How Can I Get Retinol to Work for Me?

Dermatologists and skincare experts discus the ins and outs of retinol.

woman with honey blonde hair applying cream to her face

For years people at the Byrdie offices have raved about certain cult-favorite retinol products: Shani Darden's Resurface Retinol Reform ($88) is a favorite of our wellness editor, Victoria, Peter Thomas Roth's Professional 3% Retinoid Plus ($82) is beloved by our editorial director, Faith, and The Ordinary's Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane ($14) is hugely popular amongst our readers.

But there are some amongst us who have tried all of them and more, with few to no actual results. Even if we apply as directed on the packaging, drifting off to sleep with dreams of tight, glowing skin, we might wake up to find our faces looking duller than when we use our typical vitamin C. So what gives? Why is this magic product just not as magical for all of us?

"You are absolutely right about seeing more immediate results when using a vitamin C product as compared to retinol," celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau told us when she heard of our retinol woes. "But don't give up on retinol or retinoids just yet."

Type of Ingredient: Exfoliating

Main benefits: Reduces wrinkles, exfoliates, prevents aging.

Who Should Use It: In general, people with acne or people who are concerned about the appearance of aging skin. It's not recommended for people with sensitive skin due to its ability to irritate the skin.

How Often You Can Use It: Once a day maximum, typically once every few days.

Works Well With: Anything hydrating, to offset the irritation.

Don't Use With: Vitamin C; other exfoliants like glycolic acid, and alpha hydroxy acid (AHA); and astringents, as doing so may irritate the skin.

What is Retinol?

First things first, let's go over the definition of retinol. Most simply, retinol is a modified form of vitamin A that boosts collagen production when spread on skin. "When applied, retinol converts slowly within the skin to retinoic acid. It then binds to the receptors and activates the cell maturation process in the skin. This means it's delivered into the skin slowly, over a period of hours, instead of all at once upon application," explains Rouleau.

Dr. Ted Lain of Sanova Dermatology echoed Rouleau's sentiments: "Retinol is derived from Vitamin A," he told us. "Once it is absorbed into the skin, it is converted to the active form, retinoic acid, for which our skin cells have receptors. Once bound to the receptors, retinoic acid causes changes including, but not limited to, faster turnover of skin cells, increased collagen production, and lightening of brown spots."

Benefits of Retinol for Skin

According to cosmetic chemist Vanessa Thomas, of product development firm Freelance Formulations, retinol has "anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant properties, anti-microbial properties, and enhances anti-acne properties." In other words, it's a powerhouse.

"With continued use, vitamin A slowly improves the skin's appearance. It smoothes the skin's texture by lessening visible wrinkles, lines, acne scar indents, large pores, scarring, and brown spots," notes Rouleau. That being said, "The potential side effects of retinol will vary greatly across users, depending on what else they have going on with their skin."

But here's the thing: "Most people won't notice an improvement for about two months—this is why you have to stick with the program. The product is doing something for your skin, whether you are seeing the results right away or not," says Rouleau.

"Retinol works over time to retexturize and resurface your skin," adds Christine Chang, the co-CEO and co-founder of Glow Recipe. "Certain vitamin C formulations leave the skin immediately brighter and more even-toned due to the unique delivery system." Rouleau notes, "Brightness has a lot to do with pigmentation, which can be caused by brown spots and post-acne marks. That's the reason your skin will look more even-toned and 'bright.' But even though those results are immediate, you have to continually use the products to keep them. Cells will build up again quickly after using an acid, so the results are short-term unless you continue with regular use."

Retinol vs. Retinoids

Retinol is the term for over the counter vitamin A derivatives; retinoid is the term for all products with vitamin A, regardless of whether they need to be prescribed. All retinols are retinoids, but not all retinoids are, strictly speaking, retinol.

Side Effects of Retinol

This all being said, many women in the K-beauty community advise against retinol completely. "I never use retinol," says Alicia Yoon, skincare guru and founder of Korean skincare brand Peach & Lily. "I have very sensitive skin and there is always an adjustment period to retinols," she explains. "During this period, skin can become more fragile—thinner, basically—and results in increased sensitivity, and at times, peeling and flaking. I find that a lot of my clients also struggle with the initial adjustment period of using a retinol. On the other hand, with consistent use, after that adjustment period, there are studies that show that retinol can actually help thicken the epidermis.

So here's the thing: There are two conflicting points of view. Those that tell you to never give up on your retinol, make it through the initial adjustment period, and you'll be better off in the end. And, those who believe you should work with the products that keep your skin happy and bright from day one. For now, I'm going with the latter. While instant gratification isn't everything, I do have faith in the products that have been working for me thus far. It's up to you (and your derm) how you choose to treat your skin.

