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How to Easily Incoporate Retinol Into Your Skin Care Routine

Three different bottles of retinol serums
First Aid Beauty/Drunk Elephant/The INKEY List

Retinol is often recommended as an unbeatable way to help reduce fine lines, acne, pigmentation, and other skin problems. It’s a pretty strong, complex ingredient, though, which tends to put some people off. If that group includes you, we’ve got some tips on how to effectively, and comfortably, incorporate retinol into your skin care routine.

A popular ingredient in tons of skin care products, retinol can be very effective at fighting signs of antiaging and combatting other complexion issues. But, how much should you use? What do the different labels mean? Should you layer different products into your routine?

We’ve got all these answers, plus some recommendations to get you started.

Retinol vs. Retinoid

You’ll probably see the terms “retinol” and “retinoid” both used, and it’s important to understand the difference. Retinoid is the term for a group of vitamin A compounds, while retinol is the name for a specific type retinoid. So not all retinoids are retinol, but all retinols are retinoids.

Retinol is one of the most commonly used retinoids in skin care, although other members of the family have been used, as well. Others you might recognize include tretinoin, isotretinoin (aka, Accutane), and adapalene.

Common applications for retinoid products include the treatment of acne, reduction of wrinkles and fine lines, and treatment of hyperpigmentation. For the most part, retinol products are non-prescription and are lower-strength than other retinoids. Retinol is a relatively middle-of-the-road product—neither too weak for results nor too strong for normal skin—that is well tolerated by most skin types.

Tips for Using Retinol

A woman reading a label on a beauty product in a store.

Perhaps you’ve heard horror stories about retinol or simply don’t know where to start. Everyone’s skin routine will be a little bit different, but here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Your skin might look worse before it looks better: Because it takes time for your skin to adapt, you might experience mild redness, dryness, or peeling during the first weeks of retinol use. This is just your skin acclimating to the product—don’t be too alarmed!
  • You only need a small amount: Even skin that’s used to retinol can get irritated with overuse. Use only a small amount and don’t apply it every day.
  • Don’t layer retinol with the wrong ingredients: Good skin care is all about mixing the right ingredients, and avoiding the wrong. If you’re using retinol, you absolutely should not layer it with other products in which the active ingredient(s) are vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, or any AHAs or BHAs. Combining these is a recipe for irritated, red, or peeling skin. In fact, benzoyl peroxide or BHA combined with retinol can cancel each other out, rendering both totally ineffective.
  • Use an alternative if necessary: If retinol doesn’t work well on your skin for any reason, you can get similar effects with plant-based alternatives, such as bakuchiol.

Best for Beginners: FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum

A white bottle with a blue cap next to its box; a bottle laying on its side with yellow serum next to it
First Aid Beauty

As we’ve discussed, retinol doesn’t have to be a scary thing! Still, it’s a good idea to start slow. First Aid Beauty’s FAB Skin Lab Serum is a great entry-level retinol. Whether you have sensitive skin or just want to dip a toe before going all-in, this lighter formula is the perfect starting point.

With just 0.25% retinol concentrate (many other products contain around 1%), it’s gentler. Still, it will work to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, while also firming and smoothing.

Best Multi-Ingredient: The INKEY List Anti-Aging Serum

A black and white product tube; a hand holding a tube and squeezing yellow serum out of it
The INKEY List

When you’re a little more comfortable with retinol, you might choose a product that uses a combination of active ingredients to achieve its results. The INKEY List Retinol Anti-Aging Serum includes stabilized retinol 1% and granactive retinoid 0.5% in a slow-releasing formula.

The specific formula and combination of ingredients helps to gently and steadily release the active ingredients into your skin over time. With this slower delivery, it also reduces the likelihood of irritation while increasing the effectiveness. Plus, the serum also includes squalane for hydration throughout the skin, counteracting any dryness.

Best Clinical: Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Treatment

A purple bottle with yellow serum next to it; two purple bottles on a tan background
Paula’s Choice

Need something a little stronger? The Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment is a powerful 1% retinol formula to deliver real results. With this 1% retinol formula, you can tackle fine lines, visible pores, loss of elasticity, firmness, and more.

A quadruple peptide blend supports the retinol in leaving behind smooth, firm skin, Meanwhile, oat, willow bark, and licorice extracts work together to soothe the skin, calm any redness, and address sensitivity.

Best Cream: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

Several bottles with white bottles and red caps
Drunk Elephant

Most of these retinol products are serums, but for a richer feel, try the Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream. It’s a little more of a splurge product, and it has a slightly thicker, creamier texture than a traditional serum, which feels rich and smooth on the skin.

Combining vegan 1% retinol with supportive ingredients like peptides, it’s a great option to fight signs of age and damage while firming the skin. Vitamin F also plays an unusual role in this formula: The fatty acids work to calm skin and replenish moisture while improving the overall texture.

Retinols aren’t the only option for improving your skin. There are plenty of others for treating acne or revitalizing—it’s all about finding what works best for your skin type and preferences.

Amanda Prahl Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl is a freelance contributor to LifeSavvy. She has an MFA in dramatic writing, a BA in literature, and is a former faculty associate focusing on writing craft and history. Her articles have appeared on HowlRound, Slate, Bustle, BroadwayWorld, and ThoughtCo, among others. Read Full Bio »
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