A beginner’s guide on how to start using retinol

Everything you need to know on how to start using retinol

How to start using retinol
(Image credit: Rosdiana Ciaravolo/Getty Images)

If you've found yourself spending hours googling 'How to start using retinol' and are still none the wiser, we totally understand. With so many buzz-worthy ingredients around it's hard to know where to start. 

Retinol is touted as a one-stop-shop, youth-boosting powerhouse that will leave skin glowing, while reducing pigmentation, clearing acne and smoothing fine lines and wrinkles. Sounds like a miracle, right? Well, while the rewards are bountiful, choosing the best retinol serums can be confusing, and figuring out how best to use it even more so. 

We’ve got you covered, with an expert guide to everything you need to know on how to start using retinol, one of the beauty industry’s most lauded actives. 

What is retinol?

Derivatives of Vitamin A are known as retinoids and retinol is one of these derivatives. It’s the more potent out of the only two versions that are available without a prescription, and when added into your skincare regime it has the ability to boost cell turnover and collagen production. 

How does retinol work?

“Younger skin has a quick turn over of 4-6 weeks, however, as we age this can increase to up to 12 weeks. Thankfully ingredients like retinol speed up snail paced cell turnover allowing for the faster progression of the cells through the skin, and the natural sloughing away of the dead top layer – pushing newer plumper cells closer to the surface. This stops skin from becoming dry, dull, pigmented and prone to acne, and can help your other skincare products penetrate the skin better”, explains Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme, medical director of Adonia Medical Clinic.

Retinol is also “a powerful stimulator of fibroblast cells, one of the most abundant cells in the skin. These cells are responsible for producing firming collagen and hydrating powerhouse hyaluronic acid,” adds Dr Sophie Shotter. This means that the better your fibroblasts work, the firmer and plumper your skin will be. 

How to start using retinol

Retinol has a reputation for being a little scary, mostly because one of the biggest mistakes people make with this powerhouse ingredient is overusing it. “Retinol makes skin more sensitive to the sun, so it’s best to only use it at night, after cleansing and add an SPF 30 or above to your morning skincare routine. 

“All you need is a pea size amount on the face and be careful with the neck - the skin is thinner and produces less moisturising oils so can end up red and sore if you use too much. Apply half the amount used on your face on the front and back of your neck. And if your skin is on the dry or dehydrated side you can apply a hyaluronic acid serum on top,’ explains Dr Shotter.

Equally important is how often you use your chosen retinol. “Start slowly, once or twice a week for a couple of weeks, then every other night for another two weeks, followed by every night after your first month. If you approach it this way you’ll most likely avoid retinol peeling, adds Dr Ejikeme. 

When to start using retinol?

You don’t need to have lines and wrinkles all over to start using retinol. In fact, “everyone should be able to use some kind of retinol product from the age of 25,” shares Dr Shotter. This is because by that age, most people have developed anything from screen-time induced crow’s feet, and sunspots, to dullness and acne. Plus, on average our natural collagen production begins to decline around the age of 25, so while you may not yet notice a loss of elasticity, lines or wrinkles, retinol will help keep these issues at bay. “What’s most important however, is that you choose a formulation that’s best suited to your specific skin concerns and switch it up as your concerns change and evolve,” Dr Shotter adds.

This much-loved active is also an equal opportunity ingredient, so it’s safe to use on all skin tones and even on dry or sensitive skin types too. However, opt for a safe retinol alternative like bakuchiol or rosehip oil if you are pregnant or breastfeeding – as they both have the ability to boost collagen without any risk of entering your bloodstream.