6 Essential Things to Know Before Using Retinol and Retinoids

Ah, retinol. When it comes to defense against fine lines and maintaining a healthy glow, there’s no ingredient in skincare more lauded. The irony? Even though the revolutionary youth-enhancing active is a mainstay of drugstores, department store counters, and dermatologist offices alike, it still manages to mystify. And thus, it’s often underutilized or misused.

What is retinol?

To bring it back to the basics, retinol—alongside other retinoids, such as retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate—is essentially a derivative of vitamin A, which is one of the body’s key nutrients for boosting cell turnover. “It’s added to topical skincare products to promote skin renewal, brighten skin tone, reduce acne, and boost the collagen production,” explains New York City dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD. “It also functions like an antioxidant to help address free radical damage, which leads to visible signs of aging.” The way dermatologist Francesca Fusco, MD, sees it, it’s the ingredient that does it all in dermatology, both cosmetically and medically. “I consider it a gold standard in skincare and often explain it to my patients as something that sweeps away dead skin cells, clogged pores, and dull skin,” she explains.

Here, experts break down how to carefully incorporate the powerhouse ingredient into your regimen to achieve a supernaturally fresh-faced complexion, now and for decades to come.

Begin in Your Mid 20s or Early 30s

Thirty has long been the banner year for introducing retinol into one’s routine, but  many women are starting before then, motivated by early signs of aging, such as sun spots or crows feet, or simply eager to get a head start and utilize the latest technologies—under the careful watch of their dermatologist. “Your mid-twenties are a great time to start using retinol,” says Ellen Marmur, M.D. “Many patients who have used it for years swear by it.”

Integrate Retinol Slowly and Gently

“Balance is critical,” cautions Bowe. “Retinol can be very irritating if used too frequently or if the formulation is too strong for your skin.” She recommends starting off with a pea-sized amount of a low percentage over-the-counter formula (.01% to 0.03%), and using it “two times per week, slowly increasing the usage to give the skin a chance to acclimate.” Moreover, you should skip your retinol product on the day before you exfoliate (Bowe recommends exfoliating two to three times per week). “Exfoliating is abrasive and irritating, and you do not want to compound the skin irritation by heightening your skin’s sensitivity,” she says, adding that if you’re getting certain in-office treatments like lasers, microneedling, microdermabrasion, you will want to take a break from your retinol. In the spirit of not overdoing it, there’s a spate of new time-release formulas fit for skin types prone to redness or breakouts. “They’re a good option for people who have sensitive skin,” explains Fusco. “It releases the active ingredient over time and may offer less irritation.” In terms of prescription retinol versus something over the counter, the former is much more potent with a higher percentage of retinol and one may graduate to it over time, says Bowe.

Watch Out for Harsh Side Effects

While certain side effects, such as mild irritation, dryness, and sun sensitivity are normal as your skin adjusts to the active ingredient, intense flaking, redness, and burning are not—and those with especially sensitive skin, or who struggle with conditions like rosacea or eczema, should be wary of retinol or shy away from it all together. “If you cannot tolerate retinol, don’t worry,” says Marmur. “It’s not the only anti-ager! There are plenty of amazing anti-aging ingredients, such as wild indigo, that work beautifully without any irritation or sun sensitivity.”

Use Retinol Only at Night and Wear SPF Every Day

“Retinol makes your skin more sensitive to UV rays and sunlight decreases the efficacy of the product,” explains Bowe, who instructs patients to only use retinoids at night and be diligent about applying a daily broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher during the day. Moreover, with retinol use, one should always be conscious of the weather forecast and trips to hot locales. “It should not be used during seasons or vacations when individuals will be spending extended time in direct sunlight,” warns Fusco.

Don’t Stop at Your Face

When applying a retinol-infused elixir, don’t neglect your neck or décolletage, which are areas notorious for showing the signs of aging, yet often overlooked. “If those zones seem too sensitive for your current formula, add a squirt of ceramide-enriched moisturizer before smoothing it on, or pick up a separate retinoid made specifically for the area in question,” says Bowe. “They typically contain a lower dose of vitamin A, zero fragrance, and loads of soothers.”

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The 13 Best Toners for Any Skin Issue You’re Dealing With

Dryness, dullness, signs of aging, or acne? There’s a toner for that. 

Toners are one of skincare’s most fiercely debated topics, right next to physical exfoliators and eye cream. Here’s the thing: I would be skeptical of toners myself had I not witnessed their miracles firsthand. Honestly, I don’t feel like my skincare routine works effectively if I don’t prep my skin with a toner first. Toners act as the next nourishing and replenishing step after cleansing, and are meant to prep and prime your skin for skincare products to follow. Plus, with skincare technology getting better and better, toners are integrating ingredients that are clinically known to be effective. Just like hyaluronic acid in your serum will give your skin amazing hydration, the same ingredient in a toner will give you those skincare benefits in a lightweight, easy step.

