How To Use Retinol and Other Retinoids

Retinol Strengths

Retinol is a type of retinoid . Step 1 when using a retinoid is to make sure you are on the correct retinol for your Baumann Skin Type®. Follow the skincare routine step order exactly as described in your Skin Type Solution’s Customized Skin Care Routine because how and when you use retinoids will affect the  benefits and side effects that you will experience. 

These dermatologist instructions will explain how to use retinol for beginners. 

(We will use the term “retinol” but the same instructions apply to all retinoids.)

Retinol should be started slowly. How quickly you see results from the retinol and retinol side effects are affected by the type of retinoid you use, the strength of retinoid, the cleanser and moisturizer in your skin care routine, how much retinol you apply and how often you apply the retinol. Your skin will acclimate to retinoids with time so follow these retinol instructions and be patient.

What Retinol Strength To Begin With?

This will depend upon your skin type and other factors but in general- this is how you will progress through the various retinol strengths.

Retinol Strength

  • Start with a low strength retinoid such as retinol 0.25% or 2X. 
  • Use every 3rd night for two weeks then
  • Use every other night for two weeks
  • Use on top of or after your moisturizer
  • Your first bottle of retinol should last 2 months
  • If you have dry skin, use a barrier repair moisturizer

How much retinol to use?

  • Use a green pea size which is about 1/8th teaspoon for the entire face
  • Use another 1/8th teaspoon of retinol on neck
  • Use another 1/8th teaspoon of retinol on décolleté

How much retinoid to use

When to apply a retinoid?

  • Apply retinoid after moisturizer- Once you are tolerating a high strength retinol or prescription retinoid every night for a month we will switch you to using the retinoid before your moisturizer- but not yet. This will be around 3 months after beginning a retinol depending upon your Baumann Skin Type. When beginning a retinol, use the retinol after your moisturizer. Read more about when to apply a retinoid at this link.

When to apply a retinoid?

When to stop retinol?

  • Stop retinol if you get redness, pink skin, stinging, burning or other retinol side effects. See instructions below about what to do if retinol irritates your skin.
  • Stop using retinoids one week prior to waxing or reduce the temperature of the wax to prevent skin burning. You can safely get threading or laser hair removal but hot wax is more likely to burn skin when you are on a retinol. Stop 4 days prior to waxing.
  • Stop retinol before going on a trip to a dry climate (if you live in a humid climate)
  • Stop retinol 2 days before going on an airplane flight longer than 6 hours. (these flights dehydrate skin)
  • Consider stopping retinol 2 days before any trip. This allows the top dead layer of the skin to thicken, giving your skin more protection from detergents in hotel sheets.
  • Stop retinol before exposure to extreme cold such as hiking or skiing.
  • Stop retinol for 2 days if you anticipate kissing someone with a scratchy beard because this can lead to over exfoliation
  • Stop retinol for one night after getting dermal fillers or botulinum toxin (Botox ) injections to prevent skin irritation

What to do if I get irritation from my retinol?

  • If redness, stinging or discomfort occurs, stop using retinol for 4 days. 
  • After 4 days, if skin is back to normal, restart the retinol
  •  Make sure you are following the steps in your customized skin care routine exactly as prescribed using the exact cleanser and moisturizer that are recommended to help you tolerate the retinol.
  • Make using you are only using 1/8 teaspoon on your face over your moisturizer.
  • Redness and irritation indicate that what you are using is either too much retinol, too strong of a retinol percent or you are using the retinol too often.
  • Avoid exfoliation such as scrubs and hydroxyacids
  • Use a soothing barrier repair moisturizer and a soothing cleanser until face feels better. 

Soothing oils such as these can help.  (Skip past the products to keep learning how to use retinoids.)

How to apply retinol around the eyes?

  • Retinol can be applied around the eyes
  • The first time you use retinol around the eyes, wait 4 days. It takes 4 days to see any retinoid side effects. If you do not get redness, swelling, or excessive scaling of the eyelids after 4 days, then you can use the retinol on your eyelids the same was as described above for using retinol on the face.
  • Apply retinol over your eye cream. Choose a barrier repair eye cream.
  • Dilute the retinol 50% with the eye cream before applying. In other words, mix a pin head size of retinol with a pin head size of eye cream on your fingertip, then gently pat over your eye area that has already been covered with eye cream.

Can I Use retinol on lips?

  • You cannot use retinol on your lips. It will cause irritation
  • Apply a lip moisturizer at night to prevent retinol from transferring on your pillowcase to your lips.
  • You can use retinol on the bar code lines above your lips, but not on the pink part of your lips.

How long after retinol can I go in the sun?

How to tell if retinol is working?

You should except to see scaling when beginning a retinol.

You should except to see scaling when beginning a retinol.

When you begin retinol or increase the strength of retinol, you should notice some scaling of the skin. This is caused by activation of pathways that occur when the retinoids turn on certain genes. You might have slight pinkness or skin sensitivity (stinging or discomfort). If you do not have any skin sensitivity, you can use a gentle exfoliant like a facial scrub to remove the scaling. However, you should only do this every few days to avoid over exfoliation.

Many retinol products claim to be gentle or non-irritating. However, if they do not cause some scaling in the beginning, you should be suspicious that they are not effective. (Many “retinols” actually have esters or retinal or less effective forms of retinoids. See this link to learn more.

What to expect when starting retinoids?

Your skin will look rough and dry in the first 2 – 4 weeks of using retinol. It will not reflect light and will look dull. During this time, many people stop using the retinol. It is important to push through the first 2-4 weeks. The dryness you see is not actual dryness- it is scaling off of old skin allowing for new fresh skin underneath. You can use a mild exfoliant to remove the scaling skin. 

