Of Vodka and Retinol

I might be a little too isolated.

I meant to finish and send this a week ago but I was really busy with my new Sitting At Home And Fretting A Lot life plan, sorry. Also another thing I am doing is becoming highly emotional at improper targets, much like how earlier today, I saw this harmless meme and completely lost my shit in a way that had me rage-shouting at my phone and declaring to my roommate DB (Dustbunny #7 is his full name) that Paula’s Choice is OVER it is CANCELED how the fuck can anyone be this STUPID none of these houses make ANY SENSE and they don’t even CARE I would like to SPEAK TO THE MANAGER THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE. Et cetera.

I’ve since had a vodka tonic (can you tell?) and it’s fine, it’s okay, let the world burn, who cares. How’s everyone else’s global pandemic going? You know what don’t answer that, I’m not emotionally equipped to hear your response no matter what it is. Just know that if you’re a bit frayed at the edges, you’re not alone.

However, perhaps you’d like to fray at the edges in a more literal sense? If so, then retinol is for you! Never fear, the literal skin-fray is not necessarily a given AND it results in some really kick-ass skin. (Wait is that a thing now, that phrase? Kick-ass skin? Let’s go with it, DB approves.) The reason I bring up retinol - aka Retinoids, aka Topical Vitamin A - now is because (a) I was always gonna bring it up, it’s just good skincare, and (b) many of us are either in hibernation mode and/or essential working and not really giving a shit what our fellow humans think of our often mask-obscured faces, so this is the perfect time to embark on this project.

I’m pouring another vodka tonic and just freewheeling this one, so if I miss anything vital, do give a holler. Here’s hoping this makes sense. But if it doesn’t, see above in re let the world burn etc.

Terms and Conditions

Look, if you don’t use sunscreen liberally and every day, there is less than no point to using retinol. It’s, like, negative points, as you’ll actually be inviting more damage (skin-aging damage, genius!) to your skin. I mean this very sincerely: there’s no such thing as Just Retinol in a skincare routine; there is only Retinol & SPF. Do not think you are the exception to this, please, and here’s the big long thing on How To Properly Use Sunscreen if you need a refresher on it. No skimping! No skipping! No slacking! This is non-negotiable. Got it? Okay, let’s move on.

I’m gonna say “retinol” even though the real term we should use is retinoids, because I just am, don’t try to change me. See, Vitamin A comes in many forms and retinol is just one of them. There’s also adapalene and tretinoin and retinaldehyde and on and on. All of these are different derivatives and all the derivatives are in this family of retinoids. But I personally use retinol and it’s like the common usage term so I’m going with it because honestly my brain is not really up to enforcing rigorous standards right now, I do hope you understand. And if you don’t, well, remember that this is being written by a woman who has justified not sweeping a corner of her bedroom by calling her dustbunnies roommates, okay.

Who Should Use It?

Everyone who’s willing to put on enough SPF every day, that’s who. Seriously, for the longest time I just dismissed retinol as “you use that when you get old” and boy howdy I could not be more wrong. Certain forms of it are given to teenagers for acne, okay, so it’s hardly age-restricted. And there are very mild formulations of it on the market, so that you can easily incorporate it without making a like huge commitment or shuffling around your routine to accommodate some super-powerful life-changing ingredient.

I started using it like maybe 18 months ago? Yeah, I was 45. I honestly wish I’d started when I was in my early 30s, because it would’ve helped preserve some of my collagen and stuff. (By “stuff” I mean “other things that make your skin keep its youthful integrity that I don’t feel like looking up right now because science is cool but exhausting so just trust me thanks.”) But mostly collagen. Which begins to break down, yes, but ALSO we stop producing it gradually - so you want to both reverse the damage as much as possible AND preserve as much of it as you can.

Retinol does both those things. And the sooner you start, the more you have to preserve, see? Does that make sense, I hope that makes sense. Vodka. Anyway there’s this myth out there that you don’t want to start retinol too early because cells can only turn over a finite number of times and you don’t want to run out of cell turnovers too young - blah blah blah, but it turns out that’s hogwash twaddle nonsense. Don’t listen to it. It’s been debunked. By SCIENCE. Thanks, science!

