How to Successfully Start Using Retinol

Retinol is an amazing product that comes with some significant growing pains. Skin irritation and sensitivity is a very very common side effect. Over time your skin does get use to the side effects; however, it can take time. Here is how you can start using retinol to get all of it’s numerous benefits and eliminate the worst of the side effects.

Properly known as Retinoids there are several forms available. All retinoids go from Retinol to retinoic aldehyde to retinoic acid in chemical strength. Retinols are going to be the vast majority of your over the counter products as they are the most gentle. Retinoic acid (tretinoin) is prescription only like Retin-A, Tretin-X, and Rejuva-A. Retinoic acid works immediately on the skin; however, it does cause more severe skin sensitivity in almost all individuals who use it.

Have acne? Use Adapalene Gel

This is a full stop. If you’ve never used a retinol and want to use retinol to treat acne, start with Adapalene Gel. By acne I mean cystic acne, gross irritations, etc. If you only have white heads and blackheads you can probably use something stronger like a retinol + salicylic acid face wash or localized treatment with a 2% solution.

Adapalene comes in several forms. Differin Gel is the original adapalene product that probably every millennial remembers. Now that adapalene is available over the counter including Differin Gel, other skincare brands have begun selling it including La Roche-Posay’s Effaclar Adapalene Gel. Both are incredibly gentle for acne covered skin. Adapalene Gel is still available as a prescription as EpiDuo which is adapalene + benzoyl peroxide (again millennials rejoice it’s come back full circle).

Adapalene gels are special. They are formulated specifically for acne unlike most other retinols which are formulated for their anti-aging properties. I’m not talking about nose acne (sebaceous filaments respond to retinol). This is full on cystic acne (deep pus nastiness), pustules, papules (the minor red irritated acne), and blackheads. Whiteheads are super hard to control but adapalene seems to help manage those a little bit but they aren’t perfect.

Even when using adapalene, it is very gentle…..for a retinol. You can still experience skin sensitivity but it has been formulated to be as gentle as possible while being an effective treatment for acne and cleaning those pores. In general, I found this to be more gentle than other OTC retinol treatments.

Don’t skip on the sunscreen when using adapalene.

Expect to see improvement after 4-6 weeks but keep using it because full improvement can be up to 6 months. 6 months is generally for severe acne such as cystic acne. I suffered from cystic acne and Differin worked wonders for me it did take awhile.

Start by Using an Over the Counter Product

Retinol is available at every drug store, box store, dermatology office as a non-prescription product, etc. Over the counter products use a lower percent of retinol or a form of retinol that’s more gentle. They’re also cheaper and you don’t need to see a dermatologist, file an insurance claim, and fill that prescription. You also have less side effects. I personally use The Ordinary’s 2% Grenactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion. That’s the 2nd most potent from The Ordinary.

If you hop directly into prescription retinol products like Tretinoin, skin irritation can be incredibly strong including skin reddening and peeling which can be made worse by winter weather. It’s very uncomfortable to go through that and studies have shown many times over that skin discomfort is one of the primary reasons people quit using retinols.

Get a Good Face Oil AND a THICK Moisturizer

Your skin is going to feel itchy and it will feel dryer while it transitions. Using a thick, rich moisturizer will help trap that moisture in the skin and lessen the uncomfortable dryness. It will get worse before it gets better. I promise you’ll love the benefits. You got this!

Keep your skincare routine minimal

Cleanse + a creamy toner like Lancome Tonique Confort or Laneige Cream Skin Toner & Moisturizer (stay away from anything containing denatured alcohol) + a gentle serum (optional) + Sunscreen with an SPF of 35 or more. SPF 50 is going to be better since more people including myself don’t use enough sunscreen in order to get the full SPF that’s advertised.

Skin can be extra sensitive to sunlight when using retinol and you don’t want to undo all that repair the retinol is doing by skipping that sunscreen.

Start using it as part of your PM program 3 days per week

Skin will eventually get to the point where prescription retinol will cause little to no irritation. The skin does have to build up to that tolerance though. If you start a retinol as part of your PM program you’re asleep while it’s working and skin might be more sensitive. It’s also dark so there’s no photosensitivity. Then you wash it off in the morning.

Once you’re using your chosen retinol product for 3 days without issues, move up to 5 or 7 days a week. Once your skin has become accustomed to that

Don’t use Chemical or Physical Exfoliants while Skin is Adjusting

I’m not speaking through experience {cough} at al {cough cough}. OK yeah I did this one just last week. My skin is adjusting to the new higher retinol content I’ve been using and I thought I could handle a 2 min chemical exfoliation with my 30% AHA+2% BHA from The Ordinary because I wasn’t having skin sensitivity with my retinol. My all time favorite chemical exfoliate did tingle. A little bit more than just a little bit of tingling. It NEVER tingles on my skin before using retinol. With a steamer after a shower and I couldn’t get it to tingle.

Just skip it, it’s not worth it. I lasted maybe a minute before I rinsed it off. I did achieve exactly what I want to though. So win for me.

Retinol is not a chemical exfoliant

It increase cell turnover rate but it doesn’t break up the skin bonds like a true chemical exfoliant does. It seems like it’s a hazy zone but it really isn’t when digging into the science. Contrary to what the Cleveland Clinic would say. Dr. Azadeh Shirazi of La Jolla Dermatology tends to agree. In science we very often have 2 products that might produce the same or similar result but use entirely different mechanisms to get there. That’s kind of what is happening with retinol and chemical exfoliants. Both will reduce dark spots, increase cell turnover, glow up the skin but go about it using completely different ways. I can give dozens of examples.

That doesn’t means you should use a chemical exfoliants while starting a retinol.

Physical exfoliants will be a disaster. Please don’t. Please please please don’t. Nothing more than a washcloth or towel to dry your face and don’t scrub and pull at the skin.

Hopefully this list will help you feel confident when starting the retinol process. It can take up to a year to feel the full benefits of retinol. It’s one of those few products that can really help undo a lot of the sins of our youth. I have faith in you. You got this.



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