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How to Use Retinol—Your Derm-Approved Guide

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Hot take: The start of a new calendar year may feel arbitrary. The same goes for Setting Resolutions. Can you really be a different person when the clock strikes the new year at midnight? I’ve found that it doesn’t happen immediately. Setting small daily goalsIt actually works. So instead of trying to overhaul everything at once, I use the “new year, new me” fervor to get back into the Routines and habitsI know that makes me feel the best. What is on my list of goals for 2024? How about cooking more at home? Get my steps in, and commit myself to my skincare routine. And as far as that final intention is concerned, number one on my list is *actually* learning how to use retinol.

It is important to start my day with skincare. It reminds me that I need to take time for myself, and reinforces my belief that daily action will yield long-lasting results.

Retinol is the ingredient that I have found to be the most effective in changing my life. The vitamin A derivative, retinol, is highly regarded by dermatologists and beauty experts for its effectiveness in achieving real results. If this is the year you finally start using retinol in your skincare routine, then you’ve found the perfect expert-approved guide.

Image by Teal Thomsen

How to Use the Retinol: Ins and Outs

Retinol is one of the most potent products in your medicine cabinets. But only if it is used correctly. There’s the possibility of an initial purge (when your skin releases all of the built-up toxins at the beginning of your retinol journey, causing breakouts). Consistent use will yield extraordinary results.

It is not enough to apply any retinol product. Many people use retinol in the wrong way, causing irritation. They then stop using it before it can do its magic.

Retinol Red Flags

  • Jumping in too quicklyIt is a great step to add to your routine but if you do it too quickly or too hard, your skin will be irritated.
  • Neglecting moisturiser Your skin will be going through a lot—moisturizer keeps it nourished and prevents irritation.
  • Ignoring SPFRetinol makes skin extra sensitive to sunlight. Protect it.
  • Inconsistent use. Retinol only gets results if you’re consistent with your routine.
  • Quitting too early is a mistake. Don’t be afraid of the purge! Retinol will reward you for your patience if you take it slowly.
Inge Theron headshot.
Image by Teal Thomsen

Meet the Expert Dr. Nancy Samolitis

I spoke with a retinol expert to help you avoid these mistakes and get the most from your retinol routine. Dr. Nancy Samolitis, a board-certified dermatologist. Dr. Samolitis, a retinol enthusiast, encourages those who are interested in retinol to start slowly, choose high-potency products and even try skin-cycling.

Dr. Nancy Samolitis

Dr. Nancy Samolitis MD, FAAD

Dr. Nancy Samolitis, a Board Certified Dermatologist with specialized training and experience in cosmetic dermatology, is a Board Certified Dermatologist. She is not only a dermatologist, but also the co-founder and owner of Facile Dermatology + Boutique, where she specializes on cutting-edge treatments to treat sun-damaged, anti-aging skin.

Skin cycling was a viral trend on TikTok. But unlike some ephemeral trends, this one is dermatologist-approved. Skin cycling is a great way to build retinol’s tolerance. You can also get supercharged results by switching between retinol at night, chemical exfoliants and hydration.

An example of skin cycling might look like this:

  • Night 1: Exfoliation Prep skin with your favorite chemical exfoliant by sweeping away dead skin cells. This allows retinol deeper penetration into the skin.
  • Night 2: Retinol.Apply retinol the second night, along with moisturizing ingredients.
  • Nights 3 & 4: Recovery.Spend two nights away from actives and load up on ceramides. antioxidants, hydrating agents, and barrier-building ingredients.
Applying skincare.
Image by Belathée Photography

Retinol: The Basics

Dr. Samolitis explains the benefits of retinol. Prepare for the best-looking skin of your life with her tips.

Who should use retinol?

Retinol is recommended for anyone who suffers from acne or wants the anti-aging effects. Even people with sensitive or irritable skin can develop a tolerance for the irritation.

Who should avoid retinol?

Retinol should not be used by people with active eczema or rosacea or skin that has been damaged from a procedure or treatment. Women who are pregnant or nursing should also avoid using retinol, as its safety is not known. 

How to use Retinol to get the best results

I have personally used retinol for almost 25 years. Most studies have been done on daily usage, so the benefits will be more pronounced. When you start out or if you have dry or itchy skin, it’s important to use retinol less frequently. 

Image by Teal Thomsen

How can skin cycling help you on your retinol journey

Skin cycling is a great way to ease into the use of potentially irritating skin care products such as retinol or exfoliating acid. In this regimen, each ingredient is used for one full day. Then you give your skin a short break by using only moisturizer for several days. If you are already using retinol on a daily basis, there’s no reason to switch over to skin cycling because the benefits and efficacy of your product will be reduced. 

What is the best way for you to incorporate retinol?

I recommend applying a pea-sized quantity on clean skin, followed by a moisturizing cream as needed. The product itself is sensitive to UV light, so that’s why the nighttime application was originally recommended. 

What skincare ingredients pair with retinol well?

Niacinamide, my favorite ingredient with retinol, is a great complement. NiacinamideHas a calming and anti-inflammatory effect, so it helps reduce any irritation. Both have amazing anti-aging benefits, which have been proven by medical studies over the years. 

How do you choose the right retinol for you?

Ask your dermatologist if he or she can help you choose the retinol product that is best for your skin. If you’re looking to start out with OTC retinols, opt for a medical-grade formula. Many OTC retinols use a very low strength of retinol to increase tolerance, but this can lead to the loss of beneficial effects. 

Washing face in mirror.

The Best Retinol for Glowy and Ageless Skin

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