How to use retinol in your skincare routine

Is retinol right for me and my skincare routine? 

Retinol is known as a “holy grail” ingredient and one of the best products to use to improve the look of fine lines and wrinkles. It’s proven to help the signs of aging, improve skin texture, treat acne, reduce pigmentation, and prevents collagen breakdown, but it’s also one of those ingredients people don’t quite understand. So, what is retinol and should you use retinol in your skincare routine? Here’s what you need to know:

There are different types of retinoids

Retinol refers to a specific version of retinoids, which are chemical compounds derived from vitamin A, and used as topical treatments.

  • Retinol is a non-prescription retinoid and requires skin enzymes to convert it into a version that the body recognizes, called retinoic acid. Studies have shown that retinol can be just as effective as retinoic acid, but requires more time for visible results (it’s also less irritating and more gentle on the skin). You also want to use a ‘clean’ retinol (read on for more about this). 
  • Prescription level retinoids, like Retin-A, contain retinoic acid and therefore skip the conversion process getting to work on your skin immediately. This means you see quicker results. That said, Retin-A also causes the most irritation and dryness after use. 
  • Retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate are common derivatives of retinol and are the most gentle, but also weaker and less effective. 

How do you use retinol in your skincare routine? 

You need to consistently use retinol to see results

Since the body requires time to process retinol into the active form of retinoic acid, it’s important to use retinol consistently to see results (1-3 months). Experts agree though, retinol can be just as effective as Retin-A when it’s in the optimal concentration of about 1-2%.

Note: Many skin creams that advertise retinol or weaker retinoids, include only small amounts of the active ingredient. If you want to see visible results, you need to use a product where retinol is the primary active ingredient.

Protect your skin when you use retinol

Cellular turnover increases when you use retinol, which is one of its many benefits! As a result this “new skin” is more sensitive to the sun. Retinol also oxidizes in the sun and make it inactive, so always wear sunscreen while using it. It’s also important to moisturize well to offset any irritation and dryness that may occur.

Use sunscreen when you use retinol in skincare routine

Should you use retinol every night in your skincare routine? 

It’s important to go easy when starting to use retinol. Start by using it on clean, dry skin 1-2 nights per week, and move up to every other night. Your skin will eventually adapt to the retinoic acid, and you may be able to use retinol more frequently. Some redness and flaking is normal, but if your skin burns and becomes very irritated use the moisturizer “sandwich” approach. Apply a thin layer of moisturizer first and let it dry. Then apply the retinol product and let it dry. Follow up with another application of moisturizer as the last layer.

Can I use exfoliating products with retinol?

Avoid using physical scrubs and acids (AHAs & BHAs) frequently when using retinol. You can use acids on alternating nights, but go-easy since over-exfoliating can weaken the skin’s protective barrier, causing sensitivity and irritation. Retinol can already make skin more sensitive until it adapts to the retinoic acid, so it’s recommended to stay away from exfoliating products for the first fews weeks when using retinol. Once your skin has adjusted, you can consider introducing exfoliating products 1-2x per week (alternating with your retinol use).


Here’s a sample night skincare routine to follow: 

Does using retinol cause your skin to “purge”

Retinol is one of the few skincare ingredients that may cause more breakouts before clearing them up. Increased cellular turnover brings breakouts under the skin to its surface. You may experience more small red pimples or whiteheads, especially where you are prone to breakout. Thankfully though, retinol should not cause cystic pimples to appear.


Can I use retinol use while pregnant and breastfeeding?

You should absolutely avoid prescription oral retinoids, like Isotretinoin (aka Accutane) when pregnant and breastfeeding. Medical professionals also recommend you avoid prescription retinoids (like Retin-A) and any over the counter retinol products, while pregnant.


As for breastfeeding, many experts agree that retinol likely dose not pose a risk to the baby. As Dr. Thomas Hale, author of Medications and Mothers’ Milk states, “the transfer of  [drugs] through the placenta are entirely different from the transfer of drugs into human milk. The milk compartment is actually tighter and less penetrable than the placenta.”


That said, I will not recommend any retinol use to my clients who are breastfeeding, but leave it as a personal decision. I personally felt confident in my decision to use a clean retinol 1-2x per week for a short time while breastfeeding my 10 month old because of everything I have read. I also really appreciate this mom’s take on the use of retinol and breastfeeding. When in doubt, consult your doctor and do your own research!



Not all retinol is created equal

Most clean beauty advocates stay away from retinol because it’s often stabilized with ingredients like BHT and endocrine disrupting parabens that are flagged on the dirty dozen list. Many formulas can also be irritating and users can easily “over-do” it by applying retinol too often and not moisturizing well enough. When starting out, most people should start with .3% – .5% and work up to using a 1% retinol. There are also products available, like Paula’s Choice .3% Retinol + 2% Bakuchiol Treatment that uses a blend of retinol and botanical “retinol” to achieve great results, with less irritation.