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How to use retinoids … like a pro

If you want to know how to use retinoids, you’ve come to the right place. But first, make sure you read the part one of this blog article: What are Retinoids? That way you’ll have an understanding of what retinoids are, what retinoids do, the different types of retinoids and what skin conditions can benefit from using them.

With that knowledge under your belt, you can now look at some of the more practical aspects of how to buy, store and use retinoids, just like a pro. We’ll also tell you our top 10 tips for using them.

Retinoids are Vitamin A derivatives that are used to treat certain skin conditions or to improve skin ageing. They come in high potency prescription strength, such as Tretinoin, Adapalene and Tazarotene. And then there are the lower strength retinoids, or cosmetic retinoids, that are used in skin care products for their anti-ageing credentials, including Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate, Retinaldehyde, Retinol, Retinyl Acetate and Retinyl Palmitate.

Being Vitamin A derivatives, they’ve got many things in common, but also some important differences.

Prescription-strength retinoids, such as Tretinoin, contain the active form of Vitamin A, Retinoic Acid. Cosmetic skin care products typically contain Vitamin A derivatives, precursor molecules that rely on enzymes in the skin to convert them to the active form. These are less potent, but there are studies to show that they also have positive anti-ageing effects on the skin; it just takes a longer to see results.

We know that many of you want skin care to be more fun than serious, however before we move on let’s recap on a few key points for those who may not have read the earlier blog all the way.

Conversion steps

Retinoic Acid is what the skin recognises and utilises, so Retinaldehyde, Retinol, Retinyl Acetate and Retinyl Palmitate all need to be converted in the skin first before being available to weave their magic. Retinyl Acetate and Retinyl Palmitate need to undergo three conversions to Retinoic Acid. Retinol needs to undergo two conversions. And Retinaldehyde needs to undergo one conversion.  With every conversion step, there’s a weakening of potency and therefore efficacy. But, as we’ve mentioned, that isn’t always a bad thing.


The efficacy of retinoids depends on the concentration. A higher concentration of Retinol, for instance, will mean a higher conversion rate to Retinoic Acid, or the active component found in Tretinoin. But the higher concentration, the more likely the irritation, such as dryness, redness, itchiness and flaking. This means the product is being taken up by the skin’s receptors.

For many, these symptoms pass as the skin becomes acclimatised, but some people just can’t  tolerate retinoids, no matter what they do to ease the adjustment.


All vitamin A derivatives are unstable to some degree. They don’t like air, sunlight or heat, and degrade quickly when exposed to any of these. Retinol is the purest form of Vitamin A. Retinol and Retinal were notoriously unstable in the past and difficult to formulate with. However new manufacturing technologies have meant that it’s now more typically used in an encapsulated form, which enhances their stability and reduces its irritancy.

Choosing the right retinoid

If you’ve got moderate to severe acne, rosacea or a skin condition, make sure you talk to a doctor or dermatologist first. Don’t go it alone. They’ll need to determine the suitability of using a retinoid, the most appropriate form to use and the right strength for you. In most cases, where a skin condition is being treated, a prescription retinoid is needed. They’ll also need to review your progress and help you manage any side effects, or even potentially even change you over to another prescription retinoid.

If you’re looking to over-the-counter retinoids for their anti-ageing benefits, consider the type of retinoid, the strength, the formulation and the packaging. They all matter. It really isn’t all about going for the strongest one out there. Causing too much irritation can cause inflammation, and inflammation is pro-ageing.

If you’re not sure which type of cosmetic retinoid to use, refer back to our What are Retinoids? blog article. It’ll explain the different types of retinoids, the number of conversion steps required for each type and their individual pros and cons.

How to use retinoids

Buying retinoids

When shopping for a cosmetic retinoid, there are a number of things you should look for. Retinoids come in many in different formulations, and some manufacturers and brands make some pretty exaggerated claims for their version.

Remember that the new kid on the block, Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate, holds promise as being more active and less irritating, but it doesn’t have the backing of independent science yet. Retinol and Retinaldehyde are the two forms we know a lot more about and have been effectively using in skin care for many years.

What to look for

What to avoid

Remember to always keep your retinoids away from light and heat – find somewhere cool to store them.

Frequency of use

Finding the right routine with retinoids takes some experimentation, as no-one’s skin or biology is exactly the same. While some people can use 1% Retinol every day, others can only manage 0.25% a couple of times a week. It’s essential you listen to the needs of your own skin and not fixate on using the highest strength as frequently as possible, as this can be too much for your skin and prove counter-productive.

When first using retinoids, you should always start on the lowest strength. You can apply a very small amount of product and wait for it to absorb, before applying a moisturiser. If you have more sensitive skin, you can mix a very small amount with your moisturiser to buffer it, and use it this way until you’re confident your skin will be able to manage the retinoid on its own. It’s probably best to stick to 2-3 times a week for the first month. If your skin is responding well, you may be able to increase your applications until you find the perfect frequency.

Make sure you keep up your skin’s moisturisation and incorporate products into your skin care routine that will help offset any dryness or potential irritation. For those with normal to dry skin, applying a few drops of non-fragranced plant oils daily, in addition to a moisturiser, can provide some extra comfort and hydration. If your skin is on the oilier side, you may be able to use plant-derived Squalane, another oil or oil blend that works for your skin type. Hyaluronic Acid is also very helpful in offsetting retinoid irritation and can be used by every skin type.

