When asked what part of my skincare routine I couldn’t live without, my answer is always retinol. A derivative of vitamin A, retinol was originally prescribed as an acne treatment but has now become the “gold standard” in antiaging medicine. I use retinol every night, not just on my face- but also my neck, décolletage and the back of my hands.

Prescription-strength retinoids are the only topical products proven to increase cellular skin turnover, increase collagen and elastin formation, brighten the skin, treat acne and help diminish acne scarring. You may have heard of Retin-A, (or its generic name: tretinoin), one of the most commonly prescribed prescription retinoic acid. This formulation of retinol is very effective but can lead to some flaking and dryness as the body adjusts to this medication.

For those who can’t tolerate prescription retinoic acid, or who are just starting to use retinol and want to avoid the irritation associated with prescription-strength products, over the counter retinol maybe your best option. OTC retinol has been shown to increase cell turnover and treat wrinkles. Look for a product that has been formulated to decrease sensitivity such as SkinMedica’s Retinol complex- which comes in an airtight pump for light or air protection. This ensures the last application of the product is as effective as the first.

Retinyl linoleate, retinyl palmitate, and retinaldehyde are less irritating than retinol and are frequently found in OTC products. However, they are not as effective as OTC retinol. And, unless you are purchasing skincare from a dermatology office that can confirm a high concentration of these derivatives of vitamin A, they’re probably not worth the cost.

How to Use Retinol:

  • Retinol is a sensitive product and can be broken down or altered by other chemicals, light or air. To maximize effectiveness, apply retinol only at night and make sure you screw the top of your product tight. (If it comes in a wide mouth jar, the retinol in your product is not active).
  • To decrease potential side effects, it’s important to apply a pea-sized amount of retinol to skin that is dry (wait at least 5 minutes after washing and drying your face). Don’t mix your retinol with any other products/lotions (unless advised by your provider).
  • Start gradually can also drastically decrease redness, peeling, and irritation.

Apply retinol every 3rd night for 2 weeks. Once tolerated increase to every other night for 2+ weeks. If well tolerated, use the medication every night.

Remember that the neck is typically more sensitive than the face and hands, so start with a once a week application here and increase as tolerated.

It’s important to use your retinol regularly so your skin can adjust- even the most sensitive skin can benefit from retinol.

Skip abrasive cleansers, washcloths, or harsh skin brushes and instead reach for a gentle cleanser. Experiencing flaking or dryness? Skip your retinol for a night or two and try a glycolic or salicylic acid cleanser to gently chemically exfoliate the skin while also adding moisture.

Remember that without that dull top layer of skin, your face will be even more sensitive to the sun. So use sunscreen daily- micronized zinc products are typically less irritating- check out ELTAMD’s products which are surprisingly affordable.

Also, let your aesthetician know you’re using retinol before getting any peels, facials or microdermabrasion. It’s best to avoid retinol for 1-2 weeks before getting any laser treatments or waxing.

When it comes to retinol, my motto is: start early. It is easier to prevent wrinkles than to treat them. And who wouldn’t like to minimize the chance of adult acne?