. Tretinoin is the active ingredient (Retinoic acid) that treats wrinkles and acne. Retin A is one of the brand names under which Tretinoin is sold. I know, this stuff’s confusing. But I hope that clarified a few things for you.
Tretinoin, a.k.a. Retinoic Acid, is the pure form of Vitamin A and the one proven to reduce sun damage and fight wrinkles. All other forms of Retinoids must be converted into it to work. Just to give you some perspective, retinol is 20 times more potent than OTC retinol! It gives you better results – and faster, too. The catch? It’s very irritating and drying. This is why it’s available prescription only.
Retinol is an OTC form of Retinoid. As you know now, it has to go through several steps to be converted into Tretinoin. “This also makes retinol less stable than tretinoin and more prone to degradation upon exposure to light and air,” says dermatologist Dr. Sheila Krishna. In other words, retinol is less effective and has a shorter shelf life than Tretinoin.
A 1997 study has found that 0.25% retinol penetrates skin better than Retinoic Acid and may be useful for “application without occlusion because it does not irritate but does induce cellular and molecular changes similar to those observed with application of 0.025% retinoic acid.”
Although not as powerful as tretinoin, it’s gentler and doesn’t require a prescription. I recommend you start with retinol and work your way up to Tretinoin (either Retinol A or another brand).
How Does Retinol Work: Benefits For Skin
Retinol is a multitasking superhero that literally transforms the way your skin looks and feels. It does this in three different ways:
- It accelerates cellular turnover: It speeds up your skin’s natural exfoliating process by prompting skin cells to turn over and die quickly, so that new, healthy ones can take their place.
- It boost collagen: Collagen is the protein that makes skin thicker and firmer. Retinol prevents its breakdown and loss.
- It has antioxidant properties: It fight free radicals, the rascals that cause premature wrinkles and dark spots.
- Treats acne: By speeding up cellular turnover, it helps get rid of whiteheads, blackheads, pimples, and clogged pores.
Or, said more simply, retinol:
- Reduces wrinkles (not just their appearance)
- Fades away dark spots and hyperpigmentation
- Brightens the complexion
- Makes large pores look smaller
- Firms and thickens skin
- Helps treat acne
It basically makes your skin look better in every way.
Related: The Battle Of The Skin-Lighteners: Which Is The Best Alternative To Hydroquinone?
Retinol For Wrinkles: Does It Work?
Yes! Yes! Yes! Retinol is the best treatment for wrinkles available without a prescription. It helps you look younger in three ways.
For starters, retinol boosts collagen production. Collagen is the protein that keeps your skin firm. Once you turn 21, your skin starts to lose 1% of collagen a year. At first, the damage is so small, you can barely see it. But overtime, it starts to make a dent (literally!) in your skin and form wrinkles. By boosting the production of collagen, retinol helps your skin stay firm and prevents it from sagging.
Retinol also fights free radicals. Free radicals are the nasty little molecules generated by unprotected sun exposure, pollution, an unhealthy diet, smoking, and even natural metabolic processes like breathing. They destroy collagen, elastin, cellular DNA and all that good stuff that keeps your skin looking young. Retinol has antioxidant properties that are able to neutralise free radicals before they initiate their destructive chain reaction, keeping wrinkles at bay for longer.
Finally, retinol speeds up the skin’s cellular turnover, a fancy way of saying it helps skin exfoliate itself faster. As old, damaged dead cells leave their place to the newer, healthier ones hidden underneath, your skin looks smoother, brighter and softer. This alone makes your skin look younger.
Retinol For Acne: Does It Work?
Retinol is one of the best skincare treatments for acne. When a client with acne-prone skin comes to me, I always recommend she uses a retinol cream or serum every other night.
Unlike Benzoyl Peroxide and other anti-acne treatments, retinol can’t kill P.Acnes, the bacteria that gives you acne. Instead, it works by speeding up cellular turnover, the skin’s natural exfoliating process. Let me explain.
Your skin is perfectly capable of exfoliating on its own. But when you have acne, it doesn’t do this job well. Dead skin cells stay on the surface of your skin and fall into your pores, where they mix with excess sebum and dirt, causing acne and breakouts.
By speeding up the natural rate at which skin exfoliates itself, dead cells are removed from the surface of your skin faster. Once they’re off your skin, they can’t get into your pores and cause breakouts.
Keep in mind that retinol is only one of the weapons in your anti-acne arsenal. It works, but it should be used with exfoliant salicylic acid and a spot treatment for best results. In severe cases, like cystic acne, you’ll need a more powerful retinoid, like Tretinoin.
Retinol For Acne Scars: Does It Work?
The jury is still out there on whether retinol helps with acne scars. Research suggests that:
- Prescription retinoids, like Tretinoin and Adapalene, can prevent pitted acne scars by blocking the inflammatory pathway that causes them.
- The retinoid tazarotene, at a 0.1% concentration, is as effective as micro needling at improving the appearance of pitted acne scars.
- Finally, 0.3% adapalene improves pitted acne scars after 24 weeks.
But, I couldn’t find any proof that the much gentler retinol can improve the appearance of pitted acne scars. Given how popular retinol is, if it really worked, we’d know by now.
