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 Best New Skincare Products Hitting Shelves In May

Sun Bum Mineral SPF 30 Sunscreen Spray

Sun Bum’s Mineral Sunscreen Spray makes applying SPF easy. Its spray nozzle effortlessly coats skin with just one spritz — just apply 15 minutes before you’re exposed to the sun and then reapply every two hours while you’re out and about. The formula is made mineral-based and made of zinc oxide, but don’t worry about any white cast issues, this formula is basically invisible. Once the sunscreen is all evenly applied, make sure you pat it in to ensure it’s fully absorbed and ready to protect.  

$18 (Shop Now)

Sara Happ Lip Elixir Intensive Treatment

Reapplying lip balm to avoid chapped lips can require constant vigilance, but not anymore. Sara Happ (a long-time favorite brand known for its lip scrubs) just launched its first lip balm-gloss hybrid. Created with hyaluronic acid, this lip treatment makes lips feel smooth and soft.

$34 (Shop Now)

Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench Broad Spectrum SPF 45 Hyaluronic Cloud Moisturizer

Since Peter Thomas Roth’s Water Drench Cloud Moisturizer was such a success when it first launched years ago, the brand finally formulated a version of the iconic cream with sunscreen. This non-greasy moisturizer shields skin from the sun while hydrating with hyaluronic acid, so get ready to have skin that’s protected, hydrated, and soft as a cloud.

$52 (Shop Now)

Kate Somerville Delikate Recovery Serum

The Kate Somerville Delikate Serum is ideal for those who have sensitive skin. Its lightweight formula is made with cucumber seed oil to help calm and soothe redness, as well as ceramides to help protect and strengthen the skin’s barrier.

$85 (Shop Now)

Ole Henriksen 3 Mega Wonders

Ole Henriksen is bringing together three of its game-changing products to create the ultimate kit: 3 Mega Wonders. Included here is the Glow2OH Dark Spot Toner, the Banana Bright Vitamin C Serum, and the C-Rush Brightening Gel Crème, three products that work together to give your skin a serious glow. Stick with this trio and you’ll have hydrated, radiant skin in no time.

$74 (Shop Now)

Kylie Skin Sugar Lip Scrub

When I found out Kylie Skin was launching a lip exfoliator, I thought, It’s about time the queen of lip kits dropped a prepping product. This formula is made with a mix of nourishing oils (jojoba and grape seed) and vanilla-scented sugar, which leaves lips soft, kissable, and hydrated after a gentle scrubbing.

$20 (Shop Now)

Saturday Skin Wide Awake Brightening Eye Cream

Perfect for all skin types, Saturday Skin Wide Awake Brightening Eye Cream is a lightweight undereye cream formulated with avocado to improve hydration and date seed extract to give the eye area a subtle glow. 

$46 (Shop Now)

Thrive Causemetics Moisture Flash Active Nutrient Toner

Thrive Causemetics Moisture Flash Active Nutrient Toner is a pH-balancing liquid exfoliant that helps smooth and brighten skin. The witch hazel in the formula cleanses and targets unevenness, while salicylic acid aids with any pore congestion and acne. Get ready for bright, even, clear skin without added dryness.

$36 (Shop Now)

Kinship Mint Mud

In my opinion, the Kinship Mint Mud mask was practically made for an at-home facial. The refreshing treatment clears out pores, thanks to kaolin clay, while lactic acid gently dissolves dead-skin build-up, brightening skin. Above all else, you’ll love how it smells: like a freshly opened sleeve of Thin Mints.

$23 (Shop Now)

Goodhabit Rescue Me Clean Scene Micellar Gel

A full face of makeup is no match to the Goodhabit Rescue Me Clean Scene Micellar Gel. Just one pump of the formula, which is made of hydrating hyaluronic acid and chamazulene (to help with redness), whisks away any makeup, including those of the waterproof variety.

$38 (Shop Now)

Laneige Glowy Makeup Serum

If you’re looking for some serious luminosity, look no further: Laneige just dropped Glowy Makeup Serum to make any base makeup more radiant. Apply two pumps as the last step in your skin-care routine and apply your makeup as normal; the diamond mineral powder in the formula will create a translucent glow that looks gorgeous on all skin tones.

$32 (Shop Now)

Versed Guards Up Mineral Sunscreen

Even though we’re indoors right now more than ever, it’s still super important to wear sunscreen. Versed Guards Up Mineral Sunscreen boasts SPF 35, and its finish is creamy — not too dewy, not too matte — is a great option. Oh, and it never leaves a white cast on any skin tone. A winner in my book.

$22 (Shop Now)

Then I Met You Honey Dew Lip Mask

Then I Met You Honey Dew Lip Mask is a versatile pick because it can be used as a glossy daytime balm or an intense nighttime treatment. The squalane in the tube will leave lips feeling moisturized, while the honeydew melon will soothe the sensitive and delicate skin on your lips.

