Girl applying retinol serum to her face

At what age should you start using retinol?

Does your mom ever tell you tales of her youth and how she wished she knew better with caring for her skin? She may even tell you that you should start looking out for your skin while you’re still young, so you’ll look younger than the age on your driver’s license.

Most of us tend to tune Mom out though until it’s too late. Mom’s right though. You’re never too young to care for your skin. We’re off having fun, burning the candle at both ends, soaking up the sun, and passing out drunk on those ladies’ nights at the local bar without removing our makeup.

One day, it’s going to show itself all over our faces.

When your mom tells you about retinol, you should listen.

But, at what age should you start using retinol?

Experts suggest that the best time to begin using retinol in your mid to late 20s. Also, you need to start integrating retinol into your beauty routine by the age of 30. Ideally, you should be doing it before your first sunspot appears or before you notice any fine lines starting to form.

What happens if you hold off on using retinol until you fully see signs of aging in the mirror? That’s like not caring for your physical health until the doctor comes at you with a dire warning. So, get on it with health and beauty. For beauty, there’s retinol.

The more healthy you keep your skin, just like the rest of your body, the better you’ll look. You’re not too young to start using retinoids. Some are in prescription form, but you can get retinoids over the counter in many beauty products. Using them now, along with stopping bad behavior like smoking, tanning, not using sunscreen, and things of this nature will help keep you looking younger and fresh-faced as you age.

Ideally, adding retinol now will help target lost elasticity and repair free radical damage from pollution and sun exposure. Do it now because if you wait another decade, the damage done becomes so much harder to repair.

Are you around your late 20s? It’s time to think about retinol in your beauty routine. Keep reading and you’ll learn all about what it is and why we love it so much!

What is retinol anyway?

Basically, retinol is a derivative of vitamin A. This is a group of fat-soluble vitamins that are in things like carrots, sweet potatoes and eggs. When you apply it topically, it turns into retinoic acid thanks to enzymes in your skin. You could theoretically apply retinoic acid to your skin but we don’t recommend skipping the middle man enzymes here. It is much harsher on the skin and could be even more irritating.

When you use a well-formulated product with a stable version of retinol in it, you’ll see a dramatic improvement in your skin. It repairs sun damage, lines and wrinkles, refines pores, and fades spots away. You’ll have smoother, more even-toned skin with every use.

If you’ve heard of tretinoin, retinol is a less concentrated version of it. Tretinoin is something your dermatologist may prescribe if you have severe versions of acne, skin discolorations, or you’ve waited too long and now have deep-set wrinkles.

Another great thing about retinol is that it acts as an antioxidant so it handles free radical damage. You’ll find it in things like creams and serums, generally nighttime formulas when your skin could use more help with cell turnover as you rest.

Retinol is not the same thing as Retin-A or Renova. These brands require a prescription, plus they’re purely retinoic acid. Retinol itself can cause slight irritation to skin the first few times of use, but these more potent versions could cause more flakiness and redness.

Retinol is found in different strengths in each product. At 0.01%, this is the lowest strength. You can apply this every day with little to no irritation. You could start with this lowest amount to see how it goes which isn’t a bad idea as you get your skin used to retinol.

Want something stronger to handle your skin concerns? Choose anything from 0.04% to 0.1% retinol. This is considered moderate in strength. For this concentration, start out using it 2 to 3 nights a week, and then move up to every night.

For the highest strength, choose 0.5% to 1%. This is for prescription-like results. Daily use of retinol at the highest strength has been shown to significantly boost collagen production.

Combined with other beneficial ingredients such as other antioxidants, skin-repairing nutrients, and ingredients that communicate with cells, you’ll have even more gorgeous skin to show off. The kind of skin that will get you carded for a bottle of wine in your 40s AND earn you a double or even triple-take from the cashier.

Here is how retinol improves your skin

Why is retinol so awesome? Here’s why we love the stuff!

It works deep in your skin at the cellular level. This is where it goes to encourage cell turnover so you get fresh, renewed and bright skin. Salicylic acid and vitamin C are also good skincare ingredients as they help remove dead skin cell build-up. Retinol though promotes healing and repair deep down on a more microscopic level. Basically, retinol is more detail-oriented about helping you look ageless.

