Back in 2020, my usual skincare routine felt like it had completely stopped working for me. I now know that, in reality, skincare rarely stops working for you, and in fact it’s more likely that your skin simply changes due to your age and hormones – especially in women. I felt like I had to start from scratch and totally re-build my routine, and it felt very overwhelming. Hours of research led me to retinoids, something I hadn’t tried before, but what a journey they’ve taken me on.

As someone with super sensitive and reactive skin (I often describe it as ‘fussy’), I was pretty terrified of all hell breaking loose when I first started on 0.1% retinaldehyde by Avene (it was called Triacneal, but unfortunately it is now discontinued). With time, I learned what worked best for me, and shared my learnings on TikTok. In this blog, I’ll share five golden rules for using a retinoid if you’re just starting out and have sensitive skin, too.

1. Go slowly and build up your tolerance

You’ve probably heard this one before, but I really do feel it’s the most important one – and the one people often completely skip. If you skip this one out of impatience, not only are you likely to feel *all* of the side effects at once, but you’ll also need to take a couple of weeks off to recover and re-start. Trust me on this, it’s just not worth it!

This is how I usually recommend people to introduce a retinoid:

1-2x per week in month 1

2-3x per week in month 2

3-4x per week in month 4

4-5x per week in month 5 (optional, you don’t need to be using it 4-7x per week, but at this point you’ll be acclimated to the product enough to make a better decision on your own).

Even now, three years in, I use my retinoid only 3-4x nights a week. You’ll often see others using it every day with no problems, but I personally prefer to use it a little less frequently so that my skin’s protective barrier can stay strong and healthy.

2. Temporarily stop using other actives 

Again, people seem to have real difficulty doing this one! I get it though, you’ve seen results from using specific actives like BHA and AHA, and it’s hard to part with them. Unfortunately you really just need to trust the process. I found this hard, too, but now that I use a retinoid, I actually have chosen not to use any other acids – I just don’t need to, my retinoid works so much better than acids ever did for me!

You can reintroduce them at a later date, but for now it’s best practice to cut out harsh actives to allow your skin time to adjust to the retinoid without tons of excess irritation.

These are the actives I recommend to cut out:

Ingredients you can remain using:

3. Only use your retinoid at night

There are many reasons for this, and often the reasons are confused across the internet. However, the main reasons are:

4. Make sure you’re wearing SPF

Not only is your skin a little more reactive in sunlight when using a retinoid, but also exposing your skin to direct, unprotected sunlight is counterintuitive with the use of a retinoid. Other than helping with skin texture and acne, retinoids are amongst the few, proven products to reverse and slow the signs of premature ageing.

Conversely, sunlight is one of the top, proven sources of collagen breakdown and premature ageing. Therefore if you’re using a retinoid with SPF, you will not be getting any of the benefits of anti-aging, and you may even be making things worse, as your skin is now more vulnerable to the sun – not a good combo!

5. Consider the buffering or sandwich technique

You’ve probably already heard of these, and I get asked about them a lot, so let’s start with what they are (tip – they’re pretty similar!).

Retinoid buffering technique

This is where you ‘buffer’ the strength of the retinoid by first applying a moisturiser to your skin, letting it absorb for 10-15 minutes, then applying the retinoid over the top.

Retinoid sandwich technique

This is the same as the buffering technique, with the addition of another layer of moisturiser over the retinoid, to create a moisturiser ‘sandwich’.

Personally, I used the buffering technique for the first two months of my retinoid journey. I then decided to switch to directly applying the retinoid to my dry skin after cleansing, and I saw a world of difference in the results. Neither option is really right or wrong, but it might help just ease you into it. There is often at least some irritation when first using a retinoid no matter how you do it, so it’s your call here.

Finally, my sixth unofficial tip would be: whatever you do, do not apply the retinoid to damp skin. If you’re applying it over moisturiser, be sure to let it sink in for 10-15 minutes first. This is because, when applying products to damp skin, you speed up the rate at which they’re absorbed, and for retinoids this is *not* a good thing. In fact, it can make them much more irritating.