Retinol For Dark Spots: Does It Work?
Retinol works for dark spots in the same way it works for acne: by speeding up the skin’s cellular turnover process. Let me explain how it works.
The dead cells on the surface of your skin are the most sun-damaged (obvs!) and darker. Your skin is perfectly able to exfoliate itself, but, as it gets older, it can’t do this job as well as it used to. As a result, those old and damaged dead cells tend to stay on your skin for longer than they otherwise would.
Enter retinol. By speeding up the skin’s natural exfoliating process, it helps remove that damaged outer layer and replace it with the brighter, more even-toned cells underneath. Repeat this process enough times and, eventually, dark spots fade away and your skin goes back to its beautiful original hue.
How Long Does It Take To See Results?
It depends on what concentration of retinol are you using. But, as a rule, you should be able to see a reduction in wrinkles within a few weeks.
A 2015 study shows that 0.1% retinol showed a “significant reduction in wrinkles” after 12 weeks. A more recent 2019 study found an improvement in crow’s feet and neck wrinkles after only 8 weeks. Be patient, this stuff works.
Does It Have Any Side Effects?
Retinol has a few side effects… (Come on, nothing is perfect). Here’s the recap:
- Sun sensitivity: Retinol can make your skin more susceptible to sun damage. Use it at night only. (Yes, you could use it during the day with sunscreen, AS LONG AS you reapply it religiously. Exactly. Night only it is).
- Irritation: Retinol can irritate your skin and make it flake at first. Start slowly and build it up gradually (I’ll tell you how in the next sections).
- May worsen acne: Retinol can help with acne but not with the red, sore and inflamed type of acne. If that’s why you have, retinol may make the inflammation worse.
- Not recommended during pregnancy/breastfeeding: Vitamin A causes birth defects in mice. No one has done a study on pregnant women (for obvious reasons), so we don’t know for sure if it has the same effects on humans. But, why take the risk?
Related: Which Skincare Ingredients Should You Avoid During Pregnancy?
Retinization: What You Need To Know About Incorporating It Into Your Skincare Routine
Retinoids, including retinol, are harsh on the skin. Your skin needs to get used to them before they can transform your skin, minimise wrinkles, fade away dark spots, and treat acne.
Retinization is the adjustment period in which your skin becomes used to retinol & co and learns to tolerate them. This process can happen slowly over a few weeks. How slowly depends on how sensitive your skin is, the type of retinol you’re using and its concentration.
For example, Granactive Retinoid is very gentle and unlikely to cause side effects. The retinization period here is almost non-existent. Tretinoin, on the other hand, is the most powerful and harshest retinoid. It can take up to six weeks of peeling and dryness for your skin to get used to it. Depending on how much retinol you’re using and how sensitive your skin is, you may experience retinization for 2-4 weeks after you introduce it into your skincare routine.
Can Retinol Cause Acne?
Retinol doesn’t cause acne. It causes purging. They look the same: angry and red pimples, white bumps on your skin and all kinds of breakouts. But, there’s a key difference (or two).
Acne happens when your skin produces too much oil. The excess gets stuck in your pores, where it mixes with dead skin cells and impurities, forming clogs that lead to whiteheads, blackheads, and pimples. Breakouts can happen anywhere on your skin and last for as long as you heal their root cause (comedogenic skincare products, out-of-whack hormones, a bad diet…).
A purge happens when you exfoliate skin. As you remove the superficial layers of skin, you uncover the whiteheads, blackheads, and pimples that were already forming underneath. In other words, retinol (and other ingredients with exfoliating and cellular-turnover properties) don’t cause acne. The acne was already there, forming deep into your skin. They just bring it to the surface sooner. A purge happens on the areas you usually breakout in, and lasts for up to six weeks. All the breakouts come to the surface at once, but after that you finally get clear skin. It’s tough (especially mentally), but it’s so worth it.
Can Retinol Make Wrinkles Worse?
Retinol does NOT cause wrinkles. But retinol can make wrinkles LOOK worse. Retinol is drying, especially when you first start using it. Moisture plumps up fine lines and wrinkles, making them look smaller to the naked eye. Of course, the effect is just temporary. Once the moisture evaporates, your wrinkles all still there. This is why Korean skincare is so obsessed with hydration. When skin has all the moisture it needs, it looks naturally younger.
The opposite is also true. When skin is dry and has no moisture, your skin shrivels like an old prune. Every line and wrinkle on your face is accentuated and looks worse. When you use too much retinol, or in a higher dose than your skin can tolerate, you’re drying out your skin making the wrinkles you already have look worse – but their depth and size hasn’t changed.
Cutting back on retinol and upping your moisturising game (always moisturise well after using retinol) helps your skin go back to its healthy, plumped self, so that your wrinkles look smaller. And, overtime, with regular retinol use, they’ll get smaller too.
Can You I Use Retinol When I’m Pregnant?
No. You should never use retinol when pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive. Animal studies show that Vitamin A (the family retinol belongs to) can cause birth defect. Now, these studies were done using high concentrations in mice. Humans are not mice and the concentration of retinol we’re using are much smaller, so the risk of birth defects in humans is highly unlikely.
