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How often should you use retinol? Here’s everything you need to know

How often should you use retinol? Here’s everything you need to know

About this post

What makes retinol so special? From reducing fine lines and improving skin texture to fading acne scars and hyperpigmentation, let's get the lowdown on why it's such a popular ingredient.

Posted by

Emily from Urban


  • Skincare


Retinol is often classed by experts as the gold standard skincare product. It's the Dior of the fashion world; the Apple of the tech world; the Heinz of the condiment world… you get the jist. 

But why is it so special? Because it can help pretty much every skin type, tackling so many different skin concerns. From reducing fine lines and improving skin texture to fading acne scars and hyperpigmentation, there’s a skin concern cured for everyone.

But to make the most out of all it has to offer, there’s lots you need to know. Using too much too soon can cause irritation and might scare you out of picking up the product ever again. It's also thought that you should use retinol every night, but this is a skincare myth.

This detailed guide will give you a step-by-step understanding of how retinol works, how often you should use retinol, and what strength is best for your specific skin.

What is retinol and what does it do?

It’s the beauty buzzword all over social media – everyone’s using it, but what actually is retinol? Essentially it’s the main type of vitamin A, a vital nutrient for maintaining healthy skin. It’s the most common over-the-counter form of vitamin A used in skincare products.

Retinol works by promoting cell turnover

This is the process of shedding old skin cells and replacing them with new ones, which has a range of benefits. From improving skin texture and tone, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, to keeping pores clear, everyone can benefit from it.

The four main benefits of retinol

1. Reduces fine lines and wrinkles for a smoother complexion

Retinol helps produce new skin cells and increases collagen production to help the appearance of your skin – it’ll look extra fresh and more plump. Over time, this’ll reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles, so you have a smoother and more youthful glow.

2. Improves overall skin texture for that natural glow

With quicker skin cell turnover, retinol helps to get rid of dead skin cells, revealing fresher, brighter skin underneath. This can improve the overall texture and tone of your skin, so you’ll look even more radiant.

3. Treats acne by unclogging pores

Clogged pores can lead to breakouts. But if you add retinol into your regime, you can unclog your pores to stop new acne forming. Retinol also has anti-inflammatory properties to help calm existing breakouts while preventing new ones.

4. Fades hyperpigmentation and scarring

Retinol can help fade acne scarring, dark spots, sun spots, and other forms of hyperpigmentation by increasing the shedding of your skin cells, speeding up the process of new skin forming.

Choose the right strength of retinol to avoid irritation

If you’re a newbie to retinol, you need to choose a low-strength to get started. It’ll take time for your skin to build up a tolerance to the product, so you don’t want to overwhelm it.

If you’ve been using stronger products for a while, or your skin is quite tough when it comes to products, you might want to consider a higher strength.

Here's a guide to help you decide the best strength for you.

The best retinol strength for dry skin:

  • Start with: Low-strength retinol (0.25% to 0.3%)

  • Why? Dry skin is more likely to get irritated easily which can lead to flakiness. Start with a gentle formula and pair it with a rich, hydrating moisturiser to combat any dryness. 

  • Further tips for dry skin: Use soothing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and ceramides to boost your skin’s hydration. Apply your moisturiser after the retinol to lock in the hydration.

The best retinol strength for combination skin:

  • Start with: Medium-strength retinol (0.5%)

  • Why? Combination skin should be able to handle a mid-level concentration of retinol, especially when using it with other hydrating and soothing products.

  • Further tips for combination skin: Use a light, non-comedogenic (non pore-clogging) moisturiser on your oily areas and a thicker moisturiser on areas where your skin is more dry. Keep an eye on how your skin reacts to the retinol and only continue/use it more if you notice no irritation.

The best retinol strength for sensitive skin:

  • Start with: Low-strength retinol (0.25% to 0.3%)

  • Why? Sensitive skin can get irritated quite easily, so you need to start with a low strength to see how your skin reacts. Don’t increase usage or the strength until you have no irritation.

