Retinol has officially reached icon status in skin care. The ingredient, which is a derivative of vitamin A, has a broad scope of expertise: it can help minimize fine lines and wrinkles, kick acne to the curb, and fade stubborn dark spots. Unfortunately, retinol’s side effects, like irritation, redness, dryness, and peeling — although temporary — frequently overshadow its many benefits.
According to Dr. Corey L. Hartman, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Birmingham, these flare ups of irritation are formally dubbed retinization, and they usually occur within two weeks of ingredient introduction — sometimes sooner.
Retinoids (the overarching term used to describe all vitamin A derivatives) work their magic by increasing cell turnover. During this time of retinization, Dr. Hartman explains that your skin is essentially getting used to retinoids doing their job. “It’s just kind of a shock to the system,” he says.
The good news? These side effects don’t last forever, and the benefits of using retinol or a dermatologist-prescribed retinoid in your skin care routine can seriously outweigh the initial inconvenience. On top of that, the extent of which you experience irritation, redness, or flaking (if at all) depends on quite a few factors.
Ahead, five tips that’ll make dealing with the retinol learning curve so much easier — so you can finally experience the hype for yourself.
Retinol Side Effects Tip #1: Retinol Is Less Irritating Than Other Retinoids
First, an important vocabulary lesson. Dr. Hartman says that when dermatologists use the term “retinoids,” they are typically speaking of prescription-strength formulas, or the active ingredient retinoic acid, which he says are typically 10 to 20 times more potent than retinol.
As a refresher, retinol is the vitamin A derivative found in over-the-counter products. “Retinols must be converted to retinoic acid to have an effect as opposed to prescription-strength retinoids which exist as retinoic acid,” Dr. Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, explains.
Because retinol has to go through a conversion process on the skin in order to take the form of retinoic acid, they take longer to have an effect (meaning the results you want for your skin). However, Dr. Garshick says that means retinol is also less irritating. “Additionally, retinols may be formulated with other ingredients that help to simultaneously hydrate the skin, which also may help with tolerability.”
Therefore, someone using a retinoid product prescribed by their dermatologist may deal with more redness, peeling, and irritation than someone who picked up an over-the-counter anti-aging serum at Sephora.
Retinol Side Effects Tip #2: Ask Your Dermatologist for Personalized Product Suggestions
Your skin type and the products you use on a daily basis can influence your reaction to a retinol or a prescription-strength retinoid product, so it’s especially helpful to take the extra time and book a dermatologist appointment before introducing this ingredient into your routine. He or she can help you choose the appropriate retinol or prescription-strength retinoid, fill you in on its appropriate use, and curate a routine filled with complementary products and ingredients. “There’s a lot of education that goes into it,” Dr. Hartman says.
For example, a dermatologist might recommend a totally different vitamin A formula and set of instructions for someone with oily skin compared to someone with dry skin or rosacea. “Somebody who's dry, they don't have the same needs,” Dr. Hartman says. “They may not have acne. They may not need the oil control, so they can get away with a product that's more of a retinol or something that's not as high concentration.”
A person with oily, acne-prone skin who also has scarring or discoloration, Dr. Hartman explains, may need to be on a prescription-strength product to see results and may also start at a higher dose.
Retinol Side Effects Tip #3: Introduce Your Retinol Slowly — But Consistently
If you’ve never used a retinol or prescription-strength retinoid before, slathering it on every single night right off the bat isn’t a good idea.
“Retinoids can trigger an irritant dermatitis, which is defined by something coming into contact with the skin that triggers irritation and can occur in anybody who is exposed to a sufficient quantity of the product, as opposed to allergic contact dermatitis which is generally a condition that only occurs in some people no matter how much of a ingredient is exposed to the skin,” Dr. Garshick explains.
So, to minimize reactions, you’ll want to introduce this ingredient very slowly and in small quantities. A general starting point is 2-3 times a week, but that is subject to change depending on your skin type. For example, Dr. Garshick explains that someone with sensitive skin may start off using retinol just once a week.
Then, it’s somewhat of a waiting game to see how and if your skin reacts. If there are no problems with tolerability, redness, or dryness, Dr. Garshick says the frequency of use can be slowly increased. However, moving too quickly might also result in so much irritation that you decide to ditch the product for weeks at a time or altogether — possibly hindering the trajectory of your results.
“If you stop and start, you're never going to get improvement,” Dr. Hartman says. “I'd rather you [apply the product] two times a week and then increase that to three times a week after a few weeks, than to do seven days straight and then stop and start it again for seven days — because you're never going to get to that point that you can manage the side effects that you're trying to avoid.”
Gradual introduction, Dr. Hartman says, will help you manage your side effects and develop a consistent habit — and that is key for improvement. “We know that the best products in the world, if they’re not used consistently, they’re not worth anything.”
Retinol Side Effects Tip #3: Pair Your Retinol With a Moisturizer
Using a moisturizer along with a retinol could help soothe some of the irritation of retinization, Dr. Hartman explains — typically, he recommends applying retinoids over moisturizer.
“Certain retinoids, like tazarotene, are lipophilic, which means that they like a more oily environment, not a water-based environment. When you apply that first, it helps to draw the product into the dermis where it's going to be more effective than sitting on top of the epidermis, where you're going to experience more side effects with the peeling and the dryness and the redness,” Dr. Hartman says.
If you have sensitive skin, something called “the sandwich technique” may be helpful in preventing irritation. Dr. Garshick says this is when you apply moisturizer first, then the retinoid, and then your moisturizer again on top. Remember — a retinoid can already cause undue dryness, so don’t skimp when it comes to replenishing your skin’s moisture.
Retinol Side Effects Tip #4: Use Sunscreen
You should wear sunscreen every single day to protect your skin from damaging UV rays — period. But sunscreen can also serve as a tool for soothing retinol-related side effects. Regardless of if you apply retinol in the morning or at night, the ingredient can cause irritation. That irritation can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so applying (and reapplying) the appropriate amount of SPF is crucial. Dr. Hartman says sunscreen can also help with redness.
When in doubt — or if you’re not always so diligent about applying your daily SPF — use your preferred retinoid product at night when your skin is out of the sun and has plenty of time to rest and repair.
Retinol Side Effects Tip #5: Edit Your Routine
You might need to make some temporary change to your skin care routine while you’re getting used to your retinol. For example, Dr. Hartman says you might want to cut out or limit some hydroxy acids, like salicylic acid, that might “accentuate the effect of a retinoid.” All of those active ingredients are essentially a recipe for skin irritation.
Not all hydroxy acids need the boot though. “There are some humectant hydroxy acids, like glycolic and lactic, that can actually be beneficial because they can drive moisture in and they can also help to get rid of unwanted scaliness,” Dr. Hartman explains. Another pro tip? Avoid cleaners that are particularly drying and opt for a more hydrating formula instead.
This also isn’t the time to finally try the serum you’re seeing all over TikTok or the moisturizer you picked up during the spring Sephora sale. When adding a retinoid (or any new product) to your routine, Dr. Garshick suggests introducing them one at a time so you can easily pinpoint what’s causing a reaction.
And when in doubt, turn to a dermatologist for help curating a well-rounded routine. As Dr. Hartman explains, they know firsthand just how game-changing retinoids can be. “Any dermatologist would never stop using a retinoid. If there was only one product that any of us could use, after sunscreen, it’s always going to be a retinoid. Always. There's just too much science behind it.”