Some people feel like retinol is not working and doesn’t do much, and others see it as a devil in a bottle that makes the skin worse. Now, we’re not saying retinol is a magic bullet, but it can definitely do wonders. The problem is that most people just starting their skincare journey often make mistakes that can sabotage the results and “ruin” their skin. We’re here to clue you in on the most common retinol mistakes, so you can avoid them and get the most out of your skincare routine.
Common retinol mistakes
These are the most common mistakes retinol users make:
- Overuse and over-application
- Starting with highly concentrated products
- Skipping sunscreen
- Using retinol with other irritating products
- Using retinol during the day
- Not buffering or layering properly
- Using a harsh cleanser
- Applying retinol too soon after an in-office treatment
Overuse and over-application
One of the biggest mistakes you can make that can lead to a world of hurt for your delicate skin is using your retinol product too often or applying too much of it at once. The skin needs time to rebuild its protective barrier, and slathering on retinol every night can make the recovery process very difficult. It’s true that retinol comes with side effects, such as increased sensitivity, redness, and flakiness, but they can be much worse if you overuse it. As long as you don’t go overboard, the side effects disappear as your skin acclimates to the product—usually happens within a few weeks—and you can enjoy all the benefits without irritation.
Give your skin the time it needs to heal, and you’ll be rewarded with a strong and healthy complexion. Go slow and work your way up. Begin by using retinol once or twice a week and gradually increase the frequency as your skin adjusts. And remember, a little goes a long way—a pea-sized amount for your entire face is all you need.
Starting with highly concentrated products
Starting with a 300-pound deadlift on your first gym visit would be a recipe for disaster, and you probably wouldn’t even attempt it. So why would you take the same reckless approach with retinol? Think of it this way: Just as your body needs to gradually build strength and endurance to safely move up to heavier weights, your skin needs to gradually build up tolerance to move up to higher strengths of retinol.
Going straight for high-potency products without gradually building up your tolerance can lead to serious consequences. To do this the right way, you’ll want to kick off with a 0.3-0.5% concentration. When you finish the product, step up to a 1% concentration and then, if needed, to 2%. This gradual progression gives your skin enough time to adjust and prepare for more powerful formulas. Remember, slow and steady wins the race! Here are some great retinol creams for beginners to get you started.
You better believe using retinol without sunscreen is a major mistake. It’s more like taking one step forward and two steps back. Retinol is notorious for making the skin more sensitive to UV, leaving you at a higher risk for sunburn. That sunburn is not only a “Welcome” sign for wrinkles and dark spots but can totally ruin all the hard work that retinol has been doing for your skin. You definitely don’t want to put yourself in that situation. Play smart and use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 before heading out into the sun! Wearing sunscreen every single day is an absolute must for taking care of your skin, especially if you’re using retinoids.
Using retinol with other irritating products
Applying retinol with salicylic acid at the same time isn’t the best idea. The same goes for glycolic acid, vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, and other aggressive actives. The reason is simple: Retinol temporarily weakens the skin barrier. If you combine it with acidic products like vitamin C or chemical exfoliants, you’re giving your skin too much to handle and risk irritating or over-exfoliating it. There are better ways to enjoy these potent actives, like applying them at separate times of the day (one in the morning and the other at night) or alternating their use (using them on different days). Moreover, retinol works best when paired with hydrating and soothing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and fatty acids, which actually help your skin recover faster.
Using retinol during the day
Using retinol during the day won’t ruin your skin but will definitely work against you. Here’s the deal: Retinol is not a fan of sunlight. When exposed to light, it breaks down and loses potency very fast. If you’re planning on catching some rays right after applying your retinol, then you’re pretty much throwing your time and money down the drain.
That’s why all dermatologists and experts (ourselves included) recommend applying it at night. Not only will you save it from deactivation, but you’ll get the most out of its skin-renewing benefits. Retinol boosts cellular turnover and collagen production, two processes that naturally occur while you sleep when the skin enters the repairing mode. By applying it before you hit the hay, you allow it to work with your body’s natural rhythms to produce some serious glow-up results.
Not buffering or layering properly
Most experts will tell you to apply your actives on damp skin for better absorption. Well, when it comes to retinol, that rule doesn’t apply, and doing so will be a big mistake. Retinol should only be applied to clean and dry skin. Using it on damp skin can cause it to penetrate deeper, and that can increase the risk of redness, breakouts, and rashes.
To properly layer your retinol product, begin by cleansing your face, apply retinol to dry skin, and finish by moisturizing. The moisturizer you use after retinol has a key role in the equation. A suitable formula can reduce dryness and counteract possible irritation, but the wrong one can worsen retinol burns. For the best results, use a lotion or cream with skin-regenerating and antibacterial ingredients like ceramides, fatty acids, probiotics, and cholesterol. These ingredients not only provide the optimal amount of hydration but also restore the skin’s barrier function and prevent infections. Also, avoid occlusives like petrolatum and mineral oil, as they can trap retinol within the skin and make it more aggressive.
Buffering retinol can help as well. This is usually done by applying a small amount of moisturizer first, followed by retinol serum. Using moisturizer acts as a buffer between the retinol and your skin, reducing the direct contact and making it gentler on your skin. This trick is often recommended for those with sensitive skin or those just starting out with retinoids. However, keep in mind that doing this may affect the effectiveness of your retinol product, so it’s a trade-off between reducing irritation and maximizing results.
Using a harsh cleanser alongside retinol
Using a harsh cleanser alongside retinol is like pouring hot sauce on your already spicy tacos—it’s just asking for trouble. Retinol is already a difficult ingredient itself that takes a toll on your skin barrier, and a harsh cleanser can further exacerbate the effects by removing even more natural oils and disrupting the skin’s pH. By harsh, we mean cleansers containing sulfates, alcohol, astringents, and high amounts of exfoliants—all these are a big no-no when you’re on a retinol regimen. Instead, wash your face with a gentle, hydrating cleanser that doesn’t strip moisture.
Applying retinol too soon after a treatment
Just had a microneedling session with your esthetician? Or have you performed a chemical peel at home? You better hold off on applying any retinol for the next week or so. All these cosmetic treatments cause a controlled injury to the tissue to encourage its regeneration. However, this vulnerable skin is in no state to handle the potent properties of retinol since its defense mechanisms are temporarily compromised. Wait until your skin fully recovers—when it’s no longer itchy, sensitive, and red—to reintroduce retinol in your routine. The healing time varies, ranging from a week to more, depending on the extent and severity of the treatment.
What to do if retinol worsens your skin?
If you feel like retinol worsens your skin, it’s time to take a step back and give it a break. Give your skin at least one week of respite to return to its natural state before reintroducing the product. Chances are you’re either overusing retinol, or your skin simply needs time to adjust to its effects.
Once the week has passed, try adding retinol into your routine but at a much slower pace. Begin by applying it only once every three days and pay close attention to how your skin responds. If that doesn’t do the trick, consider switching to a lower-strength product. Alternatively, you can use a retinol alternative like bakuchiol or opt for a gentler form of retinol, such as retinyl propionate, which contains added fatty acids for extra moisture and less harshness. Remember, finding the right retinol product for your skin may require some trial and error, but the results are worth the effort.
Read next: Learn How To Use Retinol On Sensitive Skin