$22 (Shop Now)

Juice Beauty Prebiotix Instant Flash Facial

Give yourself an at-home facial with the Juice Beauty Prebiotix Instant Flash Facial. This all-in-one treatment acts as an exfoliating mask and cleanser. Plant beads and tartaric acid exfoliate away dead skin while iris extract and prebiotic ingredients help encourage balance, giving skin a fresh-faced glow.

$52 (Shop Now)

Chantecaille Radiance Elixir

Hydrate and replenish your complexion with Chantecaille’s new Radiance Elixir. This illuminating serum will give your skin a healthy, fresh glow. Either wear it alone or mix it with your foundation — either way, you’ll be feeling lavish and radiant with just one drop.

$210 (Shop Now)

Neutrogena Soothing Clear Turmeric Mousse Cleanser

Turmeric is well-known for its soothing properties, which is why it’s an ingredient great for calming acne breakouts. Neutrogena’s latest launch, Soothing Clear Turmeric Mousse Cleanser, utilizes this ingredient in a lightweight formula that removes dirt, oil, and makeup from pores without stripping the skin of natural oils.

$10 (Shop Now)

Belif True Cream Aqua Bomb Aloe Vera

Belif’s True Cream Aqua Bomb just got a soothing upgrade. The new Aloe Vera version gives you the same hydration of the original gel-cream (thanks to the glycerin and ceramides), but it contains the aforementioned aloe, which is known to calm irritation and acne.

$38 (Shop Now)

Heyday x Supergoop! Defense Refresh (Re) Setting Mist

To celebrate the Supergoop! Defense Refresh (Re) Setting Mist’s fifth anniversary, it’s getting a complete makeover — at least package-wise. Over the course of five months, Supergoop! will be releasing its SPF-packed setting spray in five newly-designed packages. This month, the skin-care brand has partnered with Heyday for a bright yellow bottle that just brings me a lot of joy.

$30 (Available May 1 at supergoop.com)

Malin+Goetz Resurfacing Face Serum

Asking for bright and smooth skin just got a lot easier, thanks to Malin+Goetz’s new launch. The Resurfacing Face Serum is made with glycolic and lactic acids to exfoliate dead skin cells and vitamin C to give you a more radiant complexion. All you need is two or three drops before moisturizer and you’ll be good to go.

$70 (Available May 1 at malinandgoetz.com)

Clinique Moisture Surge Sheertint Hydrator SPF 25

Get dewy-looking skin with Clinique’s new Moisture Surge Sheertint Hydrator SPF 25. It’s made of hyaluronic acid, aloe water, and a sugar called trehalose to provide moisture for up to 12 hours. In addition to broad-spectrum SPF 25 to give you some protection against the sun’s harmful UV rays, it also has a sheer tint to give you a touch of color and glow.

$39 (Available May 1 at clinique.com)

Elemis x Olivia Rubin Collection

Who doesn’t love a gift set? In this Elemis and Olivia Rubin collaboration, you get seven full-sized products from the skin-care brand (Pro-Collagen Marine Cream, Peptide Night Recovery Cream-Oil, and Sea Lavender & Samphire Body Cream to name a few) all housed in a super fun rainbow-colored makeup bag designed by the British fashion designer.

$99 (Available May 1 at elemis.com)

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The Most Exciting New Skincare Products From March

As we say “so long!” to the winter and enter the spring, it’s time to switch up our skincare routine because when the months change, your regimen should too. So, to help you out, I’m going to keep on sharing the newness that I know you’ll love so much. 

SK-II Skinpower Airy Milky Lotion

SK-II’s Skinpower Airy Milky Lotion is an airy, lightweight moisturizer that will plump up your skin as it’s hydrating it. Inside the little red jar, you’ll find a formula filled with calla lily extract, dokudami extract, and peony extract, which work together to give skin a bouncy, healthy look and feel.  

$160 (Shop Now

Versed Auto-Save Advanced Restoring Serum

If your skin is looking tired or dull, try the Versed Auto-Save Advanced Restoring Serum. Its formula has ferulic acid to diminish dark spots and shea butter to moisturize. Not to mention, there’s also microalgae in the mix, which will assist in brightening.  

$25 (Shop Now)  

Elizabeth Arden Visible Brightening CicaGlow Concentrate

Ready to glow? Elizabeth Arden has you covered with the new Visible Brightening CicaGlow Concentrate. This treatment is made with niacinamide and cica to help diminish hyperpigmentation and soothe skin. The top green liquid is loaded with vitamin C to brighten, while the orangey bottom has all the exfoliants in it, like chestnut extract. Shake them together, and say hello luminosity. 

