complete retinol guide

Retinol is the turtle of skincare.

Silicones may get there first, filling those wrinkles in and making them look invisible in no time. But, a few short hours later, they desert you. You need another dose to pretend those wrinkles aren’t really there.

Retinol takes its time. A lot of time. A month in, it’s barely made a dent in those wrinkles. But, once it gets down to the job, those wrinkles slowly disappear. For real.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A.

Retinol itself doesn’t do much for your skin. 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. This is a two-step process:

Retinol ==> Retinaldehyde ==> Retinoic acid

What does that mean?

Well, the further away a form of vitamin A is from retinoic acid, the less powerful (but gentler!) it is.

That’s why you need a prescription for retinoic acid, but you can buy retinol OTC. Retinol works more slowly than retinoic acid, but it’s gentler on your skin. 

A good trade-off, don’t you agree?

Related: What Form Of Vitamin A Is Best For You?


Struggling to put together an anti-aging skincare routine that really reduces the look of wrinkles and gives your skin a youthful glow? Download your FREE “Best Anti-Aging Skincare Routine” to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):


What Does Retinol Do For Your Skin?

Retinol is a multitasking superhero that literally transforms the way your skin looks and feels. How?

  1. 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.
  2. It boost collagen: Collagen is the protein that makes skin thicker and firmer. Retinol prevents its breakdown and loss.
  3. It has antioxidant properties: It fight free radicals, the rascals that cause premature wrinkles and dark spots.
  4. Treats acne: By speeding up cellular turnover, it helps get rid of whiteheads and clogged pores.

Or, said more simply, retinol:

It basically makes your skin look better in any way.

Related: The Battle Of The Skin-Lighteners: Which Is The Best Alternative To Hydroquinone?

the ordinary retinol 1

Does Retinol Have Any Side Effects?

Well, there are a few… (Come on, nothing is perfect):

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

peter thomas roth retinol infusion pm night serum 01

Who Should Use Retinol?

Everyone over 25, unless you have sensitive skin. If you do, I recommend a gentler form of retinol, like retinyl palmitate. Or time-released (microencapsulated) retinol. And even that may be too much for some of you.

FYI, time-released means that retinol is delivered into the skin over a period of several hours rather than hitting it with full force upon application. It’s just as effective, but gentler on the skin.

You can start using retinol earlier, especially if you have acne. But retinol is, usually, on the pricier side, so this is something you can wait a bit longer before adding it to your skincare routine.

Just don’t wait too long! Yes, retinol can reduce wrinkles, but it usually takes 3 to 6 months to see a noticeable improvement. The deeper those wrinkles are, the longer it’ll take.

Related: 8 Science-Backed Tricks To Make The Most Of Retinol (Even If You Have Sensitive Skin)

What Strenth Of Retinol Should You 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 not dangerous, but it can be too harsh for your skin. Imo, high amounts of retinol (and yeah, anything more than 2% is high when it comes to retinol) should be prescribed by your derm.

But, how do you know when you’re ready to up your game?

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?

lixirskin night switch retinol 1% review

How Often Should You 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.

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

What Are The Best Products With Retinol?

WARNING! Retinol degrades quickly when exposed to light and air. Be smart and choose only products that come in opaque, air-tight tubes and bottles.

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!