Today we're laying down must know rules for using retinol including answers to your commonly asked questions; How to use retinol? When to apply retinol in my skincare routine? What age to use retinol?

How to Use Retinol; The 6 must know, skin-safe rules of retinol use

In Anti-aging & Protective Skincare, How to mix skincare by Cheryl Woodman MChemLeave a Comment

When you first start looking for anti-ageing skincare which works – you’ll be stumbling over a bazillion articles on retinol.

Retinol is the number 1 go-to for anti-ageing skincare.

Long fact made short: Retinol (/ a more potent form of retinol known as all-trans-retinoic acid) was yonks ago entered into a clinical trial for acne fighting when suddenly huge numbers of trial participants started seeing fine lines and wrinkles reversing.

Now there’s a clinical trial to be on ‘eh.

Since this day retinol has been a hero ingredient for anti-ageing skincare.

BUT – retinol can come with side effects, especially if you’re not using retinol the right way. 

Today we’re laying down must know rules for using retinol including answers to your commonly asked questions; How to use retinol? When to apply retinol in my skincare routine? What age to use retinol?

Are you ready my friend?…

Today we're laying down must know rules for using retinol including answers to your commonly asked questions; How to use retinol? When to apply retinol in my skincare routine? What age to use retinol?

1. How to Use Retinol: Start With a Low Concentration Retinol

Imagine back to the first time you tasted alcohol. Did you like it? Now imagine if the first time you ever tasted alcohol it was 100% neat whisky – not on the rocks, not with cola mixer and not even ice cold.

Queue weird grimace-shiver face.

It’s super normal to hate alcohol the first time you taste anything which isn’t an alco-pop.

…and it’s super normal for your skin to be irritated by retinol – if – you go from zero to super-strength in less than a day.

How to use retinol: Start with a low-strength retinoid and build your way up.

Low strength retinoids allow your skin time to adjust.

Your aim – to tip-toe in your retinol as if your skin were a 6 month old baby who after 2 hours of wailing, just got off to sleep.

Examples of low strength retinols;

Any one of these 3 low strength retinols will be like a training bra to your skin. And don’t be fooled by the super low 0.03%, even very low retinol doses can have great skin benefits.

What age to use retinol? These low concentration retinols are fantastic starters for first time retinol users/younger skin. How well your skin ages depends on a number of factors – including sun exposure and genetics. In general it’s great to use a retinol from your 30’s/when you begin to see fine lines around your eyes/on your forehead.

2. Always Use Your Retinol in PM

Retinol is a night-owl for 1 key reason – sunlight can degrade retinol. Using retinol in your AM routine could mean 0% retinol for your skin. There’s also a sneaky suspected 2nd reason – retinol has potential to make your skin more sensitive to sunlight.

How to use retinol: Always use skincare products containing retinol (you’ll see this written as ‘retinol’ on the ingredients list) in your PM skincare routine.

Note: there’s a few versions/next generation forms of retinol which are OK to use in AM, however these are likely types you’d use for acne and not anti-ageing e.g. Adapalene – this guy’s sold as Differin gel.

3. Use Your Retinol Only a Few Times/Week to Start

Retinol side effects are a sign your skin’s had too much too fast. Save your skin from child fame syndrome by using your retinol only a few times per week to start.

Retinol can be an irritating skincare ingredient – especially if you have a dry/sensitive skin type.

Active skincare ingredients work in lots of different ways. One of the ways retinol works is to balance/slow your skin’s sebum production. A huge reason why retinol is fantastic for oily and combination skin types. However reduced sebum/oil production can mean your skin becomes more sensitive. Sebum gives your skin protection. When your sebum levels are reduced, your skin naturally has less protection/less of a barrier function.

How to use retinol: Using your retinol only a few times per week teases your skin into gradually adjusting.

Depending on the strength of retinol you’re using, cycling through these changes is best;

  • Using your retinol 2 times a week in PM
  • Using your retinol every other night in PM
  • Using your retinol every night (for low strength retinoids or mature skin types)

Doing step 1 for at least a month will help find your retinol sweet spot. If your skin loves this and has no retinol side effects, move to step 2.

Bonus tip: Some retinol formulas work with time-release technology/slow release formulas. Imagine lots of little retinol molecules, now imagine these same molecules with 100 tog sleeping bags. Situation 1 releases retinol into your skin instantly, situation 2 delays release of retinol until your skin has time to dissolve away the 100 tog sleeping bags. This means retinol is slowly released into your skin.

Examples of time release/slow release retinoids;

4. If You Have Sensitive Skin, Use Retinol with Caution

While it’s great for any skin type who uses retinol to pretend their skin type is sensitive, true sensitive/reactive/hypersensitive skin types need to be super careful. Retinol is an active skincare ingredient known to dry skin/slow sebum production and therefore it can cause your skin to become more sensitive.