But, for obvious reasons, we can’t do these studies on humans, so it’s best to err on the side of caution and stay away from retinol and all retinoids during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and when you’re trying to conceive. Now, if you’ve been using small concentrations of retinol before you found out you were pregnant, fret not. Many women have done so and had very healthy babies. I’d just stop using it from now on until you stop breastfeeding.
How Do I Incorporate Retinol Into My Skincare Routine?
Now you know what retinol is and does, how it compares to other retinoids, and are aware of potential side effects. If you still want to use it, here are the answers to all your questions about how to incorporate retinol into your skincare routine for maximum results and minimal irritation:
Who Can Use Retinol?
Everyone over 25 can and should use retinol for anti-aging. As I mentioned, that’s the best age to start using it to prevent and treat wrinkles. Retinol is also an excellent treatment for acne and dark spots, no matter what age you are.
The only exception is if you have sensitive skin (including rosacea and eczema) that can’t tolerate it. If retinol is too strong for you, opt for a time-released formula or use a gentler retinoid, like Granactive Retinoid. If even that is too much for your skin, retinol and retinoids are just not suitable for your skin.
Related: 8 Science-Backed Tricks To Make The Most Of Retinol (Even If You Have Sensitive Skin)
When Should You Start Using Retinol?
If you’re concerned about anti-aging, “your mid-twenties are a great time to start using retinol,” says Ellen Marmur, M.D. I personally started using it when I was 25 to fight crow’s feet. If you get there early, you considerably slow down the formation of wrinkles – or, at least, their size and depth.
Having said that, I don’t recommend retinol before 25. Until then, your skin has plenty of its own natural collagen and is perfectly able to exfoliate itself well on its own, so retinol is redundant.
Remember that retinol (and all forms of Vitamin A, for that matter) comes with side effects. If you don’t need its anti-aging properties yet, don’t irritate your skin unnecessarily. Using something you don’t need won’t give you better skin. It’ll only make you waste money and potentially cause more havoc on your skin than it’s worth it.
The only exception is that you have moderate to severe acne. In this case, adding retinol (or another retinoid) to your skincare routine helps you heal acne faster.
What Strength Should I Use?
You know how I always complain that, if an ingredient isn’t at the top of the list, it won’t do anything? That’s NOT the case with retinol. Even just a speck of it can do wonders for your skin. Seriously, as low as 0.01% can get the job done. Slowly for sure, but you know what they say: slow and steady wins the race.
You can always up your game later on, ladies. Here’s how:
- If you’re a beginner: Stick to 0.01%-0.3%
- If you’re an intermediate: 0.04%-0.1%
- If you’re a pro: 0.5%-2%
If you come across a product that uses more than 2%, I’d leave it on the shelf. It’s likely marketing hype. 2% retinol is VERY strong and can do some serious damage in the wrong hands. No brand who wants to keep its customers would use it.
What they do is say the serum contains a 2% retinol complex – that makes your brain think the serum has 2% retinol, when in reality, you have 2% of a mix of ingredients that also contains retinol (in a much smaller dose). Clever, huh?
In case you’re wondering, how do you know when you’re ready to up your game, and move from beginner to intermediate or intermediate to pro?
You’re ready to upgrade to a higher dose of retinol when the one you’re currently using doesn’t seem to work anymore AND your skin isn’t peeling, flaking or doing anything out of the ordinary.
Relate: Which Strength Of Retinol Should You Use?
How Often Can I Use Retinol?
That depends. Everyone is different. Some people will able to use it four or five times at week or even daily. For others, once a week may be more than enough. I recommend you start with twice a week. If that doesn’t bother your skin, try using it on three days. Then four. If your skin complains, scale back. You get the point.
I don’t recommend you use retinol daily, unless a dermatologist tells you so. Retinol is harsh and using it every day won’t necessarily give you the best results. It’s more likely to irritate your skin and dry out your complexion, so your wrinkles look worse. Everything in moderation.
How often do I use it? Every other night. I alternate it with glycolic acid, another superstar I’d rather use at night only.
Related: The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid: What It Is, What It Does, And How To Use It
In What Order Do I Apply Retinol?
Retinol needs to penetrate your skin in order to fight wrinkles. I recommend you apply it as close to clean skin as possible, preferably right after cleansing. Follow it up with a hydrating serum (like Hyaluronic Acid serum) and moisturiser. If you use other anti-aging actives, like Glycolic Acid or Vitamin C, use them at alternate times of day or on alternate days. For example, Vitamin C in the morning and retinol in the evening, and Glycolic Acid one night and retinol the following night.
Why Use Retinol At Night?
I recommend you use retinol only at night. Retinol boosts cellular turnover, helping skin exfoliate itself faster. The dead layers on the surface of your skin may make your complexion dull and rough, but they’re there for a reason: it’s a layer of protection against UV and environmental aggressors. Every time you remove a layer of dead skin cells, you’re making skin prone to sun damage. For this reason, it’s best to retinol at night only – and apply sunscreen generously in the morning.
