10 Retinol Tips Dermatologists Want You to Know

Photo Credits: Getty Images / Ada Summer

It's decidedly the gold-standard of anti-aging, but retinol can leave a lot of us confused (and not to mention, red and flaky). Here, top dermatologists share their number-one tip for using the age-reversing product to its full potential.

Set Proper Expectations
If you're new to retinol, know that mildly negative side effects are normal. "Although using a topical retinoid or retinol is great for our long-term skin health, many people may experience initial redness, dryness, and irritation associated with using these products," says Harrison, NY dermatologist Jennifer S. Kitchin, MD. One of the main ways to curb this irritation: timing out your usage.

It's All About Timing
"First-time retinol users should start slowly to minimize dryness and irritation," says Ocala, FL dermatologist Maren Locke, MD. Her recommendation: apply retinol once every three to four nights, then gradually increase as tolerated. Bannockburn, IL dermatologist Heather Downes, MD suggests using retinol every other night during the first month so your skin can gradually get used to it. "After that, you can increase to nightly use if your skin is tolerating it well."

Size Matters
You may get excited about applying the age-reversing ingredient all over your face, but in this case, less is definitely more. "Most patients want to plunge in and apply a large quantity of retinol to get a 'faster' result, but this will only lead to more irritation," explains Covington, LA dermatologist Christel Malinski, MD. Her instructions: a green pea–sized pump is all you need for a thin layer over the entire face.

Moisturize, Moisturize, Moisturize
Washington, D.C. dermatologist Sarika Snell, MD contends that two top complaints of retinol-using patients are flaking and dryness. The solution: moisturize right after applying the retinol, or, as Oklahoma City, OK dermatologist Adrienne Lam, MD suggests, create your own at-home "compound."

"Mix your retinol with moisturizer in the palm of your hand to make a 'custom compound,' and increase the ratio of retinol to moisturizer slowly over time," says Dr. Lam. For those with particularly sensitive skin, Dr. Kitchin recommends mixing the retinol with a calming moisturizer. Her favorites: Avène Cicalfate Post Procedure ($32) or Avène Tolerance Extrême Emulsion ($38). For those with blemish-prone skin, try mixing retinol with a hyaluronic acid serum, a combination Dr. Malinski says won't clog pores and also helps curb any irritation.

Practice Strength Training
If you've used retinol for a while now with no side effects, Dr. Malinski says to talk to your dermatologist about increasing your strength from a retinol to prescription-strength tretinoin or tazarotene.  "As tolerability to each strength is achieved, I advise my patient to level up for continued improvement in wrinkles and overall skin texture."

Choose Wisely
If it's time for a stronger retinol but you're afraid of how your already-sensitive skin will react, Wilmington, NC dermatologist Kendall Egan, MD offers up her top tip. "Prescription strength tretinoin is more effective than over-the-counter anti-aging products. For my sensitive skin patients (me too!), the tretinoin cream is less irritating than the gel."

Have Options
Just like we might swap out our summertime water-based gels for ceramide-rich creams in the winter, East Greenwich, RI dermatologist Caroline Chang, MD says having two different retinol concentrations on hand can be useful. "You might want to have a stronger retinol for humid summer months and lower concentration for winter months." This way, if you find your skin can no longer tolerate your usual percentage in the summer, you don't have to stop using it completely.

Know Your Hot Spots
You'll want to apply retinol to the entire face, "but always avoid the corners of the eyes, mouth, and nose as these areas are prone to irritation," says Westport, CT dermatologist Lauren L. Levy, MD.

Don't Forget SPF
Increasing your photoprotection is an absolute must for retinol-users. "Retinols reduce the thickness of the top layer of skin, making you more susceptible to sunburns," explains Chicago dermatologist Jordan C. Carqueville, MD. Her prescription: "Hats and sunscreen always!"

Patience Is Key
"When starting a retinol, realize that you’re not going to look like you got a facelift," says Dr. Chang, adding that you shouldn't get discouraged if you don't see results right away. "The results of glowing skin are subtle and take time. You will probably only notice the effects if you stop using it for a couple months because you’ll notice your skin looking dull and wonder what happened."

Orlando, FL dermatologist Allison Arthur, MD offers up a helpful reminder: "A retinoid is like a 401K. You won't see an amazing benefit right away, but years from now you'll be very glad you made the investment."