How to Use Retinol: A Beginner’s Guide

November 10, 2020 6 min read

Retinol is one of the most powerful ingredients used in skincare products, but it can also be intimidating for newbies because of its reputation of having harsh side effects for our skin. So what do you need to know about this wonder ingredient if you want to start reaping the benefits it has to offer your skin?

In this beginner’s guide to Retinol, we’ll explore what Retinol is, what the benefits can be for our skin, how to use it safely, and when to start using it, so you can introduce Retinol products into your skincare routine with confidence.

What is Retinol?

Retinol is part of a group of compounds called Retinoids that are derived from Vitamin A. Vitamin A is found in the liver, as well as in fish like cod and sardines, many vegetables and certain non-citrus fruits. Vitamin A is known to help improve eye and skin health, as well as boosting the immune system, playing an essential role in fetal development, and having potential in cancer prevention—although overdosing can also be dangerous.

There are lots of different types of Retinoids, from stronger prescription Retinoids with a higher risk of side-effects, to weaker variations used in over-the-counter skin products. These are used in topical applications (creams and gels), as well as in oral medication and food supplements.

What's the difference between Retinol and Retinal?

When we apply Retinol to our skin, it gets converted into Retinal, which is the active ingredient that then gets to work improving our skin’s appearance. We stock several anti-acne products that include Retinal, which are faster-acting because this ingredient basically skips the step where the skin converts it into a useable form. One user trial found that Retinal works up to 11 times faster than Retinol.It’s important to be aware, though, that because Retinal is Retinol’s faster-acting counterpart, it can also be slightly more aggravating for sensitive skin.

Retinol benefits (and what Retinol does for acne)

Retinol is the gentler counterpart to Retinoic acid, which is a clinical-grade form of Vitamin A that’s often prescribed by doctors to treat skin conditions like acne and psoriasis. Retinol was first made in the 1940s, and was originally promoted to young people as a treatment for acne, but since then it’s also become a popular ingredient in anti-ageing products because of its powerful collagen-boosting, skin-renewing effects.

Retinol (which, unlike Retinoic Acid, doesn’t have to be prescribed) has similar effects to Retinoic Acid, but must first be converted to Retinaldehyde and then to Retinoic acid to be used by the skin. The super-strength Retinol serum we recommend is crafted with Retinaldehyde, and requires just one conversion to Retinoic Acid, which means that it’s able to produce results comparable to Retinoic Acid up to 11 times faster than classic forms of Retinol.

Studies have found that Retinol can be used to improve skin in these areas:

• Ageing: As we get older, our skin tends to sag and get wrinkles due to lower natural levels of collagen in our skin. Collagen is a protein that keeps skin firm and elastic, and there tend to be lower levels of it in ageing skin. Studies have shown that Retinol is a great anti-ageing ingredient, preventing collagen from breaking down, which keeps skin youthful and plump. It also encourages rapid skin cell turnover, and helps healthier, younger cells to come the surface, while also thickening the skin and smoothing out fine lines.

• Acne: The fact that Retinol promotes skin cell turnover also helps to keep blackheads and whiteheads to a minimum, which means fewer breakouts. Retinol tackles acne from the inside out before spots have even started to form, helping fresh new glowing skin cells to emerge.

• Hyperpigmentation: Retinol’s skin cell turnover super powers are also good news for fading dark marks and hyperpigmentation, as well as potentially healing sun damage. Its antioxidant properties combined with its regenerative powers make it a great ingredient for evening out skin tone.

• Depressed “atrophic” acne scars:  Acne scars that have resulted in facial pitting and an uneven surface on the skin (often known as “boxcar”, “ice pick” or “rolling” scars) can be really hard to get rid of. Retinol can be used to boost collagen production, optimising skin cell regeneration, and renewing your skin for a better overall texture.

All in all, Retinol is a great ingredient for people struggling with a variety of issues, but especially for more mature skin that’s suffering from adult acne, because it’s skin clearing and smoothing.

Retinol side effects

It takes the skin a little while to get used to Retinol, but the good news is that as your skin adjusts, the results just get better. Using a product containing Retinol on your skin may result in some sensitivity, irritation, peeling and dryness at first, which is why we recommend only using a pea-sized amount (a little goes a long way), applying it at night before bed and then making sure to wear moisturiser and suncream the next morning.

Because many people experience a certain amount of peeling when using Retinol for the first time, they often assume that it’s thinning out their skin, when in fact the reverse is actually true. In fact, Retinol is actually boosting skin cell regeneration and making it thicker

Remember, Retinol is a powerful ingredient that works deep down in the skin, and it can take some time (some say between 4-6 months) for you to see the full impact. So, be patient, and you’ll reap the benefits.

When to start using retinol

If you’re wondering what age to use Retinol, the answer is really that you can use it any time you need help with the skin issues it helps to tackle, from your teen years and the onset of acne and skin troubles onwards. Because it’s so helpful to slow ageing and even out skin tone and texture, the optimal time to start using Retinol (if you haven’t already) is probably when you’re in your late 20s, as collagen depletion starts setting in and our skin needs a little more help to stay supple and plump.

How and when to use Retinol in your routine

Because Retinol is such an overall skincare hero, it’s used in various ways in different products, so there’s bound to be a Retinol product that’s just right for your skin type (we offer several different strengths for different skincare types and issues). If you have dry skin in need of more hydration, you can use a cream based formula, or a gel or serum based formula might be a better option if you have oily skin.

One important thing to remember is that Retinol is a light-sensitive compound, and becomes ineffective in sunlight, so it’s important to put it on before bed at night so it can get to work and do it’s thing without being broken down by any UV rays you might be exposed to throughout the day.

Can I use Retinol every night?

When you’re first using Retinol in your skincare routine, it’s best to introduce it slowly and build up from there as your skin gets adjusted and used to it. Experts recommend starting out by using just a pea sized amount on your face twice a week, and then increasing to using it every night once your skin has had a chance to adjust.

Depending on your skin type and your skincare goal, it’s less likely to experience sensitivity or peeling if you start with using a lower strength Retinol formula.

How to use Retinol and Vitamin C together

You’ll notice we recommend Retinol and Vitamin C products for similar skin issues here at Mr Brains and Brawn, and that’s no coincidence. Retinol and Vitamin C can work well together to smooth out uneven skin texture and tone from acne scars and hyperpigmentation, as well as being a powerful anti-ageing duo.

Vitamin C treats acne scars and smoothes wrinkles by increasing the synthesis of collagen, a protein responsible for your skin’s structure and vital for rebuilding healthy skin. As a result, this Vitamin may accelerate the healing of acne wounds, and protect our skin from free radicals which can cause damage to our skin's DNA which speeds up skin ageing. Topical Vitamin C may also reduce Hyperpigmentation by reducing the production of Melanin and brightens skin by lightening dark spots.

However, it’s not a good idea to use Retinol and Vitamin C on your skin at the same time, because the have a different pH level and mixing them makes both ingredients less effective.

So, can you use Vitamin C and Retinol together to harness the benefits of both of these powerful ingredients? In short, yes: apply your Vitamin C serum as part of your morning routine, and Retinol as part of your evening skincare routine, but don’t layer them on your skin at the same time if you want to see results.


We’ve done the legwork to find you the most effective ingredients on the market, and have put together guides to help you figure out which products will be best suited to your skin’s needs. What would you like Retinol to help you with?

Acne scars


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