6 Sneaky Signs You're Misusing Retinol

The star ingredient requires a strategic approach.

Here's how to use retinol with as little irritation as possible, according to dermatologists.
Getty Images/ © Philippe LEJEANVRE

When you finally get your hands on a retinol product, it can be tempting to slather it onto your skin every single day so you can start to see the transformative results. But, hold up: That’s not a good idea. Since it takes some getting used to, learning how to use retinol properly can save your complexion from experiencing pesky irritation so that you can work your way up to achieving that glow without any not-so-ideal side effects.

Whether it’s your first time using the star ingredient or you’re reintroducing it into your beauty routine, retinol requires a strategic approach, says Dr. Corey L. Hartman, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama. The most important factor? Starting off on the right foot, which involves regular but definitely not daily use. That’s because retinol comes with a “ramp-up period,” he explains, where your skin adjusts to the potent ingredient.

A little beauty refresher: Retinol is a derm-beloved, science-backed ingredient that singlehandedly treats a whole platter of skin concerns. “Retinol really works by increasing cell turnover and by helping to dissolve the bonds between skin cells,” says Hartman. “It helps make that process more efficient so that dead skin cells and debris don’t build up and get in the way of our skin looking its best.” This regulatory function then results in fewer breakouts, less discoloration, and a reduction in fine lines and wrinkles.

Retinol’s effect on the skin, however, typically comes with a tradeoff: what people commonly refer to as retinization or a purge. This often entails side effects like redness, peeling, flaking, and sometimes tenderness or pain as your skin adjusts to the ingredient. Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist, adds that you can experience dryness, extra sensitivity, and sometimes a burning or stinging sensation. This can all happen whether you’re using it too often or are applying too much at once.

To ensure you’re using retinol effectively — sans any skin drama — read on for expert tips on how to use retinol along with the telltale signs that something is off.

1. You’re Using It Too Often

An essential retinol rule: Start slow. Both Garshick and Hartman recommend starting your retinol regimen by using it just once or twice a week. “Even if you can only do once or twice a week, the regularity is beneficial,” says Hartman. “Maybe for a month, you’re using it twice a week, then the next month you can incorporate it three nights a week. Just take it slowly.”

If your skin falls on the more sensitive or dry end of the spectrum, definitely give your complexion ample time to adjust to the ingredient. “People who have inherently dry skin, a history of rosacea, or who are prone to irritation and eczema-like conditions should go really slowly and start with a lower concentration of retinol,” says Hartman, who says once a week should be a good starting place (go with a .25% retinol product in this case). “If you have mild scaling or dryness that will allow your skin time to recover.” A general rule of thumb, regardless of your skin type? Pay attention to your complexion — if it needs an extra day buffer before your next retinol use, go for it.

2. You’re Using More Than A Pea-Sized Amount

Less is more when it comes to how much retinol you’re actually applying to your skin: If it feels like you didn’t use enough retinol, you’re doing it right. “Generally we recommend applying a pea-sized amount for the entire face in order to achieve a thin layer,” says Garshick.

3. You’re Not Using A Buffer

To minimize irritation, both Garshick and Hartman suggest applying your retinol after your moisturizer. “I like to recommend patients to apply an emollient moisturizer first,” says Hartman. (Go with an oil-based moisturizer for the job.)

4. You’re Using Too Many Actives

Since retinol is such a powerful active, it’s best to pair it with more gentle, nourishing formulas. “Avoid exfoliants as these can be irritating to the skin, especially if the skin is already sensitive,” says Garshick. That includes scrubs and chemical exfoliants (aka alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy acids). If you’re using those in your routine, use them at different times of the day or on different days than your retinol.

5. Your Skin Is Burning Or Stinging

Mild peeling and redness from retinol use is normal — when that happens, skip a few nights between using the ingredient and mix in gentle skin care products. But if you’re experiencing a burning or stinging sensation, Hartman says to calm your complexion with hydrocortisone cream.

Let your skin fully repair by steering clear of active ingredients and sticking with a mild cleanser and moisturizer, plus a physical sunscreen. “Try to keep the chemicals to a minimum so you can get that barrier back intact,” says Hartman. Once your skin is back to normal, you can resume (slow and steady) retinol use.

6. You’re Giving Up Too Soon

It’s important to note these side effects are normal and sometimes a necessary (albeit unfortunate) part of retinol use. “Whether you’re using an over-the-counter or prescription-strength retinol, it’s going to cause some physical changes,” says Hartman. “If you’re not aware of them, you’re going to think that something’s wrong. And a lot of times nothing’s wrong — it’s just the way it goes.” Stick with it, go as slow and steady as your skin needs, and the glowy results will eventually prove it was all worth it.


Dr. Corey L. Hartman, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama

Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist

Studies referenced:

Dhaliwal, S. (2019). Prospective, randomized, double-blind assessment of topical bakuchiol and retinol for facial photoageing. Br J Dermatol.

Kim, B-H. (2003). The mechanism of retinol-induced irritation and its application to anti-irritant development. Toxicol Lett.

Leyden, J. (2017). Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatology and Therapy.

MacGregor, J.L. (2002). The Specificity of Retinoid-Induced Irritation and Its Role in Clinical Efficacy. Exogenous Dermatology.

Mukherjee, S. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging.

Zasada, M. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology.