Ten Tips On How To Use Retinol Without Irritation

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Photo by Georg Sander on Flickr

As I mentioned in my post, Anti-ageing And Sensitive Skin, retinol is one kick-ass ingredient when it comes to fighting everything from fine lines and wrinkles through to acne and sun damage. It’s probably the most effective treatment, alongside sunscreen, in the battle against the degeneration of skin.

Unfortunately, retinol can also be extremely irksome to the complexion, causing redness, peeling, flaking and soreness. Not exactly what you want if you’ve already got sensitive skin and/or rosacea. There are however ways around this which I’ll share.

I first tried retinol about eleven years ago, though I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. Boots No7 Protect and Perfect Serum had recently come out and the media were going mad for it. There were queues of women desperate to buy this new, affordable, ‘miracle’ cream. It sold out within minutes of release, was immensely popular and got great reviews.

Not wanting to be left behind, I jumped on the beauty bandwagon and bought myself a tube hoping for magical results. I diligently applied it day and night and within a week my face was, yep – you guessed it, red, peeling, flaking and sore. I stopped using it, gave it to a friend and presumed there was an ingredient in it that didn’t agree with me. You see I’d never heard of retinol or retinoids or Retin-A. (All of these are derivatives of Vitamin A, which is a cell communicating molecule.) Perfect and Protect contains Retinyl palmitate, another Vitamin A offshoot. That, and probably the fragrance, was what was causing me such a bad reaction.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I dabbled with retinol again. After my skin started to show the tell tale signs of being a smoker, combined with the damaging effects of rosacea, I wanted to try and find a product that would tackle both. I’d read that there was research showing that retinol could potentially reduce the inflammation that goes alongside rosacea while also challenging the many signs of aging. I researched creams that contained a low level of retinol and ended up using Roc Retinol Correxion Sensitive Night Cream. While I didn’t experience any dramatic results, I do think this introduced my skin to retinol in a gentle, gradual way. Now, two years later I’m using Paulas Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment. I’ve been using this for about 18 months and I’ve just now got to the point where I can use it every night. So although expensive, it lasts me a helluva long time.

The reason I chose Paula’s Choice is because the formulation contains a high level of retinol, is packed with antioxidants (including vitamin C); plus, it’s packaged in an airtight, opaque container. Vitamin A deteriorates when exposed to light and air, so it’s vital to buy it in a suitable vessel, otherwise you may as well just throw your money down the drain. Paula’s Choice formulations are second to none and I really trust and respect the amount of research that goes into their products.

So many people give up on using retinol, because of the irritation, so I wanted to share my top ten tips that have helped me be able to use it.

1. Start slow.

I mean reeeeeeally slow. When I had such a bad time with Perfect and Protect, I was applying it twice a day. No, no, no. The advice given by most professionals is to begin by using a retinol product three times a week, but I think that even that’s too much. Maybe not if you’ve got pretty robust skin, however, if you have any kind of sensitivity, I suggest the once a week approach. I started using the RoC Retinol Cream every Sunday evening for two months. Then I moved up to twice a week, on a Sunday evening and Wednesday evening. I did this for two months. Then three times a week, Sunday, Wednesday, Friday for two months. Then four times, Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday for two months. Then every other evening for two months and then every evening for two months. You see; I took my sweet time: oh yes indeedee. But I didn’t have any kind of bad reaction. Nada. Then I did exactly the same with the Paula’s Choice retinol. From scratch. Once a week, twice a week and so on and so forth. This is because it’s so much stronger than the RoC. Again, no reaction. Good, huh?

2. More is not better.

If something’s good, it makes sense that the more of it you use, the quicker and better the results; right? Wrong. That may be the case with doughnuts, as in, the more you eat, the greater the pleasure and the bigger your bottom gets, but with retinol it’s different. You only need a very small amount. Pea sized. In fact, that’s another reason I like Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol. The pump disperses just the right amount so there’s no waste. Apply it thinly and evenly, avoiding the delicate lip and eye area. Using the smallest amount helps minimise irritation. I dot it the cream on to each section of my face so it spreads uniformly.

3. Apply to completely dry, cleansed, clean skin.

After I’ve washed my face, I wait about ten minutes until my face is entirely dry and then apply my retinol. This is because damp skin absorbs product more quickly, again, raising the risk of irritation. Also washing your face disturbs your skin’s fragile mantle so waiting a bit gives it a chance to recover.

4. Beware using other harsh products at the same time.

Until your skin has become acclimatised to the retinol, it’s best to avoid combining it with any other product which is possibly irritating, such as an acid toner. You can eventually use them in conjunction, but it’s best to wait until your face has fully adjusted.

5. Wait before applying other products.

Retinol can make your face dry, so it’s good to use a suitable moisturiser on top. However, applying it straight away can dilute the retinol, causing it to be less effective. Though if you don’t mind that, or you don’t have time to wait, it’s fine.

6. Apply at night only.

Because retinol makes your skin more sun sensitive, in my opinion, it’s best used in the evening.

7. Don’t forget the sunscreen

This is a given anyway, but, there really is no point in using an anti-ageing product if you’re not going to protect your skin from sun damage. You’re just undoing all the good that the retinol is doing.

8. Do your research.

Find a retinol product that is from a reputable source and suitable for your skin type. Also maybe check out some reviews, see what the general consensus is. Beware fake products: these can be dangerous.

9. If at first you don’t succeed, don’t necessarily try, try again.

However careful one might be, it’s possible that retinol is just too harsh for certain people. If you’re being really careful and still experiencing irritation, cut back on the frequency your using the product, how much of the product you’re using or try using a lower strength retinol product. If it’s still causing you problems, it might be best to stop using it altogether. Irritation and inflammation are also damaging and ageing, so it’s just not worth it.

10. Don’t expect miracles.

It can take a long time to see results with retinol (try to be patient!) and those results won’t necessarily be life changing. Be patient, and know that other than going down the cosmetic intervention route, retinol really is the best anti ageing topical treatment out there. For now.


Here are some good before and after photos of Angie, from Hot and Flashy, bearing in mind that Angie uses Retin-A, which is a prescription strength retinol product. Much stronger than anything you can buy over the counter and it also works faster. Being stronger means it also has the potential to cause much greater irritation. Furthermore, although a tube may only cost between £25-£35 (not much considering how long it lasts and the effects you can achieve), you can only get it from seeing a private dermatologist who would probably charge about £200 for an appointment. Definitely worth it if you can afford it. Angie lives in the U.S where I’m pretty sure you can get a prescription from your doctor. Not so here. I asked my G.P for a prescription of Retin-A and he looked at me like I’d asked him if he liked wearing ladies panties: it didn’t go down well. Anyway, check Angie out. She’s always on the hunt for great anti-ageing products and procedures and she’s very honest about the work she’s had done. She’s included in my Favourite Bloggers And YouTubers post.

If you haven’t tried retinol yet, do give it a go. Even if you have sensitive skin, it can still pack a real punch when included in your anti-ageing skin routine.

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