When it comes to fine lines, breakouts and anti-aging, there’s no ingredient quite as powerful as retinol. We’re breaking down everything you need to know about how to use retinol in your daily skincare regimen.
There’s a reason that retinol is the buzziest ingredient in skincare. The superstar anti-aging ingredient is key for addressing various skin concerns, from wrinkles, uneven texture, breakouts and hyper-pigmentation. Essentially, retinol is vitamin A in its purest form.
Retinol has been a major player in the skincare game for over fifty years. Tretinoin, a generic form of retinol, was originally patented as an acne treatment by a dermatologist in 1967. When the doctor’s older patients noticed that the drug also improved their pigmentation and wrinkles, it took on a new life as an anti-aging product.
Retinol promotes skin renewal, brightens skin tone, reduces acne, and boosts collagen production. It also functions as an antioxidant, addressing free radical damage and the visible signs of sun-damage. Below, we break down everything you need to know about how to use retinol, including choosing the right retinol formula and how to incorporate retinol into your daily skincare regimen.
What is retinol?
Retinol is a retinoid, the blanket term for a class of compounds including retinol, tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene, alitretinoin, and bexarotene. All retinoids, including retinol, are derivatives of vitamin A, a naturally occurring vitamin that helps cells reproduce normally. When applied to the skin, retinoids encourage cells to turn over rapidly. This means that the cells die, slough off, and leave room for the new skin below. It also means that the collagen that those cells create can be newly stimulated.
With regular use, retinoids promise to improve skin texture, wrinkles, sun damage, visibly enlarged pores, and fight acne and blackheads. Retinol has also been shown to increase the production of collagen, the protein that gives skin strength and elasticity.
If you’re struggling with acne breakouts or are seeking a more aggressive approach to fighting wrinkles, it might be worth talking to a dermatologist about getting a prescription. But if you’re not dealing with any specific skin concerns regularly and still want to improve the overall appearance of your complexion, a lesser dose is probably all you need.
Retinol-prescription strength vs. over-the-counter
Prescription strength retinol contains a much higher concentration of the active ingredient retinoic acid and fewer emollients compared to over-the-counter brands. Over-the-counter products contain lower strengths of retinol than the prescription strength and usually include the emollient ingredients needed to help soothe and hydrate the skin, cutting down on much of the redness, dryness, and peeling associated with using retinol.
The basic difference between prescription strength and over-the-counter retinol formulas is that prescription-strength creams are designed to help you achieve visible results much more quickly. Both formulas do exactly the same thing—it may just take longer to see results with the less-potent concentrations. A prescription strength retinol can give you results in as little as six weeks, while an over-the-counter retinol can take around eight to 10 weeks to yield results.
What are the pros and cons of using retinol?
Retinol is a skincare powerhouse, reducing the appearance of large pores, uneven skin, dull skin, and fine lines. But it’s important to be aware of the product packaging when purchasing an over the counter retinol formula.
In order for retinol’s stability (and therefore efficacy) to be maintained, it needs minimal exposure to light and air, so avoid jars and clear packaging.
Another potential negative is the possibility of irritation. Because retinol is such a powerful ingredient, it can cause reactions like redness and peeling. For that reason, it’s best to start out by using it twice a week, before building up to everyday use and stronger formulations.
What are the side effects of using retinol?
Those with sensitive skin or certain skin conditions, like eczema, may have trouble tolerating a prescription-strength retinol. Retinol can dry out the skin causing irritation such as itching, scaling, or peeling.
Also, proceed with caution if you have a darker skin tone. While your skin will develop a tolerance over time, darker skin tones can experience temporary dark patches, known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, if the skin gets too irritated. To be safe, ask your dermatologist for a product recommendation if you’re interested in retinol, but have concerns about your skin. And if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, always check with a doctor before using a retinol-based product.
How to use retinol for best results?
