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The Right Time to Start Using a Retinol

Chances are, retinol needs no introduction. The superstar ingredient, which is a form of vitamin A, is pretty famous for its ability to speed skin cell turnover, stimulate collagen production, and basically instruct skin cells to act younger — all to give you brighter, smoother, and firmer skin. Dreamy, right? However, the when and the how of retinol is a little less obvious. Here’s what you need to know.

How does retinol work?

“Retinol is an over the counter topical formulation of Vitamin A,” says Jason Miller, MD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in Freehold, NJ. Once applied to your skin, it triggers retinol receptors within skin, which works to improve the metabolism of your skin cells, help regulate cell turnover, and increases with collagen production — all of which slow down with age. The combination of the above helps keep pores clear, firm and brighten skin, and minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. The only downside is that it can make skin red, irritated, and flaky, especially if you use too much too quickly.

When should you start using retinol?

There’s no bad time to start retinol — in fact, some derms recommend it to teens to help address acne. For general use, though, sooner is better than later. “Retinol can be used by those in their 20s to help reverse and prevent future sun damage,” says Miller.

Confused by retinol versus retinoids? We break down the difference for you.

Who can use retinol?

Most people can use retinol, though there are some caveats. For one, “some patients with extremely sensitive skin can be irritated by retinol-containing products,” says Miller. “These patients should be cautious with starting a retinol regimen.” If you already know your skin tends to be reactive, try starting with an encapsulated retinol (more on that in a moment).

Retinol use should be suspended depending on other things you’re experiencing or using. For instance, “although the data is limited, we generally avoid retinol based products in women who are currently pregnant,” Miller explains. The same goes if you’re planning certain in-office procedures with a dermatologist — for instance, retinol shouldn’t be used if you have a laser treatment coming up.

Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask and Avocado Melt Retinol Eye Sleeping Mask with texture swatches.

What kind of retinol should you use? 

We’re fans of encapsulated retinol, which is the form of retinol you can find in the Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask and Avocado Melt Retinol Eye Sleeping Mask. “Encapsulated retinol wraps the active ingredient in a protective barrier, allowing the product to be more stable,” explains Miller. “This allows the retinol to penetrate deeper and be released over time, decreasing some of the local irritation.” This way, even those with dry or sensitive skin types can get all the benefits of retinol without worry or  These formulations tend to be tolerated better by those with dry or sensitive skin types. 

If you’re new to encapsulated ingredients, here’s why you should be using them in your routine.

For non-encapsulated formulations, you may need to start slowly. Begin with one to two nights a week. If you don’t see any flaking or redness within two weeks, you can move up to every other night, eventually working your way up to nightly use.

How does retinol fit into your routine?

Retinol works best when layered on at night right before your moisturizer. “A thin layer of retinol can be applied to the skin, followed by a mild moisturizer to help avoid the irritating effects,” says Miller. (Good news: The Avocado Melt Sleeping Retinol Mask has built-in moisturizers, such as avocado oil, to offer that moisture along with retinol in a single step. Strategic!) If your skin is extra dry, “some studies even show that the retinol can be placed on top of a moisturizer and still maintain its effect while improving tolerability,” says Miller. Known as the sandwich method, that means you can use a moisturizer, like Watermelon Glow Pink Juice Moisturizer or Banana Soufflé Moisture Cream, before applying your retinol to minimize irritation.

While there’s talk that retinol has to be applied to clean, dry skin at the very start of your routine, it’s mostly a matter of preference. As Miller mentioned, applying retinol after a moisturizing product ensures there’s some buffer to minimize irritation. Conversely, layering retinol onto clean skin could make it more potent, since there’s no buffer — and could potentially increase redness or irritation. You can try it both ways and see what works for your skin.

If your skin is oily and not that sensitive, you also can use a beta hydroxy acid, or BHA, before applying your retinol for extra pore-clearing power. (Think our Watermelon Glow PHA+BHA Pore-Tight Toner and the Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask.) If your skin is dry or tends to be sensitive, though, try using your BHA in the morning and retinol at night, or use them on alternating days. Here’s the full scoop on pairing the two powerhouses together, if you’re curious.

Last but not least, retinol can make skin more sensitive to sunlight, so be diligent about your sunscreen application. Reach for SPF 30 or higher, and don’t forget to reapply if you’re outside throughout the day.

Keep reading about the power of retinol:


Glow Recipe

Avocado Melt Retinol Eye Cream


Glow Recipe

Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask


Glow Recipe

Banana Soufflé Moisture Cream


Glow Recipe

Watermelon Glow Pink Juice Moisturizer


Glow Recipe

Watermelon Glow PHA + BHA Pore-Tight Toner


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