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Ingredient Guide: Retinol

Ingredient Guide: Retinol

Welcome to Retinol 101, an overview of the ingredient you keep hearing about, but might not know exactly what it does. Since retinoids (forms of vitamin A that come in endless concentrations, shapes, and sizes) carry a higher potency than other skincare products or ingredients, you should talk with a dermatologist before incorporating it into your routine. But before you even make an appointment, our guide can give you the 101 you need to understand what retinol is and why it matters.

What Is Retinol?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably wondering, exactly what is retinol? Retinol is an over-the-counter version of a retinoid and it encourages skin-cell maturation and boosts cell-turnaround, removing superficial dead skin and flattening the top layers of our cells, explains Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., F.A.A.D.

What Does Retinol Do?

Simply, when used effectively, retinol will leave your face looking smoother, with fewer bumps or red patches, giving a youthful, healthy, and even-toned complexion. “They also help promote new collagen production, which can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and thicken skin, to help it appear more firm [sic] over time,” she adds.

Retinol vs Retinoid

There is a difference between retinol and retinoids, though the two words are often used interchangeably. Essentially, retinol is a type of retinoid and both products come from vitamin A. Retinols and retinoids both convert to retinoic acid, and that’s what does the heavy lifting on your skin.

The difference? Retinol is an over-the-counter product that is gentler on the skin (but still very effective, it just may take a little longer to see results) and retinoids are prescription-only (so you’ll need to see your derm) and contain higher concentrations of retinoic acid.

We Thought Retinol Was For Acne?

Studies confirm that retinols are helpful for clearing acne because they can help regulate oil production and dry existing acne, but retinol can also be used for anti-aging. Board-certified dermatologist Papri Sarkar, M.D. says it’s a misconception many people have about the use of retinoids. “People remember retinoids from their teenage days when their doctor gave them Retin-A and can’t move past that idea. The truth is that you can use it for some serious anti-aging effects including building collagen and treating fine lines and wrinkles,” she adds.

Retinol is a do-it-all product (well, almost all) and it can also help fade sun spots, dark circles, and hyperpigmentation, brighten tired or dull skin, and fight blackheads while preventing pores from getting clogged. Some studies show that retinol may reduce the appearance of cellulite and retinoid creams may make stretch marks less noticeable (though stretch marks and cellulite are totally normal!).

Woman admiring her complexion in the mirror

Jamie Grill Atlas/Stocksy

Won’t A Retinol Dry Me Out?

If you’re wondering if retinol will dry out your skin, the answer is, sometimes — but probably not, according to Sarkar. Because retinols are the over-the-counter version of a retinoid (which usually requires a prescription), they are not as intense on the skin. Though they could make you more sensitive to the sun during the summer — you should always wear SPF when using retinol — or cause some dry patches in the winter, it is mostly the concentration, time of day, and how often you use retinol that matters.

In general, Shainhouse says a retinol should be used as part of your pre-bedtime regimen, and not during the day, when you are more sensitive. Why? Retinol works to slightly exfoliate your skin, revealing layers underneath in rapid speed. “Skin cells are programmed to develop and make their way to the skin surface over two weeks, and then shed over two weeks. This process can slow down as skin ages and cells are often retained in the top layers, leaving skin dull, flaky, clogged. The application of topical retinoids ensures that skin cells mature and shed as they are supposed to. It can speed the process of skin shedding,” she says. Studies show that retinol also becomes less effective when exposed to sunlight, so wearing it out during the day is a waste of a great product.

Safety and Side Effects

Retinol is safe to use, but there are a few things to know before diving into the new ingredient. When you first start out with retinol, it’s best to not use it every night. Using it too frequently can cause redness, drying, and peeling (whether or not this happens depends on the concentration of retinol in the product you’re using, and how much you’re using). Very rarely, using retinol could result in a localized burning sensation known as “retinoid dermatitis.”

Use During Pregnancy

When you are in doubt or pregnant or nursing, ask your dermatologist to make a recommendation for you, along with a treatment plan on if and how often you should use your retinol, and mixed together with which moisturiser or cream. You should not take an oral retinoid like Isotretinoin (Accutane) while pregnant.

When Should You Start Using Retinol?

Retinol cream on a counter

Though we are all guilty of letting our skin health slide from time-to-time, once you have reached your mid to late 20s, dermatologists suggest incorporating a retinol product into your regimen for best, long-lasting results. If you never thought much about your pores and have gotten by with washing your face (sometimes) and applying moisturizer (when you remember) — consider this your wakeup call. Retinols are used a little differently than your other favorite products, and a general rule to keep in mind when starting out with retinol is that less is more (which means they’ll last a long time).

How To Use Retinol And How Often

Though everyone’s skin type, needs and goals are different, if you are ready to give retinols a chance, Sarkar suggests starting slow, only using a pea-sized amount one to two times a week — a little bit goes a long way. “It feels like hocus pocus because you’re using so little but if you’re using the right one, it’s enough,” she says. “You can increase the number of times per week as [you] tolerate it, but it’s best to ease into the routine.”

What To Pair With

It is also smart practice to apply a moisturizer or hydrating oil right before or after you use retinol, to be extra mindful of irritation and to ensure you are still giving your pores the hydration they need.

What To Avoid

Retinol is excellent at exfoliating skin and drying blemishes, but generally it should not be paired with other products which do the same. On the nights you use retinol, skip the exfoliating cleanser in favor of a gentler, less abrasive option (an oil, jelly, or creamy cleanser is always good). You’ll also want to skip any prescription acne cleansers, and avoid toners with alcohol and witch hazel, or products containing benzoyl peroxide, all of which can be over-drying.

You can still use acids (like AHAs and BHAs) with retinol, but avoid using them at the same time; for example, you could use acids one night and retinol the next, or acids in the morning and retinol at night.

How Long Until You See Results?

Though Shainhouse says that with prescription retinoids you could see a big difference in a few weeks, retinols take a bit more time to work their magic. When used regularly, you can expect to see results in two to three months.

Best Retinol Products

Your age and your skin’s needs will help dictate the type of retinol that will work best for you. Below are some of our recommendations.

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