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A beginner’s guide to using retinol creams

Using retinol cream for the first time and worried about how your skin will react? Neutrogena® skincare expert Rebecca Bennett takes you through the best way to get started.

So you’ve heard all about the wonder-ingredient retinol and are ready to try it, but you’re worried about how your skin will react. With such a powerful ingredient, there are some steps you should take to make sure you get the most out of retinol creams and limit the risk of any downsides.


What age should I start using retinol?

Retinol cream can be used when you start to see the first signs of aging on your skin. For example, you may start to see deeper lines and wrinkles that are no longer being managed by your usual moisturising regime.

The age when this happens will vary depending on factors such as your skin type, your overall health and the amount of sun exposure you’ve had throughout your life. For example, if you have fair skin with a moderate amount of sun exposure you may wish to start using retinol earlier than someone with olive skin who has always protected their skin from the sun.


I have sensitive skin, can I still use retinol?

You are best placed to know how your skin reacts to new ingredients or whether it is sensitive or resilient, and you can adapt your use of retinol accordingly.

Even if your skin has reacted to high-retinol products before, it may still gain benefit from a different retinol cream. So, the best way to find out is through testing it.

If your skin is sensitive, start with a patch test – apply a small amount to a two-centimetre square area on your cheek, three times a week for two weeks, and wait to see how it reacts before applying it anywhere else.

Unless you’re using a specifically-formulated retinol eye cream – like Neutrogena® Cellular Boost Eye Cream – avoid particularly sensitive areas such as around the eyes, nose or the mouth.

Check for sensitivity – redness, itching, peeling – and if this happens you may want to pause the test for a week. If you have an immediate burning sensation, rinse the skin thoroughly with cool water and pat dry.

If your skin responds well in the small test area, retinol creams may well be suitable for use on your whole face and neck.


How much retinol cream should I apply and how do I apply it?

If you find that retinol cream is right for your skin, you can start with a small pea-sized amount for your whole face, excluding potentially sensitive areas mentioned above, and neck, and smooth it in gently.

As the skin can only absorb so much retinol, applying more than this is a waste of product and can increase the risk of irritation.

Dermatologists often recommend waiting for a few minutes after cleansing before applying products containing retinol, particularly if your skin is sensitive.

Always wear SPF during the day when using retinol as it can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight.




How many times a week should I use retinol cream?

The key to seeing great results with retinol is to build up usage gradually.

If your skin is sensitive, only use retinol cream twice a week for the first week, just at night time. Check your skin’s reaction and if you are tolerating it well, you can move up to three times per week. Then the following week up to four times, and so on.

If your skin is more resilient, you might like to start with using more often up to every other night, and then move to nightly use when your skin has adjusted to the ingredient.

This might seem slow, as you want to see the great results as soon as possible, but it is important that your skin gets used to retinol slowly.


What do I do if my skin becomes irritated?

With all skin types, it is normal to experience some mild redness, warmth or skin flaking as your skin becomes used to a retinol product.

These are temporary signs that the formula is working. However, if these effects persist, or cause discomfort, stop using the product for a week and then try again, building up use gradually, perhaps with a milder strength product.

If at any time your skin becomes red or sore, or particularly dry, stop using the product for at least five days to allow your skin to recover.  You may like to try again, even more slowly and with less product, or repeat the patch-test to check whether in fact you are particularly sensitive to the ingredient and should not use retinol.


Question about specific products?

If you’re using Neutrogena products formulated with retinol such as the Neutrogena® Cellular Boost Concentrate or the Neutrogena® Cellular Boost Eye Cream and have specific questions, refer to our Neutrogena® Cellular Boost Retinol Q&As.

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