What Is Retinol and How Do You Use It?

By Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / Honayst

I glossed over this section rather quickly, thinking I would cross the retinol bridge sometime in my mid to late 30s, when those wrinkles would begin to emerge. Cue my 26th birthday several months later, when I noticed a few fine lines around my eye area. Not full-on crow's-feet so much as the suggestion of them—creases that became even more prominent when I smiled. Was it too much sun and not enough sunscreen? Spotty application of eye cream? Hours spent squinting at my iPhone? Too many nights spent asleep in a full face of makeup? I blame all of the above.

After freaking out and cursing myself for not being more diligent about skin care, I remembered Jean's mention of retinol and its famed ability to improve skin, and I began to stockpile every retinol product from the Honayst beauty closet. Before I dipped into my stash, however, I realized I didn't exactly know how to use retinol. After all, retinol's side effects can include flaking, dryness, retinol burn, and increased sensitivity to the sun, which means impeccable sunscreen application is a must.

Why should you use retinol?

Retinoids have long been considered the gold standard for antiaging and for treating acne for good reason. "Retinoids not only increase the cellular turnover rate of keratinocytes (cells on the outermost layer of our skin), keeping younger, plumper cells closer to the surface, ” says Jessica Krant, M. D. , a dermatologist at Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. “But they also help exfoliate older keratinocytes at an increased rate, which helps to unclog pores and keeps your skin refreshed without the need for harsh friction. Over a long period of use, retinoids also help increase the production of collagen and elastin in the dermis—the second, deeper layer of skin. Not many products work on so many aspects of skin health all at the same time. "

What that means is: Even if you don't have acne or fine lines and wrinkles, the ingredient can help maintain an even skin tone and give your skin that elusive fresh-from-the-spa glow.

Who is retinol best for?

While retinol can be beneficial for most skin types, it's not one-size-fits-all. "Retinoids are notoriously difficult to manage for people with easily irritated or sensitive skin, " says Krant. "Technically speaking, everyone could use one, but not everyone is able to figure out how to make it work for them. The conditions that make it the trickiest are rosacea, dryness, contact allergies, and general sensitivity. " She recommends people with sensitive skin try using Adapalene (like Differin), which has a gentler effect on skin and is FDA- approved for treating acne, but can also be used for antiaging.

Pay attention to what percentage of retinol you're using too: 0. 05% is a good place to start if you don't have sensitive skin, and you can work up to retinol products with stronger amounts over time. If you have more serious acne, your doctor can prescribe you a prescription retinoid (adapalene or tretinoin), that will be more potent, but can also be more irritating.

How do you use retinol in your skin-care routine?

She also says to stick with gentle cleansers (she likes CeraVe), and to always follow your retinol with a moisturizer, especially those with hyaluronic acid and ceramides. If your skin is really irritated, you can try buffering, where you apply moisturizer before retinol to reduce side effects. Most derms also recommend easing into retinol, starting with application once a week, and working up to every other or every night, depending on how tolerant your skin is.

When should you start using retinol?

Just because retinol is an effective ingredient for some, don't feel like you absolutely need to use it. "Retinol is not for everyone, and it should not be considered something that is a must—some people cannot tolerate it, and some don’t want to commit to a complex skin regimen, " says Krant. "But for those who are motivated, I would say starting a retinol product in your mid to late 20s is reasonable, as long as a daily moisturizer with sunscreen has been part of the plan since your teen years. Prevention comes first!"

If you're still new to daily skin care and sun protection, start by getting those basics in place for a few months before diving in to a more complex routine.

What are the best retinols to use?

Since getting the intel on retinol, I've begun using the stuff three times a week, and it's now as essential to my nighttime routine as a tube of toothpaste (I stick with Shani Darden Retinol Reform, which is a godsend). After layering it on consistently for the past six months, the fine lines around my eyes have diminished, and the pesky dark spots from acne around my cheeks and forehead have almost disappeared. Shop some of the other top-recommended retinols from experts below, and check out our in-depth reviews of the best retinol serums and creams.