How To Use It: Best Rules & Practices
I’ve already covered this in bits and pieces above, but here are the best rules and practices on how to use retinol in your skincare routine to treat wrinkles and acne – without the side effects:
- Start with a small concentration: The higher the dose, the most irritating it is. Start with the smallest dose you can find (0.01% or 0.03% is enough to work!) and slowly build concentration from there.
- Use it only twice a week: If you’ve never used retinol before, start with a couple of times a week to give your skin the chance to get used to it. Then, slowly increase frequency to every other day.
- Use it at night: Thanks to its exfoliating properties, retinol makes skin more prone to sun damage (ironic since it’s so good at healing sun damage, too!). For this reason, use it at night only – and wear sunscreen during the day.
- Don’t use it on exfoliation night: Exfoliation can be irritating for skin, too. When you exfoliate and use retinol on the same night, the risk of a negative reaction is higher. For best results, exfoliate and use retinol on alternative nights. This way, you’ll get all the anti-aging and anti-acne benefits without the irritation.
- Stop using it before you cosmetic treatments: If you’re planning of having skincare treatments like lasers, micro-needling, or microdermabrasion, stop using retinol at least 5 days before. These treatments are harsh on the skin – don’t overdo it.
- Use a time-released formula: These formulas release retinol into your skin slowly over a period of several hours instead of all at once. This means it hits your skin way more gently, reducing the risk of irritation. Anyone can use these formulas, but they’re an absolute must for sensitive skin that gets irritated easily.
- Apply it as close to clean skin as possible: Apply retinol straight after cleansing and before hydrating serums (like Hyaluronic Acid serums) and moisturisers, to give it the best chance of penetrating your skin.
- Wear sunscreen: Retinol makes skin more prone to sun damage. Even if you use it at night, wearing a high SPF every morning is a must.
- Use it on your body, too: Retinol isn’t just for the face. It can reduce wrinkles and treat acne all over your body as well as reducing the appearance of wrinkles and stretch marks. Just use it sparingly on your neck. The skin there is thinner and retinol can more easily irritate it.
What To Do When Retinol Stops Working?
Retinol doesn’t stop working. If you stopped seeing an improvement when using retinol, it means your results have plateaued. Let me explain.
Most people start using retinol when they have acne, dark spots, or the first sign of wrinkles – in other words, when your skin is in trouble. Retinol starts working its magic, so your acne, dark spots, or wrinkles start to fade away. Your skin gets better and then… it stays like that. No further improvement.
This means that retinol has worked. It has healed the problem and now is keeping your skin in top shape. Or, if the problem hasn’t disappeared completely, then the concentration of retinol you’re using has done everything it could and you need to up dosage.
But, here’s the thing: the goal is to keep your skin in top shape. Once you heal your skin condition and skin is at its best, even the most powerful actives will only keep it like that. Retinol gives you the best skin you can have at your age – it doesn’t turn the clock back 20 years!
Mix And Match: What Can I Use It With?
Retinol is an anti-aging powerhouse. Like all powerful ingredients, there are some actives that don’t work too well with it – and others that are a match made in heaven. Let’s take a look at some possible combinations and whether they’re effective and safe to use – or not:
Can I Use Retinol With Vitamin C?
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that fights free radicals, boosts collagen production, and brightens the complexion. Unlike retinol, it doesn’t reduce the wrinkles you already have. It only prevents new ones from forming. Like retinol, it helps skin look younger and fade away dark spots.
Rumour has it that you can’t use retinol with Vitamin C because they have different pHs. L-Ascorbic Acid, the pure form of Vitamin C, needs to be formulated at a pH of 3.5 to be able to penetrate skin. Retinol works better at a skin-friendly pH of 5.6. But, your skin’s natural pH is around 5.5 so as soon as you apply L-Ascorbic Acid, it needs to adjust to a higher pH anyway. In other words, this is a NON-issue.
The real issue is that using retinol with Vitamin C can be irritating, especially if you have sensitive skin. For this reason, I recommend you use a Vitamin C serum during the day and retinol every other night.
Best Vitamin C Serums:
- Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum ($80.00/£67.00): This CEF serum contains marula oil to moisturise dry skin, but that gives it a slightly sticky texture. Available at Cult Beauty, Sephora and SpaceNK
- Paula’s Choice C15 Booster ($49.00): A powerful CEF serum that brightens skin and fights premature aging. Available at Sephora, Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice
- Skinceuticals CE Ferulic ($166.00): The original CEF serum, it’s still the gold standards on the market to prevent wrinkles, boosts sun protection, and brighten the complexion. Available at Dermstore
Can You Use Retinol With AHAs (Glycolic Acid) and BHA (Salicylic Acid)?
AHAs and BHA are two families of exfoliants. They all work in the same way: they dissolve the glue that holds skin cells together, so they can slough off and reveal the brighter and smoother skin underneath. But each member of the AHAs and BHA family goes an extra mile:
- Glycolic acid: The smaller member of the AHAs family, it also hydrates skin and helps fade away dark spots. It’s ideal for dry and sun-damaged skin.
- Lactic acid: The gentlest member of the AHAs family, it’s very hydrating. It’s most suitable for sensitive skin that can’t tolerate other exfoliants.