Why to use it

Sooooooo it turns out that Vitamin A is the only thing proven to reverse skin aging. Again, I’m not looking it up because looking stuff up leads me down research rabbit holes and I keep going until it’s suddenly like a week later and I’ve not managed to get past a single paragraph. (This is my burden, my curse, woe unto me.) So I’m going to stick with general terms and concepts here, and the point is that retinol actually repairs age-related damage to the skin in a big way, and nothing else (as far as I know) has been conclusively proven to do so.

Wrinkles and fine lines and discolorations and crepey skin and sagging and other sun damage: clinically proven to be repaired to some degree by the retinoids, you guys. It is certain and it is reliable and there are really NOT a lot of things you can say that about in the world of skincare.

BEFORE YOU GET EXCITED THOUGH: please recall I said “to some degree.” Your skin’s never gonna be 19 again, just accept that in your heart. It’ll help to make the crow’s feet less severe. It’ll make the forehead furrows a little more shallow. It’ll iron out some but not all fine lines. And it’s not forever because you’ll keep aging and it’s just, like, giving you a bit of an edge. It improves things in comparison to how they would otherwise be. Kinda like how cold medicine doesn’t actually cure your cold, it just makes you cough and sneeze less. Or something. You get what I mean, just adjust your expectations accordingly.


So it’s not something you can just slap on your face, okay. Well, I guess you can if you want, but just…be kinder to yourself than that. Even if you have skin that is super healthy, not remotely sensitive, and is supremely unbothered no matter what you do to it - and even if you’re using a product with just the eensiest tiniest most minuscule amount of retinoid in it - it is really not like any other ingredient. It does shit to your skin. That is the point of it! And you might be in that handful of the popluation whose skin doesn’t immediately say HEY NOW HOLD UP WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO ME before dissolving into a hissing puddle while moaning “what a world, what a world….” but I have to advise against counting on being that lucky. Because the hissing puddle is more likely and even if you’re in social isolation and don’t care what you look like? That shit hurts. Ask me how I know.

The reason your skin acts this way is because it’s gotta get retinized. Which is actually the term, I didn’t make it up! It basically just means that skin reacts to retinol and it has to get used to it. It’s totally normal, but it’s a process and it can be ugly and painful and really, really try your patience and make you want to give up because it can take months until you can just use this shit you bought without fearing disaster. But there are ways to mitigate the bad side of retinization (apologies Canadian & Brit friends, I mean retinisation) and I am here to share those tips and tricks with you.

So here are the guidelines.

Start Slow & Low
First, get a low strength to kick things off. It can be hard to find exact strengths on retinol products (which I find Fucking Infuriating) so read reviews, look for adjectives like “mild” and “powerful” in the product descriptions, and contact the brand to ask if it’s mild enough for a beginner. Never, ever be shy about contacting a brand about this. Or about anything, for that matter. Bug them on social media if they don’t answer an email, they generally don’t want to fry your skin any more than you do so they might not give you exact formulations, but they’ll warn you if it’s super-strong. And contact the brand, not Sephora or Ulta or wherever, you cannot count on a salesperson to know this. Especially when it comes to skincare, there are so so so many bullshitters out there on the sales floor. Or on the sales phone lines right now, I guess.

So you get a low strength, and you should start slow. And I mean S L O W. Like once or twice a week for a couple of weeks, then maybe 3 times a week. Then if it’s going well and it’s a very low strength, you can move to 5 and eventually 7 days a week. And then you can progress to a higher strength, if you want, and start the cycle all over again at once a week. You really almost can’t be too careful, okay.

Konmari That Shit
You gotta pare down the rest of your routine when you add in retinol. Maybe not forever, but at least until your skin is fully adjusted. On the nights you use retinol (and it doesn’t HAVE to be night, btw - it’s active on your skin for like 48 hrs, so it’s really all the same) you should not exfoliate. Also don’t do any kinda hair removal, especially waxing or threading. Any other product that tends to make your skin more sensitive and/or more dry, you should avoid.

