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10 Ways to Make Your Retinol Work Better

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10 Ways to Make Your Retinol Work Better featured image
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If you’re investing your time and money in retinol to improve your skin, you want to make sure you’re doing everything you can to get the best results. Luckily, experts say there are steps you can take to make your retinol work better. Dermatologists shared tips big and small about how to get the best results out of the powerful ingredient.

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Put it on when your skin is dry

Although you’re likely accustomed to putting your products on after washing your face, you shouldn’t do that with retinol. West Palm Beach, FL dermatologist Kenneth Beer, MD warned that if you use retinol within 20 minutes or so of washing your face, you’ll be more prone to adverse effects like dryness, redness and stinging. “To make your retinol work better, put it on when your skin is dry,” advised Dr. Beer.

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Buy quality products

Because retinol is highly powerful, you don’t want to buy untrustworthy products that either won’t work or will damage your skin. Dr. Beer suggested buying quality products with “high concentrations of active ingredients rather than products that look shiny.” Additionally, you should look for products that are designed to deliver a retinoid and avoid vehicles that don’t make as much sense, such as sunscreen. He suggested ScientificRx, which evolved out of his own practice. “It’s your face (and neck and chest and arms), so choose wisely,” he added.

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Start slow

It may be enticing to use strong retinol each day in the hopes that you’ll see results faster. However, Omaha, NE dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD warned that higher doses and daily application aren’t the right way to begin your retinol regimen. “There are varying strengths of retinol, and more isn’t always better. If you are new to using retinol, I recommend starting out with a gentle formula like PCA SKIN Retinol Treatment for Sensitive Skin and slowly work your way up to a prescription retinoid like Retin-A,” said Dr. Schlessinger.

Saddle Brook, NJ dermatologist Dr. Fredric Haberman suggested “using a pea-sized amount of retinol without rubbing and begin by using every third day for a week, then every other day for a week, then two days in a row and skip a day and then every night.”

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Use sunscreen with it

If you skip the sunscreen while using retinol, you’re not only putting the retinol at a disadvantage, but you could also be doing major damage to your skin. “The best way to help boost the benefits of retinol is to protect your results by consistently applying a daily sunscreen like EltaMD UV Clear SPF 46,” advised Dr. Schlessinger.

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Put it on first

New York dermatologist Orit Markowitz, MD advised that the best pearl of advice when it comes to retinol, or any active ingredient for that matter, is that it “needs to be the first item on your skin—not the last.”

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Pair it with the proper follow-up products

Retinol never acts alone, so be sure to use the right kind of products alongside it. “Adding a moisturizer or serum with ingredients like ceramides and lipids to your daily regimen can help keep skin more comfortable while it acclimates to retinol,” said Dr. Schlessinger. He recommended trying LovelySkin LUXE Lipid Drops ($57.50) with retinol to replenish the skin’s moisture barrier and SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2 Anti-Aging Cream ($130), which can help expedite your skin’s adjustment to retinoids.

Dr. Haberman said he likes to buffer retinol, “which is mixing retinol or retinoids with moisturizer to help skin adjust and prevent and reduce irritation.” He also suggested layering your retinol on top of a hydrating serum, such as hyaluronic acid.

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Find the right product for you

There are tons of retinol products out there, with more being developed every day, so picking one can be challenging. However, choosing correctly can make all the difference. Dr. Schlessinger said he feels that the best retinol is one that will get used, so you don’t want to grab something so strong that you’ll be turned off from using it. When looking for the perfect retinol, search for the right price point, the right potency and the right ingredients for your skin.

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Use it at night

“Retinoids break down quickly when exposed to sunlight. For that reason, it’s best to use a retinol product at night when skin repairs itself,” explained Dr. Haberman. “In general, anti-aging ingredients will be more effective if applied before bedtime,” he added. Dr. Markowitz also says retinol should be used in the evening. “In terms of the family of retinoic acid products like retinol, these are delicate compounds that can easily break down and are best used at night,” explains the dermatologist.

Applying retinol at night rather than in the morning can also help prevent sunburns. “Generally, retinols are used at night due to the concern that daytime use could lead to a sunburn. I find this somewhat overhyped but still recommend usage at night out of an abundance of caution,” says Dr. Schlessinger.

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Avoid products that could further irritate your skin

Retinols can irritate your skin, so avoid using anything that could exacerbate this, “such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or benzoyl peroxide that could lead to over-drying of the skin,” advised Dr. Haberman. “Retinol is fat-soluble, and AHAs are water-soluble, so they can actually block each other’s function.”

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Use vitamin C in the morning

Dr. Haberman suggests complementing your nighttime retinol use with some vitamin C in the morning, noting the nutrient pairs well with retinol and helps protect antioxidants.

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