Ask The Skin Coach: A Beginner’s Guide to Retinol

By Erin Bair, Licensed Esthetician + Certified Health Coach


Q: I’m looking for advice about using Retin-A. It was prescribed to me for anti aging and I’d really like to keep using it, but my skin is getting super flaky and irritated, although I’m using it according to the directions. Is there anything I can do to combat aging skin without all this red, peeling drama? I had read good things about Retin-A and now I’m just disappointed.



A: Prescription retinoids (topical products derived from vitamin A) such as brand names Retin-A and Tretinoin are strong and can be too harsh for many. The resulting irritation often forces people give to up all together. Add the inevitable increase in sun sensitivity, and it can end badly for even the most careful user. However, there is a lower-risk option that offers great results, and applied conscientiously, can be a way to prepare the skin for a stronger prescription strength Vitamin A treatment.


Retinol: The same result with less irritation.

Retinol is an over the counter form of Vitamin A that has the same biological benefits of prescription retinoids, but is gentler for beginners or those with sensitive skin. This is a gradual, long term approach. Essentially, it’s a marathon, not a sprint! Retinol must be introduced gradually, increased over time, and used consistently. If this is done correctly, with long term use the results are beautiful. Collagen production is increased, which reduces indented acne scarring, and improves lines and wrinkles. Pore size is refined and dark spots fade. If you can be patient and consistent (AND you’re using a well formulated product with an effective delivery system), after a few months of use your skin will show noticeable improvement.


Retinol is also an effective treatment for managing acne, because it’s an exfoliant that penetrates into pores and helps break up the clogs that are responsible for breakouts. A word of caution though: any product that’s used on acne-prone skin MUST be non-comedogenic (in other words, it should not clog the pores). I have seen both retinol and prescription Retin-A creams that contain incredibly clogging ingredients. This is a recipe for disaster and should be taken very seriously. My clients use the one I’ve developed. It’s completely acne safe, and has a time release delivery system of micro-encapsulated active ingredients for the best delivery with less risk of irritation.


So, let’s assume you’ve found a good retinol you want to try. What next?

You’ll want to begin by applying your retinol every third night, even less frequently if you’re quite sensitive. After cleansing and toning, wait 10 minutes (important!) for the skin to dry thoroughly. After the waiting period, apply a large pea-size amount of retinol, making tiny dots with it so it’s evenly distributed, then blend thoroughly and press into the skin. If moisturizer is required, you can combine your retinol together with moisturizer in your palm, and apply them both at once. If you need more moisturizer, wait another 10 minutes before applying. This system will help prevent the excessive flakiness that’s often associated with vitamin A treatments.


On the nights you don’t use retinol, I recommend an exfoliant such as Lactic or Mandelic acid. This helps prepare the skin, removing excess buildup that would otherwise interfere with the penetration of your retinol.


Over several months’ time, the frequency of the retinol application can be increased, usually up to 5 or 6 nights per week. The strength should also be increased, from .05% up to 1%, after your skin has acclimated. Eventually, you may find your skin is ready for a stronger prescription strength retinoid...although you might feel that it’s no longer necessary!


Sunblock is non-negotiable.

Regardless of the vitamin A treatment you’re using, a broad spectrum mineral sunblock of zinc or titanium dioxide -at least SPF 40- should be worn every single day. Retinoids and retinol require the diligent practice of safe sun! If you expect to be outdoors and cannot commit to a brimmed hat, sunglasses and SPF 40, then you should discontinue use for at least 7 days both before and after the sun exposure. If you can’t commit to THAT, then you are not a good candidate for vitamin A topical therapy.

Try these tips for a happier end to your vitamin A story. If used judiciously and with extra attention to detail, retinol can be the closest thing we have to a ‘miracle in a bottle’ for anti aging.


#skincare #retinol #betterskin