How to Safely Get Started with Retinol And Stick With It

Retinol, aka topical Vitamin A or retinoids, can make immense improvements to the overall look and feel of your skin. It has been praised as the Magic Bullet in skin care by aestheticians, dermatologists, beauty editors, and late 30’s Bloggers with fine lines and dark spots (namely, me!).

But many of us end up with red, flaky, dry, irritated skin instead of the soft, porcelain skin we have imagined!

But, have no fear. These are the best ways to reduce irritated skin, find a great retinol to start with, and most of all, learn the best ways to keep using it so you get the maximum benefit.   

What Does Retinol Do?

Retinol is best known for fading hyperpigmentations, like dark spots and acne scars, reducing fine lines and wrinkles, treating and preventing acne, and making skin look and feel more youthful and radiant. Think of it as a powerful mega-exfoliator.

According to Harvard Health retinol:

  • Increases collagen production which makes skin look youthful and radiant
  • Stimulates growth of new blood vessels in skin
  • Increases cell turnover

Sounds amazing, right? 

The biggest complaint for most people who are new to using retinol is the sudden onset of dry, flaky, red, irritated skin. We go in with high hopes and end up sad and disappointed because our skin looks like we just took a walk through the desert without sunscreen! 

In the beauty world, this is called the retinization period. It’s basically the period of time it takes for skin to get used to retinol. If you’re using a strong enough (but not too strong) concentration, your skin with become inflamed and irritated, making those lovely red, dry, flaky areas on our skin. It can take 6-8 weeks for skin to fully acclimate to using it, but many of us are good after about a month. 

But, you can make the retinization period better and take steps to minimize the red, flaky reaction as much as possible. 

Prepare for Retinol

Most people don’t realize you have to prep skin for at least a week before trying retinol for the first time. This translates to using a high quality, all natural or organic (preferably!) moisturizer twice a day for at least a week before applying. This will build up your skin’s moisture barrier which helps protect it. Organic and all natural moisturizers won’t have any known skin irritants which can irritate skin further or even cause an allergic reaction. 

Drunk Elephant Natural Skin Care

We love Drunk Elephant Protini Polypeptide Cream because its super gently and hydrating. This brand was literally created for skin prone to irritation and sensitivities. DE believes “sensitive” skin is just “sensitized” skin and this process can be easily fixed by eliminating the ‘suspicious 6.’ These are a list of 6 additives (Essential Oils, Drying Alcohols, Silicones, Chemical Screens, Fragrances/Dyes and SLS) which can cause a lot of problems for skin.  

Find Your Best Concentration

Going straight to high concentration prescription retinol, like Retin-A (tretinoin) or Differin, is  way too strong for most people. Over-the-counter retinol comes in much smaller concentrations which won’t irritate skin as much as the stronger ones. Plus, they’re less expensive! 

When getting started, use a medium or low concentration, we recommend 0.5% or 0.2%, and apply 2-3 days per week. This helps skin get acclimated so you can increase the amount of days per week you use it and eventually, you’ll increase the concentration. If you don’t get red and flaky after the first week, you may have started off with too low of a concentration and need to bump up to the next strength. 

Choose a retinol mixed in with moisturizers, like Squalane, which mimics skin’s natural oils to gently moisturize and hydrate. This will help moisturize while skin is being mega-exfoliated, minimizing red, flaky skin and shortening the retinization period. 

Top Pick for Best Starter Retinol 

For most people, The Ordinary 0.5% in Squalene is a good concentration to start with. The right concentration for you will leave you with some red, flaky areas but not so much you won’t leave the house or are in serious pain. This 0.5% is a good medium strength retinol mixed into a natural moisturizer, squalane. Once you have been using it consistently, building up to daily use, bump up to the next strength. 