  • Further tips for sensitive skin: Neutralise the strength of the retinol by applying it after your moisturiser. Look for products that also include calming ingredients like niacinamide or allantoin to soothe the skin.

The best retinol strength for normal skin:

  • Start with: Medium-strength retinol (0.5% to 1%)

  • Why? If you rarely have issues with skincare products, you should be fine with using a mid-level concentration of retinol when you first start. But if you do notice signs of irritation, either decrease how often you’re using it or try a lower-strength product.

  • Further tips for normal skin: Stay consistent with your routine and gradually increase how often you’re using retinol as your skin builds up tolerance. But make sure to use a high suncream every day to protect your skin from damage.

How to use retinol correctly

1. Choose the right product for you

Like we’ve just spoken about, retinol comes in a range of strengths and formulations including creams, serums, and oils. Once you’ve worked out the best strength and product for you, you’re ready to roll. 

2. Do a patch test

Before you start using your chosen retinol, do a patch test on a small area of your skin like behind your ear. This will help you understand how your skin will react to the product and minimise the risk of a whole face of irritation.

3. Start by using retinol once a week

This helps your skin adjust and gradually get used to the product. If your skin reacts well, gradually increase how often you use it to twice a week, then every other night, and eventually every night. But don’t rush! Listen to your skin.

4. Apply on clean, dry skin

After cleansing your face, wait until your skin is completely dry before applying retinol. This helps to reduce the risk of irritation. Wait about 20-30 minutes post-cleansing to apply retinol.

5. Use a pea-sized amount

A little goes a long way with retinol. You only need a pea-sized amount to cover your entire face, so don’t go crazy. Applying more won't increase its effectiveness and will only lead to irritation.

6. Follow with a moisturiser

Retinol can be drying, especially when you first start using it. So it’s super important to use it alongside hydrating ingredients, finishing with a hydrating moisturiser. This helps to buffer the retinol and avoid dry skin and unnecessary irritation.

How often should you use retinol?

We’ve touched slightly on how often you should use retinol in your skincare, but it ultimately depends on your skin's tolerance and how strong the product you’re using is. Follow this step-by-step guide to help you build up to regular use.

Week one-two of using retinol:

  • Use retinol once a week

  • Monitor your skin for any signs of irritation, redness, or dryness

  • If your skin gets irritated, use the product even less

  • Once you notice no irritation, go to the next step

Week three-four:

  • If your skin is tolerating retinol well, increase usage to twice a week

  • Wait until you have no irritation to start using it twice a week

Week five-six:

  • All well in skincare world? Gradually increase to every other night, but keep a close eye on how your skin reacts.

Week seven and beyond:

  • Once your skin has built up enough tolerance, you can start using it every night. But only do this if your skin has no signs of irritation.

What ingredients can you use with retinol?

When introducing retinol into your skincare routine, you need to take a look at the other ingredients you’re using. Some might work wonders alongside retinol, while others will cause strong damage. Here’s what you should and shouldn’t avoid.

Can you use hyaluronic acid with retinol?

Yep – in fact, it’ll work wonders! Hyaluronic acid retains moisture in the skin, so it’s a match made in heaven for a drying ingredient like retinol. Hyaluronic acid helps to counteract the dry, flaky effects of retinol by deeply hydrating the skin, improving its overall texture and resilience. Using these two together will help maintain your skin’s moisture barrier, so you’re less likely to experience irritation from retinol.

Can you use niacinamide with retinol?

Yes, niacinamide is another great ingredient to pair with retinol. It’s known for its anti-inflammatory and soothing properties, as well as being able to strengthen the skin’s barrier. It can also improve the skin’s elasticity and its ability to retain moisture – all super useful when using a drying ingredient like retinol.

When used together, niacinamide can help counteract irritation and redness, making retinol more tolerable, especially for sensitive skin types. Niacinamide can also help to regulate oil production and reduce pore size, which complements retinol’s acne-fighting benefits.

