Skin care routine + Product review

Retinol Skincare for Beginners: A Comprehensive Guide

Welcome to the comprehensive beginner guide to using Retinol. You may have stumbled upon the fountain of youth with retinoids, so let’s discuss how to get the most out of this powerhouse product! For this article, I switch between retinol and retinoid (it’s the same, keep reading).

What is Retinol

The skin and beauty world forever buzzes with the hum of retinoids and their magical powers. This fountain of youth is commonly referred to as Retinol. Retinol is a type of retinoid. Retinoid is a catchall phrase referring to different variations of vitamin A. I hope you’re still with me. It gets clearer, keep reading.

Retinol is a type of retinoid.

The main retinoids are retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinoic acid. Retinol is the most common and most readily available form of retinoid on the market. It comes in numerous formulations such as; creams, serums, toners, under-eye creams, the list goes on. 

For retinol to be used effectively by the skin it needs to be converted into retinoic acid. It has some necessary steps to go through before your skin can access all its goodness. Retinaldehyde converts to retinoic acid in fewer steps, making it more potent.

Lastly, the most potent form of retinoid is retinoic acid also known as Retin A or tretinoin.  Retinoic acid is not available over the counter, you need a prescription for this one. Retinoids are fantastic for your skin but they must be used with caution and the right technique to reap all its benefits.

The Benefits of Retinoids 

Retinol Anti-Aging Benefits

What this means for your skin! 
Stimulates Collagen Production – Maintains the skins structure and elasticity
– Firmer, smoother skin, reduced wrinkles + fine lines 
Cell Turnover + Exfoliation– Out with the old skin + in with the new healthier skin
– More vibrant and glowy skin
– Maintains the skin structure and elasticity
– Firmer, smoother skin, reduced wrinkles + fine lines 
– Fades hyperpigmentation and age spots by regulating melanin production
– More even skin tone 
Minimizing Pore Size– Promotes shedding of dead skin cells
– Pores appear smaller 
Enhancing Skin Hydration– Improves skin’s ability to retain hydration
– Healthier + more hydrated-looking skin

Retinoids Acne Fighting Benefits

What this means for your skin! 
Unclogging Pores– Promotes the shedding of dead skin cells and encourages cell turnover 
– Pores are cleared of buildup and less acne formation 
Controlling oil (sebum) Production– Reduces the amount of oil produced 
Anti-Inflammatory Properties– Calms acne breakouts and prevents new ones
KIlling acne-causing bacteria– Due to the increased rate of cell turnover 
– Reduced bacteria on your skin that causes acne formation 

How to use Retinol + Other Retinoids

There are a few things to consider when starting retinoids in your skincare regimen. These guidelines are applicable for all skin types but as always, you know your skin best.

Start low, go slow

This one is pretty self-explanatory: you want to start with the absolute lowest concentration of retinoid and see how your skin tolerates it. Once you see that your skin is tolerating the lowest concentration of retinoid well, you can slowly increase the concentration if you choose. Increasing the concentration of the retinoid is not necessary especially if you’re seeing results and you’re happy with it. A stronger concentration can irritate the skin.

On that note, introduce retinoids into your skincare regimen slowly; consider using retinoids two to three times per week when you’re just beginning this journey. It’s important to gauge how your skin is tolerating not only the concentration of the retinoid but the frequency with which you’re using it. Once your skin has gotten used to your retinoid of choice you can consider using it more often. 

Listen to your skin

I cannot stress this enough, listen to your skin! Pay attention to the packaging information on the product but your skin has the final say. When using a product, your skin should not have a persistent burning itching or irritated feeling and it certainly shouldn’t be painful.  This feeling is not your skin getting used to a product but the product damaging your skin and causing possible inflammation in the process.  Skincare is not supposed to be painful unless you’re doing a particular type of procedure. 

black woman with white towel doing her basic skincare routine. Applying a retinol based face cream
Photo by Sora Shimazaki on

Sandwich method 

The sandwich method is a fantastic technique to reduce any adverse reactions to using retinoids and to help your skin hold on to some moisture as retinoids are very drying to the skin.
See the sandwich method below;

  1.  On a freshly washed face,  apply a thin layer of a thick moisturizer.
  2. Give that a minute to absorb into the skin a bit. Then apply a pea-sized amount of retinoid to your face and neck. Yes, that is all you need.
  3. Give the retinoid about 10 to 15 minutes to absorb into your skin.
  4. Then go in with a thicker layer of that same moisturizer. Massage it into your skin.

Sunscreen + Retinol 

In general, using sunscreen every day despite the weather or the season is a rule of thumb.  When using retinoids, you must wear sunscreen every single day.

