Home / Active Ingredients / The Essential Guide to Retinol Skincare

What to Look for in the First Weeks & How to Get Into a Beautiful Retinol Regimen

Reading between the lines in skincare is difficult, we know. There are thousands of products on the market with claims that range from incomprehensible to unbelievable, and everything in between.

And once you get the product home, it can be very difficult to know what’s working.

We’d love to make it simpler and clearer, so you can choose the right skincare confidently. This guide is just a start.

What you’ll find inside is for you if:

  • You’d like to smooth, clarify and refine your complexion, but you’re not sure where to start
  • You know retinol is the gold standard skincare ingredient, but you’re cautious or skeptical
  • You’ve tried retinol-based skincare before but didn’t stick with the regimen

Here, you’ll get the straight goods on what to expect when trying a new retinol product, plus how to decide if it’s right for you.

And you’ll learn what early side-effects mean the retinol is working, but when to stop if you truly have adverse effects.

First, what is retinol and why should you use it?

A form of vitamin A, retinol is one of those rare ingredients with a “holy grail” reputation — and it’s well-earned. If you’re interested in reducing lines or the damaging effects of UV, retinol really is essential (and we use that word sparingly).

But what is retinol, exactly? If you’re confused by the variety of ingredient names similar to retinol, that’s because it’s part of a class of ingredients known as retinoids.

Retinoids are “the only topical agents that repeatedly demonstrate anti-ageing effects in scientific studies. Retinoids are able to minimize the appearance of wrinkles, slow the breakdown of collagen and fade pigmentation or age spots. They work by improving skin cell renewal and stimulating collagen production.” (The Skincare Bible, Dr. Anjali Mahto)

In study after study, over decades, retinoids have been proven to fight the signs of aging, treat sun damage and acne. That’s why they’re classed in dermatology as “bioactive” or “active” ingredients, aka ingredients that have been proven by clinical research to change the skin.

Retinoids are often thought of as exfoliants. But technically, retinoids are antioxidants. They send a signal to skin cells to increase skin cell turnover, revealing fresher skin.

And retinoids also stop skin cells from becoming sticky, which is how they work to treat acne, blackheads and minimize the appearance of pores.

As this aesthetician puts it,

“Their existence to the skincare industry is what the Queen is to the world: royalty.”

Dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor at Yale, explains why nothing compares to retinol for fundamentally improving skin’s appearance.

“The thing that makes retinol a queen is that it actually increases collagen production, which is a very rare, very important aspect in anti-aging. Most ingredients that claim to be similar to retinol really only work to protect you from wrinkles, rather than treating the ones you already have.”

Given there are so many types, what form of retinoid is right for you?

Retinoic acid was behind the very first breakthroughs in skincare. It’s the form of vitamin A your skin recognizes and uses to signal skin cell turnover.

And although retinoic acid is powerful, it can be too irritating for many skin types, which is why this form is prescription-strength and typically for severe acne.

Anyone looking to more gently and subtly improve skin might be put off by the harsh side effects of retinoic acid, including dryness, irritation and flaking or scaling.

That’s why for most skin types, a gentler, over-the-counter retinoid is ideal.

The best-known is retinol, a form of retinoid converted in the skin to retinoic acid. It’s less direct — and that makes retinol the right choice if you want to change your skin without looking like you had a chemical peel every morning. (More on that, below.)

Does retinol work? Yes.

“In a study published in the Archives of Dermatology in May, researchers from the University of Michigan found that 0.4% retinol lotion applied three times a week for 24 weeks yielded a significant difference in skin wrinkling when compared with a similar lotion without retinol used on a separate group of people in the study.” (WebMD)

The most effective over-the-counter retinoids are retinol or retinaldehyde with a concentration of at least 0.1%. Other retinol derivatives such as retinyl acetate, retinyl propionate and retinyl palmitate are less effective. (Dr. Mahto)

To minimize the risk of stinging and redness, you can choose a micro-encapsulated form, like our Retinol Night Cream (0.5%).

Retinol delivered in an encapsulated form is released over time, rather than in one dose that can be challenging for skin to handle.

Micro-encapsulated retinol is wrapped in a coating that also protects the antioxidant from O2 and UV damage, protecting retinol’s potency and efficacy.

Retinol is the gentler retinoid — but you still need to use it the right way.

Now you know that retinol really does make changes to the skin. It’s a powerful tool for reversing aging, treating acne and pigmentation.

And because retinol is an active ingredient, it needs to be used properly.

It helps if you think of the way retinol functions to increase skin cell turnover at a faster rate.

What do we need to know about that new skin? Well, most importantly, it must be protected. We need to pay attention to making sure that new skin forms a healthy “skin barrier” while using retinol.

The skin barrier is the topmost layer of the skin and it protects us from UV, pollution, infection, toxic chemicals and more. A healthy skin barrier feels soft, smooth and hydrated.

A weak skin barrier may look dull and feel rough, dry or flaky. It can also become sensitive — red or scaly with sensations of stinging, burning or itching.

That sensitivity is really an inflammation response. It’s a clue that your body is working overtime to protect you in the absence of a strong skin barrier.

