How and When to Use Retinol if You’ve No Idea Where to Start
How often should I use retinol? How to start retinol? Am I too young to use it? Questions, questions, questions. Meanwhile, retinol pops up whenever you search the internet for anything remotely related to skin care . And for good reason! It’s effective, versatile, and, for many people, seems to address several skin issues at once. So, let’s dive in and try to understand why retinol is so popular and how adding it to your beauty routine can benefit you.
Is It Retinol, Retinoid, or Tretinoin?
It’s no wonder people confuse the three so often; retinol , retinoid, and tretinoin are essentially the same. But while retinol and tretinoin are both (topical) retinoids and derivatives of vitamin A, their applications in dermatology are somewhat different. Tretinoin increases collagen production and promotes cell turnover, which retinol also does. The difference is that retinol is available over-the-counter , while the only way to get tretinoin is via prescription , as its concentration is much higher. Dermatologists mainly use tretinoin for treating patients with acne- prone skin. It helps reduce inflammation and prevents the clogging of pores.
Long story short: tretinoin is a stronger, more powerful version of retinol , and they are both retinoids (or vitamin A derivatives ). You buy retinol and skincare products that contain retinol at the store to fight signs of aging, and dermatologists mainly use tretinoin to treat acne.
How Does Using Retinol Benefit You?
You know what they say: aging is a privilege. While that might be true, the same can’t be said about premature aging . Fine lines, wrinkles, age spots, and other early signs of aging appear much sooner than they should, thanks to (among other things) the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the daily anxieties and worries we experience.
So, how do you help your skin stay healthy and youthful as long as possible? Adding retinol to your skincare routine is a huge step in the right direction. According to Harvard Health Publishing (HHP), aside from improving skin tone, “additional benefits (of retinoids) include fading age spots and softening rough patches of skin. ”  Retinol products are known to reduce the appearance of fine lines, prevent dark spots, and protect the skin barrier. With such an abundance of benefits, adding retinol to your beauty routine is a no-brainer!
When Is the Best Time to Use Retinol?
Let’s start with debunking the notion that retinol is for older people. You can start your retinol journey whenever you see fit; it entirely depends on your specific needs and skincare goals! Here’s how to decide whether or not it’s time for you to start using retinol:
In Your Teens
Can teens use retinol? Yes! It’s 100% safe for teenagers to use retinol. The question is: do they need it? When you are young, many of the benefits retinol offers are unnecessary. Normally, you wouldn’t have wrinkles or fine lines as a teenager, and your collagen production is nearing its peak (your early 20s). Most of the issues at that age are hormone-related and can be addressed without retinol.
However, dermatologists sometimes prescribe retinoids, such as the already familiar tretinoin, for their effect on acne-prone skin. A 2022 study concluded, “Topical retinoids are highly effective in treating acne and can also improve hyperpigmentation due to their anti-inflammatory properties.”  So, if you’re a teenager struggling with acne, retinol might be something you want to look into!
In Your 20s
Is it time yet? Absolutely! Most experts agree that your 20s is the best time to start anti-aging skin care. The closer you get to your 30s, the more your collagen production levels start to decline, so it’s good to be prepared. And you can 100% use retinol as a preventative measure against early signs of aging! Add other active ingredients to the mix, like vitamin C and hyaluronic acid, and you won’t have to worry about wrinkles until much later in life.
Remember to gradually introduce retinol into your beauty routine to avoid irritating your skin: start using retinol serum or cream 2–3 times a week, then graduate to more frequent use, but only if you need to! Chances are, when you’re so young, applying retinol a couple of times a week will be more than enough to support your skin’s youthful appearance and health.
In Your 30s, 40s, 50s
Your 30s are when you first start noticing wrinkles and fine lines, and your 40s and 50s are when your skin needs the most help to stay youthful. Remember, retinol isn’t only good for preventing the appearance of wrinkles; it also fights existing signs of aging. So, if there was ever a time to start using it, it is now!
