This is the Esthetician Approved Way to Use Retinol

YouGlowGal You Glow Gal Esthetician Sarah Payne Spa Dallas Denver SkinBlog Beauty Blogger Sarah Nicole Skincare Glowing aesthetician tips trick retinol retinal retinoic acid vitamin a retinoid irritation how to use sensitivity

Vitamin A goes by several names but she’s known as the golden child of anti-aging ingredients. Starting one in your 20’s, and definitely by your 30’s, can create an impressive impact on your complexion. One that might even prevent you from needing Botox early in life.

We love it because it increases cell turnover, helping with acne, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. As a cell-communicator it stimulates collagen and elastin production, thickening the skin and slowing down the aging process and filling in fine lines. It even helps your skin stay hydrated and increases that coveted glow.

Many of us, including myself, give up on Retinoid products due to irritation, sensitivity, and excess peeling. I have some guidelines for you though! After reading this article you’ll be less likely to have a bad experience and reap the benefits of using Vitamin A in your routine.

Vitamin A goes by a few names including Retinol, Retinoid, Retinaldehyde, and Retinoic Acid. All forms of Vitamin A are referred to as a Retinoid.

Technically a prescription from your dermatologist, like Retin-A, is a Retinoid or Retinoic Acid, a chemical compound related to Vitamin A. Over the counter Retinol is a form of Vitamin A, however, your skin must convert it to Retinoic Acid, and it may take several weeks to do so.

0.5% Retinol is similar in efficacy to 0.025% Retinoid

1.0% Retinol is similar in efficacy to 0.05% Retinoid

What this means is prescription Retin-A will gain results much more quickly than an over the counter product. The downside is the likelihood of increased sensitivity, irritation, peeling skin, etc. By comparison, an over the counter product will usually be more gentle with slower results. Either way, the end result is the same, just at different speeds of accomplishment.

That said, many over the counter retinoids are still too strong for most skin. Every skin type is different and finding the right Vitamin A product for you will be a game of trial and error. In this case, sensitive skin loving Retinaldehyde might be a good option for you.

Retinaldehyde converts to Retinoic Acid much more quickly than Retinol, meaning it’s even more gentle and ideal for delicate skin types. Having sensitive skin, I can’t use many Retinoid products without feeling incredibly dry. I couldn’t use them frequently enough for me to feel like I was getting much benefit, although it was better than nothing.

That all changed when I started using Preservation Serum, formulated with my favorite form of Vitamin A: retinaldehyde. It’s become a favorite because I can use it nearly every day without any dryness, irritation, or sensitivity, something I’ve never been able to get away with until now. If you’re someone who struggles with finding a Goldilocks zone with retinoids, definitely put retinaldehyde next on your ‘to try’ list! However, if you want to give your current retinoid another try, keep on reading.


Which miracle working Retinoid is the best for your skin?




When I was in the treatment room I never started a client on 1% Retinol, ever. Slow and steady is the name of the game! Starting at higher concentration means you’re more likely to experience sensitivity. While there are some who can start higher without any issues, the majority can’t. Typically, most of my clients started with a 0.5% Retinol and built up from there.

No matter the formula you choose, the schedule looks something like this:

First 1-2 weeks apply Vitamin A 2x week
Weeks 3-4 increase to 3x week
Weeks 5-6 alternate every other night
Finally, weeks 7-8 increase to every night

Not everyone will make it to using Retinol every evening and that is okay! If you experience irritation, sensitivity, or excessive peeling, back off. Your sweet spot may have been the frequency you were using prior to adding an extra night. The ideal situation is finding a product and schedule that causes the least irritation and dryness.

Keep seasons in mind, too. Humid, summer months will allow higher frequency than dry, cold winters. After 3 months of using 0.5% you can entertain the idea of moving up to 1%, but you shouldn’t consider it necessary. It all comes down to what your skin can tolerate the most frequently without harsh side effects.


The Routine

I suggest adding Retinol to your PM regimen instead of AM for two reasons:

1. It adds extra time to your routine and we may not be willing to do so in the morning

2. Depending on the products you’re using throughout the week, the evening is the easiest way to remember where to fit in your Retinoid

If you’re using AHA/BHA treatments avoid using them the same evening to avoid additional sensitivity. As you build tolerance, you can entertain using AHA/BHA and Retinol in the same routine but I don’t suggest beginning there.