Sunscreen Basics

  • Broad spectrum – UVA/ UVB protection
  • SPF 30 and above
  • Reapply every 2 hours even if you’re in a full face of makeup, there are sunscreen sprays and powders for ease in reapplication

Consider using hybrid sunscreens containing titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide. A hybrid sunscreen (a combination of chemical and physical sunscreen properties) helps to minimize that ghastly white cast by helping the sunscreen melt nicely into the skin. I use the EverEden 100% Premium Mineral Sunscreen Lotion for this very reason. Minimal to no white on melanin-rich skin tones when applied to moisturized skin. Click here for 15% off your purchase using code: SHAN_THESKINNURSE. 

For a more in-depth look at sunscreens and why you need them in your life, click here to check out this article on the basics of sunscreen use.

Only Use Retinol at Night

While retinol is busy doing its work of increasing the rate of your cell turnover, allowing you to reap all the benefits listed above, it’s exposing fresh new skin.  That being said, you want your body to go through this process at night when it’s dark and there’s absolutely no sun around. Also, your body is doing the bulk of its restoration work during the night as you rest, so this is the perfect time to put retinol on the job.

Retinol in your skincare regimen (when to apply it)

 When to use a product containing retinoids depends on what that product is for. Once you wash your face, skin care products are normally applied from the thinnest to the thickest consistency.  The order in which you apply your skincare products is organized to allow for optimal absorption into the skin. 
If you’re applying retinoid as a serum, a prescription, or an ointment it should be applied after washing your face before your moisturizer.  Applying retinoids in this manner would be for someone who is used to the product.  I mentioned the sandwich method previously as a way to lessen any form of irritation when using retinoids.

It’s worth mentioning, that you only use one retinoid-based skincare product at a time in your evening skincare regimen.

Retinoid Contraindication

Pregnant/ BreastfeedingHigh doses of vitamin A (retinoids come from vitamin A) can be harmful to developing fetuses and nursing babyBakuchiol, some face acids
Speak to your family doctor  
Sensitive/ Reactive SkinRetinoid use can aggravate the skin causing 
– excessive dryness 
– redness/ uneven skin tone 
– peeling of the skin
– pain
Speak with your family doctor/ dermatologist 
Skin ConditionsMay worsen symptoms or cause irritation
– eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis
Speak to a dermatologist 
Recent Hair RemovalWaxing, threading and other skin procedures can make the skin sensitive Delay using retinoids a few days before and after any hair removal/ skin treatments 
Allergies or Sensitivities Check to make sure you are allergic to the retinoid and not another compound in the productSpeak to your family doctor/ dermatologist 

Retinoid Product suggestions

Keep it simple when you’re just starting with retinol products. I’ve listed a few suggestions below. Remember to implement the best practices outlined above to avoid harming your skin. 

A product photo of a few products by The Ordinary on a white table with pink flower pedals sprinkled on table
Photo by Valeriia Miller on

The Ordinary’s Retinol in Squalane serum comes in 3 different strengths (concentrations) of retinol (0.2%, 0.5%, 1%). The Ordinary’s Retinol serum is formulated with a very gentle and moisturizing oil, squalane. This lessens the chance of irritation nicely. This is also an affordable product to start with.

Picture showing the acne fighting retinoid Differin gel

Differin Gel aka Adapalene is a retinoid product specifically formulated to clear and control acne while reducing breakouts. I’ve used Adapalene (0.3% via a prescription) and I can say it works! I’ve been reaping the antiaging benefits from a young when I didn’t even know about them. This product did not disappoint.

Product photo showing a retinol cream by Naturium

This Naturium Retinol Complex Serum is made with bakuchiol (more on this below), retinol, and skin-nourishing ingredients like Shea butter. This is another budget-friendly and gentle entry option into the world of retinoids.

For a more comprehensive list of skincare products containing retinol, check out this Healthline article 11 Best Retinol Cream for Wrinkles, Acne and More.

Alternatives to Retinoids

A favourite alternative to retinol products is bakuchiol (bak-koo-che-owl). Bakuchiol is a natural, plant-based alternative to retinol. Bakuchiol’s anti-aging effects on the skin are similar to that of retinol with little to no irritation to the skin.  It is a phenomenal alternative if retinoids just aren’t getting the job done for you. However, retinoids remain the gold standard. It’s worth mentioning again to truly investigate if you are allergic to retinoids or something mixed in with them.

Another worthwhile alternative to retinoids is face acids. Click here for all the benefits Alpha Hydroxy Acids, Beta Hydroxy Acids, and Polyhydroxy Acids can add to your skincare routine.


This brings us to the end of our comprehensive beginner’s guide to retinol. I hope you feel more comfortable implementing this powerhouse product into your skincare routine.  Always remember to start low with the retinoid of your choice and go slow.

Your best skin awaits! If you haven’t already, subscribe to the blog and feel free to comment below. 


Your Skin & Beauty Nurse

Just a nurse obsessed with skincare! By day, I'm a Public Health Nurse by night I'm a skincare obsessed mom of 3 littles, a wife and lover of all things coconut!

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