$70 (Shop Now

Clark’s Botanical Jasmine Vital Oil

Clark’s Botanical Jasmine Vital Oil is made with a fast-drying, non-greasy formula that features virgin hemp and cottonseed oils to give skin a dewy, hydrated finish. Pat on a dropper-full of this oil before makeup, and you’ll have that glow-from-within vibe within seconds of applying.  

$99 (Shop Now)  

Dermalogica PowerBright Dark Spot Serum

Pimples can be a pain, but let’s not forget the dark spots that come after a breakout, too. With Dermalogica’s PowerBright Dark Spot Serum, you can diminish that hyperpigmentation in no time. Its ingredient list features niacinamide and shiitake mushroom, which will help brighten that unwanted discoloration (while simultaneously hydrating it) in no time.    

$95 (Shop Now)  

Chapstick Total Hydration Sea Minerals Exfoliator Lip Balm

Chapstick’s Total Hydration Sea Minerals Exfoliator Lip Balm features shea butter to moisturize and sea salt extract to buff away dead skin. This stick formula is also super convenient — the sleek, compact tube is tiny enough to go just about anywhere with you.

$8 (Shop Now

Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Butter

When you apply Isle of Paradise’s Self-Tanning Butter before you go to bed, you’ll wake up with the most natural-looking tan. The gradual formula has a faint green hue that works as a color corrector, so not only will you look bronze, but your tone will be nice and even.    

$25 (Shop Now)  

Dial Clean Gentle Body Wash

Dial’s Clean Gentle Body Wash comes in three scents: Fragrance-Free, Waterlily, and Aloe. It’s a vegan formula that leaves skin feeling hydrated, soft, and silky (thanks to the flower oil on the ingredient list) as it cleanses.   

$4 (Shop Now

Philosophy Purity Made Simple One-Step Facial Cleanser With Goji Berry Extract

If you love Philosophy’s Purity Made Simple One-Step Facial Cleanser, you’re going to adore this limited-edition version. Like the original, this wash has meadowfoam seed oil, which melts away leftover debris and makeup, as well as goji berry extract, a Chinese fruit known to be a powerful antioxidant that reduces inflammation. 

$25 (Shop Now)  

Ole Henriksen Wrinkle Blur Bakuchiol Eye Gel es Créme 

Ole Henriksen’s latest eye cream, Wrinkle Blur Bakuchiol Eye Gel Créme, is — you guessed it — made with bakuchiol, a natural alternative to retinol. The pretty lavender formula also has orchid stem cell to reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles.

$49 (Shop Now

Curél Makeup Cleansing Oil

When you mix one pump of Curél’s Makeup Cleansing Oil with water you get a milky texture that instantly lifts makeup and even stubborn waterproof mascara. For that, you can thank the castor oil in the formula, which also leaves the skin feeling soft and looking dewy. 

$20 (Shop Now)  

Covey First of All Cleanser

Founded by model Emily DiDonato, new skincare brand Covey launched with three products in its collection, including the First of All Cleanser. It’s made with hydrating ingredients like aloe leaf juice and babassu oil to remove all dirt and makeup effortlessly without stripping skin.  

$29 (Shop Now

First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Firming Collagen Cream

Made with colloidal oatmeal to calm the skin and niacinamide to reduce redness, First Aid Beauty’s Ultra Repair Firming Collagen Cream is a dream for eczema- and acne-prone skin. Not to mention its thick texture is perfect for what’s left of these dry, winter days. 

$42 (Shop Now)  

Elemis Pro-Collagen Marine Moisture Essence

Elemis just launched its first-ever essence: the Pro-Collagen Marine Moisture. It’s made a hydrating blend of hyaluronic acid and sea spring water to plump skin and diminish dryness. Gently pat the treatment into your skin after cleansing and instantly reveal glowiness.  

$90 (Shop Now

Peace Out Blemish Balm 

Join me in welcoming Peace Out’s first cleanser: the Blemish Balm. Work this exfoliating formula into your skin in the morning and at night, and you’ll start to notice a clearer complexion, thanks to its salicylic acid. Plus, this jar also has hydrating hyaluronic acid in it, so don’t worry about drying your skin out. 

$22 (Shop Now)

Kate Somerville Kateceuticals Total Repair Cream

Kate Somerville’s Kateceuticals Total Repair Cream is formulated with hyaluronic acid and squalane to hydrate and a powerful blend of ceramides and peptides to smooth out any fine lines. Consider it a one-stop shop for softer, plumper skin.  

$120 (Shop Now)  

Thrive Causemetics Smart Microdermabrasion 2-in-1 Instant Facial

Get ready to scrub all of your skin concerns away with Thrive Causemetics’ Smart Microdermabrasion 2-in-1 Instant Facial. It’s made with a blend of alpha hydroxy acids to exfoliate and beta hydroxy acids to reduce the appearance of acne and enlarged pores. Use this treatment twice a week to reveal your softest, brightest skin.   

$44 (Shop Now)

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