Build up your tolerance gradually: Many people quit retinol early on because of red, irritated skin. To start, apply every third night for the first few weeks, adding a night every week thereafter. If you put it on five nights in a row right off the bat, you'll probably peel like crazy.
Apply at night only, when your skin does most of its repair work anyway. Sunlight deactivates retinoic acid—and causes inflammation.
Use only alcohol-free toner—the others are too drying. And don't apply retinoids to wet skin. "All antiagers are more intense—and thus more irritating—when your skin is wet," says New York dermatologist Doris Day.
Since all retinoids are drying, layer on moisturizer afterward if needed. Dr. Brandt recommends one packed with anti-inflammatories and peptides: "Peptides aren't at all irritating and help increase collagen production and minimize lines," he says. "It's like icing on the cake." A cream retinoid like Renova counters the effect by providing some cushioning, as do time-release formulas, like Retin-A Micro.
Once you're tolerating a retinoid well on the rest of your face, you can proceed with caution into the eye area. And don't just treat your face. "Most people get a great response on the neck, chest, and hands," says Dr. Wechsler.
Additional skincare treatments—benzoyl peroxide, skin acids, vitamin C, or other antiagers—should be applied only in the morning.
Wear minimum SPF30 every day, even if you have darker skin. All retinoids leave you extra vulnerable to UV damage. In dark skin, sun exposure can cause pigmentation and splotchiness.
Exfoliate regularly. Retinoids make your cells all turn over at the same time, almost like synchronized swimming, for an all-around smoother look; they also loosen dead skin cells, helping them peel off more easily. Extra exfoliating might sound fanatical—but for most people, it's crucial to helping the process along. Do it once or twice a week if you have oily skin, once a week if your skin is normal, and not at all if you're sensitive.
If you do peel, despite all your precautions, lay off the retinoid for a few days and apply an anti-inflammatory lotion.
Never, ever wax. If you use a prescription version of Retin-A, any kind of facial wax can tear your skin and leave a serious scar. Even people on nonprescription retinol should be careful—especially those with sensitive skin.