8 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid When Using Retinol

When it comes to star ingredients, retinol is most definitely at the top of the list. After all, the vitamin A derivative is the perfect panacea for any and all skincare woes—uneven skin tone, pesky texture, acne, fine lines and wrinkles, and so on.

But for all the good it does, there’s just as much that can go wrong. Before retinol can work its magic (and sometimes even after it has), there’s a high likelihood of purging, dryness, irritation, redness, and sensitivity. In other words, retinol’s slow-burn benefits—and the side effects that come with them—require patience, consistency, and proper technique.

That being said, there are some steps you can take to mitigate retinol’s negative effects. There are also some things you definitely shouldn’t do while using retinol. Devoted users know them well, but for any newbies, steer clear of these eight retinol rookie mistakes to keep irritation to a minimum, while ensuring your skin reaches peak form.

1. Applying Retinol in the Morning

Retinol is notoriously finicky—it’s imperative that you apply the right amount of the right retinol at the right step in your skincare routine during the right time of day in order for it to work properly. While many, if not most, skincare products can be applied morning or not, retinol must be applied in the nighttime. That’s because retinol breaks down when exposed to direct sunlight, which means you’re losing out on the retinol’s benefits. Instead, apply retinol before you go to bed, when your skin has more time to process it.

2. Not Wearing SPF

You should always be wearing SPF, but it’s doubly important when using retinol. In general, any sort of skincare you do is rendered useless if you don’t protect the skin from sun exposure. And since retinol makes the skin so sensitive to sun exposure (yes, even if applied at night) it’s absolutely crucial that you’re applying (and reapplying!) sunscreen every single day.

3. Applying Retinol on Damp Skin

We always apply our favorite hydrating, nourishing serums onto damp skin, but retinol is a different story. Applying retinol to damp or wet skin increases the likelihood of irritation. Instead, make a point to let your skin dry before you apply—seriously, wait at least two minutes to make sure your skin has ample time to fully dry.

4. Using Too Many Actives

While retinols aren’t technically classified as exfoliators, they do provide a kind of exfoliation by speeding up cell turnover and unclogging pores. And, since retinol is so strong already, it definitely doesn’t need anymore help from other actives like AHAs, BHAs, and others. On retinol nights, we suggest supplementing with a hydrating serum and a thick moisturizer.

5. Using Too Much Product

We get it, starting retinol is exciting and it’s easy to get carried away with how much you use when thinking about all the potential benefits. Remember that retinol works best when used sparingly—and using too much won’t make it work faster; in fact, too much retinol just increases the chances of irritation and severe dryness. Instead, stick to a pea-sized amount of product for the entire face.

6. Using It Too Frequently

While it may be tempting to dive head first, less is always more when it comes to retinol. Like applying too much product, applying retinol too often right off the bat is just a recipe for irritation and barrier damage. To start, dermatologists suggest using retinol just two or three times per week, working your way up to every or every other night as your skin acclimates.

7. Not Using It Consistently Enough

On the flip side, you may be tempted to take a few weeks off from retinol during the purging stage. After all, all that peeling, dryness, tightness, and increase in acne must mean the product’s not working, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, retinol often makes skin worse before it gets better. And if you take a few weeks off and start again, you’re essentially resetting the entire process over again. Push through those early retinol uglies; you’ll love the effects in a few  months.

8. Using the Wrong Type for Your Concerns

Not all retinol is created equal. Strengths, formulations, ingredients, and intended effects vary from product to product. For example, a formula with encapsulated retinol tends to be gentler than traditional iterations as it features a slow-release mechanism that minimizes the chances of irritation. It’s also important to start with a lower-percentage formula—beginners will tolerate a 0.3% formula much better than a 1% formula. We suggest talking to your dermatologist to find the right retinol for you, whether that’s an over-the-counter formula or prescription. When in doubt, opt for a low-percentage, encapsulated formula to start.

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