Everything You Need To Know About Using Retinol

Retinol is a very effective and popular skincare ingredient which everybody can benefit from using at some point in their life – it’s a multitasker, considered an effective treatment for acne, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone. However, it is a powerful active ingredient and should be used with caution, so it’s important to figure out exactly how to use it and whether it will benefit your skin. 

Scroll down for the lowdown on retinol.

How does retinol work? 

Retinol breaks down into retinoic acid upon contact with the skin, where it increases cell turnover and boosts collagen production. As we age, collagen and cell renewal slow down, leading to looser, thinner skin which is more prone to lines and wrinkles. Retinol helps to trigger cell regeneration and encourages new collagen to form. This plumps up loose skin, smooths out wrinkles and lines, and lightens areas of pigmentation, resulting in skin which appears smoother and brighter. The process of cell renewal is also beneficial if your skin is acne prone as it reduces the overproduction of sebum and prevents breakouts from forming by clearing dead skin cells and excess oils from pores. Likewise, as each layer of skin is renewed, scars and marks from sun damage or breakouts fade and soon disappear. 

Do I need a prescription to use retinol? 

You only need a prescription to obtain high-strength retinols. Retinols that are purchased ‘off the shelf’ are lower in strength so don’t require a prescription. That said, the strength of retinol you use is very important and depends on your skin’s type, concerns, and tolerance. 

What strength of retinol should I use? 

Because of the side effects associated with retinol, stronger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to this ingredient. You should always start with a low strength retinol and aim to build your usage up over time based on how your skin responds and what your skin’s needs are. 

Low percentages of retinol (0.01-0.03%) are still very effective at targeting signs of ageing, reducing pore size, and improving overall skin health. When used alongside other antioxidants (such as vitamin C) and SPF, it can also help skin to fight against environmental pollution. 

A medium-strength retinol (0.04-1%) will give you faster results but may come with more side effects. These strengths will quickly help to target uneven skin tone, rough texture, and loose or thin skin – especially when combined with antioxidants. 

High-strength retinols (0.5-1%) will give quick results to those with stubborn skin which may not have responded to lower percentages. Likewise, if your skin concerns are particularly bad (deep wrinkles, persistent acne, obvious pigmentation) you will likely benefit from a higher percentage. 

Why do I need to use SPF with retinol? 

Retinol can increase skin’s sensitivity to UV light, so you should always wear at least SPF30 every single day (even on cloudy days) when using retinol. Not only does sun exposure break down retinol structure and reduces its effectiveness, but the damage caused by UV light will worsen your skin concerns and render retinol application redundant. 

What are the side effects of using retinol? 

With retinol, the most common side effects are dry skin, peeling, flaking, and irritation. If you experience these side effects, then you should reduce usage of your retinol and consider using a lower-strength formula or buffering the retinol with a moisturiser. It’s important to moisturise well while using retinol to strengthen your moisture barrier and prevent this kind of reaction from happening (read more here).  

If your skin is breakout prone then you may experience ‘purging’ i.e. an excessive increase in breakouts as your skin adjusts to the retinol. You might worry that the retinol isn’t working for you, but in actual fact this is a sign that it is working. The purge occurs because the retinol speeds up cell turnover and brings out lurking build-up. 

How often should I use retinol? 

Start by using retinol 2-3 times a week then gradually increase to every other night and eventually (if needed) every night. If your skin becomes irritated then reduce the frequency. 

How should I apply retinol? 

If your retinol is a serum you should apply it to skin after cleansing and before moisturising. However, if your retinol is within a moisturiser then it would be the final step in your routine. If you have especially sensitive skin you may want to apply your retinol serum after your moisturiser – the cream will act as a buffer. Most importantly, retinol should always be applied at nighttime to reduce the chance of UV interference and give your skin a chance to recover while you sleep. 

Can I combine retinol with other active ingredients? 

It is recommended not to layer retinol with active ingredients like AHAs, BHAs, niacinamide, and vitamin C in the same routine as too many actives can cause skin irritation and contraindications. However, using these ingredients in combination can boost the anti-aging benefits of retinol. You could use retinol and acids on alternate days, or use vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night in order to benefit from both. 

Can I use retinol if I’m pregnant? 

It’s recommended to avoid all forms of retinol while you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Bakuchiol is often recommended as a natural and pregnancy-safe alternative to retinol as it works similarly to retinol and has many of the same benefits. 

Can I use retinol if I have sensitive skin? 

If you have sensitive skin then you should stick to a lower percentage of retinol, use it 2-3 times a week, and consider using a retinol cream instead of a retinol serum (the ingredient is usually less concentrated in a cream formula). You could also consider layering your retinol over moisturiser for the same buffering effect. 

How soon will I see results with retinol? 

You should expect to see results after around 8-12 weeks of consistent use.