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How To Use Retinol and Other Retinoids

Retinol is a type of retinoid . These dermatologist instructions will explain how to use retinol for acne, wrinkles and dark spots. If you are using Retin A, or retinol for wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, or acne, the instructions are the same. 


These are the instructions that I give my patients about how to use retinol in their skin care routine with minimal side effects.


 I will use the term “retinol” but the same instructions apply to all retinoids: prescription and cosmetic and all strengths of retinoids including  tretinoin, Retin A, tazarotene, trifarotene, and adapalene.

Using Retinol and Retinoids on Your Face

How to use retinoids like retinol, Retin A, adapalene, tretinoin, and tazarotene depends on if you have been using retinoids for awhile or you are a beginner. With time you will slowly get used to the retinoid and you can increase the strength. 


Find out when to use retinol in your skin routine here or let us make a custom personalized skin care routine with steps for you. If you already took the quiz, you can find your custom regimen advice and routine steps here.


If you do not have a custom regimen from us yet- take the skin care routine quiz.

Once you take our quiz and we know your Baumann Skin Type, we will tell you which retinoids to use.  After you find out your Baumann Skin Type, you will get monthly emails that will help you know when to increase the strength of your retinoid or change your routine steps around- so watch for those. Below you will find two types of instructions: direction for how to use retinol when you are not on retinoids now or you are on a weak drugstore retinoid, or, instructions for how to increase to the next strength if you are already using a retinoid.  



How to use retinol for beginners

If you have never used any kind of retinol before, or you are on a weak drugstore brand o retinol like Roc or Neutrogena, follow these instructions to get started:

  1. Wash face with warm water
  2. Pat dry
  3. Apply any serums and moisturizers in your skin care routine
  4. Start with a low strength retinol 
  5. Use 1/8 teaspoon for the face (and another 1/8 tsp for the neck and chest)
  6. Apply to entire face
  7. Wash hands after applying so prevent dry fingers, cuticles and palms

How to begin and use a stronger retinoid

If the “retinol” you have been using is a drugstore brand, or is in a jar, or contains retinaldehyde, retinyl linoleate, or retinyl palmitate  consider yourself a retinol beginner because these formulations are not very strong.


If you have already been using a 2x (.02%) or 3x (.03%) retinol then follow these instructions:

  1. Wash face with warm water
  2. Do not exfoliate
  3. Pat skin dry
  4. Read here about when to apply retinol in your routine
  5. Use one strength higher of retinoid then you were using before
  6. Apply 1/8 teaspoon to the entire face 
  7. Wash hands after applying so prevent dry fingers, cuticles and palms

How Often To Use Retinol?

How often you use retinol depends upon how long you have been using it.  Follow this guide on using retinol:

  • Start with a low strength retinoid 
  • 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

Starting slowly like this will greatly reduce the risk of retinoid dermatitis and other side effects.The goal is to try and use retinol or another form of retinoid every night.

Retinol calendar of how to use

How Much Retinol to Use on Face and Body?

Do not use too much retinol when first starting.  When beginning a new retinol or  higher strength, follow these instructions on how much to use in different areas of the face and body

  • Use a green pea size which is about 1/8th teaspoon for the entire face
  • Use another 1/8th teaspoon on neck and décolleté
  • Use 1/8 tsp on each forearm and back of the hand (for photoaged arms)
How much retinol to use

When to apply a retinoid

Always apply retinol and tretinoin at night because they are inactivated by sun and light.  Adapalene, tazarotene and trifarotene can be used in the day time because they are stable in light.


Apply retinoid after moisturizer when you are first beginning a new one.  Once you are tolerating a high strength retinol or prescription retinoid every night for a month you will switch you to using the retinoid before your moisturizer- but not yet. This will be around 3 months after beginning a retinol.


Read more about when to apply a retinoid in your skin care routine at this link.


What Not To Use With Retinol

What not to use with retinol depends upon your Baumann Skin Type. This general advice may not apply to everyone:

  • Don't use more than 2 other exfoliants
  • Don't use acids in the skin care routine when just beginning retinoids
  • Don't use retinoids with a lot of peptides in them

To learn more about layering retinoids with other products and ingredients, click here.


When to stop retinol

Retinoids temporarily thin the top layer of the stratum corneum in the epidermis. This makes your skin more susceptible to dehydration and irritation in dry, hot and hostile environments.

For this reason, you should stop retinoids for 4-7 days before subjecting your skin to hot wax (for hair removal), extreme temperatures (Like when snow skiing)or before excessive friction.