- Salicylic acid: A BHA, it’s oil-soluble. It can penetrate the lipid layer of skin, get inside your pores and unclog them from within. It gets rid of blackheads, whiteheads, and acne. It’s a must-have for oily and acne-prone skin.
You do need one of these exfoliants in your skincare routine. But you should never use AHAs or BHA with retinol. Not on the same night. Retinol speeds up your skin’s natural exfoliating process, so adding another exfoliant is too much and can dry out and irritate skin. Instead, pick one AHAs or BHA and use it on alternate nights.
Best AHAs and BHA Picks:
- Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00): This exfoliant contains Salicylic Acid to remove blackheads on your nose and Glycolic Acid to brighten the complexion. Available at Cult Beauty, Sephora and SpaceNK
- Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00): The texture’s a little sticky, but if you can tolerate that, it’s one of the best treatments for whiteheads (and all other types of acne). Available at Dermstore, Look Fantastic and Paula’s Choice
- The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution (£6.80): A gentle, no-frills Glycolic Acid exfoliant for people on a budget. Available at Beauty Bay and Cult Beauty
- The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA 2% ($6.79): A simple exfoliant with 5% Lactic Acid to exfoliate sensitive skin. It’s hydrating too. Available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and The Ordinary
Can You Use Retinol With Niacinamide?
Yes! Yes! Yes! Retinol with Niacinamide is a match made in heaven! Niacinamide is a form of Vitamin B3 that does everything: it hydrates skin, fights wrinkles, treats acne, fades away dark spots, and soothe skin.
When you use retinol with niacinamide, you supercharge its anti-wrinkle, anti-acne, and brightening properties to fade away the signs of aging, breakouts, and dark spots faster. Plus, niacinamide is very soothing, so it counteracts the drying effects of retinol.
Best Niacinamide Products:
- Paula’s Choice Resist 10% Niacinamide Booster ($42.00): One of my fave skincare products, it’s enriched with Vitamin C and antioxidants to prevent premature aging. Plus, it makes your pores invisible. Available at Dermstore, Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice
- The Inkey List Niacinamide ($6.99): A simple, no-frills niacinamide formula that hydrates and soothes skin. Available at Cult Beauty, and Sephora
- The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% ($5.00): It also has zinc to absorb excess oil. But it can be drying. This is only for very oily, acne-prone skin. Available at Asos, Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and Sephora
Can You Use Retinol With Hyaluronic Acid?
Yes! Hyaluronic Acid is a humectant: it attracts from the environment and binds to your skin up to 1000 times its weight in water! All that moisture makes your skin very happy: it makes it softer and smoother, gives it a lovely glow, and plumps up fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol can be drying, so using it with hydrating hyaluronic acid can counteract some of that dryness. For best results, apply retinol first and hyaluronic acid second.
Best Hyaluronic Acid Serums:
- La Roche Posay Heal B5 Hyaluronic Acid Serum (£27.75): A simple, no-frills Hyaluronic Acid serum to hydrate skin and soothe irritation. Available at Sephora and Look Fantastic
- Niod Multi-Molecular Hyaluronic Acid (£25.00): This baby contains 15 forms of Hyaluronic Acid to hydrate every layer of skin. It’s the most hydrating serum I’ve ever tried. Available at Beauty Bay and Cult Beauty
- Paula’s Choice Resist Hyaluronic Acid Booster ($34.00): It contains Hyaluronic Acid to hydrate skin and ceramides to create a protective barrier that keeps moisture in. Available at Dermstore, Nordstrom, Paula’s Choice and Selfridges
What Are The Best Products?
There are sooooo many retinol products out there, so how do you pick the right one for you? In this section, I share my fave retinol serums and lotions for every need:
What Are The Best Retinol Serums For Beginners?
If you’ve never used retinol before, these are the gentlest products to begin your journey with:
- Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum With Retinol ($34.00): A gel formula with 0.03% retinol and every antioxidant under the sun to treat and prevent wrinkles. Ideal for oily skin. Available at Paula’s Choice
- Paula’s Choice Skin Recovery Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum with Retinol ($34.00): A silky serum with 0.01% retinol and every antioxidant you can think of to treat and prevent wrinkles. Ideal for dry skin. Available at Paula’s Choice
- The Ordinary Retinol 0.2% In Squalane (£4.20): A gentle 0.2% retinol serum in an oily, moisturising base that counteracts the drying effects of retinol. Available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty, Sephora, The Ordinary and Ulta
What Are The Best Retinol Serums For Wrinkles And Acne?
- Paula’s Choice Resist Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum ($42.00): A medium-strength 0.1% retinol serum infused with antioxidant to prevent premature wrinkles. Available at Sephora, Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice.
- Skinceuticals Retinol 0.3 Night Cream ($62.00): A medium-strength 0.3% retinol cream that packs an anti-aging punch. It reduces wrinkles and fades away dark spots. Moisturise well afterwards. Available at Dermstore.
- Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster ($52.00): A high-strength 1% retinol booster you can use alone for maximum effect or mix with your moisturiser to make it gentler. Available at Dermstore, Sephora and Paula’s Choice.
- Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM ($65.00): A high-strength 1.5% retinol to fade away wrinkled and dark spots. Lightweight, it’s one of my fave formulas out there. Available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and Sephora.
What Are The Best Retinol Eye Creams?
I don’t recommend you use a retinol eye cream. You can totally use retinol on the under-eye area to fight crow’s feet, but you don’t need a separate retinol eye cream. Your facial retinol serum will do just fine. Just keep in mind the skin under your eyes is thinner and more sensitive than the skin on the rest of your face. To maximise results and minimise the risk of irritation, apply your facial serum all over your face and then pat what’s left of it on your fingers on the under-eye area.
What You Need To Know Before Going Shopping
Retinol degrades quickly when exposed to light and air. Avoid retinol products that come in jars. Every time you open the lid, retinol loses a bit of its effectiveness. It won’t become useless in a couple of days, but you do want to last for as long as possible. For the same reason, avoid products that come in see-through bottles. Instead, opt for products that come in opaque, air-tight tubes and bottles that protect the retinol inside from light and air and keep it effective for longer.
The Bottom Line
There’s a reason why derms consider retinol to be the gold standard of anti-aging. It works. Add it to your skincare routine and you’ll always look your best. Bye bye wrinkles!
What would be a better alternative to spot treat red inflamed acne in your opinion? Sulphur? Benzoyl Peroxide?
Renato, both work well, as long as you apply them only on the affected area. They’re too strong for an all over application imo.
Hello! Thank you for your article! It was very informative for me who is just at the beginning. I’m a 23 years old “girl”, with some fine lines near eyes and lips, and I wanted to ask you if I should use retinol now or only after 25? If the answer is yes, how often should I use the lowest percentage of retinol(or retinoid) and how long? When do I know that I need to go higher? Thank you for your answer! Have a nice day 🙂
Renata, if you’re already experiencing fine lines, you can start using it now. Check out this post for the best picks for beginners: https://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/strength-retinol-need/
Yay to retinol!!!! So I´m using The Ordinary once a week and I think at first it was too strong, but after two weeks it´s OK. The first week was also mess. But I feel guilty because I´m a beginning and I started with that (2%) instead of 0,2%! But it is very gentle and I like the texture.
Barbara, sorry it gave you trouble at first. I found it very gentle but maybe it’s partly because my skin is used to retinol. Once yours will be too, you’ll be in for a treat. It makes your skin look so much better.
Would you recommend someone in her mid 20s to try The Ordinary’s 2% Advanced Retinoid as her first retinol product if she has sensitive (eczema-prone & rosacea-prone) skin? I have been eyeing different retinol products but seems like this HPR (hydroxypinacolene retinoate) is the gentlest product around these days, according to some studies. I’m torn between HPR and retinaldehyde products from Avene too. Everyone says Avene’s retinaldehyde products are so gentle and as usual they’re geared more towards people with sensitive skin who are horrified by the thought of implementing Vitamin A derivatives into her routine. The Ordinary’s price point is so crazy affordable, though, when compared to Avene.
Audrey, to be honest, I’d go with Avene. The Ordinary serum contains HRP AND retinol. If your skin is sensitive AND not used to retinoids, it may be too much. Or you could try a serum with retinol. Paula’s Choice has several and the amount of retinol in them is fairly small.
Or, you could try applying the serum on top of our moisturizer. This is not something I usually recommend because it dilutes their effectiveness. But I know Dr Sam Bunting recommend this to her patients with sensitive skin, so you may want to try it.
Whatever you decide to do, always patch test first!
Thank you so much for your kind advice 🙂 I will definitely try Avene first because it’s the only brand that my sensitive skin always tolerate and love.
Let me know how you like it. 🙂
Great article as always! I ‘m thinking about buying Paula choice soon because I have wrinkles on my forehead between my brows. I got Botox before but now they’re back again. thank you for the great information.
Adia, my pleasure. Let me know how you like it if you try it.
Ordered this after reading your post and it’s arrived today, can’t wait to try it! X
Ema, let me know how you like it.
By the way, LOVE your blog name. 🙂
Hi Gio. What strength of retinyl palmitate do you suggest?
AM, retinyl palmitate is a lot weaker than retinoid so you could start with a higher concentration. But most products only have a small amount, so I wouldn’t worry too much about concentration.
I saw this guide to use retinol 2 nights in a row then an exfoliant then 2 nights in a row of retinol again then moisturizers. Is this a good guide? Also, how do you include a hyaluton acid there? How long should you wait for each application?
Crissy, it is a good guide if your skin is already used to retinol. If you’re new to it using retinol twice a week is more than enough.
You can definitely add a hyaluronic acid serum if you feel like your skin needs more moisture. I’d put in after the retinol but before moisturizer.
Wait until each product has fully absorbed. 🙂
I love your post! Found you totally by accident because I was searching for reviews on Eucerin. Im gonna go check your other posts now. I love that the way yoi write is targeted to the layman 🙂 Keep it up! Lovelove!
