How to Use Retinol Products


Retinol is one of the most beneficial, thoroughly researched skincare ingredients ever discovered for anti-aging. Its use can lead to a flawless complexion, regardless of your age or skin type. Most skincare experts around the world agree with us that a retinol product is essential, but many people are confused about what retinol really does, how to choose the right one, and how to add it to their skincare routine. No more confusion: This easy-to-understand article explains it all.

What is Retinol?

Retinol is just another name for vitamin A. It’s considered a cosmetic ingredient and is found in various anti-aging skincare products, such as moisturizers, serums, and eye creams.

Retinol also can be broken down into other forms of vitamin A, such as retinyl palmitate, retinaldehyde, retinyl retinoate, and retinyl proprionate, which are also found in skincare products. Generally, though, skincare experts around the world consider pure retinol far more effective than these retinol derivatives. That doesn’t mean these ingredients aren’t effective; it’s just that they aren’t quite the powerhouse pure retinol is.

Why is Retinol Good for My Skin?

Retinol works as a skin-restoring ingredient. It’s capable of exceptional results when included in well-formulated, specially packaged skincare products (more on packaging in a moment).

Regardless of brand or texture, when used as part of a brilliant skincare routine, retinol’s revitalizing effects include minimizing the appearance of wrinkles, improving uneven skin tone, and shrinking the look of enlarged pores, not to mention reigniting a feeling of firmness and radiance.

How Do I Choose a Retinol Product?

Choosing a retinol product is easier than you think! Here are some pointers:

  • Packaging matters! Retinol is sensitive to air and light exposure, which means no clear or jar packaging. Instead, look for retinol products packaged in opaque, airless, or air-restrictive containers.
  • Choose the texture of your facial retinol product based on your skin type: Creams for dry skin, lotions for normal to combination skin, and serums or gels for oily or congested skin.
  • It’s also fine to choose the texture of your retinol product based on personal preference and how it pairs with the other products in your routine. You might have to experiment to see what’s best for you.

What about the amount of retinol? Paula’s Choice offers a variety of retinol products in various strengths to meet the needs of different skin types and concerns.

Our advice? If you’re a beginner, start with a lower-strength product, such as one of our serums or moisturizers with retinol. If you’ve used retinol in the past and had great results, consider our moderate-strength retinol product. For more tenacious concerns, like deep wrinkles and pronounced uneven skin tone, look to our higher-strength retinol products. You can also alternate between the lower- and higher-strength products based on your skin concerns and how your skin responds.

Can I Use AHA or BHA if I'm Using a Retinol Product?

A common misperception about retinol is that it exfoliates skin. Retinol, in any of its forms, does not do the same thing as AHA or BHA exfoliants.

AHAs and BHA ingredients exfoliate the dead surface layers of skin, improving signs of environmental damage and hydrating for renewed smoothness. Retinol doesn’t work that way.

The confusion arises because retinol can cause flaking skin for some people, which leads them to believe it is also exfoliating their skin. This kind of flaking skin is not exfoliation, but it is a sign that you should scale back on how much retinol you’re using.

For the best anti-aging benefits, it’s ideal to use both an exfoliant and a retinol product as part of your regular skincare routine.

How to Use Your Retinol Product

Here’s how to use a retinol product with your nightly skincare routine:

  1. Cleanse, tone, and exfoliate your skin with your AHA or BHA product as usual. You do not need to wait for the exfoliant to absorb.
  2. Apply the retinol product to your face, neck, and chest.
  3. If you’re using a skin-brightening product too, apply it now.
  4. Proceed with your moisturizer, eye cream, and/or serum.

What about applying a retinol product during the day? That’s fine, as long as you follow with a broad-spectrum sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater. We typically advise applying retinol at night because most people don’t mind layering an extra (yet essential!) product on in the evening.

For best results, a retinol product should be used with other anti-aging products containing rejuvenating ingredients, such as antioxidants, skin-replenishing ingredients, and different visibly restorative ingredients like niacinamide. Despite retinol’s superstar status, improving the appearance of aging skin is far more complex than any one ingredient can address!

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! See Paula's Choice Retinol Treatments.

References for this information:
Dermatology, May 2014, pages 314-325
Toxicological Research, March 2010, pages 61-66
The Journal of Pathology, January 2007, pages 241-251
Clinical Interventions in Aging, December 2006, pages 327-348

Recommended Retinol Products

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!

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