I Started Using Retinol

I haven’t had anything against the vitamin A derivative, but it wasn’t until this year that I started using retinol. I didn’t have any hang-ups about products conventionally seen as, “anti-aging,” but I also didn’t see the point until this year.

But first, a brief but important aside:

No one NEEDS anti-aging products. No one NEEDS products at all, for that matter. I, however, am:

  • vain
  • at ease with that

That said, don’t just accept fake, “needs,” created for you by companies to get you to buy things. Do some critical introspection. Do you think you need to buy it because you’ve been heavily targeted by advertising? Do you think you need to buy it because of bullshit you see on Instagram?

What I Learned about Retinol

I always thought it was over-the-top when 20-year-olds would cite wrinkle concerns and douse themselves in retinol or retinoids. Especially, you know, when they weren’t taking sun safety seriously.

For ages, I thought retinol was primarily an anti-aging product. Though it is often used that way, it is just as much (if not more!) a tool to manage acne and other skin conditions – so young people do have uses for retinol or retinoids beyond anti-aging purposes.

For example, dermatologists commonly prescribe retinoids like Retin-A (tretinoin) which is a topical, Accutane (isotretinoin) which is an oral medication, to manage acne and psoriasis. There’s also Differin (adapalene), which is another form that I understand to formerly have been by-prescription-only. It is now available more accessibly over-the-counter.

Beyond that, there are hundreds of other retinol-based products out there.

Wait, Retinol or Retinoid?

That’s a good question. Both refer to a classification of vitamin A derivatives that are used in the way I’m describing for skincare.

Generally, if a doctor is prescribing it, it’s a retinoid (though Differin is also a retinoid). They are stronger and tend to take effect faster, but the trade-off is that the strength can cause sensitivity and irritation.

Retinol is not as strong, but people tend to tolerate it better without irritation – hence its broad availability over-the-counter. Generally, retinol products are formulated with other ingredients that help either soothe potential irritation or reduce steps (i.e., a moisturizer that has retinol in it to kill two birds with one stone).


I’m using an over-the-counter retinol serum from Paula’s Choice (but seriously, don’t pay full price for this), and I’ve used The Inkey List’s with good results. When my Paula’s Choice bottle runs out, I’m trying one from iNN Beauty to see which of the three I like best. They are each listed as a 1% concentration; I started using it twice a week and have since worked up to every other night. New information is coming out saying retinol can be used during the day, but I don’t as a matter of preference: I like to moisturize heavily which isn’t great when I need to wear glasses to work.

It is really common to experience some dryness with retinol usage, so it is very important to time your usage and to take moisturizing seriously so you don’t end up both uncomfortable and looking like you’re about to molt.

As for timing, this means that you should wait twenty or so minutes after cleansing to apply a retinol or retinoid product. Why? Our skin is fussy, and its pH is affected by cleansing – you need to leave it be for about 20 minutes so it can get back to its normal state post-cleanse before hitting it with additional stuff. So many of the cautionary tales about retinol are connected to routine structure and application too soon after cleansing, before the skin is ready for it.

After you apply, wait a few minutes and then heavily moisturize. I (and my skin) like oils – argan in the summer, something heavier in the winter like almond or jojoba. If oils aren’t for you, CeraVe Moisturizing Cream is a good one to try.


I’m not a significant acne sufferer; my complaints are largely related to cycle-related hormone fluctuations; so I’d a few minor blemishes a month related to that, plus the occasional cystic nightmare a few times a year.

I haven’t had a cystic blemish since I started. They’re infrequent, but they’re painful and long-lived when they occur. The severity of the monthly annoyances is diminished as well. Dullness is reduced even once I cut back on other things, which is fantastic. With consistent use, the lines I have are less obvious.

Bottom Line

For me, taking the cystic blemishes out of the equation makes usage worth it even though I didn’t expect that. It does what I want it to do regarding making aging somewhat less evident. The other impact on acne is a welcome bonus.

Overall, since I started using retinol, I’ve slimmed down my skincare with no negative impact. I cleanse, treat with this or an acid on alternating days, moisturize, and use SPF. That’s it. My skin is the best it has been in a while. Not flawless, but good.

So its important to note, too – there’s no such thing as a miracle cure. There’s no magic bullet. You need realistic expectations: you’re going to age (unless you’re Keanu Reeves, I guess). You also need discipline and consistency where a routine is concerned in order to benefit. It’s so common to try something for a week, or be on and off for a month, then be confused that the new variable you introduced didn’t knock your socks off.