When to Use Retinol and When Not To Use Retinol

Written by: Dr. Leslie Baumann



Time to read 7 min

As a dermatologist, one of the most common questions I hear is, "When should I use retinol, and is it right for my skin?" Retinol, a form of vitamin A, is a popular and effective ingredient that can address a wide range of skin issues, from acne and aging to uneven skin tone and texture. However, knowing when to start using retinol in your skincare routine, what age is safe to begin retinol,  and when to avoid retinol is crucial for maintaining optimal skin health and achieving the best possible results.

To determine if retinol is right for you, it's essential to understand your individual skin type and its unique needs. The Baumann Skin Type system, which I developed, takes into account factors like oiliness, sensitivity, pigmentation, and wrinkle proneness to help you identify the most suitable ingredients and products for your skin. By knowing your Baumann Skin Type, you can make informed decisions about when to use retinol and when to seek alternative ingredients that may be more appropriate for your specific concerns.

In this blog post, we'll dive deeper into the topic of retinol use, exploring the situations where it can be most beneficial, as well as circumstances where it's best to avoid retinoids. We'll also discuss alternative ingredients that can effectively target common skin concerns like acne, aging, and hyperpigmentation, ensuring that you have the knowledge and tools to create a personalized skincare routine that works for you. So, let's get started on the journey to understanding when to use retinol and how to determine if retinol is a good choice for your skin type.

When To Use Retinol

When to use retinol depends on your Baumann Skin Type, age, pregnancy status, and what you having coming up in your schedule. This guide when help you know when to use and when to avoid retinol.

What Age To Begin Retinol

The age at which you should start using retinol depends on your individual skin concerns and goals. For many people, the first introduction to retinol comes when they begin experiencing acne, which can occur as early as the teenage years. If you're struggling with acne, incorporating a retinol product into your skincare routine can be an effective way to help unclog pores, reduce inflammation, and promote clearer skin.

However, it's important to keep in mind that retinol is an exfoliant, meaning it encourages cell turnover and removes dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. This process can make your skin more sensitive to sun damage, so it's crucial to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 during the day, especially if you'll be spending significant time outdoors.

If you're new to using retinol, it's best to start with a lower concentration and gradually work your way up as your skin adjusts. Begin by using retinol once or twice a week in the evening, and slowly increase the frequency as tolerated. It's also a good idea to apply a moisturizer after your retinol product to help combat any potential dryness or irritation.

Remember, while retinol can be a powerful tool in addressing acne and other skin concerns, it's not the only solution. Understanding your Baumann Skin Type can help you determine if retinol is the best choice for your specific needs, or if alternative ingredients might be more suitable.


Should I Use Retinol?

Retinol has the ability to address various skin concerns such as acne, aging, and hyperpigmentation. However, the effectiveness and tolerability of retinol can vary depending on your individual skin type and circumstances. In general, you should consider using retinol if you have any of the following skin issues:

Retinoids work for these issues, but there are times that you should not use retinoids.

When Not To Use Retinol

Retinol is potent and can cause side effects such as skin irritation, dryness, and redness, especially in sensitive or dry skin types. If you have a Baumann Skin Type prone to dehydration, inflammation, or if you have conditions like eczema or rosacea, retinol might exacerbate these issues.

 It’s advisable to avoid retinol if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, due to the lack of studies confirming its safety in these conditions.

Retinol is not suitable for everyone. Specific situations warrant caution or outright avoidance of retinol:

  • Pregnancy: Avoid retinol due to the lack of safety data during pregnancy.
  • Changing Climates: Transitioning from humid to dry climates can increase skin sensitivity, making retinol use problematic.
  • Post-Procedure Care: After treatments like dermaplaning or chemical peels, pause retinol use for 4 days to allow your skin to recover.
  • Post-Surgery: Wait until a surgical scar has fully healed (epithelialized) before resuming retinol, which can take 7-14 days.
  • Hair Removal Treatments: Discontinue retinol 3-4 days before hot wax hair removal or 2 days before threading.
  • Extreme Weather Exposure: Avoid retinol before activities like skiing or prolonged sun exposure, as skin may need its natural protective barrier.
  • Sensitive Conditions: If you have conditions like active flushing rosacea, or if your skin burns or stings, do not use retinol.
  • Exposure to Irritants: Refrain from using retinol if you will be in contact with irritating substances like pesticides or strong chemicals.
Retinol alternatives

Retinol Alternatives

If you fall into one of the categories of people who should not use retinoids, this is a guide of what to use instead of retinol. There are many alternatives to retinol. Read this blog to find the best retinol alternatives, see the products below, or shop our collection of retinol alternative products.

When to pause retinol

Retinol and Traveling: When to Pause Your Routine

Retinol is a powerful ingredient that can help improve the appearance of your skin, but it's important to use it wisely, especially when traveling or exposing your skin to certain conditions. One of the ways retinol works is by encouraging cell turnover and exfoliation, which can lead to a thinning of the uppermost layer of your skin, known as the stratum corneum. While this process can help reveal brighter, smoother skin, it can also make your skin more vulnerable to inflammation and irritation.

When you're traveling, particularly by airplane, the dry cabin air can dehydrate your skin, making it more susceptible to irritation. To minimize this risk, it's best to avoid using retinol the day before flying. Similarly, if you plan on getting hair removal with hot wax, it's recommended to stop using retinol at least 10 days prior to your appointment, as the exfoliation caused by retinol can make your skin more sensitive and prone to burning.

Exposure to extreme weather conditions, such as the icy winds encountered when skiing or the intense sun during a beach day, can also exacerbate skin irritation when using retinol. While it's a common myth that retinol makes your skin significantly more sun-sensitive, it can still make your skin more likely to become irritated. To err on the side of caution, it's advisable to pause your retinol use before engaging in activities that expose your skin to harsh weather conditions.

As a dermatologist, I always recommend that my patients stop using retinol before traveling to dry climates, such as Colorado or my hometown of Lubbock, Texas. The low humidity in these areas can further dehydrate your skin, making it more prone to irritation and inflammation when combined with retinol use.

By being mindful of when to pause your retinol routine, you can help keep your skin healthy and comfortable, no matter where your travels may take you. If you have any concerns about how to adjust your skincare routine when traveling or exposing your skin to certain conditions, don't hesitate to consult with a dermatologist who can provide personalized advice based on your unique skin type and needs.


In summary, knowing your Baumann Skin Type is crucial in determining whether retinol is right for you and what to use instead if it's not. By taking our online quiz, you can identify your skin's unique needs and create a personalized skincare routine that incorporates the most suitable ingredients, such as vitamin C, bakuchiol, or tyrosinase inhibitors, as alternatives to retinol. 

Once you have your Baumann Skin Type results, you can shop for skincare products with confidence, selecting formulations tailored to your skin's specific requirements. Embrace your Baumann Skin Type and follow a customized regimen to achieve healthier, more radiant skin.

Level up your skin care knowledge with medical advice from dermatologists

When to use prescription tretinoin vs retinol?

Begin with a low strength retinol. Work your way up to a strong retinol and then, when you can tolerate it every night, switch to tretinoin. 

Best References and Scientific Publications on when to use Retinol

  1. Baumann L. Antiaging Ingredients in Ch. 37 of Baumann's Cosmetic Dermatology Ed 3. (McGraw Hill 2022)
  2. Baumann, L. Ch. Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Ingredients (McGraw Hill 2015)
  3. Baumann L. Retinoids in Ch. 45 of Baumann's Cosmetic Dermatology Ed 3. (McGraw Hill 2022)
  4. Dai, X., Jin, J., Jia, Y., Yang, K., Han, J., Zhang, Z., ... & Liu, H. (2022). A non‐retinol retinoic acid receptor‐γ (RAR‐γ/NR1B3) selective agonist, tectorigenin, can effectively inhibit the ultraviolet A‐induced skin damage. British Journal of Pharmacology179(19), 4722-4737.
  5. Sadgrove, N. J., Oblong, J. E., & Simmonds, M. S. J. (2021). Inspired by vitamin A for anti‐ageing: Searching for plant‐derived functional retinoid analogues. Skin Health and Disease1(3), e36.
  6. Marchwicka, A., Cunningham, A., Marcinkowska, E., & Brown, G. (2016). Therapeutic use of selective synthetic ligands for retinoic acid receptors: a patent review. Expert Opinion on Therapeutic Patents26(8), 957-971.