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How to use retinol to drastically improve your skin’s health

How to use retinol

AP Buyline’s content is created independently of The Associated Press newsroom. Our evaluations and opinions are not influenced by our advertising relationships, but we might earn commissions from our partners’ links in this content. Learn more about our policies and terms here.

Micah Gause
Updated April 23, 2024

Retinol is the cornerstone of skincare routines everywhere and for good reason. Retinol helps optimize your skin’s natural functions, truly living by the “your skin, but better” idea. Like most skin treatments, though, retinol only works if you use it correctly. Whether you’re new to skincare or just haven’t found the perfect place for retinol in your skincare routine, read on to discover how to use retinol for the best results, according to the experts.

In a nutshell

Retinol is the alcohol form of Vitamin A. It is used to optimize your skin’s natural functions, such as regulating oil production and unclogging pores.

  • Retinol is a versatile skincare product that addresses many skin concerns.
  • Retinol works for most skin types (provided you apply proper skin protection daily).
  • If you’re just starting to use retinol, begin by applying once a week and gradually increase the frequency over time.

How does retinol work?

If you’ve ever wondered, “What does retinol do?” then you’re in luck because we’re here to shed some light on this popular skincare ingredient. “Retinol is a Vitamin A topical that stimulates the cells and helps enhance collagen production, which improves skin texture and tone. It may also help improve skin elasticity and reduce signs of aging,” shares dermatologist Dr. Michael I. Jacobs, associate professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College.

How to apply retinol the right way

Step 1: Cleanse your skin thoroughly and pat dry

The first step to applying retinol correctly is to start with clean, dry skin. Nichelle Temple, licensed esthetician and founder of Inderma Studio, recommends using a gentle cleanser, patting your face dry and then applying your retinol product.

Step 2: Apply a pea-sized amount and massage into the skin

Temple continues, “Take a pea-sized amount and dot it to your cheeks, forehead, chin and nose. Avoid sensitive areas like eyes, nose creases and lip corners. Gently massage retinol into the skin.”

Step 3: Wait for the retinol product to absorb

Temple recommends waiting a few minutes for the retinol to absorb into the skin. This will help you avoid sensitizing your skin.

Step 4: Apply moisturizer or SPF

If you apply your retinol at night (highly recommended for beginners), apply a moisturizer after the retinol product. If you apply retinol in the morning, follow up with an SPF. Retinol can make skin more photosensitive so it’s important to use proper sun protection.

Benefits of using retinol

According to Jacobs, these are the primary benefits of using retinol:

  • Reduces signs of aging.
  • Promotes collagen production.
  • Improves texture and tone.
  • Improves skin elasticity.
  • Minimizes pore size.
  • Can help fade dark spots or scars.

Temple adds that “it normalizes the skin cell functions.” When our skin doesn’t shed dead skin cells and regulate oil production, it can lead to acne breakouts. Retinol helps skin perform more optimally to achieve glowing, healthy skin.

How often should I add retinol to my skincare routine?

“Start low and go slow: It can be introduced one time per week for your first week, two times per week during week two, and so on (up to nightly use),” says Temple. “However, not everyone can tolerate nightly use. Watch your skin for any sign of sensitivity, such as irritation, flaking, redness and purging. Move at a speed that is comfortable for your skin. Typically, retinoic acid is only safe in the fall and winter months, and at night. There are daily/year-round, skin-friendly forms, such as retinyl palmitate.”

The AP Buyline roundup

There are many retinol options on the market at varying price points, making it an accessible, affordable way to improve skin appearance and health. Combined with SPF, retinol could be your key ingredient in maintaining skin integrity. If you want to get started, but still have questions, make an appointment with a licensed esthetician or board-certified dermatologist.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

What is the retinol sandwich method?

The retinol sandwich method is used to minimize irritation from retinol use. With this method, apply a thin layer of moisturizer before and after retinol.

Can all skin types use retinol?

Temple advises, “Forms such as retinyl palmitate, retinyl propionate, retinyl acetate, retinol or retinaldehyde can be tolerated by different skin types.”

Jacobs adds that you should “start with a lower concentration of retinol, especially if you have sensitive skin.”

What should I avoid with retinol?

“Do not use it if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, and avoid combining it with multiple products to prevent any redness or irritation,” advises Jacobs.

Temple adds that you should avoid skipping SPF. “SPF is an absolute must. If you are not in the habit of applying SPF every single day, retinol is not for you.”

Should I put anything on my face before retinol?

Experts recommend applying retinol to clean, dry skin, unless you’re using the sandwich method to minimize irritation.

Can I put retinol under my eyes?

Most experts agree you should avoid applying retinol under your eyes. The skin is far more delicate in the under-eye area, the crease areas around the nose and the corner areas of the mouth.

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AP Buyline’s content is created independently of The Associated Press newsroom. Our evaluations and opinions are not influenced by our advertising relationships, but we might earn commissions from our partners’ links in this content. Learn more about our policies and terms here.