Ah, retinol. When it comes to defense against fine lines and maintaining a healthy glow, there’s no ingredient in skincare more lauded. The irony? Even though the revolutionary youth-enhancing active is a mainstay of drugstores, department store counters, and dermatologist offices alike, it still manages to mystify. And thus, is often misused or underutilized.
What is Retinol?
To bring it back to the basics, retinol—alongside other retinoids, such as retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate—is essentially a derivative of vitamin A, which is one of the body’s key nutrients for boosting cell turnover. “It’s added to topical skincare products to promote skin renewal, brighten skin tone, reduce acne, and boost the collagen production,” explains New York City dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD. “It also functions like an antioxidant to help address free radical damage, which leads to visible signs of aging.”
Who is Retinol best for?
While retinol can be beneficial for most skin types, it’s not one-size-fits-all. “Retinoids are notoriously difficult to manage for people with sensitive or easily irritated skin,” says Krant. “Technically speaking, everyone could use one, but not everyone is able to figure out how to make it work for them. The conditions that make it the trickiest are rosacea, dryness, contact allergies, and general sensitivity.” She recommends people with sensitive skin try using Adapalene (like Differin), which has a gentler effect on skin and is FDA-approved for treating acne, but can also be used for antiaging.
“I always try to get my patients on the highest retinoid that they can tolerate, but because of initial redness and dryness, this often requires starting at a lower strength and building up over time,” says Marchbein, who recommends Skinbetter AlphaRet Cream (which you can get through a derm) or the CeraVe Renewing Retinol Serum as entry-level products.
Pay attention to what percentage of retinol you’re using too: 0.05% is a good place to start if you don’t have sensitive skin, and you can work up to stronger amounts over time. If you have more serious acne, your doctor can prescribe you a prescription retinoid (adapalene or tretinoin), that will be more potent, but can also be more irritating.
What side effects does retinol have?
Retinoids have a reputation for being a harsh on your skin—you can expect some dryness, redness, and peeling—but according to Krant, this is just a side effect of the retinoids effectively turning over cells. While this irritation can be, well, irritating, it can be managed with the proper routine. Marchbein recommends using acids (like AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs) sparingly when using a retinol, and to be careful with treatments like chemical peels and lasers (i.e., tell your derm or skin tech what retinol you’re using before getting a treatment so they can make a proper assessment). If you’re fighting acne, she recommends not layering benzoyl peroxide and retinoids, since they can cancel out each other’s efficacy.
How do you use retinol in your skin-care routine?
“Retinoids are the backbone of nearly every good skin-care routine,” says Marchbein. “I recommend using both a vitamin C serum and retinoid daily, since they serve different purposes and work synergistically to help your skin look its best.” Since vitamin C protects your skin from free radical damage caused by the sun and pollution, your serum should be applied in the morning, whereas retinoids build collagen and help repair, so they should be used at night.
She also says to stick with gentle cleansers (she likes CeraVe), and to always follow your retinol with a moisturizer, especially those with hyaluronic acid and ceramides. If your skin is really irritated, you can try buffering, where you apply moisturizer before retinol to reduce side effects. Most derms also recommend easing into retinol, starting with application once a week, and working up to every other or every night, depending on how tolerant your skin is.
No matter what, “a broad-spectrum SPF 30+ should be worn religiously every day of the year, not only to prevent skin cancers, wrinkles, and sun spots, but because retinoids can make your skin more sensitive to the sun,” says Marchbein.
Begin in Your Mid ’20s or Early ’30s
Thirty has long been the banner year for introducing retinol into one’s routine, but motivated by early signs of aging, such as sun spots or crows feet, or simply eager to get a head start and utilize the latest technologies, many women are starting before then and under the careful watch of their dermatologist. “Your mid-twenties are a great time to start using retinol,” says Ellen Marmur, M.D. “Many patients who have used it for years swear by it.”
Integrate Retinol Slowly and Gently
“Balance is critical,” cautions Bowe. “Retinol can be very irritating if used too frequently or if the formulation is too strong for your skin.” She recommends starting off with a pea-sized amount of a low percentage over-the-counter formula (.01% to 0.03%), and using it “two times per week, slowly increasing the usage to give the skin a chance to acclimate.” And in that spirit, there’s a spate of new time-release formulas fit for skin types prone to redness or breakouts. “They’re a good option for people who have sensitive skin,” explains New York dermatologist Francesca Fusco, MD. “It releases the active ingredient over time and may offer less irritation.” In terms of prescription retinol versus something over the counter, the former is much more potent with a higher percentage of retinol and one may graduate to it over time, says Bowe.
Don’t Stop At Your Face
When applying a retinol-infused elixir, don’t neglect your neck or décolletage, which are areas notorious for showing the signs of aging, yet often neglected. “If those zones seem too sensitive for your current formula, add a squirt of ceramide-enriched moisturizer before smoothing it on, or pick up a separate retinoid made specifically for the area in question,” says Bowe. “They typically contain a lower dose of vitamin A, zero fragrance, and loads of soothers.”