If you have super sensitive skin, it’s best to start with the lower concentration 0.2%.  We love The Ordinary because of it’s natural ingredients and HUGE following. Loads of people love this brand.

the ordinary retinol

The Ordinary Retinol 0.2% in Squalane

  • Low Strength, Moderate Irritation
  • Water-Free, Pure Retinol
  • Squalane for Hydration
  • Vegan
  • Cruelty-Free
  • Silicone, Nut, Gluten, and Alcohol-Free
  • Full Ingredients: Squalane, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Retinol, Solanum Lycopersicum (Tomato) Fruit Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Hydroxymethoxyphenyl Decanone, BHT
the ordinary retinol

The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane

  • Medium Strength, High Irritation
  • Water-Free, Pure Retinol
  • Squalane for Hydration
  • Vegan
  • Cruelty-Free
  • Silicone, Nut, Gluten, and Alcohol-Free
  • Full Ingredients: Squalane, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Retinol, Solanum Lycopersicum (Tomato) Fruit Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Hydroxymethoxyphenyl Decanone, BHT

If you are a regular user of retinol, you should be able to tolerate the 1%.

The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane

  • High Strength, Very High Irritation
  • Water-Free, Pure Retinol
  • Squalane for Hydration
  • Vegan
  • Cruelty-Free
  • Silicone, Nut, Gluten, and Alcohol-Free
  • Full Ingredients: Squalane, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Retinol, Solanum Lycopersicum (Tomato) Fruit Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Hydroxymethoxyphenyl Decanone, BHT

Apply At Night and Wear Sunscreen During the Day

Retinol makes skin photosensitive so be sure to apply it at night. Apply a good natural or organic moisturizer first, then apply the retinol. This will help prevent irritation. 

Wear sunscreen during the day, even when you don’t have retinol on, and protect your face with a hat if you’re out in the sun for extended periods of time. You’ll get a sunburn easier than normal. 

What You Should Expect 

For the first month-ish, your skin is going to be a bit more sensitive than normal. This means your regular cleanser may be too powerful and you’ll need something geared more towards sensitive skin to avoid adding irritation and causing dermatitis. 

We love Drunk Elephant Beste No. 9 Jelly Cleanser for it’s super gentle cleansing and makeup removing.  Drunk Elephant products do not have any of the Suspicious 6 irritating ingredients (Essential Oils, Drying Alcohols, Silicones, Chemical Screens, Fragrances/Dyes and SLS).

Using a VERY gentle exfoliator to get rid of the dry, flaky skin between uses, like 2 days after using may work for you. But you have to be careful. If it’s too harsh, your skin might get irritated for longer than normal which won’t do you any good. It shouldn’t have salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or glycolic acid or any other strong ingredients. Since retinol is an exfoliator, the goal is not to exfoliate, it’s literally just to GENTLY get that dry, flaky skin off so you look and feel better about your skin. 

We love Eminence Organic Skincare Pear & Poppy Seed Microderm Polisher because it’s really gentle and has absolutely no irritating ingredients. I use a pea size amount on my wet, clean face and use very soft circular motions, then rinse. The flakes come right off without scratching my skin.

After exfoliating with this, try a super hydrating organic mask. My favorite is Eminence Firm Skin Acai Masque because it’s super hydrating, totally organic, and has nothing irritating in it. There are literally bits of acai fruit in it. If you don’t know Eminence, you’ll love what you find out.

eminence organic

For bonus points, use a calming serum to reduce inflammation. I use Eminence Calm Skin Arnica Booster Serum for its antiinflammatory, antiseptic, and anti-irritant properties. 

Stick With It For Maximum Results

Be patient. You’ll have to put up with this routine for as little as 1 month and up to 2 months until skin isn’t in the retinization period anymore. Minimize the time frame and discomfort by using a hydrating retinol with a medium or low concentration, applying only 2-3 nights per week, only using all natural or organic products to eliminate irritants in those, and properly moisturizing. Between uses, try a VERY gentle exfoliator and hydrating mask. Always use sunscreen (and maybe a hat!) in the day.

It can take 3-6 months of regular use to get maximum results, but it’s so worth it!