Some people call this purging. In some cases, you will see an increase in pimples during this phase as the substance that clogs pores is pushed to the surface. Using anti-inflammatory ingredients or an acne toner can help prevent the purging pimples seen when starting retinoids.

How long till I see benefits from retinol?

Many anti-aging products promise to get rid of wrinkles fast, but any quick changes seen in the skin are temporary and last less than 2 days. Retinoids give you long term improvement of your skin, but the results take longer to see because the results require the skin to make important building blocks like collagen. So how fast does retinol work?

After 4 weeks on retinol, you can usually see a difference in evenness of skin pigmentation skin as compared to baseline with the Canfield Visia camera. However, you will not yet be able to see a difference with the naked eye. After 3 months you will begin to see a difference in evenness of skin tone even without the camera. Sun avoidance is important when trying to even skin tone, so use of a daily SPF with night-time retinoids will speed improvement of skin pigmentation.

Improvement Of Uneven Skin Tone With Retinol

  • How Long To See Improvement Of Wrinkles With Retinol?

The type of retinoid and percentage strength of retinoid will affect how fast results are seen with retinoids. Improvements of facial wrinkles can be seen as early as 12 weeks,1 but most people seen decreased wrinkles by 24 weeks. If you do not see improvement of wrinkles by 6 months, keep using the retinoid because studies show that those that did not see wrinkle improvement in 24 weeks will almost always see improvement in weeks 24 – 48 weeks.2 This means that you may need to use your retinoid for a year to see significant improvement in wrinkles. The higher percentage retinoids and more potent retinoid formulations will result in faster skin changes. For example, prescription strength tretinoin (0.1%) results in faster improvement than 0.05% tretinoin.3 Using the right skin care routine for your skin type and following your skin care routine instructions correctly will help you tolerate stronger doses of retinoids and see improvement faster.14/sup>

  • How long does retinol take to work for acne?

Retinoids take about 8-12 weeks to work for acne. If you use the right skin care routine for your skin type, you may see results faster. It all depends upon what products you are using in addition to the retinoid.

  • How Long Does It Take For Retinoids To Begin Working on Wrinkles?

Changes in gene expression are seen almost immediately after beginning a retinoid.5 Improvement in skin can be seen under the microscope after a few weeks and with the Canfield Visa Camera after 4- 8 weeks, but it takes much longer to see an improvement in wrinkles with the naked eye. 

  • Will retinol improve crow’s feet wrinkles?

Two studies showed that using retinol 0.1% for 52-weeks (one year), 44% of subjects had a significant improvement of crow’s feet lines.6 Combining retinoids with botulinum toxins like Botox in the crow’s feet area has been shown to improve crow’s feet better than Botox alone.7 Retinol has also been shown to improve results of botulinum toxin injections.8

Using retinol and other retinoids has been shown to improve wrinkles, dark spots, acne, keratosis pilaris, skin texture and protect skin from further aging. It is worth the effort to use retinoids! Once you make it though the first 2-4 weeks you will get past the scaling and skin sensitivity and begin to see the befits. If you follow the skin care routine instructions for retinoids and use a skin care routine customized for your Baumann Skin Type, you should be able to begin using your retinoids without significant side effects.

Remember- only buy retinol products from a source you trust, there are many counterfeit products online and many products that do not contain what they claim or that are manufactured improperly. Here are some of our favorite retinols. You can also talk to your dermatologist about getting a prescription for tretinoin, adapalene or trifarotene or tazarotene.


  1. Kong R, Cui Y, Fisher GJ, Wang X, Chen Y, Schneider LM, et al. A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2016;15(1):49-57.
  2.  Olsen EA, Katz HI, Levine N, Nigra TP, Pochi PE, Savin RC, et al. Sustained improvement in photodamaged skin with reduced tretinoin emollient cream treatment regimen: effect of once-weekly and three-times-weekly applications. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1997;37(2 Pt 1):227-30.
  3. Randhawa M, Rossetti D, Leyden JJ, Fantasia J, Zeichner J, Cula GO, et al. One-year topical stabilized retinol treatment improves photodamaged skin in a double-blind, vehicle-controlled trial. J Drugs Dermatol. 2015;14(3):271-80.
  4. Laquieze, S., Czernielewski, J., & Rueda, M. J. (2006). Beneficial effect of a moisturizing cream as adjunctive treatment to oral isotretinoin or topical tretinoin in the management of acne. Journal of drugs in dermatology: JDD5(10), 985-990.
  5.  Baumann L Ch 45 Retinoids in Baumann’s Cosmetic Dermatology 3rd ed (McGraw Hill) 2022.
  6. Randhawa M, Rossetti D, Leyden JJ, Fantasia J, Zeichner J, Cula GO, et al. One-year topical stabilized retinol treatment improves photodamaged skin in a double-blind, vehicle-controlled trial. J Drugs Dermatol. 2015;14(3):271-80.
  7. Carcamo, A. S., Guiha, I., Goldman, M. P., Rao, J., & Ehrlich, M. (2008). The Safety and Efficacy of Botulinum Toxin Type A Plus Tazarotene 0.1% Cream in the Treatment of Lateral Canthal Rhytids: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study. The American Journal of Cosmetic Surgery25(2), 78-88.
  8. Ascher, B., Fanchon, C., Kanoun-Copy, L., Bouloc, A., & Benech, F. (2012). A skincare containing retinol adenosine and hyaluronic acid optimises the benefits from a type A botulinum toxin injection. Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy14(5), 234-238.

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