How To Use Retinoids

Loved by dermatologists and aestheticians alike, retinoids (aka vitamin A) are best known for their ability to significantly improve the appearance of the skin, particularly texture, wrinkles, breakouts and sun damage. Whilst the results can be impressive, many are hesitant to add a retinoid to their routine as they can be irritating ― especially when used incorrectly. Follow our advice to use your retinoid like a pro.

Before you start

  • Address any sensitivity. Before adding any new skincare product into your routine, make sure your skin isn’t irritated or sensitised. If it is, take care of any sensitivity first.
  • Start low. First-time users should begin with a low-strength/gentle formula and build up over time. Generally, once you’ve used up your current strength, you will be ready to move up a level, but always listen to your skin.
  • Slow and steady. It’s important to add your retinoid product into your routine slowly. Start off using it every third day before increasing to more regularly once your skin has acclimatised (unless the brand states otherwise). How often you use it will also depend on your skin’s tolerance, but as a general rule of thumb, you can use this guide: 2 times a week if you are a beginner or in your 20s, 3 times a week in your 30s and 4 times a week if you are over 40. Research has suggested that there is no additional benefit to using a retinoid more than 3-4 times a week1. So, in essence, every other day is a happy medium. 
  • Go easy on the actives. When you first start using retinoids, we suggest going easy on the actives, particularly exfoliating acids (hydrating products are fine). Once you know your skin is tolerating it well, you can then re-introduce them on ‘non-retinoid days’ or in the mornings. 

Here are some of our favourites for beginners:

How to use 

Brands will always provide you with instructions on the product packaging but for further guidance, follow our top tips:

  • Retinoids come first. Apply after cleansing and before the rest of your routine. For over-the-counter retinoids, it is optional to wait 20-30 minutes before applying anything else. Brands have traditionally advised applying on dry skin but we know that dampening the skin first (with a hydrating toner, mist or essence) can help with penetration. We advise against this if you have very sensitive skin. For prescription-strength formulas such as tretinoin, always follow the guidance provided by your doctor.  
  • Protect your skin. Use at night and always make sure to apply SPF 30 or above during the day. Some newer brands have formulas that can be used in the morning but if in doubt, please use them in the evening.
  • More is not more. Apply a pea-sized amount (you can use slightly more for most OTC formulas) and distribute evenly across the face. With stronger formulas such as tretinoin, avoid the direct eye area (unless it’s a targeted eye cream), neck, around the nostrils and the corners of the mouth, as these areas are prone to irritation.
  • Your skin may react initially. Dryness, irritation, redness and flaking are all normal reactions when you first start using retinoids, particularly stronger formulas. During this stage, stick to a hydrating and nourishing routine until your skin builds tolerance. You’ll know you’ve overdone it if your skin stings when applying a simple moisturiser or feels like it’s burning/is sore. In this scenario, stop usage, go back to basics and give your skin time to recover before reintroducing slowly. The buffering technique will be helpful here.
  • The buffering technique. Whilst sophisticated formulas often contain nourishing ingredients; some retinoid products can be quite drying/irritating. To combat this, you can buffer its effects by applying a layer of moisturiser under your serum. This won’t stop your retinoid from working; it’ll just penetrate slower and mitigate any potential irritation or dryness.
  • Be patient. Retinoids are the gold standard in skincare for a reason - they work. However, consistency is key. While you will likely see some benefit after 4-6 weeks of use, full results can take up to 6 months. It’s worth the wait ― trust us! 

Experienced retinoid user? Check out our top picks:

 Shop our Retinoids here.


Words by Katie - Team Skin Rocks

Qualifications - BTEC, Beauty Therapy Applied Sciences




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