The "Dos & Don'ts" of Retinol: How To Use It and What To Avoid

Retinol in its pure Vitamin A form

Written by Founder, Amir Karam MD

Quote Icon

I have had so many patients come back and tell me they stopped using Retinol because their skin couldn't handle it. But, I just don't believe that's the case. In my opinion, they just didn't know how to use it properly... yet.

I recognize this is something that comes up for a lot of people. I see comments on my social media and YouTube about it all the time, so today I want to help you to better understand Retinol, and give you some practical advice along the lines of some ‘Do’s’ and ‘Don'ts,’ in order to help you get the most out of this important active ingredient, which, in my opinion, is a vital cornerstone in any skincare routine.

This is a topic that holds immense significance in the realm of skincare–the meticulous art of utilizing Retinol. If you've yet to incorporate Retinol into your skincare routine, trust me, you're missing out. However, understanding its application requires a certain level of knowledge and insight. 

Retinol, often hailed as the superhero ingredient in skincare, has garnered such acclaim for valid reasons. Its transformative capabilities are clinically backed with decades of research, and the results with long-term use are truly remarkable. Yet, the potential for irritation, inflammation, or flakiness often deters individuals, leading them to believe they’re too sensitive, or Retinol isn't suitable for their skin.

So that’s why today I want to get deeper into a discussion about Retinol. Let’s talk about what it is, how to properly use it, what to expect when beginning a Retinol regimen, and what you should avoid when incorporating it into your routine. My hope is that more people will realize they can establish a harmonious relationship with Retinol, and begin to benefit from this anti-aging powerhouse.

Why is Retinol Important?

In the battle against aging, Retinol emerges as one of the most potent active ingredients.

Aging manifests in various ways—lines, wrinkles, uneven skin tone, age spots, loss of skin elasticity, enlarged pores, etc... and guess what? Retinol is a direct combatant against all of these signs of aging.

Its prowess lies in stimulating collagen production, supporting cell turnover, promoting surface exfoliation for improved radiance, and regulating melanin production to mitigate hyperpigmentation. Truly, it's a multitasking marvel and an indispensable asset in your skincare arsenal.

Over the past few decades, Retinol has undergone extensive clinical testing, solidifying its efficacy and importance in skincare routines.

The wealth of research and studies validating its effectiveness is nothing short of impressive, and experts agree–it works.

What Exactly is Retinol?

“Retinoids” are a class of chemical compounds derived from Vitamin A. The most popular compounds include Retin-A, Retinoic Acid (Tretinoin), and Retinol, which have gained a lot of attention for their potent effects in addressing various skin concerns, and are used in skincare for their various dermatological benefits.

Retinoids work by interacting with specific receptors in the skin cells, influencing processes like promoting cell turnover, stimulating collagen production, and helping with regulation of oil production.

This results in a range of skincare benefits, like improving skin renewal processes, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, refining the look and feel of skin texture, diminishing hyperpigmentation, and aiding in the management of acne.

Different types of Retinoids vary in potency and availability. For instance, certain Retinoids like Retinol are available over the counter in skincare products, while others, like Tretinoin and Retin-A, often require a prescription due to their higher strength and potential for more intense effects.

While Retinoids offer remarkable benefits, they can also cause skin sensitivity, dryness, redness, and peeling, especially when initially introduced into a skincare routine or when used in higher concentrations. This is why it is important to know how to use them properly in your skincare regimen.

Essential Guidelines for Mastering Retinol

When formulating Trifecta, incorporating Retinol into our hero product, Illuminate, was a non-negotiable, as I honestly think it is one of the most important ingredients in skincare.

However, it also requires some insight into how to use it (or not use it), so you don’t give up or get discouraged.

I think if I can empower you with a little more knowledge, and break it down with some ‘Do’s’ and ‘Don’ts’ surrounding the product, you will inevitably have a better relationship with Retinol and see for yourself why it’s so important to include in any anti-aging routine. 


DO-Start Out Slow and Steady

Slow and steady wins the race, especially in skincare.

When first beginning with a Retinol cream, it's common to experience reactions such as redness, irritation, or increased sensitivity. However, this initial response doesn’t imply an inability to tolerate Retinol, it means you need to allow your skin time to adjust.

Start out slowly, and gradually build up the product as you can tolerate it. I advise you to start with low concentrations of Retinol in the beginning. If you are still having sensitivity issues, decrease your usage–start with two times a week, eventually three times a week, up to every other day, and build up to being able to use it every day. This process works better with lower concentrations, and you're going to get the same amazing benefits from low concentrations, as long as you are using it consistently.

This was the idea behind Illuminate. We formulated it with lower, more moderated doses of Retinol, which allowed a broader range of people to use it regularly without adverse effects.