When to stop retinol before a cosmetic treatment

If you get a chemical peel, facial, hot wax hair removal, light or laser treatments, make sure you tell them when you last used a retinoid. You can burn from  chemical peel if you have not topped your retinoid. Stop retinoids a few days before laser hair removal.  You do not need to stop before ablative or vascular laser treatments but discuss this with your medical provider.


Retinoids used before wounding make you heal faster while retinoids used after wounding slow healing. So if the procedure does not involve light, heat or exfoliation, you can use the retinoid up until the time of the procedure.  Ask your medical provider ho  many days to wait before restarting the retinol after a procedure.

Stop using retinol when:

  • You get a chemical peel
  • You get microneedling
  • You get radiofrequency or laser treatments
  • You get redness, stinging or a retinol rash
  • Planning to wax face or eyebrows (stop 7ndays prior)
  • Going on a trip to a dry climate
  • Going on a long airplane flight
  • You will have exposure to extreme cold
  • You anticipate kissing someone with  scratchy facial hair (causes exfoliation)

When to stop retinol after cosmetic treatments:

Stop retinol for 1-2 days after these treatments to prevent irritation and allow skin to heal.  (Retinoids used after a cosmetic procedure can slow healing)

  • Dermablading
  • Chemical peel
  • Hydra Facial
  • Extractions
  • Microdermabrasion
  • Microneedling
  • Radiofrequency
  • Tattoo

What To Do if Skin Gets Irritated

If your skin gets irritated or you get a rash from retinol, you do not need to stop the retinol forever. It is not very likely that it is a skin allergy, and is more likely that you used one that is too strong, or you used it too much, too often, or with the wrong products in your skin care routine. Give your skin a chance to calm down and restart slowly.


If redness, stinging or discomfort occurs, follow these steps:

  1.  Stop using retinol for 4 days.
  2. After 4 days, if skin is back to normal, restart the retinol
  3. 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.
  4. Make using you are only using 1/8 teaspoon on your face over your moisturizer.
  5. Avoid exfoliants such as scrubs and hydroxyacids
  6. Use a soothing barrier repair moisturizer
  7. Use a soothing cleanser until face feels better.

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.


You can read more here about what to do if you get a reaction to a new product.


Soothing oils such as these can help:


How To Use Retinol on Sensitive Skin

Sensitive skin is more likely to react to retinol, but that does not mean that you cannot use it.

Even if you have rosacea you can use retinol but avoid using it with these ingredients at the same time in your routine:


  • Ascorbic acid
  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Hydroxyacids

If we recommended a hydroxyacid or salicylic acid cleanser in your custom skin care routine, do not use it at the same time as starting the retinol.  Choose one or the other and get used to it first.


I tell my patients to avoid using low pH cleansers until you can use the retinoid every night without sensitivity.


Do not use retinol with more than one other exfoliating ingredient if you have sensitive skin.

How to apply retinol around the eyes?

Retinol can be applied around the eyes. The first time you use retinol around the eyes, mix it half and half with a moisturizer or eye cream to dilute it. Only apply one time and wait 4 days after applying to see if you get any retinoid side effects before you use it again.


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.
  • Apply to upper and lower lids
  • Do not get retinol in your eyes
  • If your eyes get dry, stop using the retinol

Use retinol on top of these eye creams:


Can I Use retinol on lips?

You cannot use retinol on your lips. It will cause irritation. You do not have a stratum corneum cell layer on your lips and thy cannot handle retinol. In fact, you should protect your lips from retinol at night, by using a lip balm because retinoids can get on your pillowcase and transfer to your lips.


You can use retinol on the bar code lines above your lips, but not on the pink part of your lips.


Lip balms to protect your lips:



How long after retinol can I go in the sun?

If you plan to have intense sun exposure, stop the retinoid for a few days to give your skin a little extra protection. If you are a tennis player or someone who oft gets excessive sun, the benefits of retinoids outweigh the downside- so it is ok to go in sun if you used a retinoid the night before- but wear SPF.


Do not go in the sun with retinol on your face.  The retinol will get inactivated by the sun. It is actually dangerous to wear the type of retinoid called retinyl palmitate in the sun without SPF. Wash your face thoroughly before going in the sun.


You can go in the sun the morning after using retinol, but make sure you wear SPF.


Learn more about retinoids and sun exposure at this link


How to tell if retinol is working?

Retinoids can take months to show results so how do you know if thy are working? You should expect to see a few minor signs when first starting a retinoid such as stinging, slight tenderness, or scaling and peeling.  If you are on one of my custom skin care regimens, you may not see these signs because your skin care routine has been designed to reduce inflammation.  So if you are following my advice-do not worry.  The retinoid is working and you will slowly increase the strength as explained above.


