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 • Skincare  • Skincare Guides  • Here’s *Exactly* How To Apply Your Retinol, According to the Experts
Woman after applying retinol to her skin

Here’s *Exactly* How To Apply Your Retinol, According to the Experts

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Main image – Lucasottone/Stocksy

It seems that everyone knows how to use retinol these days. Or do they?

Pretty much every social media influencer will have you believe that everyone and anyone is on the expert retinol train, but guess what? *whispers* Not everyone actually knows what to do with it.

Yes, believe it or not, there are plenty of people out there who have no idea how to apply retinol or how to introduce it into their routine. 

Even this beauty editor of 16 years can put her hands up and say “yup, retinol can be quite confusing”. So, if you agree, stop feeling the FOMO and know that it is totally normal to be feeling a little bit puzzled.

But retinol doesn’t have to be scary, as long as you know how to apply it properly. So, as well as discussing my own encounters with it here, dermatologist Dr Tiina Meder, plastic surgeon Dr Patrick Davis, and aestheticians Jenette Serrins and Rachel Lee Lozina are going to break down the rules of retinol application too, so that you’re fully in the know. 

 
Retinol, moisturiser and exfoliator products

Image – Anna/Adobe

 


What is retinol?

A derivative of vitamin A, retinol is a powerful anti-ageing ingredient that boosts collagen production resulting in firmer skin. It can also help to treat skin conditions like acne and hyperpigmentation.

The umbrella name for all types of retinol is ‘retinoid’ and you’ll find both over the counter versions (normally in serums – look for ingredients like ‘retinyl propionate’, ‘retinyl palmitate’, ‘retinyl linoleate’, ‘retinaldehyde’, ‘retinal’ or ‘retinyl acetate’) and also prescription types (most commonly ‘tretinoin’).

You can learn more about the differences between retinol and tretinoin here.

Whichever form you go for, retinol has been shown to offer help with everything from fine lines and wrinkles to acne, hyperpigmentation, skin firmness and skin texture.  You’ll normally see results in three months, but take a look at our guide to *exactly* how long it takes to see results with retinol here.

 

Woman using retinol on her face

Image – Moravska/Adobe

 


How to apply retinol

Despite being a hero ingredient, retinol can also be a little tricky to start using. Side effects for the first few weeks can include redness, dry skin and irritation (AKA retinol purging or ‘the retinol uglies’).  That’s why how you apply it really matters.

Follow the experts’ advice below for flawless retinol application to improve your results.

 

A captivating visual of a retinol-infused lotion, prominently displaying its anti-aging properties, positioned against a clean backdrop to emphasize its premium quality

Image – Anna/Adobe

 

Step 1: Cleanse your skin

“You should incorporate retinol in the routine following cleansing,” says Dr Meder. Use a cleanser to thoroughly clean the skin and prime it for retinol. 

In the evenings, do a double cleanse – which literally means to cleanse twice – so that every trace of makeup, SPF and bacteria from the day is removed so that your retinol can work to its full potential.

 

Step 2: Dry your face

Pat your skin, don’t rub, and wait for it to dry completely before the next step, according to the experts.

 

Should you put retinol on wet or dry skin?

It’s not widely known but it’s important to make sure your skin is *completely* dry before you apply retinol. “If the skin is damp, retinol absorbs deeper and faster and causes more irritation and side effects,” explains Dr Meder

And it’s not just drying your face after cleansing you need to worry about.  According to Dr Meder, you’ll want to avoid any  toners or serums before using retinol too. “Please, don’t apply retinol-based products on wet skin after applying toner or water-based serum if you want to avoid side effects,” she explains.

Dr Davis agrees you should stick to the basics. “Wash your face and let it dry completely before applying retinol.”

 

Step 3: Use the right amount

Next comes your retinol. “When you first start using retinol, you should use a pea size amount,” explains Lozina

This should be enough to cover the bits you want covered and make a difference. You can increase the amount as your skin adjusts to it.

 

Step 4: Apply it in the right places

“Avoid getting retinol near the under-eye area because this is the thinnest and most delicate area on the face,” Lozina warns. “Some of your retinol will naturally migrate there and you will feel sensitivity so there is no need to specifically apply it to this sensitive area.” 

But what about the neck? Can you apply it there? “Yes, your neck will not respond the same way as your face will because there are less sebaceous glands there, but it can become dry if you over use it.” 

Serrins adds that our “decollete could use a thin layer,” too.

Take a look at all the places you can apply retinol in our guide here.

 

PRO TIP: I apply retinol to my neck every other evening, instead of every day, as I have experienced it becoming red and a bit flaky if I apply it there too much. Serrins adds, “the higher the percentage, the less you may want to use on your neck and maybe only once a week.”

 

Step 5: Moisturise

Apply a gentle moisturiser (one free from active ingredients that may irritate skin if used alongside a retinol) after your retinol.

