How to Start Using Retinol (Complete Guide)

Today I want to show you how I apply my retinol and give you some sneaky insider tips to getting the most out of this essential skincare ingredient.

Night time is when I always use a retinol. I cleanse my face and what I do next will depend for you on where you’re at with your retinols.

Let’s consider the scenario where you’ve never used one before. This is your first time, you’re feeling a little bit nervous. I know there’s a lot of people who experience anxiety when they think about retinoids.

How to Start Using Retinol

how to start using retinol

The way I suggest is you start gently. First think about moisturizing before you do your retinol. It’s called buffering.

I think that there is absolutely no harm in starting in a way that does almost nothing because I think it’s through regular usage that you build confidence. This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, it’s about the long term. There’s no rush to do everything immediately.

I would start off with moisturizing after cleansing. Use a moisturizer that contains niacinamide because it is a great ingredient for helping you reduce the irritancy of retinol. Niacinamide increases ceramide content in the skin, making your barrier that a little bit more robust.

So apply moisturizer all over. What’s really important here is that I take care of areas that might be extra prone to irritancy.

It’s key when you’re starting that you get confident. So just focus on the thicker, more tolerant areas of the face in the first instance.

Barrier off areas that are prone to trouble, that means the thin skin around the eyes, it means collecting in crevices. If you have little lines or wrinkles, nasal labial marionette lines, you want to be very careful because you don’t want product to accumulate. Even the tiniest amount extra of the retinol sitting in those creases overnight can make you more prone to redness and irritancy.

If I was extra cautious and maybe naturally prone to dry skin around my eyes, I would do an extra bit of moisturizer around my eyes. I would literally have moisturizer sitting on the surface because no matter how precisely you apply your retinol, products tend to creep.

That means that when you’re lying in your pillow, it can just encourage product to track a little bit into that thinner inner part of the eye. The other thing is sometimes you just accidentally swipe the eye area when you’re applying the retinol, and retinol on your eye lids makes things dry and peely. Or just a bit dry underneath, which makes your wrinkles look worse and then you start to worry that actually the retinol is doing more harm than good.

So moisturizer all over and if you have a little bit of extra moisturizer, I put it in the creases of the nose, which is another area where product can tend to settle and irritate. Check out those little areas where fine lines and wrinkles might be.


And then let it all soak in. Give yourself good 5 to 10 minutes before you come back to do your retinol step.

The final step is I always put lip balm on as a barrier because lips are prone to dryness if you get retinol on them. This is very important, particularly at the creases and some people are naturally prone to having some fine lines there. Again, it’s not a nice place to have retinols collect because it will cause irritation.

So, that’s me prepped and ready to apply my retinol.

I will not talk about my choice of retinol. I will do a separate article on what retinol is right for you and going through all the different ones.

What I think is key when you’re starting a retinol is to do less often and smaller amounts, building up to bigger amounts, more often as tolerance develops. That’s a process that happens over the course of weeks to months.

For the average patient I’m seeing for the first time, I tend to start them on every other day and I use a quantity what I call a half finger tip amount. So half the distance from the crease to the end of the finger. It’s approximately a pea size of amount if you want to use that sort of terminology and it’s around a quarter of a gram of product.

Over time as you get more tolerant and are able to use the product daily, I’ll build up to a fingertip amount, which is around half a gram.

I like products with pumps because they are easy. I find that droppers are a little harder to quantify the amount that you’re using. I do prefer the cream because it’s easier to distribute in a precise fashion. Serums are more liquid and they can lead to more potential spread onto areas you don’t wanna treat.

So, do not apply your reitnol to the eye area, because I think those are areas that are high risk.

There are areas that we want to treat because we want a thicker skin, we want skin that’s more resistant to wrinkling. But as I said, get used to doing it on the thicker parts on cheeks, forehead, nose and chin first.

I’m then gonna firmly rub that it. You want to saturate the upper layer of your skin and you want to really work product in. You don’t want it to sit on the surface, it’s just gonna irritate.

What we want is ultimately to get the product into the stratum corneum and then to drip down into the dermis where it can work its magic on collagen production, hyaluronic acid production, and so forth. Work in those areas nice and even, because consistency with these things is absolutely key.

