How To Use Retinoids in Your Skincare Routine

Engage in skincare with care.

You may know retinoids as being the ultimate does-it-all skin solution. The product—derived from vitamin A and commonly used in its over-the-counter form, retinol—treats acne, fights fine lines and wrinkles, unclogs pores, and evens skin tone.

"Retinol stimulates a quicker renewal of skin cells," explained Debra Jaliman, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and author of the book Skin Rules. "When someone uses retinol, the outer layer of the skin is sloughed off, and the newer skin underneath is revealed."

What could be more appealing than fresh, unblemished, youthful-looking skin? But that revitalization doesn't come without risks.

"Retinoids can be irritating and drying to the skin, especially when you first start using them," said Shari Lipner, MD, PhD, associate professor of clinical dermatology at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York.

And that's on their own: Combine retinoids with other potent ingredients found in cleansers, creams, and serums, and the results can be uncomfortable. So, here's what you need to know about correctly using retinoids to help your skin flourish.

What Ingredients or Products Don't Mix Well With Retinoids?

Exfoliators

Retinoids get the job done by exfoliating your skin and unclogging your pores. And that's a case where less is more.

Adding another powerful exfoliant on top of your retinoid—like alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA)—can leave your skin raw, said Ava Shamban, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Los Angeles. Beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), commonly known as salicylic acid, also poorly mixes with retinoids, added Dr. Jaliman.

But don't be so quick to toss all of your exfoliants. You can still use those products. But try to stagger when you use them and reduce how much you manually exfoliate as well.

"Products with acids can be used during the daytime and retinoids at night," explained Dr. Jaliman.

Or, try a vitamin C serum, added Dr. Shamban. "It will both penetrate better and reduce the chance of irritation."

Over-exfoliating your skin can increase your risk of developing sunburns by making your skin sensitive to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. So, if you're using a retinoid, exfoliant, or vitamin C serum as part of your nightly and daily skincare routines, make sure to always apply sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer and premature aging.

Astringents, Toners, and Other Drying Agents

Astringents dry out oily skin. And likewise, retinoids tend to dry out your skin. So, the last thing you want to do is further deprive your skin of moisture.

"It is best to avoid other drying agents when using retinoids such as toners, astringents, and medicated cleansers. These products cause further irritation," mentioned Dr. Lipner.

Instead, consider piling on rich, creamy moisturizers to counteract any dryness that may occur.

How To Apply Retinoids for the Best Results

Start Small, Go Slow

A little goes a long way, according to Dr. Lipner. Adding a pea-sized amount of the product can treat your entire face.

You'll also want to ease into the medication.

"I tell my patients to start slowly, using the medication Monday, Wednesday, and Friday until their skin acclimates to the medication," explained Dr. Lipner. And once your skin is accustomed, steadily increase usage to nightly.

Use Sunscreen

"Using retinol can make your skin more sun sensitive," explained Dr. Shamban, who recommended that you don't spend much time in the sun.

Wear sunglasses or a wide-brimmed hat to protect your skin when you are in the sun. Further, whether or not you use a retinoid, make it a daily habit to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that has an SPF of at least 30 and reapply at least every two hours if you're spending time outside.

Apply Retinoids in the Evening

Topical retinoids are photolabile, which means that light affects them. "Retinoids are best applied at nighttime since sunlight can inactivate [them], making [them] ineffective," explained Dr. Lipner.

Don't Use Before Wax and Laser Procedures

Planning to wax or get laser hair removal on your eyebrows or upper lip? Both treatments target the top layer of skin cells, which can become super fragile when using retinoids that encourage cell turnover. And the result could be burns and irritation.

"Your dermatologist may advise you to stop using your retinoid before waxing or laser procedures," said Dr. Lipner. Thus, the simple fix is just taking a break from products prior to the treatment.

Stop Using During Pregnancy

Retinol, in the form of vitamin A, can transfer to the fetus prenatally through the placenta and postnatally through breast milk.

If you're planning to get pregnant—or are already expecting—do not use retinoids, explained Dr. Lipner. They are unsafe to use during pregnancy and may lead to fetal retinoid syndrome, a condition that causes ear and eye abnormalities, growth delay, and heart defects, among other physical birth defects.

Summary

Retinoids are products that accelerate your body's natural process of getting rid of dead skin cells, which helps eliminate acne. You should use retinoids cautiously, as they may interact with other skincare products irritating your skin. Use an SPF of at least 30 and add a moisturizing healing cream to your daily skincare regimen to combat sun sensitivity and dryness caused by retinoids.

And ultimately, if you still have questions or concerns about retinoids or other skin care products, talk with your dermatologist for more information.

Was this page helpful?
Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library. Got Adult Acne? Get Answers from an Expert.

  2. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or retinol?

  3. National Library of Medicine. Oily skin.

  4. Food and Drug Administration. Sunscreen: How to Help Protect Your Skin from the Sun.

  5. Leung AK, Barankin B, Lam JM, Leong KF, Hon KL. Dermatology: how to manage acne vulgarisDrugs Context. 2021;10:2021-8-6. Published 2021 Oct 11. doi:10.7573/dic.2021-8-6

  6. Bastos Maia S, Rolland Souza AS, Costa Caminha MF, et al. Vitamin A and Pregnancy: A Narrative ReviewNutrients. 2019;11(3):681. Published 2019 Mar 22. doi:10.3390/nu11030681

  7. Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center. Fetal retinoid syndrome.

Related Articles