Personally, I stopped doing my AHA peel entirely when I went to the higher strength retinol and I haven’t seen a need to go back. (I might. I don’t know. I think about it a lot. I can’t decide. Sometimes I stare at my half-used bottle of glycolic acid for an hour and contemplate the implications and possibilities. Some people dedicate their lives to curing deadly illnesses or defying the laws of physics to explore new galaxies; I have this. It’s fine.) When starting retinol, I just only used lotion - no other serums or anything - at night, until I’d gone about 3 weeks without any problems. I kept up my regular morning routine during that time without changes, because it involved nothing that was potentially irritating/sensitizing. I gradually phased the nighttime products back in, except for the AHA, after a month or two. And I now have a rule that I never put anything experimental on my face on retinol nights. I save the new-to-me products for other times.

You’ll figure it out for yourself, but really, just default on the side of overprotectiveness for those first weeks.

Even if you use a mild, low-dose form of retinol (but especially if you use a higher strength one!) it’s a good idea to buffer it with lotion when you start. You can either mix it in with your lotion at night, or do what I call the lotion sandwich: a layer of retinol between two layers of lotion (the first lotion layer is a buffer, the top lotion layer is extra moisturization.) This allows the retinol to release more slowly into your dermal layers, so your skin doesn’t freak out so much at the onslaught of new chemical.

After a year, I still buffer my (pretty strong) retinol in a lotion sandwich even though I’m sure my skin could take it undiluted now. It’s just a habit for me, and I figure I’m gonna use extra lotion on my retinol nights anyway (dryness is one of the common side effects of retinol, so the lotion is preventative.) Mixing it into the lotion was also very helpful for me and I’d keep doing that but actually mixing it on my palm for 4 whole seconds turns out to be too much effort for me, your hostess, Queen Lazy of Lethargania, Listless Empress of Greater Inertiadom.

ALSO unless you’re using a retinol product that is specifically for use around the eyes (they are very specialized! they gotta be tested and approved, pay attention!) please be sure to buffer that specific zone of your face. The skin around your eyes is - as I have said 10 bazillion times by now, say it with me y’all - very very thin, as is the skin over your lips. This means it’s especially sensitive and you need to protect it. So put some lip balm (preferably plain old Vaseline) on your lips and a bit around the border of them , too, and put extra, plain moisturizer - or heavy eye cream or a thick balm or just more Vaseline - on your eyelids and undereyes. Basically all the skin inside your orbital bone needs to be protected. Dr. Sam calls this moisturizer goggles, which is brilliantly silly and I love it. Wear your moisturizer goggles.

And I know you’re right now saying to your screen, “Bitch, my eyes are the PROBLEM, wtf do you MEAN don’t put it there?!” I know! But there are milder formulations that can be used around your eyes, as I said. And even if you don’t use those, keep in mind that products migrate. Like, when you use a marker or a felt tip pen? Press the tip to the paper, watch the ink bleed outside the spot where it made contact. It’s like that. Stopping at the orbital bone doesn’t mean none of the product isn’t gonna make it to your “problem” area, I promise. And I actually have forgotten and gone past the orbital bone and please believe me when I tell you that I would honestly rather rub a goddamn habanero under my eye than to do that shit again.

Don’t Celebrate Too Soon
The hardest thing to remember (for me) about retinol is that it’s a delayed reaction. And a cumulative one. So it’s entirely possible your skin is Very Much Not Okay With This but it won’t say anything for a good 48-72 hours. You do your thing and it just doesn’t say anything at all and so you do your thing again and it still is all “I said I’m fine, nothing’s wrong, why would anything be wrong, haha” and then you go to do your thing again and suddenly you wake up and Angela Bassett is lighting your car on fire, except the car is your face. If you get my meaning.

And look, even though I absolutely 200% knew all of that, I still fucked up my own face when I leveled up to a higher strength about a year ago. I’d used a couple of other, much milder products for months and had been very cautious and never had even the tiniest twinge so I just assumed (ass, you, me, etc) that my skin was keeping up its long tradition of being super agreeable. So after using the unbuffered, stronger product one time and seeing/feeling nothing unusual, I put on even more on a couple nights later. And then my face melted like a Nazi faced with the ark, the end, roll credits. (Not the end - it was a week+ of flaking and peeling and pain pain painnnnnnn, and then a solid 3 days of looking downright ethereal. It was amazing. Not worth it! But glad I went from moulting-chicken to goddess-baby-skin so that I could glimpse the possibilities and persevere with such a temperamental ingredient.)

