Here's exactly how to introduce retinol into your skincare routine, according to a dermatologist.

Elizabeth Arden
Thanks to our brand partner, Elizabeth Arden

There are only a few skincare ingredients that ever reach the status of 'household name', but one that's continuing to rank is retinol. 

Well-studied and researched, it’s one to help us target a number of skin concerns, from plumping fine lines and wrinkles, reducing the appearance of hyperpigmentation and smoothing uneven skin texture.

While plenty of us are interested in retinol, I'm getting a strong sense from my Very Important journalism (read: chats in the office) that a lot of us are... lost, and worried about how harsh it'll be on our skin. 

I'm in the camp of waving the flag for help on how to get our love affair started with retinol. 

Powerful ingredients like retinol and its gentle friend, hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR), are buzzing right now – with beauty circles hailing HPR because of its low potential for irritation and suitability for sensitive skin.

But understanding how to get the most out of these skincare superheroes isn’t as simple as you might think. And if we've learnt anything from Leigh Campbell (besides operation SPF! Daily!), it's that protecting that skin barrier is key when adding in new skincare steps. 

Mamamia spoke to expert dermatologist, Dr Cara McDonald, to learn exactly how to harness the power of retinol and HPR: When to start using them, and how to incorporate them into your skincare routine while being wary of the all-important precautions.

What is retinol and why should you use it?

Before we get into the thick of it, let’s strip it back so we’re all on the same page.

1. The Ins and Outs of retinol:

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, a potent ingredient in skincare. This ingredient is one of the most highly regarded of all because it addresses a wide range of skin concerns and is often now considered a go-to choice for improving skin texture, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and promoting overall skin health.


So how does it work? Well, primarily by enhancing the process of skin cell turnover, simple. Basically, it encourages the skin to shed old, damaged skin cells and produce new, healthy ones. 

Think unclogged pores, which is why it’s great for managing acne-prone skin. But the main reason people are obsessed is because it’s one of the only products known to stimulate collagen production. And ICYMI, collagen is a protein that provides structure and elasticity to the skin, aka slows the ageing process.

2. What is HPR and how does it compare to retinol?

Say hello to hydroxypinacolone retinoate, or HPR for short, which is a newer and more stable member of the retinoid family. What makes HPR fabulous is that it doesn't require conversion steps like its older sister retinol. This means a gentler delivery, helping to minimise any skin irritation.

But just like retinol and retinoids, HPR can provide the skin with all the fantastic benefits but with more efficiency. It's like skipping the middleman and going straight to the good stuff.

A perfect example of a product that can do both is the Elizabeth Arden Retinol + HPR Ceramide Rapid Skin-Renewing Water Cream. It's like a superhero for newbie retinol users. It's got power peptides to brighten your skin, a retinol and HPR complex to kick fine lines to the curb, phytoceramides for a hydration boost (gimme, gimme, gimme), and of course, hyaluronic acid to keep you plump and happy all day. And for those concerned about any irritation or redness, this cream contains bisabolol and ginger root which keep things nice and chill and will soothe any redness or irritation.


Image: Supplied.

3. When should I start using retinol? 

Dr Cara recommends people start when they identify suffering from one or more of the many skin concerns that retinol helps to manage. She says, "As soon as you begin noticing signs of collagen loss and early ageing, typically in your 30s, it's a wise time to initiate retinol use to proactively address these concerns.

"Those who start at a younger age tend to benefit more. The primary advantages revolve around enhancing cell turnover and stimulating collagen production," she continued.


"Think of it as hitting the 'pause' button on the ageing process; retinol backed by the most scientific evidence among all skincare ingredients for preserving collagen production and promoting skin health."

How to choose the right retinol product.

Understanding how to use retinol will help optimise the overall effectiveness 

1. Are there types of retinol for beginners?

"Choosing the right formula for retinol can be a bit complex, as every brand offers a different experience. It's essential not to rely solely on the percentage of the ingredient, as comparing strengths between brands can be misleading," explains Dr Cara.