If your skin type’s already sensitive, using retinol without following at least a handful of these rules will cause your skin to scream.

Here’s a list of things which can help your sensitive skin type love retinol;

  • Using low concentrations i.e. 0.01% retinol
  • Using a few times per week
  • Using only a small pea-sized amount nightly
  • Investing in a time-release/slow release formula
  • Using a face oil before your retinol – explained more below
  • Using short contact therapy – ditto
  • Using your retinol on dry skin – ditto

Using a face oil before your retinol. Usually when you buy retinol skincare you’re going to come away with a serum or moisturiser… and usually, as per skincare layering guidelines, this would mean your retinol needs to be used before a face oil. But, if your skin type’s sensitive using a face oil before your retinol could help your skin to adjust. Here’s the deal, thicker skincare products take longer to absorb and therefore in general cause less irritation. Use your face oil before a retinol moisturiser will make sure it sinks in slowly. Think of this like making your own time-release retinol formula. If your skin’s starting to show signs of retinol side effects, do this.

Try short contact therapy. Which literally means, put it on – wait a bit – wash it off.

Be sure to use your retinol on dry skin. Wet skin lets skincare actives through quicker because water’s a penetration enhancer aka water can break down your skin barrier. A fantastic example of this is how your skin feels after swimming – dry and crinkly ‘eh. After washing your face, be sure to pat dry and then apply your retinol.

How to use retinol: Treat your skin type as sensitive/treat your sensitive skin type as hyper-sensitive and use skincare hacks to slow down the absorption rate of your retinol.

These retinoids are fantastic for sensitive skin types;

Psst! If you’re reading this like wowzer – is retinol really this crazy – don’t worry, if your skin type isn’t sensitive you should be A-OK starting with a low-dose retinol and building your way up.

5. How to Use Retinol: Layer Your Retinol The Right Way

…and sometimes the wrong way! For your retinol to be most effective i.e. to bring you fabulous skincare benefits like anti-ageing, skin tone brightening, pore size reducing, blackhead fighting, spot preventing and more… you need to be layering your retinol the right way.

(we’ll get to why you’ll sometimes want to do it the wrong way – soon!)

Skincare order matters.

Use a thick cream before a serum and your serum will lose potency.

Should you use retinol before or after moisturiser? Dear friend, you should use your chosen retinol product before moisturiser… unless your retinol is an oil or balm formula. Which means for all of the retinoids I’ve recommended here, apart from The Ordinary’s retinol 0.2% in squalane (squalane is an oil), retinol comes before moisturiser.

Using your retinol in the right skincare order means the active ingredients will penetrate skin like they’re designed to. A super simple rule to remember – skincare should be layered from lightest to thickest.

Use thicker skincare before lighter skincare aka the wrong way… and you’re going to slow down the penetration of active skincare ingredients.

Which can sometimes be a great thing. If your skin’s showing signs of retinol side effects, you might want to consider using your retinol serum after moisturiser or your retinol moisturiser after face oil. Do this for a few uses and when your skin’s back to normal, go back to layering your retinol the right way.

How to use retinol: How you should apply retinol in your skincare routine depends on whether you have a retinol serum, moisturiser or face oil. Skincare layering the right way means skincare actives penetrate your skin more effectively i.e. will show you more skincare benefits. Read this guide for a 101 on skincare order. 

6. Keep Your Retinoid Separate from Acidic Skincare

Acidic skincare means products like acid toners i.e. toners using salicylic acid or glycolic acid or vitamin C serums using ascorbic acid i.e. Timeless Skin Care 20% Vitamin C Plus E Ferulic Acid Serum.

Here’s the deal;

Retinol loves a pH or around 5 to 6.

Salicylic acid loves a pH of around 3.

Glycolic acid loves a pH of around 3.6.

Ascorbic acid loves a pH of below 3.

See the niggle? When retinol is happy, retinol brings you maximum skincare benefits. When retinol is unhappy, retinol brings you a side helping of skincare benefits. Which means retinol should be used with skincare that has about the same pH. Acids and acidic skincare formulas don’t count.

Learn more about skincare mixing with a free copy of my how to mix your skincare like a pro guide – here’s the link you’ll need to download yours

How to use retinol: Keep retinol separate from acidic skincare, this means using on alternating evenings or waiting at least 20 minutes between applying. If you’re a girl boss with no time for waiting – do the first!


There you have it my friend, how to use retinol in 6 simple and easy to follow rules. Which retinol are you choosing right now? Come tell me in the comments below, oh and if you have more retinol use questions, leave me those too…