Anyone who’s concerned about fine lines in the top lip will want to apply their retinol there but I use a little bit less. I use the majority on these thicker parts. You do want to work it into your nose because it improve the appearance of your pores. I will consciously wipe away the crease area so it’s not sitting there and collecting.

If I was super nervous and extra cautious and naturally prone to dry skin or I had a bad experience with active products before, I would now put another layer of moisturizer on my face. It’s what I call the moisturizer duvet.

So you’ve got a layer underneath to buffer and the layer over the top to minimize dryness. Since I do it at night, looking a little overdone isn’t gonna hurt. You’re not wearing eye makeup that will slide off or anything.

And if it gets you extra space to tolerate the retinol more quickly, then it’s a great thing. You have plenty of time over the next few weeks, the next few months, to build up the way you use your retinol to make it stronger. But now is not the time for that.

What’s really important is to understand that what happens tomorrow isn’t really the time that we worry about. I worry about what might happen in three to five days because that’s when retinol dryness tends to appear.

So don’t get cocky if you wake up day two and think oh I’m completely fine. No, stick to the every other day regime. Stick to the generous use of moisturizer before and even after and give yourself full two weeks of that protocol before deciding ‘am I going to be okay, can I escalate or do I need a bit longer on the same slow track.’

That’s pretty much. That’s how I approach it, that’s how I would start with time you can build up the frequency and the quantity so you can go from every other night to every night; half a fingertip to a finger tip amount and then when you’re ready and that’s usually after three months, six months, that sort of time frame, you can think about increasing the strengths, if you like what you see and you want to get even more results.

The First 6 Weeks


In terms of which one retinoid product you choose, I think that if you have a significant problem such as acne, melasma or significant premature aging, you may want to go the prescription route first.

If however you’re just looking for that freshening, you’re looking for more a glow, for more even skin tone, clearing out a few clogged pores (little blackheads around the nose), cosmetic great is completely a reasonable first step.

I think some of the easiest products to use are the Granactive retinoid product or Retinaldehyde base products .

I would start at the lower strength, which in whichever one you choose. The reason I like those two there isn’t so much to choose from in terms of strength.

The key principles to starting are to choose your retinoid and I believe that if you’re doing this for the first time, it’s worth stripping out all the other actives. Forget your acids, forget vitamin C, just focus on doing your retinol.

You might be able to go quite quickly once you get started but you won’t know until you try and I think it just makes sense to remove any other variables that might contribute to irritancy at the beginning.

The things that give people worry are dryness, irritation and redness. I think if you choose the right strength and you focus just on your retinoid and you start slow, you will be okay.

In the clinic I will typically prescribe retinoid use for every other night at the beginning and I will start with lower quantities at the beginning. I talk about a fingertip unit, using a line of product as long as your fingertip and I talk about a half a fingertip. Those are good measures that are easy to reproduce night after night, so you’re not using different quantities in a haphazard way. Consistency is key with retinoid use.

Every other night is a reasonable first approach for the first two weeks, but if you’re really nervous, try it every third night and just moisturizer on the nights in between.

That’s the first thing – starting slow.

Look at your performance after two weeks. If things are comfortable, you can consider going up a notch and start applying it every night or if you were doing it every third night, try every second night.

Slowly give yourself time to accommodate to this level before you got to higher level. It’s all about slow progression.

The next thing to think about is the strength and as I said most ranges now offer more than one strength so you can start slow and build up to the higher strength as things become more comfortable. But don’t be in a rush, think about improving over the course of blocks of six weeks because that is one skin cycle.

I certainly don’t review my patients any sooner, typically after three months, which is two skin cycles because that’s the right length of time to gotten through the tough part into the good stuff.

Then it’s important to have your support kit. The things that are going to make it so much easier for you to get through that initial phase of retinasation, where things can be challenging.

For me that means three basic things.

the first is a non foaming cleanser, which is fragrance free and non comedogenic because that supports barrier function, effectively cleansing your skin without depleting it, without leaving it needing you to put something back before you even start your retinoid.