Be conscious of how you use retinol, how often and in what strength

There’s only so much vitamin A your skin can handle at one time and increasing the dose won’t improve skin more quickly. It will typically only lead to those signs of inflammation we want to avoid.

And you may need to give your skin a little extra pampering to ease it into a retinol regimen.

Over time, though, your skin’s tolerance for retinol will increase. That’s why it’s important to start slow.

While your skin is adjusting to new levels of vitamin A, keep in mind that you want to build your skin barrier while delivering those retinol molecules that kick-up new skin production.

That means being more gentle in your skincare routine. Treat your skin like you would a baby’s skin by following the sensitive skin instructions below.

A sensitive skin protocol for anyone who wants to use retinol

We know that sensitive skin is often inflamed skin. It’s skin that’s reacting to irritants, often because the barrier is weak.

“When harsh cleansers are used, harsh products, extreme temperatures (like from hot water) or certain medications are taken, the pH balance of your skin can be disrupted—the natural bacteria can shift so that good bacteria decreases and bad bacteria flourishes, and natural oils are removed from the skin…

One or more shifts in the skin along these lines can cause skin to weaken and become inflamed…

Once the skin barrier’s broken, you’re more vulnerable to irritation from other substances and ingredients that come into contact with your skin—this is why it’s so important to repair the barrier quickly,” says Dr. Rachel Nazarian, dermatologist

Sensitive skin is often skin in need of more TLC. You can repair your barrier and tone-down that sensitivity by taking extra care with your skin.

Here are a few key pointers to repairing your skin barrier:

  • Cut out astringents like alcohol and witch hazel
  • Avoid ingredients with “acid” in the name
  • Steer clear of foaming face washes (sulphates are out!)
  • Swear off exfoliating or using scrubs of any kind
  • Skip the peels and lasers until your skin is calm
  • Protect your skin from skin-stripping cold weather and wind
  • Use lukewarm water on your face, never hot
  • Moisturize using a cream with ceramides, like Everyday Moisturizer
  • Use skincare with soothing anti-inflammatories
  • Try treating your skin with niacinamide products

It can also help to look at the whole picture of your health, including stress and nutrition. Inflammation of the skin can be caused by imbalances of all kinds.

While you’re reducing that sensitivity, what should you do about retinol?

It really depends on how sensitive your skin really is.

Proceed with caution if your skin is persistently inflamed. If your skin feels raw and uncomfortable most of the time, your priority should be rebuilding the skin barrier. Consult a dermatologist if you can.

But if your skin is only sensitive under certain conditions, you can slowly integrate retinol. Especially if you choose a gentle formulation.

Retinol creams are typically more gentle than serums. And we’d recommend 0.5% if it’s encapsulated or a lower dose if it’s not.

Before applying to a larger skin area, patch test the retinol on a small area of skin b. You can find instructions for patch testing based on skin issue (allergies, irritation or acne) here.

When you’ve passed the patch test and you’re ready to plunge in, here are a few options for easing into retinol:

  • Moisturize first, then apply retinol, then moisturize again. Or, mix a small amount of retinol with a moisturizer and apply mixture.
  • Do either of the above, but also limit the time the retinol remains on your skin. Start with 20 minutes, then wash the retinol off and moisturize. Increase the duration over time until you leave retinol on all night.

Think of it as training your skin to tolerate retinol.

Even with sensitive skin, you really can build up a tolerance for vitamin A treatment over time. And you’ll be glad you did when you see new smoothness, clarity and an even skin tone. Retinol really is worth making the extra effort.

But overdoing retinoids can set your skin back instead of improving it. That’s because skin with a weak barrier is more susceptible to acne, eczema and rosacea.

"Retinol can be used by nearly everyone if it is used correctly. Start low and take it slow,” says Erin Gilbert, a New York City-based dermatologist.

How to use retinol the right way

It takes time to change your skin but persistence and patience pay off.

Retinol is a ‘slow and steady wins the race ingredient’. Over time, you’ll see visible improvements. And your skin tomorrow will be more beautiful than without.

The key is to use it the right way from Day 1, so you can stick with this truly proven ingredient.

Here, we’ll give you the instructions for using our Retinol Night Cream, with 0.5% encapsulated retinol and Matrixyl peptides.

First, follow these patch testing instructions if you have allergies or skin irritation. Retinol Night Cream is non-comedogenic and should improve acne, but you can also consider patch testing if you’re prone to breakouts from skincare products.

When you’re ready…

  • After night-time cleansing, apply a thin layer of Retinol Night Cream to the face, neck and upper chest.
  • Carefully apply around outer eyes and lips. Retinol Night Cream is approved safe by ophthalmologists, but you should avoid contact with the inner eye.
  • Follow by hydrating and soothing skin with Even Atom Everyday Moisturizer.
  • Apply sunscreen daily and limit sun exposure. (Retinol increases sensitivity to the sun.)

Retinol is best applied in the evening because sunlight can degrade the efficacy of vitamin A. We like to use another antioxidant active ingredient in the morning, like Vitamin C.

