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How Often Should You Use Retinol? Here's What Dermatologists Say

A quick rundown on ideal retinol application frequency.

If you’ve spent any amount of time on #skintok or poked around beauty forums or magazines, there’s a solid chance you’ve come across retinol. Considered one of the best skincare ingredients you can slather, this vitamin A derivative prevents and minimizes signs of aging, including wrinkles, laxity, and hyperpigmentation.

Knowing its powers, you may feel inclined to apply retinol any chance you get. Not so fast! There’s a method to how often to use retinol, especially if you’re new to this anti-aging hero.

<p>Jacob Wackerhausen / Getty Images</p>

Jacob Wackerhausen / Getty Images

How Does Retinol Work?

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A that triggers an uptick in skin cell turnover and stimulates collagen and elastin production. This helps create a more even skin tone and a firmer, smoother surface. Think smaller pores, fewer fine lines, and a glowy complexion. As incredible as this skincare ingredient is, though, it does come with some side effects.

“If you use too high of a concentration, or do not ease into use, you can experience burning, itching, inflamed, and irritated skin,” notes board-certified dermatologist Howard Sobel, MD, clinical attending dermatologic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Some other side effects include peeling, dryness, redness, and breakouts caused by skin purging. That said, it’s important to build up both the frequency of your retinol application and the potency of the formula itself.

How Often Can You Use Retinol?

Once your skin has adapted to retinol, you can apply it daily. You can even increase the potency by using a higher concentrated formula, or by requesting a prescription for  tretinoin (a stronger retinoid) from your dermatologist.

Before this can happen, though, you should ease into usage to help minimize some of the side effects listed above. Think of it more as a marathon versus a sprint, says Kseniya Kobets, MD, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and assistant professor of Dermatology at Montefiore-Einstein.

“I recommend that you begin by using a lower strength or over-the-counter retinol to see how your skin responds,” Dr. Kobets says. “Start by applying a pea sized amount on top of a moisturizer about once a week [in the evenings]. It’s better to use once a week for several months, than experience skin irritation from daily use and being forced to stop due to intolerance.”

Even at this low frequency, you may experience some subtle side effects mentioned above. Once your skin adapts to the product you’re using, these side effects will subside. That’s a sign you can increase your retinol application frequency to several times a week, every other day, and then eventually daily (if you desire).

Using Prescription Retinoids

Skin that’s adapted to over-the-counter retinol products may benefit from using a prescription tretinoin with a stronger concentration of the ingredient, notes Rachel Lee Lozina, a licensed esthetician and founder of Blue Water Spa. Alternatively, you can start with a low-dose prescription once a week and increase frequency from there.

This prescription variation is referred to as tretinoin, and it uses a more bioavailable form of vitamin A referred to as retinoic acid. “Prescription tretinoin comes in three strengths: 0.25, 0.5, and 1.0,” Lozina notes.

Similar to the way you build up usage frequency and potency with over-the-counter retinol, you can work your way to higher concentrations of tretinoin and more frequent application of the product. Eventually, you can apply the product daily (or every other day) depending on your preferences.

Using Retinoids With Other Skincare Ingredients

How often you use retinol or prescription tretinoin also depends on the rest of your skincare regimen. Since this is a strong active ingredient, it shouldn’t be applied at the same time as other active ingredients, notes Dr. Sobel. These include alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAS), enzymes, benzoyl peroxide, and vitamin C. This can result in an overload that disrupts your skin barrier.

Instead, it’s best to alternate actives every-other-day, or use one active ingredient in the morning and the other at night. When using retinoids, it’s also important to use a gentle, non-active cleanser, moisturize with a serum and cream, and use a sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher every day.

Retinol Application Tips & Tricks

Whether you’re new to retinol or have been slathering this ingredient for a while, heed these expert tips:

  • Choose a High Quality Product: Not all retinol products are created equally, so do your research. Dr. Sobel says, “Choose a high quality, clean, soothing retinol formulation with hydrating, calming ingredients for best results.”

  • Protect Sensitive Areas: “If you find your skin around lips and eyes gets very sensitive—even if you do not apply there, it travels—you can try to put extra rich moisturizer around those areas before retinol application,” Dr. Kobets says.

  • Layer with Moisturizer: If your skin has a strong reaction to mild retinol, apply it over a layer of moisturizer. This can help reduce the potency.

  • Be Mindful of Seasons: When the weather’s cold and dry, your skin may not tolerate the same retinoid frequency you’re used to, notes Dr. Kobets. You may want to pull back on how often you use retinol during winter.

  • Consult a Professional: If you’re unsure about what retinoid to use or whether your skin’s response is normal, reach out to a skincare pro. “A professional makes it that much easier to navigate because most people quit before even really starting or don’t use it properly at all,” notes Lozina.

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