How to Use Retinol

There are safe ways to use retinol. "People with fair, sensitive skin tend to be more susceptible to initial side effects of using retinol, such as redness, peeling, and sun sensitivity," Dr. Lain explains to us. "In order to mitigate these side effects, I often advise these patients to both mix the retinol with moisturizer and start using it every other night for the first 3-4 weeks, increasing as tolerated to every night. Depending on the skin type, and other skincare products being used, I often start retinol in the .3 to .5% range, increasing to 1% after 2-3 months. Care should be taken to avoid pairing a retinol product with other skincare that can also cause irritation or redness, such as hydroxy acids." For extra sensitive skin, we at Byrdie like putting retinol on over our moisturizer to create a barrier to start out with.

But unlike what you're often told to do, Lain doesn't steer clear of Vitamin C. In fact, Lain often doubles down using Vitamin C to make his retinol more effective. "Vitamin C works very differently than retinol to exert beneficial effects on the skin. As an antioxidant Vitamin C helps stop free radicals from wreaking havoc in our skin. Free radicals, caused by poor diet, sun exposure, stress, and pollution, cause degradation of collagen, DNA mutation, and overall contribute to premature aging.  Since retinol and vitamin C work in such different, yet mutually beneficial, ways, it is very rare for me NOT to start a patient on one of these products without the other.” However, we'd recommend that if you have sensitive skin, you don't use the two at the same time unless you want some serious redness and irritation.

Dr. Ranella Hirsch, board certified dermatologist and co-founder of Atolla has a similar answer to Lain when asked how to start use of retinol. "S-L-O-W-L-Y!" she emphasizes. She even gives us a handy tip: "People almost always use much more of this ingredient than they need to. For the entire face and neck, a drop the size of a pea is more than enough. Pat it on your clean dry skin in the evening, and rub all over. You should be able to take a tissue and stick onto your face and have it fall off; that is a proper application. If the tissue sticks, you are using more than you need and will likely experience irritation. I typically have folks start it 1-2 per week, every 3-4 nights alternating with a very rich moisturizing product on the other nights."

The Best Products with Retinol

texture reform, in an all white bottle with grey writing and presumably a pump underneath
Shani Darden Texture Reform Gentle Resurfacing Serum $95

When you're first starting out with retinol, gentle is the name of the game—which is why Shani Darden's product isn't just one of our favorites, but one of the best retinols out right now.

A-passioni retinol cream in a squeeze tube
Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream $74

Drunk Elephant aren't just behind some of our favorite masks of all time, they're also behind some of our favorite treatments of all time, like their A-Passioni Retinol Cream ($74). With vegan retinol derived from passionfruit, this treatment can be used either as a mask or as a high-concentration, overnight treatment.

Luna sleeping night oil with retinol and blue tansy in a dropper
Sunday Riley Luna Retinol Sleeping Night Oil $105

This retinol isn't just a favorite of ours. In fact, it's seemingly a favorite of pretty much everyone's. That could have something to do with its light-as-air formula, or it could be a product of the combination of nourishing oils with serious skincare benefits. Whatever it is, this retinol was made to be less irritating than your typical retinol—and unlike most, it actually does that job.

super facial serum with retinol 8
Verso Super Facial Serum with Retinol 8 $130

Plenty of product lines are built around retinol, but few are as well designed or efficacious as Verso, a company that touts Retinol 8 as its superstar ingredient. Retinol 8, like others on this list, has been formulated to cut out the irritation associated with regular retinol use. It's also said to be really hydrating.

granactive retinoid 2% in squalane
The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane $10

The Ordinary have made their name through cheap and effective products, and this potent retinoid is a fan-favorite. Ringing in at only $10 with a high (2%) concentration of active retinoid, it's a steal for anyone who wants to dip their toes into retinoids but doesn't want to overcommit. Be careful, though—2% is a lot, so use it sparingly and with days between, at least at first.

skin balancing super antioxidant serum
Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum With Retinol $36

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you have super sensitive skin, you might want to go with a product like this one from Paula's Choice. It has just 0.03% retinol—so you can really get your face used to the product, without any kind of rash.

mara algae retinol face oil
MARA Algae Retinol Face Oil $120

This face oil first became famous on Instagram (likely due to the gorgeous green/blue/gold color scheme) but it's worth all the hype behind it. It uses evening primrose and brown seaweed to calm and hydrate your skin, so it can stand the whopping 1.2% retinol included. Still, work your way up with this one.

Related Stories