The second is a non clogging moisturizer and I have no problem using the same moisturizer in the daytime as the nighttime, but for some of you, you might benefit from a lighter formulation for day, particularly if you’re an oilier side, whereas using a rich of product at night will help increase the tolerability of your retinoid at that time when you’re not that worried what your skin looks like.

Don’t be afraid to use heavier products than you might normally use because it will help you with your

the final thing is proper sunscreen use. Retinoids and sunscreen are a match made in heaven, they go hand in hand. You must use a sunscreen every single day without fail and use it properly if you’re using a retinoid.

Choose one that you are comfortable using every single day and by comfortable I mean using the right amount.

The 2nd Skin Cycle


The second skin cycle means you’ve done six weeks or more. Things should be starting to get a little bit easier because through usage you become tolerant to retinoids.

You’ve gone from using a smaller amount every other night to using larger amounts every night. If you haven’t that’s fine. Don’t panic. That’s more important is to be consistent – little and often wins the race.

That’s key. Keep on going, it doesn’t matter if you’re not doing every single night.

However, if you are able to use it everyday and you’re using a larger amounts, you’ve got maybe from a half a fingertip to a full fingertip quantity, you should now be starting to see signs of improvement.

This is where you should start the documentation of your skin and I would probably do that every two weeks with good-quality selfies in natural light.

This is all about defining what we’re trying to achieve. If you have blemish prone skin, dark marks that create the appearance of uneven tone, or anything else, you can measure those things to show that you’re headed on the right path.

With premature aging is slightly different, but I think photographs really do help you document what’s happening with your skin.

The things you’ll notice in the first six weeks and beyond is that the way the light interacts with your skin changes everything just starts to pop and glow and reflect the light better.

At this stage is still really important to keep your routine simple. Avoid adding more elements to your routine and stick with the simplicity of a retinoid face routine in isolation for a bit longer.

The first six weeks it’s key to practice sun avoidance so that might mean if you live in a hot country, wearing a big hat, not being outdoors in those strong hours of sunshine. But really it’s about managing to get through the first six weeks using the topicals.

By the time you get into week six to twelve, sunscreen has to happen! The key thing is to find a sunscreen that work for your skin. It should be one that’s has proper broad-spectrum cover.

Get really comfortable with your routine, you should be seeing the benefits and I think you’re probably ready to go on to stage 3.

The 3rd Skin Cycle


If you’ve been following the journey so far, you’re ready for cycle 3 which is comfort and escalation.

If you stuck with it, you’ve gone through the tough parts and you’re emerging into the golden zone, as I call it.

There are a couple of things that we can think about now and it’s at the right time to give these things consideration.

The first one is are we ready to use a retinoid of a greater strength.

What are the reasons to go to a higher strength?

Firstly, it’s because you like what you see, you want a bit more of it.

It’s very important though to define the goals because for many people there will be no need to go higher.

The key things to ass are “is my skin brighter, is it clear, is my skin tone improved, my blemishes well controlled, are my pores clear?”

All of those things are the measurable goals that we’ve set for ourselves when we started our retinoid journey-

There is no need to push your poor epidermis any harder if you’ve achieved those things.

But if you’re super comfortable and you’re not getting dry days where you’re having to skip your retinoid and I think that is a key sign that you’re ready to go up a strength.

I would say that’s particularly useful in someone who doesn’t have any time in the morning for an extra active step. That’s why doing a lot of the work at night time makes sense.

Te other thing is that you haven’t quite achieved the goals that you want, so escalation make sense because your skin is now tolerant and that step up will probably be an awful lot easier and now that your skin is well used to using a retinoid.

That situation is number one.

Situation number two is do we want to think about combining with other active ingredients to tackle other issues that are more specific.

You might want to work more specifically on pigmentation if you, for example, have melasma. That would mean ingredients like vitamin C or hydroquinone.

You would target your concern with the right ingredients and I think that’s a really good thing to think about. Sometimes extra retinoid won’t get you where you want to be and actually bringing in other ingredients will be a better route for you.

If you’re doing this by yourself, the addition of one active at a time is the safest and easiest way to move forward with your routine.

That sums up the cycle 3.

I hope I give you a good framework to safely and comfortably start an ingredient system that really will pay dividends for years to come.

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How to Start Using Retinol (Complete Guide)

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