For Problem Skin: Eve Lom Rescue Toner

For skin that comes with all the relatable concerns—redness, acne, unwanted bumps, irritation–this toner is a great solution for those issues and more. Formulated with AHAs and natural extracts, skin is gently exfoliated and soothed for great all-over improvement.

Buy at Nordstrom $70

For Dry Skin: Biba Los Angeles Hydrating Toner

If you have the fun problem of dry skin that’s also sensitive, this hydrating spray toner is gentle enough to use daily. It comes in spray form that can either be spritzed directly on the face, or onto a cotton pad to be swiped on. With witch hazel, water, and cucumber extract, this toner feels lightweight but still offers a necessary dose of hydration.  

Buy on their website $38

For Dull Skin: Goodhabit Rescue Me Texture Magic Exfoliating Toner

This toner has a powerhouse of ingredients that work hard to resurface and brighten skin. With AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs, it might seem like this product isn’t gentle enough for sensitive skin. On the contrary, however, even those with sensitive skin can use this toner daily. An amazing bonus? This toner helps blocks the effects of blue light on the skin.

Buy on their website $66

For Breakout-Prone Skin: Skinceuticals LHA Toner

For anyone trying to get ahead of aging concerns and control unsightly breakouts, this toner was made for you. Formulated with lipo hydroxy acid, lactic acid, and glycolic acid, this toner sloughs off dead skin while also purifying clogged pores. With daily use, you can look forward to firmer, brighter skin. 

Buy at Dermstore $40

For Sensitive Skin: Mario Badescu Aloe Vera Toner

If toners seem to always cause sensitivity to your skin, this aloe vera-infused toner is the perfect pick. Irritation and redness have been historically treated with aloe vera, and this product utilizes the ingredient’s soothing properties.

Buy at Nordstrom $15

For Irritated Skin: Feuillete Smooth Water Essence

If you’re a newbie to the whole toner business, this product is a great beginner product. There’s nothing this toner doesn’t do–it brightens, hydrates, and soothes. Whether your skin is sensitive, oily, or dry, this toner can treat all concerns. As an added benefit, it’s also fragrance-free for anyone with perfume sensitivity. 

Buy on Amazon $48

For Uneven Skin: Tatcha The Essence Plumping Skin Softener

For skin that is suffering from dryness, aging, or an uneven texture, this product is the key to solve all those issues. With a myriad of Japanese superfoods, this gentle toner plumps the skin and softens roughness caused by these skin concerns. 

Buy at Sephora $95

For Bumpy Skin: Sisley Paris Botanical Floral Toning Lotion

Formulated with natural extracts, this toner turns irritated, rough skin into a softened, hydrated textured. It is alcohol-free, which makes it a good option for dry and sensitive skin that is suffering from bumpiness, roughness, or redness. To truly immerse yourself in the French lifestyle, use this toner twice a day and soak in the goodness.

Buy at Nordstrom $106

For Inflamed Skin: Truly CBD Jelly Toning Solution

This jelly-textured toner, which contains glycolic acid and CBD, is a hero for skin that needs effective exfoliation but is prone to inflammation. Glycolic acid effectively exfoliates while CBD calms the skin. For anyone that has sensitive skin and is hesitant to use chemical exfoliator but wants to be free of the pollution and dead skin cells that clog pores, this product is for you. 

Buy at ULTA $25

For Severely Dehydrated Skin: Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Liquid

If your dry skin leaves you with flakes, rough patches, and uncomfortable tightness or cracked areas, this toner is the perfect solution. Packed with moisturizing ceramides, this toner soaks into the skin to deliver long-lasting hydration. 

Buy at Sephora $39

For Visible Pores: Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA + BHA Pore-Tight Toner

For anyone who wants to carry summer with them wherever they go, this watermelon-scented toner delivers tightening and exfoliating effects without stripping the skin. With PHA and BHA acids, it gently exfoliates and reduces the appearance of pores. Not to mention, it’s also incredibly hydrating thanks to the hefty amount of hyaluronic acid. 

Buy at Sephora $34

For Aging Skin: Guerlain Abeille Royale Anti-Aging Fortifying Lotion Toner

This toner is water-light and formulated to treat signs of aging. Guerlain Royal Jelly, black bee repair technology, and honey all work together to protect the skin from future aging, while also reversing fine lines and wrinkles. Even better, Guerlain partnered with Brittany Black Bee Conservatory to sustainably source their ingredients while protecting the bee population. 

Buy at Sephora $75

For Oily Skin: Shani Darden Skin Care Sake Toning Essence

While toners and essences often get lumped into one category, this product takes the best of both to treat oily skin. With sake water, niacinamide, and natural extracts, this toner brightens skin, controls oil production, all while diminishing the appearance of pores. A cult-favorite product, this toner has a host of fans that rave about its effectiveness.

Buy at Sephora $52

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