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 • Skincare  • Skincare Guides  • Here’s *Exactly* Where You Can Apply Retinol On Your Face
how to use retinol vitamin a skin face serum

Here’s *Exactly* Where You Can Apply Retinol On Your Face

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Main Image – Jacob Lund/Adobe

In the world of skincare, few ingredients have drummed up as much attention and admiration as retinol – and for good reason.

This potent, vitamin A-derived elixir is a go-to for dermatologists and beauty aficionados, promising to turn back the clock on ageing and smooth our acne-prone skin.

But *where* (and how) does this potion work its magic?

We’ve called on the experts for this one, asking dermatologists Dr Jody A. Levine, MD and Dr Geeta Yadav to pick their brains on everything you need to know about exactly where you can apply retinol.


how to use retinol vitamin a skin

Image – Kirsten D/


What is retinol?

First up though, what *exactly* is retinol?

Suitable for all skin types, retinol is derived from Vitamin A and works wonders to promote cell turnover, helping with everything from acne to, dark spots, fine lines and wrinkles.  You may also hear this ingredient called ‘retinoid’, which is the umbrella term which covers all types of retinols, both prescription and store-bought.

However a word of caution is in order – while retinol is a potent ally in the fight against ageing but wielded without wisdom, they can become the foe of healthy skin (think redness and flaking).

For the ingredients to truly *shine*, they demand respect, a measured approach, and proper guidance from skincare professionals.

So let’s dive in to where the experts say you can apply retinol.


retinol pores skin

Image – Lkvyatkovskaya/Adobe


Where should you put retinol for best results?

So now we know what retinol is, but where do you apply it for the best results?

Dr Levine tells LTG HQ, “Generally, you should apply retinol to your entire face, avoiding the delicate skin around the eyes and mouth.”

That means your forehead, nose, cheeks, chin and neck can all benefit from retinol, but that sensitive areas (like around the mouth and eyes) will need to give this ingredient a miss.

Dr Levine adds, “Retinol is usually applied after cleansing and before moisturising. Apply a pea size amount of retinol to your face, allow it to absorb, and then follow with your moisturiser. This helps minimise potential irritation from retinol and ensures your skin stays hydrated.

“If you are new to retinol, you may want to start with a lower concentration and gradually work your way up to prevent irritation. Also, start just one or two times a week and add days slowly.”

More on this next, so keep reading…


how to use retinol vitamin a skin face serum

Image – Jacob Lund/Adobe


How should you use retinol?

“You’ll get the best results from a prescription-strength retinoid, but I’d recommend starting with an OTC retinol if you’re a beginner,” Dr Yadav explains.

Dr Yadav also echoes Dr Levine’s sentiments about building up your skin’s tolerance to the ingredient, “Retinol can be very sensitising at first and you’ll have to build up your skin’s tolerance of the ingredient so you can apply regularly and thus achieve the best results.”

But, how do you do you apply retinol?

Dr Yadav recommends “using a retinol serum (or prescription-strength gel/cream) rather than a moisturiser as a serum will be more concentrated and thus more effective, and applying a pea-sized amount to the entire face and neck (on clean, dry skin) once a week to start.”

Unlike other actives that benefit from being applied to damp skin, derms and skin experts advise using retinol on clean dry skin. This is because damp skin allows for deeper absorption of the ingredient, which could cause irritation with retinols.

It’s worth noting that, while retinoids are not thought to be phototoxic (meaning they won’t react with sunlight to cause a burn on the skin), many of them may break down when exposed to UV rays and they can make skin slightly more sensitive to the sun. So, it’s best to use retinol and night to safeguard your retinol’s effectiveness and, as we ALWAYS say, wear SPF every day to avoid sun damage.


how to use retinol vitamin a skin face serum

Image – Jula Isaeva/Adobe


How often can you use it?

This is another question we see *really* often, and it’s just as important as building up your skin’s tolerance.

