Retinol can work wonders on skin, but it can also cause irritation and excessive dryness if used incorrectly or on sensitive skin. The easiest way to minimize the risks is by using a good moisturizer too. Read on for our favorite pairings.
“What about retinol?” I asked my dermatologist at my last visit. “Oh,” she said, smiling but firm, “I believe everyone can benefit from retinol.” But how the heck do you use this stuff? And where does it fit into a skin care routine?
Nearly every bottle of retinol comes with warnings: don’t use if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or planning on becoming pregnant. Retinol alters your DNA. It’s like something out of Jurassic Park. Fine, maybe not that dramatic; retinol helps your skin cells to turn over faster, helping to reduce acne, inflammation, large pores, redness, and wrinkles.
But how do we use this miracle product without burning our faces right off?
Make sure to apply retinol to a completely dry face. Start easy. Twice a week. Once a week if you experience redness or flaking. (Reader, I experienced both.) As always, be sure to follow up any retinol treatment with SPF (my favorite at the moment is Elta MD UV Clear Broad Spectrum SPF 46).
The big secret, though, as with anything when it comes to skin care, is all about moisture. Following, or even mixing, a retinol treatment with a nourishing moisturizer can help prevent irritation that can come along with using the strong ingredient.
Here are some retinol and moisturizer duos that were made for each other.
New to Retinol: The Ordinary Granactive Retinol 2% in Squalane and Neogen Collagen Lifting Cream
The Ordinary offers a plethora of retinoid products for unbeatable prices. It’s always a good idea to start on the lower end of the spectrum and work your way up, if you’re trying retinol for the first time. The Granactive Retinol serum ($9.60) is on the moderate level of retinol and fans of the brand love the serum-form delivery.
Follow the lightweight serum with a plumping and firming moisturizer, like the Neogen Collagen Lifting Cream ($28), for even more anti-aging effects.
The Ultimate Duo: SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.5 and COSRX Hylauronic Acid Intenstive Cream
There isn’t enough high praise for each of these products. Together they are like the Batman and Robin of skin care. SkinCeuticals offers retinol in 0.3, 0.5, and 1.0 amounts. I started in the middle with the 0.5 cream ($76). The first week I only used it once, and I had redness and flaking about three days later. Now that I’ve fully incorporated it into my routine the reaction is gone. I’m finishing off my nightly routine with my trusty COSRX Hyaluronic Acid Intensive Cream ($21). For my money, there is simply no better moisturizer. It’s incredibly hydrating and never breaks me out. [Ed note: Until the COSRX cream is back in stock, try the Neogen SUR.MEDIC+ Super Hyaluronic 100TM Aqua Emulsion ($32), a light lotion that packs a punch]
For the Acne-Prone: The Plant Base Pore N Tightening Essence and Tony Moly Chok Chok Green Tea Watery Cream
Another option for those not ready for the full retinol experience is the Plant Base Pore N Tightening Essence ($37). Formulated as an essence treatment applied after your toner, this product contains tannin extract and EVERMAT. Both ingredients control excess sebum, so if you are prone to breakouts this essence is made for you. In addition to its acne-fighting properties, it also contains Vitamin A (retinol), niacinamide, ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and Vitamin E. Seal in moisture with Tony Moly’s The Chok Chok Green Tea Watery Cream ($24.50). This lightweight moisturizing gel is perfect if a heavier moisturizing cream causes breakouts.
The K-Beauty Pair: Missha Time Revolution Night Repair New Science Activator Ampoule and Missha Super Aqua Cell Renew Snail Cream
These two products are both made by Missha, so they complement each other nicely. The retinol ampoule ($52) is a nice place to start for someone who is interested incorporating retinol into their routine but may have sensitive skin, or have been sensitive to pure retinol in the past. In addition to retinol, this multitasking ampoule also contains niacinamide, bifida ferment lysate, hyaluronic acid and lactobacillus ferment, meaning you get a lot of bang for your buck. Finish off your routine with Missha’s super hydrating and healing snail cream ($50) with 70% snail mucin.
Drugstore Cowboy: Differin Gel and CeraVe Daily Moisturizer
If you’re the kind of skin care lover who likes to get all your shopping done at the pharmacy, look no further than this dynamic duo. Differin gel ($14) is over-the-counter, affordable, and available at most drugstores. Created to treat acne, it’s meant to be used as a daily treatment. (Again, though, start slow and work your way up to a daily treatment if that works for your skin.) Because it’s formulated with 0.1% adapalene, you will see all the same results as using a typical retinol treatment. Follow up your pea-sized drop of Differin with CeraVe’s PM Moisturizing Lotion ($14.79), with niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, and ceramides, each for less than $15.