Other ingredients that get a thumbs up:


Ceramides are lipid molecules, a natural component of the skin’s barrier. They help lock in moisture and protect the skin from environmental damage. Using ceramides with retinol can help repair and strengthen the skin barrier, which may be sensitised by retinol’s exfoliation. The two together will help the skin stay hydrated and less prone to irritation, promoting a healthier, more resilient complexion.


Peptides are short chains of amino acids that help with collagen production and skin repair. They work great with retinol as it can improve the skin’s firmness and also reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

While retinol accelerates cell turnover and boosts collagen production, peptides provide the building blocks for new collagen synthesis. This combination can boost the anti-aging benefits, so you get an even more youthful and plump appearance.


Squalane is a lightweight, non-pore-clogging oil that mimics the skin’s natural protective layer. It gives deep hydration without clogging pores, making it a perfect complement to retinol. 

Squalane also helps to soothe and calm the skin, which is great for reducing the potential for dryness and irritation caused by retinol. It also enhances the skin’s barrier function, locking in moisture to make sure the skin stays soft and supple.

Can you use salicylic acid with retinol? 

A big no-no. BHAs, like salicylic acid, are oil-soluble acids that get deep into the pores to exfoliate and reduce acne. So using BHAs with retinol can be way too much over-exfoliation and increases the risk of irritation. Both ingredients are powerful on their own, so combining them can overwhelm the skin. 

Can you use Vitamin C with retinol?

It’s a complicated one. If you have sensitive skin, you might find using the two ingredients together too strong. Also, due to their differing pH requirements, vitamin C works best in a lower pH environment, while retinol requires a higher pH to be effective. This could reduce how effective they are when used together.

If your skin gets easily irritated, use vitamin C in your morning routine and retinol in the evening. But if your skin is used to more powerful ingredients like vitamin C and retinol, using them together could be fine.

Can you use glycolic acid with retinol?

A no on this one. AHAs, such as glycolic acid and lactic acid, are chemical exfoliants that help to remove dead skin cells and improve skin texture. While AHAs and retinol both do a similar thing when it comes to cell turnover, using them together is way too much. It’ll lead to really dry skin, redness and sensitivity. 

Other ingredients that get a thumbs down:

1. Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is a powerful acne treatment that kills bacteria and reduces inflammation. However, when used with retinol, benzoyl peroxide can cause severe dryness and irritation. These ingredients are best used at different times of the day; apply benzoyl peroxide in the morning and retinol at night, but even this might be too much for sensitive skin. 

If acne is your concern, speak to a dermatologist to find the best way to use both into your routine if you need to use them most to get the benefits for your acne.

2. Exfoliating scrubs

Physical exfoliants, such as scrubs with a gritty texture, are too harsh when used with retinol. Both retinol and physical exfoliants try to get rid of dead skin cells, so using them both will only lead to irritation.

It’s best to stop using a physical exfoliant when using retinol – it’s strong enough to do the job just as well.

Keep these tips in mind when adding retinol to your skincare regime

1. Use suncream every day, no excuses

Retinol will make your skin much more sensitive to the sun, so make sure you’re using at least SPF 30 every morning to protect it. 

2. Be patient

Results from retinol can sometimes take weeks to notice. Consistency is key, so stick with your routine and give your skin time to adjust and improve. If you don’t notice anything, don’t use that as an excuse to up the ante, as you might regret it.

3. Keep your skin hydrated

Add as many hydrating and soothing ingredients into your routine as you can, such as hyaluronic acid, niacinamide and ceramides. These will help to support your skin barrier and minimise potential irritation. Then you can start to increase your tolerance of retinol and notice the difference.

4. Listen to your skin

Everyone’s skin is different, so everyone’s experience with retinol will be too. If you notice irritation, redness, or peeling, use the product less and wait until your symptoms are gone. It's important to find a routine that works for you.

By starting slowly with retinol, using the right amount, and gradually increasing frequency, you can notice the hailed-about effects while keeping your skin healthy and hydrated. Remember to protect your skin with suncream and boost moisture where possible to support your skin’s journey to improved texture and clarity.

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