If you have not followed my skin care routine advice when shopping for skin care products, you need to make sure you are using a good retinol product. 

Many retinol products claim to be gentle or non-irritating, but this is oft because the retinoid is inactive or very weak such as retinaldehyde or Retinal.  If a new retinoid does 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.

 Scaling on skin when beginning a retinol

When you begin retinol or increase the strength of retinol, you may notice some scaling of the skin and skin may look dull. 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.


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?

How Long To See Improvement Of Uneven Skin Tone With Retinol?

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.

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 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.

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.

Make sure you are getting our educational emails and advice for a custom skin care routine.  

If you took the quiz you can find your routine here and your skin type info here


We are here to help you use retinoids properly because they are the best antiaging ingredient with the most data to support its use in acne, dark spots and aging skin.


Let me guide you!


Level up your skin care knowledge with medical advice from dermatologists

Should you apply retinol or Retin A on wet or dry skin?

Damp skin will allow increased absorption of retinol. So- if you are a retinol beginner- apply on dry skin. Seasoned retinol users who want to make the retinol stronger can apply on wet skin. The same advice goes for tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene and trifarotene.

What is the best cleanser to use with retinol and Retin A

The cleanser you use affects absorption of retinoids. Foaming cleansers will increase retinol absorption while creamy or oil cleansers will slow absorption. Choose cleanser based on your Baumann Skin Type and how strong you want your retinol to be.

Can I Mix Tretinoin with moisturizer?

You can mix a prescription retinoid such as Retin A (tretinoin) with a moisturizer in your hand before applying it. If you use a moisturizer with hyaluronic acid (HA) it will make more tretinoin get into the skin and can increase side effects. Mixing Retin A and a moisturizer that dos not have HA will dilute the strength of the retinoid. For example, if you mix 1/4 teaspoon of Retin A 0.05% cream with ¼ teaspoon of moisturizer, the resulting Retin A strength is 0.025%.

How long should you wait to apply moisturizer after retinol or Retin A?

If your regimen is designed properly for your Baumann Skin Type, you do not need to wait between products. We design your custom regimen so that each product increases efficacy of the other products with no waiting required.

Can you use collagen and retinol together?

You can use them together but oral collagen is better because topical collagen does not get into the skin. Using a topical Vitamin C is a better choice to use with retinol, but it depends upon your Baumann Skin Type.

What is the best moisturizer to use with retinol or retinoids

Zerafite Wrinkle Defense Cream is a good moisturizer to use with retinol if you have dry skin.  If you have oily skin, choose a light moisturizer like Essopi Antioxidant Cream. But it is best to take our quiz and choose a moisturizer that is right for your Baumann Skin Type. Hyaluronic acid (HA) moisturizers will increase side effects of retinoids while oils will decrease side effects.

How to use retinol for wrinkles?

Start with the lowest strength every 3rd night and work your way up to the strongest strength every night. Make get a custom ski routine that is right for your Baumann Skin Type and is designed to retinol work better.

Can you use retinol during the day?

It will not work because it gets inactivated by sun and light.

Can I use rosehip oil and retinol together?

If you have dry skin, rose hip oil is a good choice to use with retinol.

Do you need to use a sunscreen with retinol cream?

You should use a sunscreen everyday when you are using retinol because the sunscreen helps prevent aging and lighten dark spots ad prevent dark spots from acne.

How to use prescription retinol

Retinol does not require a prescription but may be included in some compounded prescription creams. Follow the same instructions in this blog for how to use these.

How to use Retin A for acne?

Follow the same instructions in this blog. Be careful when combining Retin A with hydroxyacids and benzoyl peroxide because they can irritate your skin especially if you have dry skin.

Can I put anything on my face before retinol?

What you put on your face before retinol will increase or decrease the strength of the retinol depending on what ingredients are in it. We suggest using a face cream that does not have hyaluronic acid, peptides or hydroxyacids on your skin before using retinol. Choose the moisturizer that is right for your Baumann Skin Type.

How long does retinol last when opened?

Retinol is very unstable. Unless you keep it in a dark airless refrigerator, it will lose stability and go bad in about 4-8 weeks after opening it. I recommend getting a new one every month. Do not keep it in a hot place

What is the best moisturizer to use with tretinoin (Retin A)?

Dry skin types should use a barrier repair moisturizer with tretinoin such as Zerafite Barrier Repair Cream.  Oily types should chose a  noncomedogenic light moisturizer like Essopi Antioxidant Cream.

References

  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: JDD, 5(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 Surgery, 25(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 Therapy, 14(5), 234-238.

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