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NOW READING The #1 Thing To Consider Before Using A Retinol – According To A Harvard Educated Dermatologist
February 24, 2021

The #1 Thing To Consider Before Using A Retinol – According To A Harvard Educated Dermatologist

Thinking about incorporating retinol into your skincare routine? Take stock before diving in.


Of all the anti-aging products on the market, retinoids tend to get the most airplay. From over-the-counter preparations to prescription versions, there are a lot of options and things to consider before taking the plunge. I recently interviewed Dr. Macrene Alexiades, MD PhD, Associate Clinical Professor at Yale University School of Medicine and founder of Macrene Actives to get the scoop on retinol, Retin-A, and tazarotene.


Retinol not only smoothes your fine lines and wrinkles but also help minimize the new ones.


A Brief Overview of Retinoids 


You’ve probably heard of Retin-A, which is the trade name for prescription tretinoin. This all-trans-retinoic acid is a staple in many rejuvenating regimens, including mine. Among its many talents, this vitamin A derivative does all of the following: 


  • Increases skin cell turnover
  • Increases collagen production
  • Reduces acne
  • Keeps pores clear
  • Minimizes wrinkles and fine lines
  • Evens out skin tone


Dr. Alexiades describes retinol as “the weaker over-the-counter version.” Skin needs to convert retinol into retinoic acid in order for it to work its magic and this conversion process weakens its effectiveness, but it also makes it easier to tolerate without side effects such as redness. So, if you think strength alone is the defining characteristic of a quality product, think again. A lot of factors figure in when deciding to incorporate a retinoid into your routine. 


Retinols help to even skin tone.


Age Isn’t Always the Deciding Factor


Life would be so much simpler if there was a chart outlining skincare milestones, but, alas, every person’s skin ages at a unique pace. “People often ask what age good to implement retinol into their routine. For those with oily or sebaceous skin, who also want to fight the signs of aging, it is a good idea to start in your 20s or 30s. However, for those with sensitive skin, it is to be avoided.”


Things to Consider BEFORE Adding Retinol to Your Routine


Before jumping in with both feet, Dr. Alexiades recommends you take stock of where you live as well as the type of lifestyle you’re living. “If you live in a sunny location, note that retinoids make you very sun sensitive. There is a debate, in fact, that they can potentially be photo-carcinogenic. [Although it hasn’t been proven yet,] “this has resulted in our cautioning patients who use retinoids while getting a lot of sun.”


Even if you live in a cloud-dense environment, “You must apply [retinol products] at night due to the photosensitivity aspect.” You’ll also need to “balance it out by applying an adequate emollient so that your skin barrier is not compromised.” Adding hydrating essences and serums can minimize irritation while keeping your skin plump and happy. Last, but certainly not least, SPF 50+ is an absolute must if you’re going to be in the sun, even for a quick stroll with the doggies.


If you’re ready to jump into the retinoid pool, stay tuned for part two. You’ll learn what to expect while getting acclimated to retinoids as well as some suggestions for choosing the right product for your skin. 

Tracy Ann Teel is a full-time freelance writer and the owner of Finesse Writing and Editing LLC. She’s a tutorial writer for San Francisco Globe’s beauty platform,, covering everything from skin and hair care to makeup and nail art. She writes for skincare companies, dermatologists, and cosmetic surgeons, and proudly taught at her MFA alma mater, the University of California Irvine, as a member of their adjunct faculty in English. She’s been a textbook reviewer for Prentice Hall, been recognized three consecutive years in the Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers, and has written professionally for 30+ years. Her poetry chapbook Such Dust was published by Finishing Line Press, and her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Rattle, Pearl, Kaleidoscope, and Lake Arrowhead Life.



Retinoids are one of those things where I feel that people should really consult with a licensed skincare professional before using. I cringe when I see people jumping in full on and then experience lots of erythema (redness and irritation), which could be avoided if they had some guidance. Often, I've recommended the smallest dosage in the beginning (0.1) and I tell a client to use every other night. I'm one of those oddball estheticians that doesn't like or use Retinoids personally, (although I have tried quite a few) but I recommended and have seen amazing results in others. This... Read more

You're completely right, Stephanie. Most people learn the hard way after overdoing it with retinoids. I use full-strength tretinoin (0.1%) but it took me nearly a year to work up to that dose, and I still can't use it every day. Out of curiosity, have you tried Epicuren's Metadermabolic Enzyme set? I've found it very effective and a great alternative to retinoids.

