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How to Use Retinol Correctly: All You Need to Know

by Yu-Jun Park 21 Mar 2024

There's no secret handshake. 

No coded language. 


For those who are stand-up, hands-on about their skincare, we're about to dive into the enchanting world of retinol. 

Whether you're a rookie on K Beauty routines or the veteran 'been-there-done-that' skincare junkie, learning how to use retinol is like leveling up in the game of skin. 

I promise, it's gonna be fun.

And your skin is going to thank you!

How do you apply retinol (for beginners)?

Think of retinol as adding a layer of priceless varnish onto a timeless work - that's your skin!

Now, let's delve deeper into the particulars of this artistry. Shall we?

To ensure that you're applying retinol to clean and receptive skin, cleansing is a firm prerequisite. Depending on its ingredients, your chosen cleanser should cleanse without stripping your skin of its essential oils. 

Start off by dampening your skin with lukewarm water, and then apply your cleanser in gentle circular motions across your visage, ensuring an even application and covering all areas. Rinsing off with cool (never hot!) water, the skin's pores get a refreshening contraction and your face is now the perfect canvas for your retinol application.

It is essential to use a sparing amount of retinol. The principle of 'less is more' rings true here. Whenever you use a pea-sized amount, you are providing the optimal concentration to your skin, ensuring that the retinol doesn’t become irritating or overly drying. It’s also more feasible for your wallet!

The next step is 'dotting'. Now, you might think, "What difference does the application method make?" 

Oh! A world of difference, dear reader. Dotting ensures an equal spread of retinol over your facial surface. It heaps prevent patches of concentrated retinol which can overexpose certain areas to its potency, leading to unnecessary irritation.

So, using the index finger, dot the product on your forehead, each cheek, nose, and chin. Imagine a five-point star graced by your face as its canvas.

Who’s the star now? Yes, you!

After placing your dots strategically, it's time to spread the retinol. 

This step is as important as the others, and you have to employ the art of even application. Again, we empathize - no vigorous or hasty rubbing! The goal here is to distribute the retinol evenly on your skin, using gentle outward and upward strokes to apply the product. This motion compliments the natural contours of your face and encourages draining instead of sagging.

And there, voila, you've mastered the art of retinol application.

Just as a final wrap-up reminder, when you start off with retinol, you might encounter some initial mild redness or a slightly stinging sensation. 

Fear not, this is normal and is your skin’s way of welcoming retinol into its routine. However, severe burning, redness or discomfort is a signal to retreat, perhaps the product may be too potent for you, you've used too much, or it's just not the right one for your skin type.

Remember, retinol is a potent product. It needs to be introduced slowly into your skincare regimen. Start with once weekly and observe your skin’s response. Then gradually increase the usage as your skin builds tolerance.

Just so you're aware, retinol makes your skin sun-sensitive. So, be sure to apply it at night and always use sunscreen during daylight hours, even when it's cloudy. Because, as they say, your skin is a temple - devote the time and care it deserves. 

Let's step out shining, shall we? 

Should you put retinol on before or after moisturizer?

Everyone's skin has a preferred pH balance — that's the sweet spot between acidity and alkalinity. 

Retinol, being the superstar acid it is, works best in a lower pH environment. So, upon application, your skin begins a royal rumble to adjust its pH for the retinol to shine.

When you apply retinol before moisturizer, it jumps straight into this pH play and works its magic efficiently. 

But remember, a head-on retinol application could be intense, especially for a retinol newbie. If your skin is sensitive, this could lead to redness, peeling, and dryness. Yikes!

If you're new to the retinol game, applying moisturizer first allows your skin to take baby steps towards retinol tolerance. Moisturizer not only softens your skin but also adjusts your skin's pH level subtly, like dimming a light. 

Your skin can then take on the retinol with lesser irritation. It's like dipping your toe into the water before jumping in!

Now, it may sound like the moisturizer minimizes the efficiency of retinol. But that's not true. Its buffering ability allows the retinol to seep into your skin gradually, reducing irritation without compromising its potency. It's a perfect game-plan for beginners!

However, this doesn't mean that moisturizer-before-retinol becomes the golden rule. As with any skincare product, it's all about listening to your skin! If your skin adapts to retinol well, you might ditch the buffer and switch to retinol-before-moisturizer. It's all about what works best for you.

There's another player to consider in this lineup - the concentration of retinol. A higher concentration means more effectiveness, but it can also be more irritating. 

It's like a double-edged sword. When dabbling in higher concentrations, it might be safer to stick to buffer strategy until your skin adjusts.

Another fun fact to sprinkle in - the time of retinol application matters too! Retinol is sensitive to light. So, your nightly regimen is the ideal time to apply it. Dreamy skin while you sleep?

Sounds like a win-win!

Remember, skincare is a marathon, not a sprint. Have patience, give your skin time to acclimate. 

