The Top 5 Things to Know Before Starting Retinol

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Retinol is known as a skin-care superhero, but there are a few things to be mindful of before adding it to your routine. “Years of scientific studies prove its worth, as it has been shown to treat acne, fine lines, wrinkles, and pigmentation,” says New York dermatologist Charlotte Birnbaum, MD.

“Of course, there are a few caveats with retinol as overdoing it can lead to irritation, burning, and redness,” says Dr. Birnbaum. Here, what to know before starting your skin on the all-star ingredient—straight from the skin-care pros.

Start Slow

When it comes to applying retinol, less is more. “I recommend a pea-sized amount for the whole face. It is important to ease your skin into retinol as it takes time for your skin to build a tolerance to it,” advises Dr. Birnbaum.  

“Start with retinol once or twice a week to see if your skin reacts and gradually work up to every other day or three times a week. Your skin may get red or dry at first, but after a few weeks, that should stop,” contends New York dermatologist Marina Peredo, MD.

Dr. Peredo also recommends applying your retinol night, “after you wash your face, wait for about 20 minutes and apply a small amount to entire face avoiding the eyelids and delicate areas.”

Stay Hydrated

“I recommend [also] using hyaluronic acid to help plump up the skin and reduce fine lines. Be careful not to dry out your skin with toners and astringents,” says Dr. Peredo. For those with acne, “benzoyl peroxide can be used directly on a pimple but should not be used all over.” 

“Find a great moisturizer that you love and apply loads of it; your skin barrier needs help to recover.  Even if you have acne, the skin will do much better with moisturizing. Just use one that is acne friendly,” says Delray Beach, FL, dermatologist Dr. Janet Allenby.


Dr. Birnbaum contends that sun protection is especially important because “retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it is even more important to wear sunscreen. Of course, this is a given in any skincare routine!”

Adjust Accordingly

“Initially, for the first week, the skin may be fine or have a slight amount of irritation, reflected in redness or increased peeling, which means use less product or switch to every other day,” explains Dr. Allenby. If modifications are made, and there is still “too much irritation, the retinol may need to be stopped entirely until the skin seems normal and then can be reintroduced more slowly.”

It’s All About Patience

Keep in mind that results don’t happen immediately. “Improvement is usually not seen for several weeks. If you are going to see a change in the quality of your skin, it may take up to 3-4 months; this is how long it takes collagen to grow. The changes should be a decrease in fine lines, softening of the skin’s appearance, and an improvement in your pigment,” adds Dr. Allenby.

Choose Wisely

Not sure where to start? Consider these skin-perfecting picks from the pros.

ALASTIN Renewal Retinol ($55)
“ALASTIN Renewal Retinol delivers the critical benefits of retinol without the inflammation and irritation associated with some prescription formulas.” –Dr. Peredo

Skinbetter Science AlphaRet Overnight Cream ($125)
“I’m super sensitive myself and don’t tolerate the prescription version, Retinoids well.  My go-to retinol is Skin Better’s AlphaRet.” –Dr. Allenby

Obagi Nu-Derm System
“When I need a little more boost, I may have to up my system to the Obagi Nu-Derm system. It may cause a little more irritation, but then I can back off it.  Remember the skin is a living, dynamic organ. Treat it well, and it will pay you back in dividends!” –Dr. Allenby

Differin ($29)
“For more oily skin types, Differin is a great retinoid that is over-the-counter. For acne, I recommend discussing prescription-strength retinoids with your board-certified dermatologist.” –Dr. Birnbaum

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