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If you're at all interested in skincare, I'm sure you'll have heard that retinoids are a must in your evening skincare routine, and I have to agree with the consensus! This group of ingredients was originally developed to treat acne, and retinoids are still deployed for this use by dermatologists across the world. However, they were also discovered to have amazing other benefits; namely, boosting collagen production (this protein gives our skin its fullness and elasticity), helping with uneven skin tone and smoothing fine lines. This makes them a fantastic step in your routine if you're in your late 20s or beyond (they just shouldn't be used by those who are pregnant or breastfeeding). However, retinoids can be confusing and they can cause some side-effects if your skin isn't used to them (such as dryness and flaking or even breakouts for a period of time, due to increased skin cell turnover), so this is my guide on how to integrate them into your skincare routine...

Patch Test

Patch testing your chosen product is essential once you've chosen a formula to use; it's a method of seeing if a product causes you irritation or a reaction on a small part of skin before smearing it all over your face. Retinoids aren't for everyone and even if they could be for you; not every formula or combination of ingredients out there is going to agree with you, so patch testing will help you assess this. The Ordinary have a helpful guide on how to carry out patch testing here (it references their own formulas but it's easy to extrapolate the universal guidance).

Don't combine retinoids with other actives 

Active skincare ingredients that treat the skin include acids (such as salicylic (BHA), glycolic (AHA) and so on), Vitamin C (such as ascorbic acid) and benzoyl peroxide. I would also include ingredients like niacinamide in this category at higher concentrations >5%. If your skin is brand new to retinoids, I really wouldn't recommend combining your retinoid with other active ingredients - try separating out the actives by putting your Vitamin C in your AM routine and using your retinoid in the PM, for example, or alternating so you're using your acid some nights and your Vitamin C on others. As your skin gets used to the retinoid, you may be able to happily use formulas that combine retinoids with other actives for you, so the overall product is well-balanced and hopefully not too harsh, or you might feel comfortable occasionally combining gentle versions of other actives (e.g. a PHA instead of an AHA or ascorbyl glucoside as opposed to ascorbic acid) with your retinoid. However, I do not recommend this for beginners. Instead, keep your retinoid routine very simple with minimal steps. Be sure to include a fatty, replenishing moisturiser with ingredients like ceramides to keep your skin barrier happy.


If you have sensitive skin, suffer from dryness or want to avoid both of these things because you're brand new to retinoids, you can actually apply your retinoid after your moisturiser to take the edge off a little. With serums, you usually apply them before moisturiser to help penetration, but if you want to slow down penetration then you can simply do the opposite! Some people even enjoy the 'sandwich method', which means applying a light layer of moisturiser, followed by a retinoid, followed by another light layer of moisturiser.

Start low, go slow

This might be the most important tip of all! The vast majority of people can't go straight in with using a strong retinoid every single night without experiencing issues. Instead, start with using your retinoid once a week and as your skin adjusts, increase frequency over a period of months. Some people will never get beyond every other night and that's completely fine too; you're still reaping some fantastic benefits. The other aspect is not to go for a really high-strength formula. Advertised retinoid concentrations can be confusing, which is why I'm including some recommendations for newbies. One thing to consider, however, is that most people want to start with retinol but there are actually retinol esters out there such as retinyl palmitate, which are not as strong and can help get your skin used to retinoids, so once you've emptied that product, you can graduate to retinol.

What to look for

Retinoids in moisturising bases with ingredients like Vitamin E, squalane and ceramides - formulations in moisturisers or oil delivery systems can also be great
Retinol esters - as mentioned they're a step down from retinol so can be gentler on the skin
Encapsulation - this is where retinoids are encased in something our skin more readily accepts and means that the active is more slowly absorbed into the skin, reducing irritation
Bakuchiol is often touted as the 'natural retinol'; whilst it's worth a go if you're pregnant or breastfeeding, I don't think this antioxidant can replace your retinoid, but there's some evidence to suggest it can boost the efficacy of your retinoid, so you're increasing your benefits without increasing irritation

My recommendations

This formula hits several of the criteria I recommend for newcomers to retinoids; it combines granactive retinoid with lots of nourishing and antioxidant-rich oils such as pomegranate seed and rosehip. There's the bakuchiol, plus Vitamin and coQ10 in here too for more antioxidant power, protecting the skin from free radical damage and premature ageing. Granactive retinoid is oil-based, which already makes it gentler, but it's also bioavailable to the skin, making it highly effective. This is a wonderful combination of results in a super-gentle formula that will support dry and sensitive skin. 

If you're not quite comfortable with putting a straight oil on your skin, but you like the sound of granactive retinoid; this could be a great alternative, as it puts this ingredient in a light, milky serum formula. This product contains bakuchiol again to compliment the retinoid, plus shea butter, Vitamin E, squalane and more to help to moisturise the skin. This is really about as good as it gets when it comes to cramming amazing ingredients into a lightweight formula that can work for just about any skin type.

This is a little bit more of an all-in-one kind of formula, combining retinyl palmitate (an ester, meaning it's a step down from retinol) with Vitamin C derivatives (to boost its brightening benefits and provide antioxidant protection) and a peptide to plump and hydrate the skin, plus potentially boost up collagen production. The formula is supported by antioxidants like resveratrol and Vitamin E and hydrators and moisturisers such as panthenol, omega fatty acids and sunflower seed oil. This covers off all of the well-ageing bases in their most skin-friendly guises, making it fantastic for those new to retinoids; it's gentle and avoids the confusion of what you can mix different ingredients with.

This is one of the few 'true' retinol serums I've included in this post because it combines a gentle 0.3% concentration (1% is typical for experienced users) with bakuchiol to minimise irritation whilst helping maintain results. There are ceramides in this creamy serum, to help keep the skin barrier strong and healthy, peptides, soothing and moisturising ingredients like allantoin, shea butter and glycerin. Plus we have a Vitamin C derivative and licorice root extract, which is really good for brightening the skin and evening out its overall tone. This is a nice, gentle option, especially if you've already used something with retinyl palmitate, your skin is happy with it and you want to up the ante just a touch.

This is the most affordable product in this post by quite a margin and Indeed Labs are great at giving you high-performance formulas at a lower cost. This features retinol microspheres (AKA encapsulation technology), a peptide that purportedly can have retinoid-like effects and bakuchiol (I'm sure you're noticing a theme here!) The slowed-down release of the retinol takes a lot of the edge off, which is great for sensitive skin, and the other active ingredients are gentler but work in conjunction with the retinol so you can get amazing results without needing the strongest, harshest formula out there.

This is a little bit of a different suggestion from me, as it's actually a retinal, so a step up from retinol, however I thought I'd throw it in there as I (and others, judging from reviews I've seem on the internet) sometimes find retinal less drying than retinol, despite it being 'stronger', so it's worth considering if retinol hasn't worked for you so far and you want more substantial results than can be achieved with esters. This encapsulated retinal has been specially formulated for more sensitive skin types and also contains plenty of buffering ingredients like Vitamin E and glycerin. It's a serum but has a kind of creamy-lotion texture that feels softening and moisturising on the skin. It's not the obvious starter retinoid but I can see it working really well for some people.

Do you use retinoids? How did you introduce them into your routine?

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