A Beginner’s Guide To Retinol

There's a reason it's been dubbed the fountain of youth. Here, advice on how to get started, for every skin type

The holy grail of skincare. The fountain of youth. These are just a few terms used to describe retinol, a form of vitamin A with a long list of benefits. From results like improved skin texture, boosted collagen production and diminished acne, it’s easy to see why retinol is so beloved in the beauty world. We asked dermatologist Julia Carroll and medical aesthetician Amanda Mizen (she owns North Medical Spa in Toronto) for advice on how to incorporate retinol into a skincare routine for the best results. Plus, peruse our picks for the best retinol formulas—from mild to potent.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid, derived from vitamin A. Retinol is naturally produced by your body and aids in boosting cell turnover, kickstarting collagen production and reducing fine lines and wrinkles. “Retinols are the little sister to the more powerful prescription retinoids,” says Carroll. It’s a more skin-friendly type of vitamin A that is typically used in skincare products.

What are the skincare benefits of using retinol?

Retinol helps unclog pores, exfoliate and smooth the skin, reduce the appearance of pigmentation, improve skin hydration, treat acne, and reduce fine lines and wrinkles. “They’re the ultimate selection for ‘getting it all done skincare,'” says Mizen. According to Carroll, retinol can also thicken the dermis (the layer below the surface of the skin) over time, which makes skin healthier and appear more youthful.

Can all skin types use retinol?

Carroll says that any skin type can use retinol, but fair or sensitive skin types should be extra cautious as it may be harder for them to adjust to the potent ingredient. Mizen doesn’t recommend retinol for people who have skin that’s been over-exfoliated (from at-home or in-office treatments), or skin that’s sun-damaged. It should also be noted that pregnant women should not use retinol on their skin.

When should I start using retinol?

Mizen typically recommends her clients to start using retinol when they hit their thirties, as that is when collagen levels in the skin start decreasing more rapidly. But all ages can reap the rewards of a retinol-infused beauty routine. “Dermatologists use retinoids for teens with acne, so when I prescribe it I will often explain the long-term benefits and will recommend that they continue to use the retinoid even after I have cleared their acne,” says Carroll. While Mizen says that more than a specific age, it’s essential to look at skin type and condition to determine the best skincare fit.

How do I incorporate retinol into my skincare routine?

“My first tip is to do the ‘low and slow’ method,” says Carroll. “Start with a very small amount, around a small pea sized amount, and apply it one night and then wait a few days to evaluate your tolerance.” If you don’t get a reaction, then Carroll recommends applying it again, but if you find your skin red and flaky then she suggests mixing the retinol formula with your moisturizer. Start off with once or twice a week to see if your skin reacts and gradually work up to every other day or three times a week. Another key tip for using retinol is to apply it at night and not during the day. (Retinol can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight.) When using retinol (and for general anti-aging and skin-health reasons), Mizen and Carroll both stress the importance of applying an SPF every day. “You should be wearing an SPF of 50-plus on a daily basis regardless of whether you are using a topical retinoid or not,” says Carroll. “The best sunscreen is one that you will wear happily 365 days a year.” She advises looking for a formula that has both the UVA and UVB logo (signifying broad spectrum coverage) as well as the CDA seal (recognized by the Canadian Dermatology Association).

Why does some skin react to retinol?

Yes, retinol can do a lot of good for your skin, but it can occasionally cause redness and flaking. According to both Carroll and Mizen, there are several reasons why skin can react to retinol, including using it too often, using too much of it, not prepping your skin properly or mixing retinol with other harsh ingredients like exfoliators or acne treatments.

What should I do if my skin has a bad reaction to retinol?

“Typically reactions to retinol aren’t too difficult to manage—often dryness and irritation more then anything,” says Mizen. “A mild reaction can be common as your skin adjusts to use.” But if your skin is quite irritated, both Carroll and Mizen suggest cutting out retinol application along with other skincare products with active ingredients, aside for sunscreen. Pare back your routine to just a gentle cleanser and basic moisturizer (no harsh ingredients or fragrances). Once the reaction has resolved, its time to try retinol again. “Using the product less frequently but on a regular schedule can be a way to improve tolerability,” says Carroll.

What is the best form of retinol to use on my skin?

With umpteen formulas out there to choose from, it can be hard to figure out which one is best for you. If you’re a retinol newbie, start off with a low dose of around 0.025% and if your skin has no adverse reactions you can slowly move up to a higher percentage. (The highest percentage available without a prescription in Canada is 1%.) Mizen prefers an encapsulated retinol, which works like a regular retinol, but with the ingredient housed in a carrier system within the cream or serum, improving its ability to penetrate the skin. Mizen says that these products tend to be more stable and leave the skin feeling hydrated. She loves the AlumierMD retinol as it’s gentle, yet effective and comes in different percentages for all skin types.