Before we get into how to use cosmetic retinoids like a pro, ensure you have healthy skin to start or you could get more than you bargained for, and that won’t be pretty. Tackle any irritation, inflammation or skin barrier issues first by nurturing your skin back to health with the right skin care routine and right skin care ingredients, such as botanical anti-inflammatories and replenishing lipids (cholesterol, free fatty acids, ceramides). Applying cosmetic retinoids to an already vulnerable skin can cause further irritation and inflammation.

To get the most out of your cosmetic retinoids, ensure you make a careful decision about whether you should be using them and how to correctly incorporate them into a planned skin care routine. The random use of high-strength actives in skin care could damage your skin.

Top tips on how to use retinoids like a pro

  1. Choose a formulation that contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients as these can help reduce potential irritation.
  2. Retinol and Retinal should have the water and oil ratio for better stability and shelf-life. Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate is much more stable and can be formulated in an oil base.
  3. Look for a product that comes in an opaque container and preferably one that is airtight.
  4. Start on a low dose, such as a Retinol 0.25%. Buffer with some moisturiser or sandwich between apply two layers of moisturiser if you’re finding it irritating. That’s the great thing about Retinol, it comes in different strengths and many brands will tell you the strength. It’s a lot harder with Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate and Retinaldehyde as the brands don’t’ necessarily give you a clear indication of strength. And it can get even trickier still. A declared 10% Granactive Retinoid, the brand name for Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate, is really not 10% of the active ingredient Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate. Actually, it works out to be about 1%.
  5. Work up to the highest dose for your skin. Aim for 0.5-1.0%. This can take time; don’t rush it. Try different forms of retinoids and different formulations, as sometimes this can make a very big difference. Some people find that they can tolerate a particular strength in one brand but not another, due to the different formulation of the product. Alternatively you can buffer it by mixing a little with your moisturiser or apply it and immediately follow with your moisturiser – keep in mind it will take longer to see results.
  6. Apply retinoids only at night. Retinoids are unstable in sunlight.
  7. Allow your skin to dry properly after cleansing before using retinoids. If using a prescription retinoid, wait 15-20 minutes so as to reduce potential irritation.
  8. Make sure you use a high SPF broad-spectrum sunscreen every day. Retinoids make your skin more sensitive to the sun and therefore more at risk of sun damage. Whenever possible, also wear a hat!
  9. Given the heroes that retinoids are, they don’t always like sharing the limelight. Some other ingredients interfere with, or increase the likelihood of, a reaction when used together. Benzoyl Peroxide, Glycolic Acid, L-Ascorbic Acid and Salicylic Acid, specifically if they’re in leave-on products, are best used in your morning skin care routine.
  10. Avoid using fragrance when you use retinoids as it can affect their stability. Yet another reason to apply them at night!
  11. To extend the anti-ageing benefits, apply your retinoid to your neck, chest and back of hands.

Bonus tip: Research has found that incorporating an AHA into your skin care routine alongside your retinoid, increases effectiveness and improves results. Glycolic Acid not only refines the skin and allows treatment products such as retinoids to better penetrate, it also increases the skin’s production of collagen. A 10% concentration of Glycolic Acid has been found to be effective in treating the signs of ageing, but not as effectively as a 0.05% Retinoic Acid. But use these two power agents with caution. Refer back to tip 8 and remember to avoid using them at the same time in your skin care routine.

Use retinoids with care

Cut back on the strength or frequency of your retinoid application if it’s causing too much irritation. If the irritation doesn’t subside or improve within a few weeks, try an alternative formulation or stop using retinoids.

Some people find their skin doesn’t acclimatise to retinoids. Look instead at incorporating Vitamin C derivatives, peptides, growth factors, enzymes or gentler AHAs, such as Mandelic Acid or Polyhydroxy Acid. There are always alternatives available.

Prescription retinoids are by prescription for a reason: they have side effects, including some serious ones. They’re  also teratogenic, which means they could cause a birth defect. Don’t use retinoids if you’re planning to become pregnant, pregnant or breastfeeding.

Avoid using retinoids at the same time as Benzoyl Peroxide. Both these active ingredients in skin care can make your skin dry, irritated and sensitive. Benzoyl Peroxide deactivates some retinoids and can make the skin photosensitive.

Retinoids may be freely available in cosmetic skin care products, but that doesn’t mean they should be trifled with. They’re powerful actives and using them without balance can cause skin and potentially even health issues. Europe has tighter restrictions on skin care ingredients than the US and there are increasing concerns there about the use of cosmetic retinoids. This may lead to the introduction of restrictions on their use. So don’t overdo it!

To read more about Hero Ingredients in skin care, visit our Skin Intelligence pages.

Remember that skin needs more than just retinoids to function well and look healthy. Look to all aspects of skin health, including nutrition and regular exercise, to keep your skin looking its best.

Having read our two blog articles, you’re now well versed on how to use retinoids to get the most out of them and minimise the downsides.

But should you need to go beyond our top 10 tips and need expert help to select the right one for your skin, give us a call. We’re always happy to help.

Yours truly in better skin

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