By now, you’ve been told at least 3,000 times that retinol is the single most magical skin-care product ever invented and you must use it immediately lest your face shrivel up in a pit of wrinkles and dark spots and sadness. But has anyone really told you how to use retinoids (the umbrella name for all vitamin-A derivatives, like retinol) correctly? We’re not talkin’ “use as directed,” or “use until irritation occurs, then stop using,” but rather, easy-to-follow directions for how to use retinoids without your skin peeling off? Probably not.
So we’re fixing that today with step-by-step instructions so even the most scared and confused of retinoid beginners can hop on the anti-aging bandwagon without fearing that their faces will flake off. Keep reading to find out exactly how to dab on your favorite Benjamin Button product tonight.
STEP 1: Start with a ridiculously gentle formula.
“But I want these wrinkles gone NOW,” you whine. We know, but trust us when we say that starting with a milder formula will still give you the same results over time. “You absolutely do not need prescription-strength retinoids to get the same effects in collagen production and cell turnover,” says dermatologist and badass Mona Gohara, noting that yes, you’ll probably see results from using an intense, high-dose prescription product a little faster, but, in the process, you could also irritate your skin to pieces (literally).
Instead, Gohara recommends starting with retinaldehyde (like Avene Retrinal .1 Intensive Cream), one of the mildest of all the retinoids, or the very gentle retinyl palmitate (like Exuviance Vespera Bionic Serum), both of which will still produce noticeable results within two or three months, without burning your skin off. But before you run away to slather it all over your face…
STEP 2: Only use a tiny amount on totally dry skin.
Unlike the way you approach margaritas and bottomless tortilla chips, less really is more when it comes to retinoids. After cleansing and patting down your face at night, wait a few minutes to guarantee that your skin is totally dry—“damp skin can interfere with how much retinol is absorbed, which can result in irritation,” says Gohara—then squeeze a pea-size dab of retinol into your palm. Using your fingers, smooth the retinol over your face, starting first with your forehead (the skin there is less sensitive, so it can take a stronger dose if you accidentally apply too much), then moving on to your nose, cheeks, and chin.
After a full 20 minutes has passed, smooth on your usual serums and moisturizers, making sure to avoid any acne-fighting products (a.k.a. anything that includes benzoyl peroxides or salicylic acids, unless you want to play fast and loose with irritation). If you’re already terrified that your sensitive skin will freak out and melt off, you can first apply a moisturizer, wait 20 minutes, and then apply your retinoid to water down its potency.
STEP 3: Now wait an entire week until you use it again.
Hey, you wanted the real, no-bullshit guide to retinoids, right? Unless your skin is made of steel and has never felt sensitive once in its life, err on the side of caution and follow Gohara’s 1-2-3 rule: Use once a week for one week, twice a week for two weeks, then three times a week for three weeks. If, and this is a big if, your skin has had zero reactions thus far (no burning, itching redness, or irritation), bump up your usage to every other night, and then keep it there for a few months before attempting nightly usage. If your skin starts feeling overly sensitive at any stage of the 1-2-3 process, take a step back down (i.e. move from three times a week back to two times a week) and chill there for a while. This isn’t a race—you’ll ideally be using retinoids for the next 50+ years of your life, and studies have found that even super low-strength retinoids had the same anti-aging effects on skin as moderate retinoids over the same length of time. So take it slow and listen to your skin.
Guys, we wish we could say there were more steps, but it really is that simple. Just play by the rules, and nobody gets hurt…ideally. And if you’re still leery of using retinoids, a vitamin C serum (like Clinique Fresh Pressed Daily Booster with Vitamin C) will help stimulate collagen production while also protecting skin against wrinkle- and dark spot-causing free radicals. It’s nowhere near as powerful as retinoids, but it will still improve your skin tone over time. And with this knowledge, you may now go forth into the world a shining young thing after using any of our current faves below.
Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum
Consider this squalane-based, bakuchiol serum one of the most hydrating retinol treatments out today.
$72 at Sephora
CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Cream Serum
In addition to encapsulated retinol that’s gradually released into the skin, this retinol formula also includes three types of ceramides for ample hydration.
$18.49 at Ulta
Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream
This lightweight cream made with clean ingredients, including vegan retinol, is the key to bouncier, blemish-free skin.
$74 at Sephora
Herbivore Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum
If retinol proves to be too harsh for your skin, bakuchiol is a plant-based alternative that delivers the same results with less irritation along the way.
$54 at Sephora
Kate Somerville +Retinol Vitamin C Moisturizer
This innovative day or night cream (take your pick) is proof that you can mix vitamin C and retinol for smoother and brighter skin.
$90 at Sephora
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream
This new fragrance-free moisturizer boasts the fastest-working retinol formula of any other drugstore option.
$27.99 at Ulta
Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Moisturizer Fragrance-Free
In addition to retinol for smoother skin, this night cream’s proprietary blend also holds moisture in the skin for 24 hours.
$38.99 at Ulta
philosophy help me retinol night treatment
The Microsponge Technology in this night cream encapsulates retinol to keep it stable and gradually release into the skin.
$49 at Ulta
The Ordinary Granactiv Retinoid 2% Emulsion
Apply a dime-size amount of this retinoid blend before your night moisturizer even out your skin’s texture and blur out fine lines.
$9.80 at Sephora
Urban Skin Rx Rapid Repair Retinol Treatment
Formulated specifically for brown skin, this multi-tasking retinol cream is 1.25% Retinol, 2% Kojic Acid and 5% Niacinamide for diminishing dark spots and improving texture.
$24.99 at Ulta