Sophie, thanks so much for your kind words. Hope you enjoy the rest of the blog and to see you here often. 🙂
Hi! I absolutely love this blog. I have been nothing but reading it all in the past few days. I’m obsessed with skin care and love to have an in depth understanding of the ingredients, have you ever come across the mad hippie range? I have been reading so much about it and I love the philosophy of the brand. It’s natural, vegan and uses clean energy, and they explain all their ingredients on the website and it looks like they are packed with active antioxidants, I just bought the vitamin A and C serums and I’m so impressed so far,
Rosanne, thanks so much for your kind words. So glad to hear you are enjoying my blog. 🙂
I haven’t tried the Mad Hippie range yet, but I definitely want to. I’ve had a look at the ingredients and they are all very well formulated. Those serums should do wonders for your skin. 🙂
Your articles are really helpful, it’s a true mine of information!
I use Retinol(0.3%) since literally a few days. Surprised with effects- visibly smaller pores just after 1st use! I started having oily chin, so will take a few days break, but I have a different problem now…
I am just about to start my night shift job. Can I use it during a day when I will be sleeping? Or would you rather advise me to use it during a night while working? I work 22pm-6am, so there will be a daylight when leaving work.
I have white blind that will protect my room from the sun but not from the daylight.
Will Retinol be working fine if used during a day? I’ve read that it’s not active if exposed to daylight, as Retinol is light-sensitive, is this a truth?
What would you recommend me to do? Use it during a day or during a night?
Alex, I’d recommend you use it during the night and put on your sunscreen before leaving for work. You can use it during the day too but you really need to be religious with sunscreen then and reapply it often.
Hi Gio! I just discovered your site and I love it—deciphering beauty products is so hard these days. I am also succeptible to nice branding/packaging ?oops. I found your site trying to figure out the best way to gently exfoliate my face after using retinol. I use a retinol cream by Body Merry (I’d be curious to hear what you think of this company!) and even after 6 months of use I get lightly flaky, which makes my BB cream look gross in my skin. I’m leaning towards a glycolic acid wash and am looking into the The Ordinary brand you recommended. Am I on the right track?
Leighes, I hear ya, pretty packaging is so tempting! I admit I had never heard of Body Merry before but I’ve checked out their website and the retinol serum is good. Retinol is pretty high on the list, though, so I’m not surprised to hear you’re experiencing flaking. Are you using it every day? If so, cutting back to three times a week may be a good idea.
Exfoliating your skin is a good idea but alone won’t be enough to counteract the dryness of retinol. So you either use retinol less often or you up your moisturising game. You can, for example, try a hyaluronic acid serum or a light oil after the retinol.
As for exfoliation, a glycolic wash is a great start but I don’t think The Ordinary makes one. Their gentlest exfoliating option is Lactic Acid 5%, which would go well with the retinol. Hope this helps.
What do you think of ROC retinol products? The only one available over the counter in Morocco (where I live) that’s why I’m asking. 🙂
Your article was so helpful to understand retinol.. thank you!
Youmna, glad my article helped you. 🙂
I think ROC products are very basic in the sense that they contain retinol and little else. Usually, I prefer products that also have other antioxidants. But they have enough retinol to do the job so if that’s all you have access to, go for it.
Hi there! Just stumbled on your site as I’m experiencing major hormonal, cystic acne once I got my cycle back after having my son. Skin was perfectly clear pregnant and nursing, now not so much :-/ was wondering why you didn’t recommend any retinal products in this post…? I formerly used tretinoin (Atralin), then since having babies i didn’t use. I’d use again but it’s formulated with mineral oil and parabans, so I’d like to avoid those. My new facial gal put me on Clarify by Osmosis (which uses retinal), and while it’s helping a bit, I think we need to go stronger. I’d be interested to know what products you’d recommend specifically for hormonal, cystic acne, especially whether you’d recommend retinal vs retinol (or retinoic acid). Also looking at Marie Veronique’s Treatment + Kristina Holey’s line, Arcona’s acne products, and few others that are less expensive (Mad Hippie, Instanaturals, etc). Just want to make sure that’s the ingredients and formulations are top quality!
Knichol, I didn’t mention retinal because so few products still use it, but I’ve noticed this is changing lately. I wouldn’t go with Arcona because their products are loaded with alcohol but Marie Veronique + Kristina Honey Treatment should be good for your skin type. It doesn’t have retinol but it uses salicylic acid, which exfoliates skin and helps clear breakouts. Instanatural retinol serum is good too.
I have a question: I use glycolic acid and azelaic acid on different nights because one is not supposed to mix acids, correct? I would like to start using Retinol after summer. When should I use it? Should I start a routine for three days? Or is it possible and safe to mix two of these acids? I also apply hyaluronic acid but this one, I know, can be mixed with any of the above.
Helena, yes you can use azelaic and glycolic acids together.
Hi gio! Gr8 article as always! I ws wondering how do i incorporate niacinamide, vitamin c, aha, bha and retinol(beginner) in my morning nd night skincare routine? M 22 yrs old wid sum fine lines nd i want to prevent dem frm getting deeper. Plz help! Skincare can be so cnfusing sumtimes..phew*
Naomi, glad you enjoy the article. Do you really need AHA and BHA? They’re both exfoliants so choose the one that suits your skin type better. If you’re oily or acne prone, use salicylic acid. Otherwise, glycolic acid is your best bet. You can exfoliate a couple nights a week right after cleansing. I’d recommend you start using a low dose retinol a couple of nights a week too, on days when you don’t exfoliate. Check my guide here for the best retinol serums for beginners.
