Here’s *Exactly* How To Apply Your Retinol, According to the Experts
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.
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.
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 ‘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.
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 a broad-spectrum sunscreen over the top of your retinol. “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).
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.
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.
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.