Consistency is how you win the battle against premature aging. Follow your beauty routine faithfully, choose the right skincare products, and you won’t need expensive cosmetic procedures or surgeries to look young and healthy!
And if, by this point, you don’t yet have an established skincare routine, read on; we’ve got you covered.
How to Incorporate Retinol Into Skincare Routine?
No matter how fancy you get with your skin care, there’s always room for improvement. Many experts recommend simplifying your beauty routine if you have persisting skin issues. A well-rounded five-step process is sometimes all you need to achieve the best results. Ideally, your step-by-step should look something like this:
Step 1. Cleansing. Remove all makeup and contact lenses, wash your face with your preferred cleanser, and rinse with warm water .
Step 2. Exfoliating. Gently exfoliate to ensure a smooth application of your toner and serum(s).
Step 3. Toning and treating. Use your preferred toner, then apply a thin layer of retinol serum to your face and neck, avoiding the area around the eyes. Give it a few seconds to absorb .
Tip: You may use multiple serums if you wish, but avoid layering more than three on top of each other.
Step 4. Moisturizing. Apply a thin layer of a moisturizer that better suits your skin type .
Step 5. Protecting. Apply sun protection cream with a minimum SPF 30 to prevent hyperpigmentation and sun damage.
According to a study published in the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery—Global Open journal, “Sunscreen should always be a mandatory final step of every at-home skincare program.”  So never slack on sun protection!
One question remains: which retinol product should you choose to improve your skin without exacerbating facial dryness or triggering a breakout ? And here’s your answer: it depends on your skin type!
- Normal, combination, and oily skin would benefit from lighter-textured retinol serums.
- Naturally dry skin could always use more hydration, so go for creams and lotions.
- For sensitive skin, introduce any retinol product gradually to avoid irritation, dryness, and peeling skin.
Most anti-aging retinol products are meant to be used before sleep . Still, many newer formulas can be applied twice daily, so pick whatever works for you! If you still can’t decide, try Remedial Pax Retinol Cream with Hyaluronic Acid for all skin types.
TL;DR When should I use retinol?
As with all skin care, when to use retinol would depend entirely on your specific skincare needs and goals. While retinol is safe to use even for teenagers, you might only need the benefits it offers, like improved collagen production and cell turnover, much later in life.
To establish the best foundation for your skin to fight premature aging, we recommend starting retinol in your mid-20s . Choose the type of retinol product based on your skin type, faithfully follow a simple five-step beauty routine, and your skin will stay youthful and radiant for a long time!
How to apply retinol?
The right time to apply retinol during your beauty routine would depend on the type of retinol product you use. Typically, you would want to apply retinol after toner and before moisturizer.
Should I use retinol every night?
Depending on your age, skincare needs and goals, and the type of retinol product you’ve chosen, you might want to readjust how frequently you use it. The frequency might range from 2–3 times a week to daily use.
Can you use retinol during the day?
You can! Some retinol products are suitable for use during the daytime, so choose whatever best meets your needs.
Should you put retinol on before or after moisturizer?
Unless you’re using a moisturizer that contains retinol, you would usually want to apply retinol before your moisturizer.
Can men use retinol?
Absolutely! Retinol is not a women-only remedy; it helps fight signs of premature aging in men just as effectively.
- Harvard Health Publishing (HHP). Do retinoids really reduce wrinkles? (2022) https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/do-retinoids-really-reduce-wrinkles
- Callender, V. D., Baldwin, H., Cook-Bolden, F. E., Alexis, A. F., Gold, L. S., & Guenin, E. (2022). Effects of Topical Retinoids on Acne and Post-inflammatory Hyperpigmentation in Patients with Skin of Color: A Clinical Review and Implications for Practice. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, 23(1), 69-81. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40257-021-00643-2
- Rodan, K., Fields, K., Majewski, G., & Falla, T. (2016). Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Global Open, 4(12 Suppl). https://doi.org/10.1097/GOX.0000000000001152