Dr Yadav advises that, after you have applied retinol to your skin, “If your skin does not react — you may see dryness, irritation, redness, or flaking — you can bump your application up to twice a week, spacing out that application so your skin can adjust.

“As your skin learns to tolerate the retinol, increase your frequency of application until you’ve worked up to daily application. From there, if your skin is fully tolerating the treatment, you can start this process over with a stronger formula.”

In short, unless a brand specifically says differently, if your skin is tolerating retinol well after three weeks of use every three days, move up to every other day, then every day.

After 12 weeks of retinol use you should be starting to see noticeable results and you may be able to move onto a stronger percentage.

Cleveland Clinic agrees with this, saying that “since retinol can irritate your skin, it’s best to start slow.

“After a patch test, you might use a product once every few days, and then gradually ramp up to once or twice per day. At first, you might experience redness, itching or burning, but these symptoms go away as your skin gets used to the treatment.”


how to use retinol vitamin a skin face serum

Image – Photo Sesaon/Adobe


What other actives you can pair with retinol?

Although retinol has HUGE benefits for skin, it can be tricky to begin incorporating it into your skincare routine due to the need for building up a tolerance and the risk of using it with other actives and ingredients.

So let’s take a look at what ingredients you can layer with retinol.

You can use retinol with:

  • Niacinamide
  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Peptides and Ceramides
  • Sunscreen

Retinol tends to cause dryness and irritation, while hyaluronic acid and niacinamide hydrate the skin and maintain your skin’s function as a protective barrier – the *perfect* combos!

Hyaluronic acid is a great moisturiser that works by slowing the evaporation of water from your skin. It soothes and plumps your skin, which can help counteract some of the irritating effects of retinol use,” says Cleveland Clinic.

“Niacinamide is a vitamin B3 derivative that can help clear acne and reduce the signs of aging. It also helps protect your skin, and may help counteract the irritating side effects of retinol,” it adds.

And what shouldn’t you layer retinol with?

Unless advised by a dermatologist, you should avoid layering retinol with Benzoyl Peroxide, AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs.

If you use any of the above actives at the same time as applying your retinol, you could be in for dry, irritated skin that is super sensitive.

Also take care when using both retinol and vitamin C.  While these two skincare heroes actually complement each other well, since vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and some types of retinol may break down in UV light it is best to use your vitamin C in the morning and retinol and night rather than with each other.

Instead, make sure your skin is used to a retinol first and then slowly bring in other actives on alternate nights to using a retinol.


how to use retinol vitamin a skin face serum

Image – Veronika/Adobe


The takeaway

When it comes to skincare, retinol is the gold standard.

Incorporated into loads of skincare products these days, no other ingredients stimulate collagen production, boost skin elasticity and firmness, fight fine lines and wrinkles, target acne, remove sun damage, and inhibit hyperpigmentation quite like vitamin A.

So, if you haven’t yet incorporated it into your skincare routine – now you know how to!

Start with a low percentage and build up your skin’s tolerance to retinol, and be sure not to layer it with harsh acids to avoid any sore and unsightly side effects.

So, guys and gals – drink your water, wear sunscreen daily, and apply your retinol (onto clean, dry skin) nightly!


Meet the experts

Dr Jody A. Levine, MD is a one of America’s top dermatologists and the Director of Dermatology at Plastic Surgery & Dermatology of NYC, a leading medical and aesthetic practice in New York City.


Dr Geeta Yadav is a world-renowned board-certified dermatologist and the founder of FACET Dermatology in Toronto, Canada.


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Senior Beauty Editor

Laura Kemp started her journalism career as a news reporter for one of the largest newspaper groups in Europe before moving into features and editorial writing. Combining her love of hard-hitting journalism with her passion for beauty, she’s now Senior Beauty Editor at Live That Glow. When she’s not writing, researching, or interviewing her favourite experts, you’ll find Laura practicing her downward dog or drifting on her paddleboard.

Expertise: Hair care, nails
Education: University of Salford

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