If you’ve never heard of retinol, let me give you a quick rundown: it is a topical treatment that can help stimulate cell turnover, pushing healthier looking, smoother, and more radiant skin to the surface. Retinoids (the umbrella term for any cream derived from vitamin A) are some of the most well-researched and revered ingredients in the cosmetic industry, due to the fact that (when applied properly) they can combat a wide range of hard-to-treat issues, from dark spots, to wrinkles, to texture, to acne. If you’re wondering what the common thread in Chrissy Tiegen, January Jones, J.Lo, and Reese Witherspoon’s skin-care routine is, I can tell you right now: a good retinol.
But of course, there’s a catch: retinoids are powerful, and first time users can (and likely will) experience dryness, irritation, redness, sensitivity, or even breakouts. According to my esthetician Sofie Pavitt, retinoids can take up to a month to adjust to. This lengthy transition period is what often keeps people, like myself, far away from the ingredient. It can be tough to imagine actively inviting irritation and redness — especially if you already suffer from eczema or psoriasis. Plus, retinoids can also increase your skin’s sensitivity to sun. But considering I have long coveted the glorious results they promise, I started to wonder if right now — as I’m stuck in the house with minimal exposure to sunlight, and with only my boyfriend and my cat to witness any initial flakiness and redness — might be a prime opportunity to try one out. And it turns out I’m not alone — in the past few days I’ve noticed quite a few “to-retinol-or-not-to-retinol?” posts popping up on my Instagram feed.
Ever-cautious when it comes to my skin, I reached out to Dr. Shereen Idriss, a celebrity dermatologist based in Manhattan, who confirmed what I suspected: since we’re all stuck indoors most of the day, with minimal sun exposure, and zoom filters at our disposal, this is an unusually optimal time to give retinoids a go.
When you’re first trying retinoids, Dr. Idriss says that the most important guideline is less is more — you should start by applying a lower concentrations (0.01 percent if you’re nervous and want to start really slow, 0.25 percent to 0.3 percent if you want a pretty low dosage with faster results) once a week and, see how your skin responds to it, and slowly up your usage to twice a week. If you’re extremely sensitive naturally — like myself — Dr. Idriss suggests first doing patch tests on your skin by applying a small amount just underneath your jaw, then repeating after 48 hours. If there is no reaction, then you have the green light to apply a pea sized amount on your whole face.
For my first foray with retinoids, I went with one from First Aid Beauty which I picked after reading dozens and dozens of reviews on Dermstore (and in retinoid reddit forums) — a ton of sensitive-skinned commenters swore that this 0.25% retinol didn’t cause dramatic peeling or redness. In a few weeks, people swore that any post inflammatory hyperpigmentation (the marks left behind by blemishes) had faded away and their skin looked startlingly luminous and radiant. I trusted them and I’m glad I did — I am currently in my second week of usage (I’ve been applying it once a week, right before my moisturizer), and while my skin is slightly more sensitive than usual, it’s not half as bad as I expected it to be: I’ve only noticed a teeny tiny bit of peeling around my nose. Below: two retinoids that are suitable for beginners, plus a dermatologist-beloved SPF.
Dr. Shereene Idriss strongly recommends this one from Skinceuticals for first-time users. “It’s a reputable brand and I love that they have a variety of strengths, ranging from 0.3 percent to 1 percent.” Idriss recommends starting with 0.3 percent, and notes that she’s seen wonderful brightening, refining, and tightening results in just a few months with this retinol in particular.
This is the retinol I’ve been using. It has a fairly low level retinol ( 0.25 percent) and contains hyaluronic acid and aloe vera to help moisturize and soothe my skin simultaneously.
Dr. Idriss says that even though we’re not going outside as much as usual, sunscreen is still absolutely essential for everyday life. But this is especially the case when you’re first trying retinol, as your skin will be more sensitive than usual. This one from Elta MD is a dermatologist favorite — it’s lightweight, gentle, and protective.
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