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Getting Real About Retinol: My Results, Regrets, & Reasons I Still Use it

Retinol is among the most daunting skincare ingredients. Especially when incorporating it into a skincare routine for the first time, navigating where and when to use retinol can be overwhelming. To assuage this, I’ve gathered all of the most basic information about retinol, covering its many benefits and what information you should know when you’re new to the club. 

Before we dive in, I’d just like to disclaimer that I am a mere skincare junkie in college, hence, the advice I give in this guide should be taken with a grain of salt. For serious skincare queries and concerns, please consult with a dermatologist or visit a licensed esthetician!

What is retinol? 

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative used to treat hyperpigmentation, dullness, acne scars, and fine lines/wrinkles. According to beauty guru and YouTuber Susan Yara, as well as celebrity esthetician Shani Darden, retinol is one of the most effective anti-aging ingredients out there, as it increases collagen production and cell turnover. “Retinol penetrates the skin deeply and works at a cellular level to address many skin issues from anti-aging to keeping your skin blemish-free,” Darden said in an Instagram post from this past August.


A post shared by Shani Darden (@shanidarden)

What to know about retinol before using it 

Retinol is an extremely powerful ingredient, to the degree that pregnant or breastfeeding women are instructed not to use it, even if using a topical retinol product. Here are several key points to understand before using retinol:

Start with use only 2-3 times a week

Building a tolerance to retinol is crucial. To that end, it’s important to start using retinol only two or three times a week at night after cleansing, maybe even once or twice for those with sensitive skin. After a few weeks, depending on skin sensitivity, slowly increase retinol use. “When you add retinol into your routine, you want to start off slowly, and build up to as often as your skin can tolerate,” Darden said in an Instagram post from this past May.

Expect irritation at first 

Irritation is likely to be experienced when using retinol for the first time. Redness, itching, burning, and peeling are unfortunate side-effects one could potentially experience, however, many users only experience this their first time. To avoid or reduce potential irritation, use a pea-sized amount of product, literally. This will also help build a tolerance to retinol. To help combat the impact of retinol, make sure to incorporate a heavy moisturizer into your routine if you haven’t already.

Use SPF during the day, always

Regardless of retinol use, one should always wear sunscreen (at least SPF 30, according to the American Academy of Dermatology), arguably the most important product in a person’s skincare routine. Retinol increases the skin’s sensitivity to the sun; using retinol at night without wearing sunscreen during the day will cause sun damage to the skin. Therefore, always be sure to have sunscreen handy for use on a daily basis.

Be careful with mixing other actives

When first using retinol, be careful of using it the same night as products containing alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA’s) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHA’s). Commonly used AHA’s include lactic acid and glycolic acid for exfoliation, and commonly used BHA’s include salicylic acid for exfoliation and treating acne. Layering acids can be tricky, especially for those with sensitive skin. 

Regrets from my first time using retinol

Before doing more research on retinol, I saw it as an ingredient that only women in their 40’s and older used. However, according to board-certified dermatologist Ellen Marmur, M.D. and her interview with Vogue, retinol can be used as early as one’s mid-twenties. I then set out to find a retinol product safe for beginners, only to slather on much more than a pea-sized amount. In the week that followed, I experienced burning, redness and itching, all side-effects I had never experienced before with any skincare product. As the irritation gradually dissipated, I took a break from retinol, and in that time, learned about the mistakes I made with it. When revisiting retinol, I was careful to follow the instructions listed above. Months later, I’ve seen improvement in my skin’s texture and noticed some stubborn dark spots finally fading away. 

For more information on retinol use, I recommend following esthetician Shani Darden on Instagram, watching videos by YouTubers Susan Yara and Hyram, and consulting with a dermatologist on what retinol product(s) best suits your needs.

Stefani Shoreibah

Columbia Barnard '21

Stefani Shoreibah is a student at Barnard College, Columbia University majoring in art history with a minor in biology. When not studying or working, she can be found exploring New York City, reading (memoirs, historical fiction, or Frank Bruni's newest article in The New York Times), or petting strangers' cute dogs.
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