If you see signs of irritation despite buffering, your skin might be telling you to slow down. 

And when it does, listen! 

How do I add retinol to my routine?

Retinol, the skin care heavyweight, is like that new intense workout routine you've been eying. 

You're told of its powerful effects, yet you're wary of the possible strain. Hey, nobody wants to wake up with skin feeling like it did ten rounds with a sandpaper mitt. 

However, fret not. Just like every good exercise program, the key to a successful retinol routine lies in the warm-up and conditioning. 

Let's get to the nitty-gritty:

  • Start Slow Joe: Retinol, at its purest, is no joke. So don't go overboard with your eagerness and slather it like a generous dollop of mayo on your sandwich – that's just asking for trouble.

    Instead, put on your patience hat and start by applying it once a week for the first fortnight. This is your skin's familiarization phase, much like your first tentative rendezvous with yoga.
    1. Say Hello to More: If your skin adjusts well - no red flags waving (literally) - you've just earned your upgrade. Pump it up to twice a week for the next two weeks. Now your skin's getting the hang of this new drill.
    1. Go For The Glow: If all sails smoothly, you're ready to catch the wind and up your retinol game. Gradually glide up to every other day, and finally, if your skin is still cheerleading for more, you can graduate to the daily league. 

    Remember, though, we're aiming for a radiant glow, not a signal flare. So if at any point your skin hesitates, slows the pace, or breaks into a fiery retinol protest, take heed. Listen, adjust, and if needed, scale back your application frequency.

    And, since we're on the drill, know that the power-hour for your retinol regimen is night-time. Much like nocturnal creatures, retinol thrives in the dark, due to its photosensitivity. So let sleep and retinol do the twin-act, working in harmony to regenerate and revamp your skin. 

    And in the morning, behold the magic spun overnight - as Agatha Christie quipped, "One doesn't recognize the really important moments in one's life until it's too late."

    Lastly, don't forget the inverse law of retinol: the smaller the package, the higher the potency. Like dynamite. Tiny but powerful. 

    And remember, like fine wine, retinol does not play well with sunlight, so always follow up your morning wake-and-glow session with a good swipe of sunscreen.

    So, there you have it! While retinol might seem like an unsolvable puzzle, as long as patience is your game and caution is your wingman, you'll be well on your way to a glow-tastic future. 

    Crank up the jazz, retinol, we're ready for your tune!

    How often should you use retinol?

    Imagine a climber gradually taking on the colossal Mount Everest. They don't reach the summit in a day; it's about acclimatization, stamina, and careful moves. 

    Get ready to embark on the skincare version of this expedition with retinol. 

    Starting with retinol, don't play a game of Russian roulette with your delicate skin. Instead, invite your skin to this retinol party slowly. Begin with lower concentration formulas. 

    Visualize yourself as a coach preparing your skin for the big retinol league. Warm-up is crucial and cannot be missed. 

    But here’s the million-dollar question: How often should retinol come into play? Retinol is much like admiring your favorite painting or savoring a box of Ferrero Rocher, it's nourishing and luxurious but needs a balanced approach. 

    Kickstart your routine with it twice a week, say Tuesdays and Fridays, and observe how your skin reacts. Skin showing signs of irritation might just be overly excited to meet this new soulmate. 

    Consider it a 'teething phase'. Be patient! 

    If everything's looking up after a few weeks, inch towards three times a week. It's like upgrading from base camp to the second camp in our Everest analogy. 

    Now, remember, retinol is only part of your KBeauty regimen, it’s not all of it.

    Stick to this gradual method, increasing the frequency only when your skin gives the green signal. It’s all about acclimatization!

    There’s a reason Seoul is the epicenter of glowing, flawless skin - meticulous care. Each phase in your retinol journey should be as meticulously planned and executed.

    The key is not hopping onto a high-speed retinol express, but more of a leisurely retinol cruise. Find your retinol rhythm, savor the journey, delight in the transformation. 

    The magic here is in the steady, sustained use of retinol. Imagine the thrill of witnessing retinol work its magic, reducing fine lines, blessing you with a brighter complexion, evening out your skin tone. 

    Oh, and that big-ticket gold prize - the radiant, elusive glow that you've been struggling to achieve? That desirable skin state can become yours with steady retinol use.

    Retinol is your golden ticket to the resplendent skin carnival. Korean skincare is like an intricate melody, and retinol is undeniably a significant part of it. 

    A retinol-infused routine, combined with a roaring mantra that sings, "I deserve great skin. I’m worthy of it," forms the choicest survival kit on your journey towards 'Skin-topia'.

    So, are you ready to welcome this all-star ingredient into your skincare tribe? As the Koreans would say, "피부를 사랑하자!" - 'Let's love our skin!'

    Warm up your skin, take the plunge, and let the tropical tide of retinol wash over you.

    On your marks, get set, glow!

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