I'm actually thinking about buying that because I love enzymes! I usually do an enzyme or chemical peel (lactic acid) monthly along with a bit of ultrasound bi weekly to clean up congestion. I like using peels and enzymes so it's why I don't use retinol. That said, you are 100% correct. Start slow because honestly, we can overdo it.

I really like it. The scents are savory (like Italian herbs). My first set lasted nearly five months because they're potent and don't need to be used every day. I'm a fan!


Retinol is a great addition to giving your skin the "change" or "shock" routine. It really helps me to generate a new layer of skin cells.

Of all the products I get asked about, retinol and sunscreen are the two I always recommend because they make the biggest difference overall. Venturing into prescription strength retinoids isn't necessarily the best move for everyone, but retinol -- in the proper formulation -- can and does work wonders.

Great read!!! I love how retinol sinks into the skin and jumps start the skin cells, which can lead to
smooth, soft, and fresh skin😊 But can make skin ultra sensitive.

The two things I swear by are Retin A and sunscreen (and you must wear sunscreen if you decide to use Retin A). Those two items have made the biggest changes in my skin. I have pictures from 10 years ago where I look older than I do today. That's the power of retinoids.

I have tried retinol before and I think different kind of retinol affect me differently. I have a dry skin and some may dry it even more while others are helpful in reducing signs of aging. I like the capsule retinol.

I have dry skin, too, and I always use a sheet mask, then moisturizer, then a sleeping pack after using Retin A. If you add hydrating essences and serums after your retinol products, you may have less sensitivity, too. It's sort of like a chemistry experiment. You have to keep trying new combinations to figure out what your skin likes.

oh that's interesting. I have only used moisturizer after using retinol but I didn't know one could use different moisturizing products including sheet masks! That's great to know, thank you.

My pleasure, pretty lady. Let me know if you need recommendations. I'm a sheet mask fiend.

aww likewise, thank you sweetheart. I will let you know for sure!

Great article!! love all your information. Thank you for sharing.

My pleasure! 😊

I have been using PCA Skin retinol treatment for sensitive skin for a couple of years now. I love incorporating it into my nightly skincare routine once or twice a week. I have been very cautious because I am sensitive and do live in a sunny location, but I think my skin is ready to move up to the next level now. As always, very informative article Tracy. Looking forward to part two.

When it comes to sun and retinol, caution is key. I wear sunscreen every day because we get more sun here in the mountains than most people. Take your time when increasing your retinol strength. Your skin will thank you for your patience.


This is so informative - thank you for continuously educating us.

My pleasure, Brittaney. If you're ever curious about something skincare-related, just send me a message. I'm always open to new topic suggestions!

Ive been nervous about incorporating a retinol into my skincare routine because my skin is very sensitive. I’m currently using the Thyrst Beauty Serum and love it! Something important to mention is please wear your Sunscreen everyday especially when using a retinol. If not , it will make your dark spots and hyperpigmentation worst.

You're rightfully nervous, Sam, so take your time and do your homework. Most people think using the strongest version possible is the way to go, but preventing/stopping/reversing aging is a slow process. Let your skin guide you and never, ever rush it. I'll be testing out the Thyrst Beauty Serum soon as well (which means shelving my Retin-A) and am looking forward to seeing how it performs.

I have sensitive skin and started trying a Korean brand name Rovectin- LHA blemish ampole. I use three drop of the rovection ampole after my toner. I would recommend retinol to be added to anyone's skincare routine and use it preferably at night or as needed. It does makes my skin more sun sensitive.

I'm glad the Rovectin is working for you. Out of curiosity, are you using a hydrating toner or a pH balancing toner before applying your ampoule? I use prescription Retin-A and use the pH balancing toner (Mizon) beforehand and then use a hydrating toner afterward (plus all my other steps).

Tracy, another great article!I love a good retinol! This is a very important article because I think people have been a tad weary of the photo effects of the acid. I highly agree it's best used at night, and to test your skin first to determine sensitivity. P.S. Cloudy skies can be just as harmful as sunny ones so always protect yourself!

Thanks, Jenny! I'm super leery about products containing retinol that are meant for daytime use. Since I've been on full-strength Retin-A (tretinoin) since 2017, I'm BEYOND diligent about sunscreen, too. Of course, having had melanoma and basal cell carcinoma also makes me ultra cautious. Do you have a favorite retinol?

Honestly, I love Roc Retinol Line! Affordable and love the results

Me too Jenny! I have been using products from this brand since stumbling across it in a pharmacy many years ago in St. Martin. The night cream with retinol is great even for sensitive skin.