The formulation is encapsulated and time-released, ensuring a more gradual delivery into the skin. We divided the full 24 hour recommended dose into two smaller "microdoses," meaning you get half the Retinol dose in the morning, and the remainder at night. This approach minimizes reactions by releasing Retinol in smaller amounts over time, allowing the skin to adapt gradually, and allows those with sensitive skin to introduce Retinol into their routines.

Eventually, if desired, you can build up to higher doses, and you might even consider incorporating a full-strength product, like Tretinoin, into your skincare routine once fully acclimated.

Similar to beginning an exercise routine, you can’t run a marathon without training. You have to start slowly, and by remaining consistent, you will progress gradually and eventually build strength. The same approach applies to your skincare; initiate gently, allowing your skin to adjust, and the results at the finish line are well worth it.


DO-Utilize at Night

While Trifecta was carefully designed for both morning and night use, if you opt to introduce an additional Retinol product into your routine, incorporating it at night is advisable.

Retinols are light-sensitive compounds. Applying them just before sun exposure may intensify adverse reactions. Thus, using full-strength Retinol at night proves safer.

This underscores another advantage of the moderated microdoses within Trifecta. By applying both morning and night, you are still getting the full dose over a 24 hour period, but you'll experience fewer issues during the day than if you were to apply a full-strength dose of Retinol before venturing out.

While the Retinol in Trifecta is safe for morning use, remember to always apply sunscreen regardless.


DO-Use With a Moisturizer

Retinol has a drying effect on the skin, which means you need to balance it with something hydrating.

While some may advocate the "Retinol sandwich" method–moisturizer, Retinol, then another layer of moisturizer–I honestly think as long as you get a moisturizer on your skin after your Retinol, you are going to get what you need.

This is why we included hydrating elements like a more soluble form of Hyaluronic Acid, Sodium Hyaluronate, Aloe, Glycerin, Niacinamide, and numerous natural oils into Illuminate, so you are getting moisturizing effects alongside your Retinol, rather than having to do separate steps.


DO-Use With a Sunscreen

You're going to hear me say this all the time. If you’re serious about skin care and anti-aging, then sun protection is a must.

Regardless of your dedication to skincare, if you are neglecting sun protection, then you are risking undoing all of your hard work because sun exposure is accelerating aging.

This is especially critical with Retinol use due to heightened sensitivity to UV light.

Utilize a broad-spectrum, mineral-based sunscreen to safeguard your skin and maximize the benefits of your skincare regimen.


DO-Remain Consistent

Consistency is critical for everything worthwhile in our lives, and that’s no exception for Retinol.

Consistency is crucial for optimizing Retinol’s cell interaction within the skin. Regular application assists in regulating cell turnover, which refers to the shedding of old, damaged skin cells and the generation of new, healthier cells.

By consistently engaging with the skin's receptors over time, Retinol helps maintain a steady stimulation of these regenerative processes.

This consistent interaction supports the skin's natural renewal mechanisms, leading to improved overall skin health, a more youthful appearance, and long-term benefits in terms of texture, tone, and resilience.

Long-time users continuously experience skin improvements. For beginners, sticking with a consistent routine is paramount to overall success.


DO-Exercise Pateince

Remember, we are living in a world of instant gratification, but when it comes to skincare, that just isn’t going to be the case.

Patience is key.

Allow the ingredients the necessary time to demonstrate their efficacy. Realistic timelines for observing the full benefits of Retinol may span from 3 to 6 months.

When we were doing clinical trials of Trifecta, after one month we were starting to see those changes, but at two months they were even better. For my patients that have stuck with it up to 6 months, and even after a year, their skin only continues to improve with time.

Consistency and patience are going to get you through those early stages, to eventually give way to the results you are hoping for.


DO–Extend Usage to the Eye Area

I've said this before, but there's no need for a separate eye cream, because Retinol, and even Retin-A, is safe to use around the eyes and will actually be one of the best things you can do for those fine lines and wrinkles.

Retinol proves highly beneficial for application under the eyes, around the orbital bone, and even on the eyelids where the skin is thinner and can get crepey. 

This why Illuminate is truly all you need when it comes to an all-in-one anti-aging cream. Don’t waste money on eye creams because your eyes have “thinner skin.” Retinol stimulates collagen production in these areas, promoting thicker skin—an excellent anti-aging benefit.

Common Pitfalls of Retinol Use

Now that we've covered the essential steps for maximizing the benefits of Retinol in your skincare routine, let's shift our focus to the critical precautions and pitfalls to avoid.

Understanding the “Do’s” is vital, but it's equally important to grasp the “Don’t's” when incorporating Retinol for optimal skincare results. 


DON’T–Apply in the Morning

Unless you're using something like KaramMD's Illuminate, which is specifically formulated for day time use, using a non-time-released Retinol in the morning isn't advisable.

Your skin tends to be more sensitive to sunlight when using a full-strength dose of these products, which means applying in the morning can heighten the risk of irritation or skin damage if you aren't careful.


DON’T–Combine with Vitamin C (From a Different Source)

When combining active ingredients from various brands, there's a risk of incompatibility issues.

Caution should be taken, especially when mixing Retinol with other active ingredients like Vitamin C, Glycolic Acid, or Benzoyl Peroxide from different sources. This is what can lead to harsh reactions and gives way to the misconception that you can't use Retinol and Vitamin C together, when in fact, it is quite the contrary, and both of these ingredients hold significant value in your skincare routine.

Unless you're utilizing a comprehensive system, such as Trifecta, which has been carefully engineered to balance these elements in appropriate proportions for concurrent usage, it's best to keep these active ingredients separate to prevent skin irritation.

One suggested approach involves alternating their use: apply your Vitamin C serum in the morning and Retinol at night, or if exclusively used in the evening, alternate their application on different nights—Vitamin C one night, Retinol the next.

But, for those who want to incorporate both of these powerful ingredients on a daily basis, this is the beauty behind the Trifecta.

We took all of that complication out of your skincare routine, and engineered it purposefully and intentionally to be used both morning and night, with active ingredients working synergistically alongside each other, rather than against each other.

This is going to deliver maximum benefits and proven results, with fewer steps and complications.

However, if you are not using Trifecta, the rule of thumb is avoid combining Retinol and Vitamin C from different brands to minimize the risk of potential skin irritation.


DON'T-Use During Pregnancy

During pregnancy, it's best to avoid introducing any potentially harmful substances to your developing baby.

Most obstetricians and gynecologists (OB/GYNs) advise against the use of Retin-A or Retinol during this period.

I highly recommend consulting your healthcare provider about any active ingredients in your skincare regimen during pregnancy and even during the postpartum period if you're breastfeeding.


DON’T–Use Alongside In-Office Treatments

If you're going to have laser, waxing, a chemical peel, or any other type of in-office treatment that is going to result in increased sensitivity in the skin, don’t use your Retinol at the same time.

Talk to your practitioner to see if you need to discontinue use 3 days or a week before, and generally about the same time afterwards, but regardless, you do not want to be using Retinol when your skin’s sensitivity is already heightened.


DON'T-Use Too Much

Excessive application of Retinol isn't advantageous and may lead to complications or adverse reactions.

Using a moderate amount on a consistent, daily basis is going to be much more conducive to stimulating skin cells effectively than overwhelming the skin with too much on an irregular inconsistent schedule.

Strive for the right balance—using the appropriate amount every single day to build momentum towards the results you're aiming for, rather than sporadic application or overloading the skin when you randomly remember.


DON'T-Give Up on Retinol

The early stages of Retinol use often involve skin acclimation, potentially leading to redness or flakiness. It's crucial to persevere through this phase, understanding that initial sensitivity may occur but will gradually subside.

Persisting through this acclimation period is essential.

If sensitivity arises, always fall back on the “slow and steady” method—spacing applications to every other night, gradually increasing to normal usage.

Discontinuing use of Retinol does a disservice to your skin, as it can set you back to square one, forcing you to reacclimate after a period of time.

On top of that, any days you're skipping Retinol is just a missed opportunity to capitalize on its benefits, thus denying your skin a vitally effective anti-aging component.

Empowering Your Skin With Knowledge and Retinol

When I set forth to create the Trifecta, I was adamant about including all of the most beneficial ingredients for your skin, and formulating a comprehensive, all-in-one solution to anti-aging. With the sincere belief that Retinol is a key component to youthful-looking skin, I knew it had to be included in the process. 

I recognized that Retinol might be complex for users, so I made efforts to simplify its use and enhance accessibility for all skin types.

By dividing the recommended Retinol usage into two smaller doses and encapsulating the formula in a time-released active that gradually permeates the skin, I aimed to ensure a smoother acclimation process, even for those with sensitive skin.

I was confident that this approach would enable more people to experience the benefits of Retinol compared to traditional full-strength products.

With that, I also want to take the time to help educate and inform individuals on how navigate the nuances of Retinol use and how to properly incorporate it into your routine, thus minimizing the likelihood of discouragement and discontinuation, and maximizing the profound and positive impact Retinol can have on your skin. 

With Trifecta, we've made approaching Retinol easier than ever.

With consistent, long-term use of this transformative active ingredient on a daily basis, you will see positive changes in your skin, and a healthier, younger, more vibrant appearance. Take this information and let it empower, motivate and inspire you to confidently incorporate Retinol into your daily routine. I hope today you walk away with a full understanding of how Retinol works and a better understanding and knowledge of how to make your skincare journey a fulfilling and rewarding experience and ultimately achieve your best skin yet.

Amir Karam MD

Board Certified Facial Plastic Surgeon
Founder / Creator of KaramMD Skin

Dr. Amir Karam is a renowned facial cosmetic surgeon and an authority in his field. With over two decades of experience helping patients achieve a younger, refreshed appearance. In addition to surgical procedures that sculpt a youthfully-defined facial shape, Dr. Karam takes the quality of the skin into account.