You’ll love it because it helps your skin make more collagen. It smooths fine lines and wrinkles away. It restores your skin’s texture. It corrects pigmentation. AND! It gets rid of acne.

While it often gets lumped into the exfoliant category, it is most certainly not. Instead, it inspires your aging cells to act young again. Isn’t that something?

When you start incorporating it into your skincare routine as a preventative measure, it can really make all the difference.

You can thank Dr. Albert Kligman for that. In 1971, Dr. Kligman was the dermatologist who discovered tretinoin. It was then patented and put on the market by industry giants Johnson & Johnson under the tradename of Retin-A. Dr. Kligman observed that his patients that had been using tretinoin for acne had more improved skin in the way of lines, wrinkles and pigmentation.

From there, scientists toot the vitamin A molecule and made more derivatives which is where we now get retinoids. When applied topically, you can get the following benefits:

  • Prevent wrinkles
  • Smooth away existing fine lines and wrinkles
  • Bright up lackluster skin
  • Exfoliate at the cellular level
  • Regulate oil production
  • Minimize breakouts
  • Fade away discolorations from age spots, sunspots, and hyperpigmentation
  • Create a more even complexion over time

Because it has such a powerful ability to renew cells, retinol is a wonderful choice if you breakout often. It normalizes this cell turnover and gives a bit of an exfoliating effect so that pores stop clogging up and breakouts stop happening altogether.

But you should be cautious if you have severe acne and are taking anything for it. Ask your dermatologist to ensure nothing will overdo the effects of retinol. For example, if you’re already using any products that have salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or some other prescription-strength item, it’s best not to mix retinol in because it could irritate your skin. Your dermatologist knows your skin situation so make sure to ask about if it’s ok to add retinol to your skincare regimen first!

What you should know before adding retinol to your skin care routine

Even if you aren’t using other prescriptions or you have no acne situation, you should keep reading to know a few things before clicking to buy retinol products. Read on and you’ll find out!

Slowly integrate retinol into your routine

We hope we didn’t scare you with the get-on-the-retinol-trolley-before-30-or-you’ll-look-old trolley. But even if your dermatologist gives you the go-ahead or you have no conflicting skin care products, you should go slow with retinol.

It can cause irritations if you use too much too often or too soon. Some women experience no problems at all while others find it to be too irritating. Skin experts say you should start with the lowest percentage of retinol and use only about the size of a pea twice per week. Then, step it up from there. Once your skin adjusts to this daily application and isn’t irritated, you can step up the intensity and frequency.

Time-release formulas are definitely ideal, especially if your skin is sensitive or prone to breakouts. Because it’s released over time, it is much less irritating than regular formulations.

Unless a dermatologist has been working with you for a while and writes a prescription for serious skin conditions, there’s no need to go to that level unless you’ve worked your way up and need something heavy-duty to blast deep-set wrinkles away.

Regardless of which retinol type you use, if you see any visible redness or your skin peels, only use it once a week for a month and then move on to twice a week. Then you can upgrade from there.

You should also let your retinol cream or serum absorb into your skin for 20 to 30 minutes before adding another layer of the following product on top. Dermatologists also advise that once you start using retinol, you will need to be vigilant with sunscreen protection every day. Retinol makes skin more sensitive to the sun.

But seeing as you shouldn’t go out in the sun without sun protection anyway, it isn’t that big of a deal.

Products that can be paired with retinol

You can use lactic acid with retinol. It provides gentle exfoliation that works really well with retinol. Hyaluronic acid serums are also a great match to work with retinol.

However, you don’t want to layer too many products with your retinol. It can reduce their overall effectiveness. And depending on the other products you use, you could wind up with a chemical burn. Speaking of that, don’t use chemical peels when using retinol unless you have the go-ahead from your dermatologist or a licensed esthetician first.

Be careful when using it on sensitive skin

Retinol is very effective and potent, but the side effects could mean redness and peeling for you. We’ve known women that have had no negative side effects from using even the strongest OTC retinol products on the market every day. We’ve also known women who used the lowest strength in the smallest dose to have redness and peeling.

