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5 Retinol Mistakes You May Be Making

by Emily Burg on April 13, 2024

We hear the word “powerhouse” used a lot in the world of skincare, but honestly, retinol is one of those ingredients that really deserves the title. It’s a game-changer for virtually anyone, regardless of skin type or age. But, and this is a big but, it’s got to be used the right way.

If you’ve tried to add retinol to your skincare routine but weren’t getting the results that you expected, you may be using it incorrectly. But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! We’re going to walk through the top 5 most common retinol mistakes we see here at Emme Diane to make sure you know what to avoid.

Mistake #1: Choosing the Wrong Type

You know how sometimes we just grab stuff off the shelf because it looks good? Or maybe a friend or influencer swayed you into purchasing something that they swear is the best? Yeah, you can't really do that with retinol. There are so many types out there, and picking the right one for your specific skin type and concerns is crucial. While many think that the highest potency means the best results, that unfortunately isn’t always the case.

Because there are a variety of different Vitamin A derivatives in skincare, it's important that you understand which one you are using and what you can expect from it. One popular retinol product that you may have heard of is tretinoin. It is commonly prescribed for acne-prone skin, but interestingly enough, it actually has pore-clogging ingredients… so it can add to the problem, not fix it. This is just one of many examples of why you need to be a little bit of a retinol detective before just diving in. But don't worry, finding your retinol match is easier than it sounds, especially with a little guidance! Our Pro-Retinol Serum is an amazing option, but if you are unsure of what’s right for your unique skin let’s work together. If you’re new here, you can reach out through our free online skincare consultation, or if you’re an existing client, simply fill out a quick check-in form to get the conversation started.

Mistake #2: Starting Too Strong, Too Soon

Now even if you’ve chosen the best retinol for your skin type and goals, rushing into this new relationship too quickly can do more harm than good. I see it all the time – people get excited about starting retinol and jump straight into daily application, then end up with dry and irritated skin. So, it’s important to ease into using it and allow your skin time to acclimate. Start by applying it every third night, then gradually increase the frequency as your skin tolerates.

I also want you to keep in mind that although the end goal might feel like using your retinol every night, for some skin types, that can just be too much. So you want to find your sweet spot by trying to use your retinol as often as possible, but without crossing the line of chronic skin irritation. That might be every other night for you, or maybe every 3rd night is your sweet spot. If you can use it nightly, I definitely recommend it but be sure to listen to your skin.

Additionally, it’s important to keep in mind that there isn’t only one way to use retinol either. For example, if you have dry or sensitive skin that can’t tolerate it even starting every 3rd night, then our buffered or timed method might be a better fit for you. You can learn more about these in my blog, “Different Ways to Use Retinol”!

Mistake #3: Quitting Too Early (Or Starting and Stopping)

The retinol journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Some dryness, mild irritation, and even the dreaded “skin purging” (new breakouts) can be common in the beginning, but consistency is key. Although abandoning your retinol at the first sign of negative side effects may seem like the right thing to do, the skin does need time to acclimate, so it’s important to push through, as long as the symptoms aren’t becoming excessive.

And with that being said, while purging can be a normal part of the process since the retinol is helping to clear out the pores, it’s important to know that purging is very different from retinol triggering breakouts due to pore-clogging ingredients in the formula (which is very common by the way). So, be sure you’re using a 100% acne-safe retinol and I promise, the purging will subside!

Mistake #4: Getting the Timing Wrong

Retinol is not a morning person. The sunlight can cause retinols to break down, making them less effective, and they can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. So, it should only be used as part of your nighttime skincare routine. Speaking of timing – you’ll also want to avoid using retinol before waxing or laser treatments as it can make your skin more sensitive… and waxing can actually lift the skin (which is a nice way of saying it rips off the top layer of your skin…ouch.)

Mistake #5: Skipping SPF (Your Skin’s BFF)

As we just mentioned, retinol makes your skin more susceptible to sun damage, so even if you’re applying it at nighttime (as you should!), it’s important that you follow with ample sunscreen the next morning and throughout the day. Now while sunscreen does help protect your skin, if you have plans that involve substantial sun exposure, like a beach vacation, it's probably best to give retinol a little vacation too. Because of the whole sun-sensitivity thing, giving retinol a brief pause can prevent unwanted irritation or damage. But don't worry, you can typically resume the use of retinol a few days after your vacation, as long as you didn’t experience sunburn or damage to your skin.

While there’s a lot to understand with retinol, it really doesn’t have to be complicated. If you’re interested in doing a deeper dive into learning more about retinol, as well as some other myths and misconceptions commonly associated with it, I highly recommend tuning into episode 26 of the Skin Theory Podcast. Otherwise, avoid these common retinol mistakes, and you’ll be on your way to seeing why so many people (myself included!) can’t stop singing its praises.


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