Always apply to dry skin, as applying to damp skin allows the product to absorb faster, increasing the chance of irritation. It can be applied to your face, neck, décolleté, and hands… just remember to be diligent with SPF as photosensitivity increases!

1.) Cleanse, tone and wait for your skin to dry
2.) Apply pea-size amount to skin
3.) Wait at least 20 minutes for traditional Vitamin A products, like Retin-A or Skinceuticals 0.5%, to absorb
4.) Apply serums, oils, and/or moisturizer

I highly, highly suggest applying a nourishing moisturizer or oil over your Retinol. Adding moisture back into the skin will decrease sensitivity. My absolute favorite moisturizer for Vitamin A evenings is Nourishing Cream, it’s great for keeping the skin barrier healthy and balanced, locking in much-needed hydration.

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About Sarah Nicole

Sarah is a Denver based expert esthetician, known for returning abused sensitive skin back to a glowing state without harsh products while boosting her client's skin confidence and self-worth. Sarah has been featured in Allure, New Beauty, Greatist, NBC News, and D Magazine among others. You can follow her on Instagram @sarahnpayne.

34 thoughts on “This is the Esthetician Approved Way to Use Retinol

  1. I tried the drunk elephant 1.0% A- Passioni retinol cream that was just released recently. I use it twice a week and the day after the 2nd application my facewasred, dry, flakey, and looked terrible! I am once again going to try another application but this time diluted. Any recommendation in regard to what I can use with this to keep the redness and peeling to a minimum?

    1. If this is your first retinoid product in a while, or if you’re just beginning, starting with a 1.0% formulation will be a bit much for most people. Usually, you want to use a more gentle formula and build up to a stronger one. You can try mixing Passioni with another cream to dilute it OR try using a hyaluronic acid serum first, let it dry, and act as a buffer. Always apply Passioni to dry skin to avoid any dryness and dehydration. If you’re still having a hard time with it, my Preservation Serum would make a really great stepping stone before going back to 1.0%–use for 6 months and then try bumping up the concentration. Hope this helps! xx

  2. Hi Sarah!!! I’ve been using environ avst rage for 2 years, changed my life. People think I’ve 5 years younger than I am. Yet 5 years ago they got my age spot on! I’ve been on the strongest level AVST 5, for 4-5 months and also use their peptide elixir. I just purchase drunk elephant tlc. Firstly I’ve put the drunk elephant tlc on the past 3 nights on top of my environ and not seen any problems. Is this ok?
    Also if yes. Which order should I put them on and how long in between. The vitamin A then AHA or the opposite?

    Thanks 🙂

    1. Hey Kat! I would begin a more gradually with adding in TLC, just to avoid the potential surprise of your skin not handling all the exfoliation and retinol at once. It’s totally possible for your skin to tolerate your routine without any negative side effects but it’s much easier to be a little cautious than to fix a hot skin mess, you know? You can layer the way you have been or alternate morning/night. Maybe add TLC every other night and see how your skin does? If you don’t feel dry, dehydrated or feel any sensitivity you’ll know it’s too much for your skin xx

  3. This article was so informative. I love your blog!

    I’ve been using Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 (at night after cleansing, followed by Skinceuticals Renew Overnight Dry) for about 2 weeks. This is my first experience with both products so I guess I don’t know what to expect, but I started out using the retinol every other day and felt/saw no effect (no redness, no dryness, nor any visible improvements) so I started using it every day…and I still feel and see no effect! What do you think is more likely: That I got a bad batch from Bluemercury (or that it went bad in my mailbox in the Dallas heat between delivery and my bringing it inside hours later), or that my skin is really just THAT un-sensitive, in which case I’ll go for the 1.0 next time?

    Totally understand if you don’t have time to respond but thought I’d pitch the question just in case! Either way, thanks for your wonderful blog. It helps a lot of people!

    1. Hey Jess! I used to be super worried about the Texas heat damaging my products, too! Many brands have their products stability tested against extreme conditions, I’m sure any degradation in the formula (if any) was minimal. Sounds like your skin can tolerate traditional retinol well! Give it about 6-8 weeks to start seeing changes in your skin, it’s still a bit early. After about 3-6 months you can bump it up to 1.0, but you’ll want to build up tolerance–it’s definitely stronger than 0.5!

  4. Hi Sarah, I’m currently using a couple of serums at night (Biologique Recherche Amniotique and Placenta) before my moisturizer but looking to incorporate Shani Darden’s retinol (Resurface – Retinol Reform) into my PM routine – should I be applying the retinol or the serums first? I’ve read that retinol should go on first, but I think this retinol is slightly more viscous than the serums…

    1. Hey Christina! I would layer thinnest to thickest, personally–but play around with retinol first then your other serum next, see which works best for your skin 🙂

  5. Hello Sarah,

    Why do we have to wait for our skin to “dry”? (“Cleanse, tone and wait for your skin to dry, ideally 20 minutes”)



    1. Hi May! If your skin is damp it could pull in Vitamin A more quickly and cause adverse side effects like redness, dry skin, irritation, etc. Retinoids specifically work better when nothing is placed on top which is why we’re told to wait 20min to an hour, Retinol isn’t as strict. It’ll allow both forms to work better on your skin but you can still apply moisturizer shortly after if you need a buffer.

  6. I came back to re-read this one. I’ve been applying my Retinol after my hyaluronic acid serum- but heard that I should be applying after cleansing to a dry face? Just wanted to see what you thought. Thank you!

    1. There’s no right or wrong, just depends what’s best for your skin. Using it after your HA will allow the serum to act as a buffer for sensitive skin. I personally apply mine to dry skin.

  7. I just received Retin-A Rx from the Dermatologist but wasn’t given any instructions. I have no skin care regimine currently in place besides using face wash and tinted moisturizer. I turned 30 and feel like I’m looking old and tired especially on my forehead with uneven texture. It’s time for a change! I would love to implement a skin care routine but have NO idea where to start. Do you have any recommendations for products to use in conjunction with this Rx?

    1. Keep it simple while you introduce Retin-A. A nourishing cleanser for your skin type, a hydrating moisturizer, and a facial oil to apply a few nights a week will make the introduction easier on your skin.

  8. I just started a retinol and am trying to catch up- after reading this I now see I need to cut back! My skin was so dry- I already have dry skin and was confused!? Thank you for sharing all of your skin info. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again- I Love you blog!! Found it via Instagram 🙂

  9. Why retinol should not be used on eyelids? I do it for 8 months..I use LRP redermic R for eye area. Hope I didn’t do something dangerous to my eyes? Had no problems till now, actually my eyelids are much better, as they were slightly saggy and dry..

  10. This was helpful! I need to get back on it bc even at 0.025%, I can’t. But beauty takes dedication, time, and oils. Ok next week, I will try it again!! Thank you!

      1. I just ordered a 2.5% retinol cream! Yikes I didn’t realize that was so strong, so if I mix it with moisturizer it will be diluted?

        1. You can try it, or try buffering with an hylauronic acid serum underneath by allowing it to dry first. Every formulation is different, so even though it says 2.5% it may perform differently. Just air on the side of caution if you decide to keep it.

  11. Hi Sarah, I’m using hydropeptide power serum and eye authority at night. Sounds like I could add a retinol to my regimen? Is that right?

  12. Hiya I’m in the UK I’ve tried paulas choice 1% retinol but it honestly did nothing for me and I found it greasy and it sat on my skin. Could you suggest another good one I’m 38 I need a good retinol now lol

    1. Skinceuticals makes a great retinol! My dermatologist and others I’ve met approve of their formula, too. In the UK they have a 0.3, 0.5, and 1%

  13. Perfect timing for your post. I have prescription strength Retin A, .25% I believe, and I haven’t started using it yet because I wasn’t sure how to adopt it into my current routine. I am using a Vitamin C serum during the day, Drunk Elephant, but I am also using their TLC Glycolic serum. Should I stop using that while I’m using the Retin A at night?

    1. Leave out the glycolic serum the first week or two of starting Retin A and gradually introduce it back into your routine once you know how your skin reacts. That should help reduce excess irritation!

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