Every influencer — or should I say ‘skinfluencer’ — out there is recommending adding Retinol to your skincare routine. But is all the hype around it worth it?

As a dermatologist, my short answer would be a yes. It improves collagen production, decreases clogged pores, enhances your skin texture, reduces hyperpigmentation and even fine lines and wrinkles — it’s the anti-ageing elixir your skin will adore — especially if you’re in your early 30s.

As powerful as it can be with all its goodness, Retinols are not to be messed with. Getting started with it can lead to purging, increased sun sensitivity and redness too. So how you incorporate it into your routine can be make or break(out) for your skin. (Not every skinfluencer out there will tell you this.)

So, here’s a dermatologist’s detailed low-down on everything you need to know about this ingredient — from what it is, tips and tricks for beginners and those with sensitive skin, and side effects, you need to watch out for.

First things first — what is Retinol?
Retinol is an antioxidant and a type of retinoid which is derived from vitamin A, easily available over-the-counter (OTC). When applied topically over your skin, it boosts collagen production, cell turnover and balances the oil production of the skin. Now if you’re suffering from active skin conditions such as Eczema and Rosacea or are pregnant, breastfeeding or planning for a child, avoid Retinol altogether.
So which Retinol should you begin with?
For beginners, an OTC retinol (since they typically have a low, gentle concentration) should do just fine. I personally love the Peltos Retinol Sleep Mask. If your skin is acclimatised to OTC Retinol products, you could graduate to Retinal, and then eventually, opt for a prescription-based form such as Tretinoin. If you’re an absolute newbie to skincare in general, Retinol Esther is the gentlest formation you could use.

How do you incorporate it into your skincare routine?
If you’re a skincare novice and are keen to include retinol into your routine, then this is your mantra: less is always more! I’ve treated one too many patients who go the whole hog, right at the beginning, so my advice would be to simply ease into it.

Use it twice or thrice a week, preferably in your nighttime routine so you avoid any sun sensitivity. A broad-spectrum SPF in your AM routine while using Retinol is non-negotiable. Unless the product you’re using categorically instructs you to use it as part of your AM routine, I’d suggest using it only at night, to keep things simple. Remember, skin inflammation from using it in the day is just not worth it.

When using it in your PM routine, gently cleanse your skin, moisturise it, coat it with retinol and seal it by moisturising it again. This is called the moisture sandwich technique and helps in deeper product penetration.

PSA: The application of retinol should be avoided a week prior to getting other facial services such as waxing, facials, laser, chemical peel and intense sun exposure.

How much product do you use?
For your full face, a little goes a long way. A pea-sized amount on your index finger is all you need. With Retinol, more is never more.

Which areas should you apply?
I’d recommend avoiding it around your mouth, and if you’re looking to apply it under your eye, my favourite hack is to apply it over Vaseline or any other petroleum gel, to ensure it isn’t too harsh on the sensitive skin around your eyes.

The skin on your neck is also very fragile, so if you’d like to apply some product there, use it after applying moisturiser.

Remember to never apply Retinol on wet or naked skin, or post a shower when your pores are open.

The benefits
You may have heard that Retinol is a great spot treatment, but when used consistently, Retinol can reduce hyperpigmentation, create an even, smooth skin tone, reduce wrinkles, fight breakouts and acne — and in some cases, it could also reverse the effects of sun damage.

It’s important to note that with Retinol, it isn’t about how often or how much, but about how consistently you apply it. Even a gentle form of Retinol, used consistently over time can work wonders for your skin; it’s a myth that stronger is better.

Use it less. Use it consistently.
I have patients who mark out their ‘Retinol days’ on their Google calendars, to ensure they apply it on the two days, (Wednesday-Saturday or Monday-Thursday, or whatever days’ work best) of the week they’re supposed to. I love and deeply appreciate this kind of discipline!

It might get worse before it gets better
Purging, redness and skin disintegration are side effects that are not unheard of when you get started with a Retinol. Now if you ease into it, apply it the way I’ve explained above, you might escape this phase, but if you do see side effects, know that it will only get better from here.

If you continue to see side effects a month or two after incorporating it into your routine, it might mean that your skin can’t tolerate the product and it’s time for you to get it checked by your dermatologist.

Tips for the sensitive skin club
If your skin is overly sensitive, and you want to jump on the Retinol bandwagon, I’ve got some handy tips for you.

1. Use Retinol over dry skin, maybe avoid the cleansing step altogether
2. Strictly avoid exfoliation on the nights you use your retinol — your skin might find both these steps together a tad too harsh
3. Moisturize before you use your retinol, think of this as the primer you use before applying make-up; the thicker the moisturiser the better

So there you have it. A Retinol can be the magic wand your skin needs, so yes, the hype around it, is 100% worth it. Just remember to ease into it, be gentle with your skin, be consistent and never forget your sunscreen.

– Dr. Mikki Singh is a celebrity Cosmetic Dermatologist in Bangalore, a specialist in CoolSculpting and a renowned expert in Aesthetic Dermatology. She is recognised as the architect of the new-age Bodycraft Clinics and is also the founder of the Centre of Excellence, the Bodycraft Clinic Indiranagar, Bangalore.