Tips on How to Use Retinol, Retin-A, and Other Retinoids for Skin Care

Female applying skin ointment in tube

April 26, 2020

Retinoids, such as retinol and tretinoin, are one of my favorite skin care ingredients. This article provides tips on how to apply and use retinoids, but you can visit Retinoids 101 for a general overview of this powerful product.

Apply at Night

I recommend applying retinoid products to your skin at night. This is because sunlight breaks down retinoids and makes them less effective. The stability of the retinoid depends on the formulation, but all retinoids are affected by sunlight to a certain degree.

Wash Your Face First

Washing your face will clear off debris and products applied earlier in the day. Conventionally, it is recommended to wait 10 to 20 minutes after washing your face and allow your face to fully dry before applying a retinoid. This can reduce the risk of skin irritation that may be associated with retinoids. However, depending on your skin type and the retinoid formulation, you may be able to apply the retinoid after washing your face without waiting.

Apply a Small Amount at the Right Places

Typically, a pea-sized amount of a retinoid is all you need for your face. Your goal is to have a thin film of retinoid on your face. You can also apply the retinoid to your neck and chest to improve the health of your skin at these regions as well.

It is generally recommended to avoid applying retinoids to your eyelids because this region is much more sensitive. Fortunately, some of the retinoid that is applied nearby will diffuse to the eyelids. Specialized retinol formulations are also available specifically for the sensitive lower eyelid region.

Use a Moisturizer

I recommend using a moisturizer at least every morning.

If you have very dry or sensitive skin, you may also have to use a moisturizer after applying the retinoid at night. If this is the case, it may be best to wait 10 to 20 minutes to apply the moisturizer after the retinoid. The sooner you apply the moisturizer after the retinoid, the better you soothe irritation, but the more you decrease the effect of the retinoid. You will have to find the perfect balance for your skin.

Be Consistent

Ideally you should consistently use a retinoid every night. The best results are obtained over months to years. If your skin does not sufficiently adapt to the retinoid after several weeks (e.g. you continue to have dry and irritated skin), you may need to use a less potent formulation or decrease the frequency.

How to Reduce Sensitivity When First Starting a Retinoid

During the first several weeks of starting a retinoid, your skin will go through a “retinization” period. During this time, your skin may become dry, flakey, and sensitive. If the irritation is very mild, it may be best to just wait it out. However, if the irritation becomes bothersome, there are several techniques that you can use to reduce the skin irritation until your skin adapts to the retinoid.

The first technique is using the retinoid less often, such as every other night or every third night. Then, the goal is to slowly work your way up to applying the product every night. If you need to further reduce skin irritation, you can try using a gentle moisturizer after applying the retinoid (in addition to regularly using a moisturizer during the day). Using the moisturizer immediately after the retinoid will have the most soothing effect (compared to waiting longer), but may decrease the overall effect of the retinoid.

If needed, additional moisturizer techniques can be used to decrease the strength of the retinoid and further reduce irritation. The moisturizer sandwich technique can be performed if you need an even stronger soothing effect. This involves using moisturizer immediately before and immediately after applying the retinoid. Another trick is the buffering technique. This involves mixing the retinoid with your moisturizer before applying it. As your skin adjusts, you should be able to taper off using these techniques.

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