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How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

When to start using retinol: everything you need to know

The ins and outs of retinol, according to the experts.

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Curology Team
Nov 14, 2022 · 6 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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  3. > When to start using retinol: everything you need to know

Wondering when to start using retinol? You’re not alone. This potent vitamin A derivative helps the skin renew itself by stimulating cell turnover and collagen production, improving texture and tone, and helping reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.¹

Retinol is arguably one of the most popular anti-aging ingredients available today, and for a good reason—for many people, it works! 

Before we dive into when to start using it, let’s talk about what retinol is in the first place and how you can incorporate it into your skincare routine.

What is retinol and how do I use it? 

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that stimulates skin cell turnover and collagen production.² It treats the signs of aging, enhances skin firmness, and helps repair damaged skin. You can find retinol in many over-the-counter skincare products. Still, to get tretinoin (a more effective prescription-strength retinoid), you’ll have to connect with a medical provider, either in-person or through Curology (more on that in a bit). 

Like any skincare product, retinol use has a few do’s and don’ts that are important to follow. Applying your retinol correctly can minimize irritation and maximize its benefits. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser. 

  2. Wait until your face is dry—this step is important, as applying retinol to a damp face can lead to irritation for those with sensitive skin. 

  3. Apply a pea-sized amount of retinol to your face, starting at your chin and moving upward and outward. 

  4. Apply a hydrating moisturizer. 

Integrate it into your skincare routine slowly

Retinol can initially cause irritation in some, so if you’re thinking about adding retinol to your skincare routine, it’s important to start with a low concentration and go slowly. Curology nurse practitioner Donna McIntyre recommends to begin by using it two to three times per week at night and ramping up your use from there. Gradually increase the frequency of use as your skin gets used to it. It may be a good idea to skip retinol the day before you exfoliate. 

Retinol is a powerful exfoliant that “has the potential to cause dryness, itchiness, and irritation when first started,” McIntyre says. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s best to start with a lower concentration retinol product and build up gradually. Additionally, you can try using a retinol cream or serum with hydrating ingredients like glycerin or hyaluronic acid to help minimize irritation.

Only use it at night (and always wear sunscreen)

“Retinol is a powerful tool in your anti-aging toolbox,” says Curology nurse practitioner Jennifer Kolinski. “Only use this ingredient at night.” Retinol is degraded by UV rays and can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. Apply a daily broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 (which you should be doing anyway!). You also might want to avoid using it on days when you’ll be spending extended time in direct sunlight.

Don’t forget your neck and chest

To maximize the anti-aging benefits of your retinol, don’t stop at your face. When applied to the neck and chest, retinol can help to improve the appearance of these areas, which are often neglected but can show signs of aging quite prominently.

If you’re concerned about retinol being too harsh for your neck or chest area, try adding a squirt of ceramide-enriched moisturizer before applying it. You can also look for retinoids made explicitly for the neck and chest area. These often contain a low-strength retinol and are fragrance-free to avoid irritation.

Common retinol side effects 

While using retinol, it’s normal to experience some sensitivity, dryness, and irritation when you’re first starting out. Common side effects to watch out for include: 

  • Dry, flaking skin

  • Burning

  • Irritation 

  • Redness 

  • Sun sensitivity 

Often referred to as “routinization” or “retinol burn,” these side effects are far from uncommon. Remember, retinol works by speeding up the skin cell turnover cycle, causing the old layer of skin to peel off more quickly than usual. This can result in the skin becoming dry, red, and irritated as it adjusts.

woman with moisturized face

When to stop using retinol 

While some irritation, sensitivity, and dryness are typical when first using retinol, if the above symptoms continue for more than a few weeks, you may need to reduce—or completely stop—your use. 

First, try reducing your use to two or three days per week and using a rich, soothing moisturizer in between. You can also try “buffering,” which is applying your retinol simultaneously with your moisturizer. While it’s more potent when used beforehand, buffering dilutes the retinol and makes it easier for your skin to tolerate. 

If this doesn’t help and you continue to experience adverse side effects, reach out to your dermatology provider—-they may recommend discontinuing use completely or switching to a different product. 

When you stop using retinol, your skin will eventually adjust and return to its normal cell turnover cycle. Because retinol works on a cellular level, it may take a week or so for your skin to readjust.

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Get tretinoin with Curology 

Founded by dermatologists in 2014, Curology helps take the guesswork out of your skincare routine—licensed dermatology providers work with you to examine your skin, assess your skincare goals, and provide custom treatment options.

Getting started is as easy as answering a few questions and snapping a few selfies to help us get to know your skin. If Curology is right for you, we’ll pair you with one of our licensed dermatology providers, who will create a personalized prescription formula with ingredients like tretinoin to treat skin concerns like acne, signs of aging, and hyperpigmentation. They’ll also be there every step of the way along your skincare journey (because that’s what skincare is—a journey!) to answer any questions you may have.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Subject to consultation. 30-day trial. Just cover $4.95 in S&H.
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Best of all, your first month of Curology is on us—just pay $4.95 (plus tax)* to cover shipping and handling. You’ll receive your personalized formula at no extra cost, and we’ll include any other products that we think will help you achieve your skin goals.

FAQs

What is retinol and how do I use it?

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that stimulates skin cell turnover and collagen production. It treats the signs of aging, enhances skin firmness, and helps repair damaged skin. You can find retinol in many over-the-counter skincare products, but to get tretinoin, you’ll have to connect with a medical provider, either in person or through Curology.

When to stop using retinol?

While some irritation, sensitivity, and dryness are typical when first using retinol, if the above symptoms continue for more than a few weeks, you may need to reduce—or completely stop—your use.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. American Academy of Dermatology. Retinoid or retinol?. (n.d.).

  2. Malwina Zasada, Elżbieta Budzisz. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology. (August 2019).

Kristen Jokela is a certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Trial is 30 days. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

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