Despite the overwhelming positive benefits, retinol can also irritate sensitive skin, resulting in dryness and flakiness for some. If you’re just learning the basics about how to use retinol, and haven’t used it yet before, start out by using it once or twice a week. Always apply retinol products at night, as sunlight can diminish their power.
If you’re a prescription-strength user, make sure that it’s the first layer on your skin after washing your face with a cleansing cream and before applying your eye lift cream and anti-aging moisturizer. Otherwise, follow the instructions on your over-the-counter formula.
Retinols come in all forms—serums, oils and creams— so let the medium dictate the message. As is the case with most active ingredients, less is more with retinol. You should only need a pea-size amount for your entire face.
Avoid using other products with exfoliating or acne-fighting ingredients at the same time, and be sure to apply an anti-aging sunscreen everyday, as your skin can become extra sensitive to sun exposure with retinol use.
Tips for how to use retinol
- start in your twenties:
Thirty has long been thought to be the beauty standard when it comes to introducing anti-aging ingredients into your skincare routine, but most dermatologists would recommend starting to use retinol in your mid-to-late 20s. The goal in mind is prevention—so starting early can help you age gracefully and naturally instead of trying to reverse the signs of aging later on. Many times, the signs of aging are not yet visible in your 20s—and for some even 30s—but retinol can help strengthen the skin and prevent future wrinkles.
- introduce retinol into your routine slowly:
Products containing retinol should be phased gradually into your skincare routine, as they can initially cause irritation if used too frequently, or if the formulation is too strong. Start with a pea-sized amount of a low percentage over-the-counter natural retinol serum and use it one to two times per week, slowly increasing the usage to give your skin a chance to acclimate to the retinol. There is a new class of time-release formulas designed for sensitive skin types and those prone to redness or breakouts. These retinoids release the active ingredient over time and offer less irritation.
- watch out for side effects:
While certain side effects, such as mild irritation, dryness, and sun sensitivity are normal as your skin adjusts to the retinol, intense flaking, redness, and burning are not and those with especially sensitive skin should stay away from retinol all together.
- wear sunscreen:
Retinol makes your skin more sensitive to UV rays and sunlight decreases its efficacy, so be sure to incorporate an anti-aging sunscreen. And try not to use it on those days when you’re planning to spend extended time in direct sunlight.
- don’t stop at your face
Don’t neglect your neck or décolletage, which are areas notorious for showing the signs of aging. If these areas are sensitive, add a dab of an anti-aging moisturizer before smoothing it on, or pick up a super gentle formula made especially for these areas.
Why you should be using retinol
Skincare trends come and go, but retinol is among the few proven to work. Retinol comes in various strengths and formulas, including gels, creams and serums- all of which significantly improve the appearance of your skin.
Retinol promotes cell turnover, exfoliates and builds collagen, clears clogged pores and reduces the appearance of fine lines. Retinol prevents wrinkles from forming and some studies suggest it can even reduce the risk of skin cancer.
If you’re ready to try retinol, keep in mind that there’s usually an adjustment period. Retinoids can cause flakiness, dryness and irritation. These signs are normal for first-time users, especially for those using prescription retinol. To minimize any side effects, use a gentle cleansing cream to wash your face before use and avoid products with alcohol.
Use only a pea-sized amount, or the recommended amount prescribed by your doctor, or on the label. If your skin is overly red or irritated, cut back. If you’re using other acids like salicylic, glycolic or hyaluronic, you may want to put those products on hold and reintroduce them slowly after your skin has adjusted to the retinol.
And finally, because retinoids make your skin more sensitive to sun exposure, always wear an anti-aging sunscreen even if you’re only outdoors on your way to and from your indoor activities. Using a well-formulated product with retinol will visibly reduce the appearance of sun damage, brown spots, lines, wrinkles, and large pores.
It’s literal skincare magic when it comes to resurfacing your skin for a smoother, more even-textured complexion. Retinol is an all-star powerhouse ingredient that deserves a spot in your skincare routine.