If your skin is notoriously sensitive, go for an extended-release formula or one that features ‘for sensitive skin’ on the label. This will be less likely to cause you trouble. Additionally, you’ll want to try retinol on a small area first, ideally when you’ve got no big plans the next day. For example, it would be foolish to try retinol the night before your wedding if you don’t know how your skin will react.

Some people with skin conditions like eczema and rosacea can’t tolerate retinol. If you’re one of them, you can find plenty of anti-aging ingredients that can help you out.

Oh! And before we forget, if you’re pregnant or nursing do NOT use retinol. It can have harmful side effects and may result in miscarriage. If you’re using retinol and plan to try for a baby soon, stop using it and use something else that is safe bakuchiol is a vegan, plant-based alternative to retinol that has been proven for effectiveness too.

Use retinol only at nighttime and wear SPF at daytime

You won’t melt into a puddle and scream, “Oh what a world!” like the Wicked Witch of the West if you apply retinol during the day, it is most effective at night when helping with cell turnover. And it does leave your skin more sensitive during the day. To avoid having too many layers, use daytime hours to apply that SPF to keep your skin protected.

Retinol increases UV sensitivity. You may not want to use it at all during summer or when you’re planning a sunny vacation to Florida for example. While you won’t have any problems wearing it during the day, skincare experts advise you reserve your retinol for nighttime use only. They also say that if you’re going to apply it in the morning, let it soak in and then apply your SPF product of at least SPF 30 on top.

Honestly though, let your retinol be retinol. Apply it at night and go to sleep. In the daytime, focus on keeping skin protected and nourished. Simple!

You can even find retinol products with SPF protection built-in. It sounds like a good idea, but it’s really just better for your skin to apply them separately. The reason is you need SPF in a layer on top of your skin. If the retinol is mixed in with it, it’s really not doing you any favors.

Don’t neglect your neck and other parts of your body

Most of the time, it’s not your face that will give away your age. It’s your neck and your chest. Your hands too. These areas show the signs of aging so much more rapidly because we tend to forget all about them. We always focus on the face.

Stop that habit right now and show the rest of your body some love.

Of course, these areas may be more sensitive than your face, so test it out. If you find the skin in these tender areas can’t handle it, try a retinoid product made to target those specific areas.

Don’t waste your money if you don’t know what retinol products to purchase

Retinol products always need to be packaged in proper containers. They should never be exposed to external light sources. So, if you see a great deal online and go to order it and see it’s in a clear jar, don’t put it in your cart. The one I’m using right now is made by The Ordinary (Amazon link) my skin is quite sensitive and I’ve never had any flakiness or irritation from using it.

The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane
  • Pure Retinol 
  • Reduces the Appearances of Fine Lines
View on Amazon

It won’t be effective and what’s more, it may make your skin problems worse. You don’t want to throw away your hard-earned money. Retinol is proven to work to correct skin. But if it has been exposed to light and isn’t packaged right, it’s nothing more than a placebo. Get the good stuff!

Another thing that usually affects men is retinol targeted to men in facial cleansers. Don’t let your man buy anything like this. Don’t buy it yourself either. Retinol only does its thing when it has time to sit and penetrate your skin. So a retinol-infused cleanser is a huge waste of money and time.

Once you start using retinol, you’ll never want to stop

If you do decide to stop using retinol, you’ll suffer no ill effects. But if you want the benefits, you have to use it for a long time. It’s not going to make a difference tomorrow if you start using it today. Instead, take note of your skin at the end of every month. In several months, you WILL see the difference in the way your skin looks and you will LOVE it. Trust!


If you just turned 21, better hold off just a bit, but around that 27th birthday, you should start working retinol in. Older than that? While you’ll have more challenges to face, you can still get benefits out of using retinol. Work up to daily usage and increasing the strength to make big changes for the youthfulness of your skin!


My name is Hajer and welcome to my site. This is my little haven, my outlet, where I can express myself, and show you everything I've learned about makeup, skincare, hair tips, and so much more, as well as the different beauty mistakes I've made so that you can avoid them.

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