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Thinking about adding a retinol product to your skin care routine? If so, you may be wondering how often you should use it: every day, once per week, sparingly?
Here’s your complete guide to adding retinol to your life and how frequently you should use it.
The short answer: Eventually, most people can use it every day or almost every day, if they like.
The long answer: It depends on what kind or product you’re using, how sensitive your skin is, and what percentage of retinol you’re using.
You’ll likely want to use retinol once or twice per week initially and work up to using it more than that.
The reason: Retinol can initially be drying, especially if you have sensitive skin, so it’s a good idea to give your skin some time to adjust to the change in your routine.
You’ll want to use it sparingly at first, according to Joshua Zeichner, MD, an associate professor and the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai. He recommends starting with no more than every other day for the first 2 weeks.
If, after the first 2 weeks, you don’t see any side effects, he says you may want to move up to “2 nights on, and 1 night off.”
After a month or so with no side effects, you can likely use it every day if you want.
Zeichner also suggests only using retinol at night.
“The evening is a time of rest and repair, and cell turnover is at its peak,” he says. “For this reason, I recommend applying retinol before bed to enhance activities that are already happening.”
“Retinol is a type of retinoid,” says Robert Anolik, MD, a NYC-based dermatologist. “Retinoids are a category that includes retinol, retinaldehyde, tretinoin, and more.”
Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A.
Retinol is commonly used in over-the-counter (OTC) skin care products that treat acne and wrinkles, while retinoic acid is more commonly found in prescription products, such as isotretinoin.
Retinoic acid (aka tretinoin) is stronger than retinol, which is why products containing it tend to be available by prescription only. They’re also generally used to treat severe acne that doesn’t respond to other treatments. (Accutane, which was pulled off the market in 2009, is a brand-name example of isotretinoin.)
Retinol promotes cell development and turnover — that’s in large part what makes it so effective as a skin care ingredient.
Not only is it a powerful acne treatment (in fact, it’s the closest thing to a silver bullet the skin care world has when it comes to treating severe or stubborn acne), but it can also fade hyperpigmentation and red spots.
It may also prevent the breakdown of collagen. This may help reduce wrinkles.
It may also smooth out your skin and promote a more even skin tone.
For most people, yes — once your skin is used to it, that is.
That said, there are some people who may not want to use it frequently or at all. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, this includes those with:
- skin allergies
This goes back to the fact that retinol hastens cell turnover. Although this is what helps treat and reduce acne, scarring, or hyperpigmentation, it also causes dryness and flakiness. So, if you have a skin condition, you’ll want to speak with your doctor before trying a retinol.
It’s also important to note that pregnant people should avoid retinols. Vitamin A can be damaging and increase your risk for birth defects.
For this reason, people who can become pregnant who take isotretinoin are required to participate in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) iPledge program and take two forms of birth control while on isotretinoin.
While your skin is adjusting to retinol, it’s normal to see some side effects, including:
- stinging feeling
- skin peeling
However, they should be fairly mild and subside after 2 to 3 weeks.
Generally, retinol works with all skin types. In fact, if you have naturally oily skin, you may find that using a retinol helps reduce overall oiliness thanks to its drying nature, according to Anolik.
Have sensitive or extremely dry skin? Zeichner recommends looking for a product that contains a retinyl ester, a gentler form of retinol.
“They are better tolerated than pure retinol,” he explains.
First, you’ll want to find a product that works for your skin.
If this is your first time trying retinol, start with a product that has a very low concentration of retinol, like .1 to .25 percent.
Differin may be a good option. This treatment was once available by prescription only, but now it’s easily available over the counter and is gentle on all skin types.
If you’re ready to move onto a higher concentration, the Ordinary Retinol .5% in Squalane is an online favorite. It’s alcohol-free, paraben-free, sulfate-free, and vegan. Reviewers who love it claim it’s a staple in their nighttime routine.
Make sure you use sunscreen before you go out and about, since sun exposure may worsen some of the retinol’s initial side effects.
Your step-by-step guide to using retinol in your skin care routine
Here’s exactly how to start incorporating retinol into your regular routine:
- Wash your face and wait until your skin is completely dry. (Certain products may work better when applied to damp skin, but, with retinol, damp skin may lead to increased irritation.)
- Take a pea-size amount of your retinol product. Start applying from the chin and work your way up in an upward and outward motion.
- Apply moisturizer on top of the retinol.
A pea-size amount might not look like much, but “more is not better” when it comes to retinol, Zeichner says. (Again, this is because it can be drying, so you’ll want to be careful that you don’t overdo it.)
Generally, yes. But Zeichner notes that retinol doesn’t get along with vitamin C or hydroxy acids, because those ingredients can also be irritating to the skin.
On the other hand, retinol products are fine to pair with moisturizers or products that include hyaluronic acid or niacinamide.
With retinol, you’re playing the long game.
It can generally take at least 3 to 6 months (and sometimes longer) to see results with OTC products, though prescription retinol products generally work a little faster. It might be discouraging, but don’t give up.
When it comes to retinol, slow and steady wins the race.
Start by incorporating it into your nighttime skin care routine once or twice per week before moving on to everyday use.
Morgan Armstead is a senior at Johnson C. Smith University and an intern with Healthline, writing beauty and wellness material.