Retinol was always one of those ingredients that I’d researched extensively as a beauty writer, but hadn’t ever put on my face until late last year. I’ve recommended it to friends and family, slathered on alternatives, and written what probably amounts to a novella’s worth of articles about vitamin A, all without actually starting my own retinol skin care routine. I’m right at the cusp, where modern “anti-aging” products start to feel like they’re talking to you: 27-years-old, with microscopic wrinkles, budding laugh lines, and some authoritatively aggressive under-eye bags. I knew people who routinely received preventative Botox and loved it, so what was a little retinol to keep my baby face intact?
And no, this isn’t where I’m going to tell you nobody needs retinol. You know that. I know that. Though I will let you know that it’s just as powerful of an ingredient as you think it is. I first started retinol on Nov. 6, 2020, and my skin is still getting used to it. My face will still flake if I put on too much, more than five months after beginning my new routine. Retinol demands commitment and respect, and if you aren’t ready to give that to your skin care routine, then I highly suggest opting for a retinol alternative instead.
But if you’re in for the long haul? Then retinol is ready to be your best friend.
I apply Drunk Elephant’s A-Passioni Retinol Cream once or twice per week and only at night, even months into this routine. At first, nothing happened. Then peeling — so much peeling. After that, I was amazed at how my face felt, rather than how it looked: bouncy, firm, and plumped up, like my skin had been magically thickened by some youthful fairy godmother. This sounds gross, I know, but trust me, it’s kind of amazing.
That said, the look of my skin matters. I haven’t seen earth-shattering, brand-new-face results from retinol yet — it’s a slo-o-ow ingredient — but I have noticed diminished forehead lines, more even texture across the outer edges of my face, and tightened pores the day after applying it. I’m into the slow results, too. I could up my weekly retinol applications if I wanted to at this point; I choose to move at a steadier pace, since my skin is naturally dry and sensitive.
Enter: the moisturizers. As soon as I began using retinol, I knew that I had to cushion my face in moisture and hydration at every step of the routine and cut out other hard-hitting ingredients I’d been using previously. (I’ve personally found that gentle vitamin C formulas, hyaluronic acid, bakuchiol, and niacinamide complement retinol and my skin, while additional exfoliants, AHAs, and BHAs are way too harsh right now.) I’ve used quite a few products over the past few months — perks of the job — but this is the state of my current skin care lineup.
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When you never know when or if your face is going to literally peel off, an extra-gentle cleanser is the right idea. (Seriously, there are times I haven't even wanted to rub too hard with washcloths.) This is a new formula from Tata Harper, and I love how it's made without potential irritants like fragrances or essential oils. Retinol is already irritating enough.
I would probably bathe in COSRX's snail mucin if I could. (That's got to be available at a spa somewhere, right?) The few times I've applied retinol without using it first, I've noticed much more irritation, a perk from the naturally reparative ingredient. I like how it adds in a damp layer for moisturizers on days I'm not using retinol, too.
Whether you use a drugstore moisturizer or a luxury buy like Dr. Barbara Sturm, you need to remember how important it is to go with one you'll generously apply. Some days my skin care routine consists only of a quick water rinse and moisturizer, but I'm still making sure my skin gets hydration even on my "off" days.
Protecting your fresh, retinized skin is critical, and I can *feel* the sun on my skin when other sunscreens wear off too quickly or don't offer me enough protection, even when I'm sitting indoors. I apply sunscreen on my face, neck, and hands, since all three are exposed to retinol during my routine, then follow up with a non-face SPF for my body.