The secret has been out for a long time: retinol is one of the most effective anti-aging ingredients on the market. I can tell you firsthand, I’ve seen clients who started using it consistently in their thirties and are now in their sixties—and the results are absolutely amazing.
Despite this, there’s still a lot of confusion as to how it should be used. One of the most common questions I get is, “Renée, what’s the best age for me to start using retinol?” There’s definitely an ideal age range, and it can get more nuanced depending on your skin’s history and needs. Keep reading to learn when you should start using this game-changing ingredient!
What is Retinol?
First, a quick refresher course. Retinoids, which include retinol, are derivatives of vitamin A, which is one of the body’s key nutrients for giving cellular turnover a boost. It’s used in topical skincare products to promote bright, even-toned skin with a smooth texture. It also helps stimulate the production of collagen. Depending on the formula, it can be helpful for clearing clogged pores and lessening breakout activity.
Types of Retinoids
“Retinoid” is an umbrella term for any ingredient or group of ingredients derived from vitamin A. There are four main categories of retinoids (from weakest to strongest):
- Retinol Esters (retinyl propionate, retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate)
- Retinaldehyde (retinal)
- Retinoic Acid (tretinoin) — usually available by prescription only
The potency of a retinoid depends on how many times it needs to be converted by your skin in order to be turned into retinoic acid. Most products containing pure retinoic acid are only available by prescription. The notable exception is Differin (Adapalene), a synthetic, prescription-strength retinoid you can now buy over the counter.
I recommend most people start with a gentle, non-prescription retinol product and slowly work their way up. This will help your skin acclimate while minimizing the irritation and inflammation sometimes associated with retinoids.
Depending on your tolerance and skincare goals, you may work your way up to a prescription retinoid, like tretinoin, or you may find that an over-the-counter retinol works well for you long-term. (Studies have actually shown that using retinol consistently over many years can give results similar to using tretinoin!) You can learn more about who should use non-prescription retinol or a prescription retinoid in my Beginner’s Guide to Retinol.
What is the Best Age to Start Using Retinol?
Generally speaking, I recommend most people start using retinol in their mid- to late-twenties, anywhere from 25-30. This is when collagen and elastin production starts to slow down, so it’s the perfect time to start reaping the preventative-aging benefits retinol has to offer.
The reason I don’t normally recommend people start using retinol sooner is that it kick-starts the skin’s metabolism. When you’re under 25, your skin is naturally very metabolically active, so introducing retinol could cause overstimulation and inflammation. In addition, a lot of people under 25 are still dealing with breakouts. Since acne is an inflammatory condition, you don’t want to introduce anything that could add fuel to the fire.
The exception would be if you’re using a prescription retinoid to manage blemishes and bumpy skin caused by clogged pores—something that’s best done under the guidance of a dermatologist!
I’ve been using my own retinol formula since I turned 35, and I’m now 51. I tried using tretinoin after meeting the doctor responsible for getting it FDA-approved as a treatment for wrinkles, but I found it was too strong for my eczema-prone skin at the time. I didn’t really know how to manage the side effects, so I decided to stick with retinol. Fast forward to my mid 40’s, I decided to try a prescription again followed by the application of this cream and was able to use it fairly successfully. I now use tretinoin once a week in addition to regularly using my retinol serum.
When to Consider Starting Retinol at 25
So how do you know whether to start using retinol on the earlier or later end of the spectrum? For the most part, it’s up to you. I’d say the most important thing is being sure you’re ready to make the commitment. Retinol should be used consistently and, once you start, for life!
That said, here are three things that might make me suggest someone start using retinol at age 25 (or soon after).
You Have Thin Skin
Thin skin tends to show fine lines and wrinkles more prominently since there isn’t as much of a cushion to “plump” them out. Thin skin is most common in those with fair skin—think Irish or Scandanavian heritage. Three other indicators you might have thin skin are (1) easily getting bad sunburns, (2) easily getting injuries or breaks in the skin, and (3) quickly developing fine lines when your skin is dehydrated.
One of the most notable benefits of retinol is that it helps thicken the skin over time. If your skin is thin, this will definitely help make fine lines and wrinkles less noticeable in the long-run. If you’re using retinol for thin skin, the key is starting with something really gentle and working your way up slowly.
You Have a History of Excessive Sun Damage
Let’s be honest, there are probably few of us who didn’t get a little too much sun exposure during our teenage years (tanning oil, anyone?). However, if your lifestyle or hobbies exposed you to excessive sun damage, you may want to consider starting retinol on the earlier side. Examples include lifeguarding, spending lots of time on the beach, and regularly participating in outdoor sports without proper sun protection.
You Have Texture Issues from Severe Acne
If you had severe acne in your teens or early twenties, you know all too well that cystic and nodular blemishes can leave indents behind. Because retinol stimulates collagen production, it’s a great ingredient for helping repair that damage and plumping indents out over time.
If you’re using retinol mainly to address pitted acne scars, this is one of the few times I would suggest starting out with a prescription retinoid, like tretinoin. You won’t want to jump right in using it every day (build up slowly), but this will be the most effective option for visibly reducing indents. The exception would be if your skin is very sensitive and can’t tolerate a prescription retinoid. Learn more about how to smooth indented acne scars.
Because your skin’s natural collagen and elastin production start slowing down at 25, the best age to start using retinol is 25-30. That said, I don’t want you to get too hung up on exactly when you start using it. When you start using retinol, you’re playing the long game. As my friend and dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch says, “retinol changes are measured in months and years, not days and weeks. You don’t see your grass growing each day, but it is.”
Getting a head-start is great, but the most important thing is that you just start and make a commitment to using your retinol consistently going forward. Start slow, work your way up, and listen to your skin. Whatever it likes best is what’s right for you.
Finally, make sure you’re never neglecting the number one anti-aging ingredient in the world: sunscreen! Learn about the differences between chemical sunscreens vs physical sunscreens.
I hope you found this post helpful in your quest for healthy-looking skin! Retinol is for sure a staple in my own skincare routine along with practicing these 10 skincare rules.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”