What is Retinol? Your Beginner’s Guide to Using Retinol


We’ve all heard of the skincare ingredient retinol. But do you really know what retinol does? Curious about whether retinol could be a beneficial addition to your skincare routine? Great! You’ve come to the right place. Keep reading for your beginner’s guide to retinol, including what it is, its benefits and how to use it.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid derived from vitamin A. Rather than removing dead skin cells as many other anti-ageing and acne products do, the small molecules that make up retinol go deep beneath the epidermis (outer layer of skin) to your dermis. 


How Does Retinol Work?

Retinol has the inherent capability to increase the epidermal thickness or thickness of the topmost layer of your skin. It targets stress-induced oxidative damage that can cause the formation of wrinkles and sagging skin, reversing both on the surface level to help you maintain a youthful look.

Additionally, retinol can boost cell turnover, kick-starting collagen production, reducing fine lines and wrinkles. 

What Retinol Treats?

Retinol is primarily used to treat the following skin conditions:

  • acne
  • fine lines
  • wrinkles
  • age (sun) spots, freckles, and other signs of sun damage, sometimes called photoaging
  • uneven skin texture
  • melasma and other types of hyperpigmentation
  • large pores caused by acne, oily skin, or collagen loss

To achieve the best results from your retinol-containing skincare product, you must use it every day. It may take several weeks until you see significant improvements.

What Are The Side Effects Of Retinol?

Retinoids don’t work equally well on everyone. If you suffer from rosacea, eczema, or psoriasis, it’s probably best to avoid retinol since it can be too powerful on the skin that needs a gentle touch – it can increase inflammation, dryness and sensitivity in already delicate complexions. Besides that, most people should be able to get on with it.

Applying retinol 30 minutes after washing your face may also reduce skin irritation. Another possible solution is to decrease the application every other day and gradually build up your skin’s tolerance to retinol before moving to daily use. Normally, the side effects only last for a couple of weeks while the skin adjusts to the ingredient. 

When Should I Start Using Retinol?

While there is no set time to use retinoids, most dermatologists advise introducing the ingredient into your skincare routine in your mid-twenties, particularly if you suffer from breakouts or pigmentation. It’s best to start with retinyl palmitate or retinol and try it for 3 months and then have a 3-month break. This is due to research that suggests cell turnover is no longer increased after 3 months of usage.  

Can Sensitive Skin Use Retinoids?

While every person is different, and no skincare advice is universal – yes. Most dermatologists agree that sensitive skin can be trained to tolerate retinol as long as it’s introduced and used properly. Try retinyl palmitate for sensitive skin. 

How Do I Apply Retinol?

It’s best to introduce a retinoid slowly but surely. Start with a tiny, pea-sized amount on one night, and then wait a few days to evaluate your tolerance. However, if the product makes your skin red and flaky, try mixing the retinol formula with your moisturizer. Use retinol once or twice a week at first to see how your skin reacts, and gradually work up to every other day or three times a week. 

Another key tip for using retinol is to incorporate it into your nighttime skincare routine only, as it makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight.  

How Long Does Retinol Take To Work?

Retinol affects the skin in deeper layers and will change how your skin cells develop; these changes are happening even if you don’t see it on the surface. The rule of thumb is about 3-6 months or a minimum of twelve weeks before you say that it’s not working for you.

The Best Way To Pick A Retinol

Pick a formula with at least 0.1% retinol or retinaldehyde. The concentration of retinoid will determine how effective your product is. In general, if you’re using a retinol, you want to start at between 0.1 and 0.2% strength and build up to 1%.

You can work your way up to a stronger formula over time and as you finish your current formulas. 

Our Top Retinol Product Picks to Try Now

Skinceuticals retinol 0.3%


Any skincare boffin knows that, when it comes to retinol, it pays to start small. This gentle serum is formulated with 0.3% retinol – an ideal level for beginners.


The Ordinary Retinol 0.2% in Squalane 

This water-free solution contains 0.2% pure Retinol, an ingredient that can reduce the appearances of fine lines, photodamage and general skin ageing.


Drunk Elephant A-Passioni™ Retinol Cream

Drunk Elephant

A clean, cutting-edge formula with 1.0% vegan retinol and superfood-rich ingredients to diminish the look of fine lines, wrinkles, and sun damage.


Sunday Riley Luna Retinol Sleeping Night Oil

Sunday Riley

A gentle, glow-giving retinoid night oil—perfect for new and experienced retinol users—that is balanced with blue tansy to calm skin while improving the look of wrinkles, redness, and pores.


Pixi Beauty

This potent youth-preserving tonic features a unique time-release Retinol to help rejuvenate the skin for a natural glow. Powerful Antioxidants and Botanicals replenish the skin for a smoother, softer appearance while soothing sensitive skin.


Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Retinol Eye Sleeping Mask
Glow Recipe

An eye sleeping mask formulated with avocado, encapsulated retinol, and coffeeberry to help brighten, depuff and treat the appearance of dark circles.


Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Facial Moisturizer


Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Facial Moisturizer penetrates deep into the skin’s surface layers. With Vitamin B3 + Retinoid complex, our proprietary formula delivers visible improvements in fine lines & wrinkles, smoothness, brightness, firming, dark spots, and pores. Plus, it hydrates for 24 hours!  This fragrance and dye-free moisturizer absorbs quickly and goes deep into your skin’s surface layers, so you wake up every morning to younger-looking, radiant skin.


Are you now effectively pumped and ready to use a retinoid? As with all skincare, there is no one size fits all formula, so take the knowledge from this post and continue to research to find what works for you. 

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Author: Urban Ladies

Urban Ladies is the leading female fashion, beauty and lifestyle digital magazine. It's a platform to empower ladies to be bold and different.

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