Beginner’s Guide to Retinol

Retinol has long been the gold standard for skincare; it is no secret that it works. In this article, I will discuss what retinol is, what it does and why you should be on one. I’ll also mention how to choose the best retinol product for you and how to appropriately add it to your skincare regimen.


Retinol is a vitamin A based medication that increases the cell turnover of your skin. Your skin is made up of many layers and it is constantly shedding. New skin is always making its way up towards the surface as the top layers are lost to the environment. This natural process can take somewhere between one and three months depending on how old you are. As all things in life, the turnover slows down as you get older. So what exactly does retinol do? It speeds up this process so that the fresh skin comes to the surface more quickly.


By speeding up the cell turnover, your skin will look better overall. Pigment will become more even, texture will become smoother, fine lines will appear less prominent, and your skin will just look fresher and younger. This not only treats existing skin but acts as a huge preventative measure in the fight against aging. Unfortunately, this is not the fountain of youth, but it is as close as we can get when it comes to the appearance of our skin.


Well, there is a reason why everyone is not on a retinol. It can be difficult to use, and a lot of people give up before witnessing the benefits. As your skin gets acclimated to the increased cell turnover, it will become irritated. The transition period can take anywhere between a few weeks to a few months. More specifically, your skin will become irritated, more sensitive, dry, flaky, red, more prone to breakouts, and in severe cases, can feel like your skin is burnt. In addition to the transition phase, your skin will become much more sensitive to the sun for the duration of your retinol use. This means that most people will burn if they are out in the sun for an even very short period of time. I have personally had a mild sunburn after 5 minutes in the sun while being on a retinol. To me, this is just a good sun deterrent as UV rays are the worst thing for your skin anyway. So, buy yourself a good sunscreen and a big hat because you will need both!


After getting yourself a big hat and a daily facial sunscreen, it’s time to choose a good retinol. Retinol products usually come in different strengths, typically ranging between 0.25% and 1.0%. I typically recommend starting at a 0.25% or 0.5% retinol product. You should only apply retinol at night after you have washed your face. Start with once or twice a week. You will start to become a little bit (or a lot) irritated and you should apply more frequently as your skin adjusts. Apply more frequently each week to build yourself up to every night. Once your skin is used to a nightly retinol, then you can increase the dose if you want to. I generally tell my patients that if you are happy with what it is doing, then remain at the same dose. If you are trying to increase the efficacy, then increase the percentage of retinol but know that each time you increase the dose, you will experience a transition phase. If you are at 1.0% and still want to go stronger, you can go with tretinoin which can only be prescribed by your doctor.

I also recommend using a morning mechanical scrub or exfoliator. This works great because in the morning your skin could be flaky and look like it is peeling. Using a scrub in the morning will smooth a lot of the flakiness away and make you look/feel better during the day. Exfoliating in the morning will also help any makeup you wear to go on smoothly and evenly.


Know that this is a long haul, not a short sprint. It is important that you do not get fatigued and give-up. If your skin is hating you for starting the retinol, you know it is working! In due time, your skin will be thanking you.
You must push through the transition phase and hunker down. Irritation, peeling, redness, dryness, breakouts, and sun sensitivity are all normal and should be expected. If you can keep yourself from giving up, your skin will look better with a glow that will make all your friends jealous!

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