I don’t recommend you use exfoliants and retinol daily at your young age. Your skin is still healthy, can exfoliate on its own and has a lot of collagen still, so for now, you just need your skincare to give it a little helping hand. Contrary to what brands and magazines tell you, doing too much can actually backfire.
You can use vitamin C every morning right after cleansing and niacinamide every night. The easiest way would be to use a moisturiser with niaciamide (Cerave and Olay makes the best ones) or use Paula’s Choice Niacinamide Booster to add niacinamide to your fave moisturiser.
Hi Gio! I’ve been using The Ordinary’s Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion (Previously Advanced Retinoid 2%) for 4 months…two days on and one day off. I definitely need something stronger. You have such extensive knowledge with retinols/retinoids, so I would love it if you could recommend a few products that are higher in percentage than the current one I am using. I find it all a tad confusing. Thanks!
Christine, that product is already pretty powerful. If you need something stronger, Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Night serum has a higher concentration.
Hi Gio! You say: “If you’re a beginner: stick to 0.01%-0.3%”
I’ve been using Dr Dennis Gross Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Solution for almost a year… I guess I’m not a beginner any more, right?
Nati, only your skin can tell you that. Some people need to stick to low concentrations forever because their sensitive skin can’t take more than that. But yes, I’d say after a year, you can try the next level up. Just don’t go all the way to 1% yet!
HI Gio! I ordered Granactive retinoid 5% and Retinol 1% squalane then I realized that It might be strong the 1% Retinol. So I started with the Granactive retinoid 5% two weeks ago. Three weeks ago two times /week and I started to have small acne on my skin. The skin feels hydrated and daytime I am using SPF35 foundation from Dior forever and Clinique moisture surge creme.
I used to go for retinol treatment to my cosmetician 2times/ year.
Is it very common the acne appearance after using Granactive retinoid? Should I continue using it? I do not have wrinkles just dilates pores and few small scars from teenager acnee. I am 26 now.
Die, retinol can cause purging. Use it for 5 weeks and if after that, the acne hasn’t disappear, throw away the product. There may be something else in it that’s causing a breakout.
Hello Gio, I have been using The Ordinary retinols since last August starting with 0.2% in Squalane then 0.5%, then 1% and now I am almost finished 2% Retinol in Squalane. The next one I have is Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion but I read that this isn’t suitable for the eye area.Should I just keep using the 2% in Squalane around my eyes? After the Granactive Retinoid 2% in Emulsion could you advise me on what I should use after that. I am 60+ Thankyou . Iris
Iris, you mean you have almost finished Granactive retinoid 2% In squalane? The Ordinary does’t make 2% retinol as that’s very harsh for skin. Yes, you can upgrade to the emulsion next. I’ve used it around the eyes without problems, but if it’s too irritating for you, stick to the Granactive version.
Hy I wanted to know which product you recommend me for using retinol the first time? I’m 26 I’m very white (German bloodline) and also I have rosácea, I was trying to find a product with the 0,2-0,5 that you recommended and I find the Luna retinol sleep oil from Sunday Riley but you don’t mention it here, so I wanted to know it you recommend it for me or you prefer other products. Thanks!
Isabella, I’m not sure I’d recommend your retinol if you have rosacea. You may be better off with a gentler form of Vitamin A, like retinaldehyde. You can find them in Medik8 Crystal line.
Thank you for this info. I am 48 and a little late on the retinol wagon. I wish had started earlier. I have been using over the counter drug store brand for 7 weeks now and can start to see a different in brightness of my skin – before I felt was a bit dull. I also am having breakouts on both cheeks. Mostly tiny bumps coming to surface and some pimples as well. Which has not happened in years. I have read your articles and know this is a purge and will continue thru it. It has been going on for about the last 2-3 weeks. I also used in my neck and it appears to have almost what looks like a burn type red blotches. The skin has raised slightly and texture is odd. So obviously stopped using on neck. But wondering can you use retinol on neck? Or what would you recommend? At 48 I feel my neck starting to look little wrinkly and dry at times.
My other question is what makes non-drug store brands better? I started w Roc brand and now have nutregena and just received some Olay from a friend who didn’t want it. Are these brands bad? Should I toss and get other? I have had no issues using everyday morning and eve. Is that too much?
Fantasy, yes, you can extend your facial routine to your neck, retinol included. Keep in mind the skin on your neck is thinner, so it may not tolerate retinol as often.
You can check out this article for the difference between high-end and drugstore products: https://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/are-drugstore-products-as-effective-as-high-end-products/
Thank you for your great blog! It’s been very helpfull. I’m 24 years old and started using niaciamide, vitamin c (only morning), retinoid 0,5% from the Ordinary (evening only) and glycolic acid toner (the evenings I do not use retinoid) and some hydrating factors etc. Do you think this is too much for my age? These products have made my skin look very bright and better then ever. Nevertheless I was wondering if this might be to much and if I have been to enthousiastic. Please let me know! Thank you in advance!!