"The potency of retinol isn't solely determined by its percentage but also by the delivery mechanism and absorption. For example, the most potent retinoids often come in prescription creams, making direct percentage comparisons between brands inaccurate," she explains.

"When starting your retinol journey, your choice should primarily align with your skin type.”

2. Are there any products to avoid?

“Sunscreen is a must every day when incorporating retinol into your routine," shares Dr Cara.

"Navigating skincare products can be challenging, especially when they contain various active ingredients. It's important to distinguish between plain moisturisers and active ones.

"Vitamin D3 and niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3, are excellent companions for retinol. They have calming properties and aid in repairing the skin's barrier, making them great additions to your routine alongside retinol," she continued.

3. Are there any products not to use with retinol?

Dr Cara says when it comes to products that interact negatively with retinol, there's really only one culprit, and that's sunlight.


"There are no specific products that will counteract the effects of retinol, except for the damaging effects of sunlight," says Dr Cara.

"In some cases, the trouble may arise when using additional skincare products alongside retinol, like essences or AHAs. These combinations can sometimes lead to tolerability issues.

"If you find yourself experiencing excessive inflammation, rash-like symptoms, or persistent discomfort while using retinol, it could be due to either using a product that's too potent or introducing multiple ingredients simultaneously."

4. Do I need to use a different retinol around my eyes?

"There's no need to use a different type of retinol for the eye area; you can use the same one. The skin around the eyes, although delicate and sometimes crepey, can benefit from retinol just like the rest of your face," explains Dr Cara.

She suggests buying one all rounded product that can target all your skin concerns in one, she suggests using a product like the Elizabeth Arden Retinol + HPR Ceramide Rapid Skin-Renewing Water Cream.

"As long as you don't experience any significant issues or discomfort, you can gradually increase the amount of retinol you use around the eye area. There's no necessity to decrease the potency or opt for a specialised retinol product for the eyes."

How often should you use retinol?

You probably know by now that using retinol too frequently, especially when you're just starting, can lead to redness, peeling, and discomfort. Dr Cara recommends following these simple steps.

“Before diving into retinol use, it's essential to do your research, taking into account your unique skin type and skincare goals.


She went on to say, "Then start with the tiniest amount, applying it every second day or night for the first couple of weeks."

As exposure to sunlight and air can destabilise retinol, the addition of HPR, like in the Elizabeth Arden formula, helps to stabilise the retinol, making it great for day use.

"Visualise your retinol journey as a ladder. Imagine the top rung as using a pea-sized amount every night. If your skin tolerates that well, consider moving up a rung by using that amount every night for a few weeks. If that's going smoothly, you can increase the amount for another couple of weeks," explains Dr Cara.

Is there a ‘right’ way to apply retinol?

"For beginners, there's a technique we refer to as the 'repeat open application test' or ROAT," shares Dr Cara.

"It's an excellent approach if you have a history of skin sensitivity. Select a small area, often around the jawline, which is less sensitive, and apply the new product there for about a week. 

"This allows you to monitor for any strong reactions, allergies, or severe irritation in a confined area before applying it to the entire face. It's a proactive way to ensure you can back off if any issues arise without affecting your entire face".

But remember, if you're unsure retinol is right for you, or if you experience severe side effects, it's always a good idea to chat with a dermatologist.

Shop Elizabeth Arden's Retinol + HPR Ceramide Rapid Skin-Renewing Water Cream for nourished and radiant skin.

Feature Image: Supplied/Instagram/@drcara_dermatologist

Elizabeth Arden
Elizabeth Arden has a strong legacy of creating extraordinary, bestselling skin care that have stood the test of time, and clinical research. Elizabeth Arden is known for its scientific and technological innovations in skin care. The first to suspend ingredients (thus, preserving their potency) in Ceramide Capsules, the first to create a clinical skin care brand (our antioxidant Prevage line), and the first to formulate probiotic skin care with our Superstart products. Elizabeth Arden reflects and maintains their trusted expertise with their latest release of Retinol + HPR Ceramide Rapid Skin Renewing Water Cream.