If you’re new to retinol, begin by using 1-2x per week on dry skin. Increase use gradually to every other day or three times per week if your skin stays happy throughout (i.e. minimal dryness, flaking).

If you experience any irritation, go back to our instructions above on building your skin barrier.

Below, we’ll discuss normal, nothing-to-worry-about skin adjustment symptoms and signs you might need to adjust or stop your retinol treatment.

Here's what to expect in your first weeks on retinol.

Remember how we said sensitive skin is really skin with a weaker skin barrier?

During your first weeks on retinol, your skin may act more sensitive because of that accelerated skin turn-over. It’s an adjustment period known as “retinization”.

In a matter of weeks, that adjustment will pay off as the retinol begins to create clearer, smoother, more even skin.

(The keyword here is “begins”. Just one layer of new skin takes about a month to be revealed and most noticeable changes come after several months using retinol regularly.)

But in the short term, should you be worried about the stories of “retinoid uglies”? Those typically come from new users of prescription retinoids, which again, are far more intense.

0.5% Retinol Night Cream is formulated to build results over time — rather than hitting your skin with a shock treatment. (Because who needs a “sick day” that’s spent hiding with cold cream on your face?)

So, what can you expect with retinol, retinoic acid’s gentler cousin?

For some, the retinization period is essentially non-existent. Or at least, not noticeable.

If you follow the instructions above and stick with a pro-sensitive formula, you might only notice softer, brighter skin with fewer blemishes.

For others, retinization is a mere blip on your radar. You may experience some dryness and light peeling as old skin cells slough off. That’s normal.

Just layer on the moisturizer and resist the urge to treat retinol as a race.

What if you have acne-prone or congested skin?

If you’re prone to congested skin or breakouts, you might see more of those in the early weeks using retinol.

That’s because the rise of new healthy cells brings impurities to the surface, too. But temporarily.

Excess sebum and buildup that clogs pores can rise to the surface in the first few weeks of using retinol. This is known as the “skin purge”.

You’ll know your skin is purging if you see an increase of clogged pores and pimples in the usual places. This “worse before it gets better” moment can range from barely noticeable to definitely annoying.

You can minimize the purge by sticking with gentle retinol and using it as per the above. Reduce how frequently you use retinol and give your skin more time to adjust.

“Purge” breakouts don’t last as long as normal breakouts. And after your skin has cleaned house over about 2 to 6 weeks, clear skin days are ahead.

Just remember to protect your skin barrier during this time. This applies to every skin type and every experience with retinization.

When it’s not just “retinization”.

Anything in the range of what we described above is normal: dryness, flaking, possible breakouts or congested skin.

If you experience acne where you typically don’t, that’s unusual.

Any rash symptoms, burning, persistent redness, skin cracking or scaling is a sign something has gone wrong.

You could be allergic, though this is quite rare even with use of prescription retinoids.

If you experience any unusual symptoms, discontinue your use of retinol and other active ingredients. Go with the sensitive skin protocol above while your skin heals.

Beautiful skin comes down to far more than skincare

The truth is, even with the perfect skincare regimen and the ideal products, our skin’s health and beauty are also determined by lifestyle and environment.

We’re a skincare brand and we’re the first to admit it.

“Non-skincare” factors that make a big difference in your skin include:

  • How well you’re hydrated (think plenty of H2O and clean liquids)
  • Your diet on a daily basis (skin loves what a healthy gut loves — plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables; Omega-3 foods; fewer grains, dairy, fried, salty and sugary foods)
  • How often you drink alcohol and caffeine, both of which are dehydrating
  • Your exercise routine (because sweat can flush out pores and improve blood flow — but some exercise is hard on the skin)
  • What type of fabrics come in contact with the skin on your body and face (e.g. your pillow)
  • Medications and supplements you take daily
  • Stress (one of the villains when it comes to inflammation — not to mention frown lines)
  • Hormones (from PMS to pregnancy to menopause, these dictate multiple changes to skin)
  • Sleep (quantity and quality)
  • Exposure to the elements, including cold, sun and drying wind

Ideally, we could perfectly balance each (and see the payoff in an instant, natural glow). But, realistically, we’re fighting tight timelines, too many life pressures and the stickiness of old habits.

It can help to just notice how lifestyle and environment affect your skin.

Had a rough few nights of sleep? Indulged a little too heavily in favorite vice? Just started a new prescription or supplement?

If these things are in flux, what you see on your skin might have more to do with lifestyle than skincare.

Put your skincare (and your lifestyle) to the test.

Too many people aren’t really sure if their skincare works. Their skin may seem to change randomly… or not change enough. But they can’t connect it to what they’re actually putting on their skin.

That leads to frustration, wasted time and money spent chasing the next best product — without ever getting to the bottom of what’s working.

If you really want to know whether a skin regimen is working for you, you’ve got to keep tabs on the variables: how you’re using it, what changes you’re seeing and what else is going on in your life.

Want to try retinol but not sure where to start?

Ready to try retinol in a skin-friendly 0.5% micro-encapsulated form?

Try our Discovery Set and get $20 off your first full-size purchase.