The Sum Up
So here are the steps:

  1. Cut out other potentially irritating products from the routine

  2. Moisture goggles! And protect your lips

  3. Buffer

  4. Moisturize like a mofo

  5. Wait three days. Then carefully repeat, starting at Step 1 again, adjusting as needed.

If your skin protests even though you did everything right, then you should use less product. If it still protests, space out the usage more (every 5th day instead of every 3rd day, for instance.) If it still protests, get a milder strength or a different derivative. If it still protests and you’ve stuck with it for several weeks and it’s just ouch ouch ouch no matter what you do, then you’re one of the handful of people who simply cannot do retinol. I’m sorry. Usually it’s people with established dermatological conditions like rosacea and such, but sometimes it’s like that even if your skin tolerates everything else.

Most people are gonna have at least a little sensitivity while their skin gets used to it, and some extra dryness and some purging. It’s just how it works. But you can keep it at a minimum if you take your time, I promise. I say this especially for anyone whose dermatologist handed them a tube of tretinoin with instructions to just power through the side effects for a few months: it doesn’t have to be like that. (Fuckin dermatologists, man.)


So when do you see results? It can be anywhere from a week to 3 months, tbh. TAKE A PICTURE before you get started if you’re going to be working on any particular area of your skin, because the change can be gradual and easy to miss. You might need to compare before/after to notice any difference.

Allegedly - and I say allegedly because just about all the clinical testing is done with tretinoin, which is prescription and which is maybe not what you’re gonna be using (I don’t) - the lower strength will give you the same results as the higher strength but it will just take longer. So if you’re in a hurry, go for the higher strength. But I gotta say, I got good results right away with a low strength, which I could use nightly. I don’t think my results are way better with a higher strength, but I only have to use it twice a week.

Product Recommendations

My first recommendation is that if you have/can afford a dermatologist, just get a prescription for tretinoin. It’s the most studied type of retinoid and comes in a deeply inelegant formula, but it gets the job done and is cheap as balls. Even the lowest strength is powerful stuff. Just follow my cautionary advice, and ignore the doctor if they basically just tell you to whack it on and gut it out.

But if you don’t have a dermatologist, you will want some product recommendations, and… Okay I don’t really have any? I mean, here’s the thing: when I researched this for myself, it got real confusing real quick, with different types of retinoids and then different strengths and then all the different brands and products. And I absolutely HATE sorting through that kinda thing when the non-prescription side of it is barely regulated. I mean, companies aren’t required disclose the strength of the retinoid in their product - and even if they did, they don’t do it in a uniform way, and even if they did, there’s still all these different forms and 1% of retinyl palmitate is not equal to 1% granactive retinoid. And so on.

I’m telling you, it gave me a migraine. So I just decided fuck it, I’ll just get some from a company I trust which (ironically, considering the opening of this post) was Paula’s Choice. It was pricier than I wanted to go, but they had samples and I trusted it to not be shitty. Also, they actually tell you what the levels of retinol are in their products and that just made it easy for me.

However if you want to give it a shot without putting much cash on the table, my recommendation is to try the Inkey List Retinol Serum. Oh hey look, they have a retinol eye cream now too, hurrah. People always ask me about The Ordinary’s retinoid products and my only answer is that I rarely hear from anyone who’s not complaining about them, mostly because of the textures - but hey, they are cheap to experiment and find out for yourself.

Here is a very handy guide to the different types of retinoids out there, along with some product examples and handy guidelines to help:
Retinoid Cheat Sheet From Vanessa, a.k.a. Goals To Get Glowing

This is Vanessa’s graphic, all credit to her

As you can see, it’s a very bewildering array of choices, but the good thing to know is that even really low strengths work. So if you see some drugstore retinol product you’re curious about, go on and grab it and see what happens.

Okay that’s enough, that’s most of what I know or what I can remember right now. Holy cats how is it after 1am. Vodka.

Comments are again open to everyone just in case you gots questions. WEAR SUNSCREEN, so help me god.