 

Should you put retinol on before or after moisturiser?

You should apply moisturiser after retinol but according to Dr Meder, only if you need it. “Most of the time, you apply retinol instead of moisturiser and before sunscreen,” she says. “But if moisturiser is needed, it should be applied after retinol.”

While some TikTokers swear by the ‘retinol sandwich method’ (applying moisturiser both before and after your retinol to reduce irritation), our experts all agree retinol is most effective applied directly to clean, dry skin – without any barrier in the way.

“Retinol works best if applied on perfectly dry skin, so it’s better not apply anything [before],” says Dr Meder.

 

Step 6: Use SPF

During the day, always apply an SPF of at least 30 daily over the top of your retinol and if you’re spending the day outside reapply at least every two hours. “Retinol increases skin sensitivity to ultraviolet rays,” says Dr Meder

 

PRO TIP: If you’ve got acne prone skin, “it’s important to avoid oils, so the best choice of sunscreens are oil-free formulations,” Dr Meder adds. 

 


When should you apply retinol?

If you’re new to retinol, the general advice is to keep it as a night-time ingredient. “This medicine is strong,” warns Lozina. And, as we’ve discovered, it can make skin more sensitive to UV rays.

However once your skin becomes accustomed to it, it can generally be used in the morning as long as you apply a broad spectrum sunscreen over the top (which you will hopefully be doing anyway). 

 

Sun products

Image – Anna/Adobe

 


How often should you apply retinol?

Lozina says to introduce it into your regime slowly. “I recommend 1-2 times per week,” she explains. 

“Even on the weakest strength it can cause a sunburn like feeling and dryness with 2 days of usage. Start slow and increase the amount only after you have acclimated your skin to the pea sized amount.”

When I first started using retinol, I applied a small blob twice a week, spaced out (so Monday and Friday). Then after a few weeks I would raise that to three times a week (Monday, Thursday and Saturday) and so on. 

My oily skin still felt quite sensitive at first, so imagine if I had started using it every day! I slowly weaned myself onto it and now I apply a large blob every evening. But if I were to ever give it a break, I know I would have to re-introduce it slowly again.

 

Close-up shot of a retinol-infused cream, highlighting its potential for reducing fine lines and wrinkles

Image – Anna/Adobe

 


The takeaway

The main thing to remember when it comes to retinol is to start slowly and work your way up. It’s so strong that going in all guns blazing could irritate even the hardiest of skin types, so wean yourself onto it sensibly.

Remember to make sure your skin is totally dry before you apply yours to minimise your risk of a skin reaction and avoid putting it on your delicate under eye area. 

Finally, even though I’m sure sunscreen is at the top of your priority list anyway (right?), it should be particularly high if you’re a retinol user, thanks to the risk of heightened skin sensitivity.

 

Meet the experts

Dr Tiina Meder began her medical career in 1995 as a cardiologist specialising in treating pregnant women with heart conditions. Later on she switched to dermatology, but kept her focus on health and pregnancy-safe methods. In 2009 she launched her own brand, Meder Beauty, from her clinic in Antibes, France. 

 

Dr. Patrick K. Davis is a renowned facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon delivering a highly personalised treatment experience in Beverly Hills, California.

 

Jenette Serrins is a skincare expert and celebrity aesthetician, and the owner, founder, developer and alchemist of Jenette Skin Care Inc and Being in LA wellness spa.

 

Rachel Lee Lozina is a New York State Licensed Aesthetician, Laser Technician and Oncology Aesthetician and Founder of Blue Water Spa in Oyster Bay, NY.

 

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Beauty Editor

The former Beauty Editor of Glamour UK, Philippa has been a beauty and lifestyle journalist for over 16 years, picking up countless tips and tricks from makeup artists, hair stylists, dermatologists and celebrities. In that time she’s written for names like Cosmopolitan, The Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, Grazia, Refinery 29 and Byrdie. Philippa lives in the UK with her husband, two children and their hyperactive cockapoo, Paddy.

Expertise: Makeup, hair care
Education: Oxford Brookes University
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COMMENTS
  • Betsy Jones

    REPLY

    What retinol would you recommend for a first time user?

    28th February 2024
    • Thanks Betsy. Since your skin builds a tolerance to retinol over time (although not everyone will be able to tolerate retinol so keep an eye out for persistent redness or skin irritation), it’s always a good idea to start with the lowest concentration and then build up to higher strengths. The Ordinary’s Retinol 0.2% is fairly gentle and it’s in a moisturising formula which should help with some of the initial dryness you might notice. Start by applying once a week and then build up slowly from there- and please always make sure to use an SPF daily when using retinol. Any of queries though please don’t hesitate to get in touch and we’re always happy to advise x

      28th February 2024
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