Few skin care ingredients are as well-loved and highly regarded as retinol. It’s so popular, in fact, that it currently has 1.3 billion views on TikTok, proving just how popular this expert-recommended activity is. But as popular as it may be, it comes with its fair share of side effects — including sensitivity, irritation, and the dreaded “purge” (more on that later) — which means beginners need to be extra careful and make sure they’re using it. Correct formulas when adding ingredients to your routine for the first time.
Keep scrolling for everything you need to know.
What is retinol?
Retinoids, in general, are vitamin A derivatives that are used to address signs of aging and treat acne. There are different types of retinoids, including prescription versions like tretinoin and over-the-counter options like retinaldehyde and adapalene, but retinol is the one you’ll most often find in skin-care serums.
One of the ingredients we study best for improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
The ingredient offers many benefits to the skin, including increasing cellular turnover, boosting collagen, and lightening pigmentation. “It works to reduce wrinkles by stimulating collagen in the superficial dermis,” explains James Wang, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Los Angeles. “For acne, it helps reduce sebaceous glands, which helps reduce oil and sebum.” In addition, it also provides exfoliating effects and has the ability to inhibit pigment synthesis in the skin, which helps it with dark spots and hyperpigmentation.
Why Retinol Rookies (Measurement) Should Proceed With Caution
Obviously, retinol is a superstar skin care ingredient, but it doesn’t come without a catch. “Although effective, retinol can cause irritation when you first start using it,” Dr. Zeichner warns. Dryness, peeling, and sensitivity may occur for those who are just starting to use their retinol products.
While retinol is beneficial for most skin types, its irritation-inducing properties mean it’s not necessary for everyone. “Those with skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema, psoriasis and chronic skin infections should consult their dermatologist before using retinol,” says Dr. Wang.
Anyone using retinol for the first time can experience a super-fun skin-purifying process, with dull breakouts coming to the skin’s surface. “Skin cleansing happens when new ingredients like retinol promote cell turnover, which leads to clogging and worsening breakouts. This is especially the case as oil and debris trapped deep beneath the skin come to the surface,” says board-certified dermatologist Michelle. J. Farber, MD, previously said good + good. While it usually only lasts for four weeks, maximum, it can be frustrating – so it’s extra-important to introduce retinol the right way.
What to look for in a beginner retinol product
1. Low concentration
Simply put, the stronger your retinoid, the more likely it is to cause irritation. Dermatologists recommend starting with a mild over-the-counter formulation—about 0.5 percent usually works best. Once your skin has adjusted to the ingredients, you can increase the percentage even stronger.
2. Moisturizing formulas
Another way to reduce irritation from retinol is to use formulas that are naturally hydrating. Look for cream formulations instead of serums, which are less potent but more hydrating, and keep an eye out for ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid that keep your skin’s barrier strong and less prone to sensitivity, or niacinamide that calms your complexion. Avoid combining a retinol-moisturizer with any other active ingredients in your routine, such as vitamin C or exfoliating acids, as these can cause your skin to react.
3. Soft actives
If you’re following all of this advice and the retinol is still more than your skin can handle, it may be worth switching to a lighter alternative. Retinyl palmitate is a precursor to retinol, and although it is less likely to be found on the ingredients list, it is also less likely to cause irritation. Bakuchiol has also attracted attention as a natural “retin-alt” and provides skin-rejuvenating benefits without any side effects.
How to introduce retinol into your routine
1. Start slowly
At the very beginning, use your retinol every other night. “Using retinol is a marathon, not a sprint,” Dr. Zeichner says. “It may take two to four weeks for your skin to adjust, and if you develop any redness, irritation, stinging, or blistering, just hold off for a night or two.” Once you feel your skin has adjusted to the product, you can start using it every night.
2. Use only a small amount of the product
Do not overuse your retinol. You only need to use a pea sized amount of product for the entire face. “In this situation more is not good,” confirmed Dr. Wang.
3. Try the “retinol sandwich” method
“Moisturizing the skin helps maintain hydration and barrier function,” Dr. Zeichner says there is debate among dermatologists about how to do this. “Some recommend applying moisturizer first, others recommend applying moisturizer afterward,” he explains. “You can also create a “retinol sandwich” where retinol is applied between two layers of moisturizer.
After washing your face, apply a layer of no-frills moisturizer, then layer your retinol on top of that and top it off with another layer of moisturizer. “Studies have shown that a base layer of moisturizer does not dilute or reduce the effectiveness of retinoids and helps with tolerability,” board-certified dermatologist Shari Marchbein, MD, previously told Well + Good. “Look for ingredients like glycerin to hydrate and prevent skin from drying out [effects] of retinoids.”
4. Wear SPF
Because retinol brings fresh, new cells to the surface of your skin, it can increase sun sensitivity and put you at a higher risk of damage. To keep your complexion healthy throughout the day, use retinol at night and be sure to apply (and reapply) sunscreen during the day.
5. Be patient
Keep in mind that it may take some time to see results from all your retinol use (we’re talking at least four weeks, but maybe more), so be patient and consistent with your routine to ensure the best results.
5 beginner-friendly retinol formulas
RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Night Serum Capsules – $25.00
“This product comes in a single-use dose that gives you just the right amount for the entire face without over-applying,” Dr. Zeichner says. “It contains a stable form of retinol that is the least irritating.” By encapsulating the formula within the capsule, the product’s ingredients remain stable and potent. To use, gently open the capsule and spread the serum over your face. Follow up with a moisturizer if you want extra hydration.
Pond’s Rejuvenation Skin Tightening Serum – $10.00
Another ideal drugstore option is this lightweight serum from Pond’s. “This option combines a stable form of retinol with niacinamide,” Dr. Zeichner says. “Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that calms the skin and evens skin tone.” Not only does this combination work well together to address the signs of aging, it also brightens the complexion with every use.
Bliss Youth Got This Serum – $21.00
“The Bliss Youth Get This Serum provides a stable form of retinol in a hydrating formula to reduce skin irritation,” Dr. Zeichner says. “In addition to retinol, this serum provides a blend of squalane, antioxidants and peptides to protect and strengthen the skin.”
Peach & Lily Pure Peach Retinoic Eye Cream – $42.00
Looking for a retinol alternative that addresses the signs of aging with your eyes? This powerhouse formula uses Bakuchiol, a powerful-yet-gentle retinol alternative that gives eyes a brighter, firmer appearance. Smooth the formula into your eye area every night before bed for best results.
Obagi Retinol 0.5 – $65.00
This cream-based formula is a dermatologist-favorite for a reason. With only 0.5% retinol, it’s on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to potency, making it a good choice for beginners and those with sensitive skin. It’s also packed with hydrating ingredients like jojoba oil and shea butter, reducing the risk of irritation.
For more answers to your burning, retinol-related questions, watch this video:
Want to be the first to hear about the latest (and biggest) SHOP product drops, custom collections, discounts, and more? Sign up to get intel delivered straight to your inbox.
Our editors select these products independently. Buying through our links can earn good + good commission.