We’ve all heard about retinol before, but many of us have a “look, don’t touch” policy in our minds. It seems like a skincare unicorn—it can help smooth wrinkles, produce collagen, and clarify acne, all at the same time—but it’s also pretty intimidating.
Well, with great power comes great responsibility, which is why you need to polish up on your retinoid expertise. So, we chatted with the experts to get the scoop on retinol—and how to use it wisely.
The Decode: Retinol, Retinoids, and Retin-A
Before we dive into our crash-course on retinol, there’s some business we need to clarify. You’ve probably seen “retinoids” and “retin-A” labeled on some of your products, but are they the same as good ol’ retinol? According to celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau, not really.
Rouleau notes that retinol is a vitamin A-derived cosmetic ingredient sold in non-prescription formulas. “When applied (assuming it’s an encapsulated, stable, well-formulated product), it converts slowly within the skin to retinoic acid,” she says. On the other hand, retinoid (also known as tretinoin) is a prescription-based ingredient that’s derived from vitamin A. “When applied to the skin, it converts directly into retinoic acid,” she says. “It then binds to the receptors and activates the cell maturation process in the skin.” As for retin-A, it’s just a brand name of retinoid.
So, what’s the difference between grabbing an OTC retinol cream and grabbing a retinoid prescription from your dermatologist? According to Rouleau, a retinol serum or cream slowly sinks into your skin over a period of hours, whereas a retinoid will absorb into your skin immediately, which is why retinol users experience less irritation. “Therefore, retinol is ideal for sensitive, reactive skin types and those with less sun damage,” Rouleau says. “Make no mistake, despite being gentler, retinol is still extremely effective and can deliver the same results as a prescription with long-term use.”
What Can Retinol Do For Your Skin?
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We’ve all heard about the wonders of retinol, but what does it actually do? “Retinol has the ability to resurface skin and give you a glow,” says Fatma Shaheen, Founder of Skin Design London. “It causes skin to rapidly exfoliate and make new, brighter skin while stimulating collagen and elastin, diminishing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and age spots.”
“Using a topical product containing Vitamin A ingredients can increase cell thickness, affect gene expression, thin the stratum corneum, and increase the production of collagen from within,” adds Rouleau. “This magic ingredient can deliver incredible smoothing and resurfacing results. Thus, it helps the skin mature in a more desirable way.”
The benefits of retinol are tried and true—I’m a recent convert to the benefits of retinol myself—but this potent skincare essential must be used properly. “Retinol can cause redness and peeling skin if used incorrectly, or in the wrong type of retinol formulation,” says Shaheen.
So, how do you use this powerful ingredient properly? If you’re a first-time user, then Rouleau suggests not jumping the gun and start with retinol before you head to your dermatologist for a more intense retinoid prescription. “Most people who start with a prescription (without proper usage instruction) eventually give up because their skin becomes too dry and irritated,” she says. “It’s easy to lose patience when something that’s supposed to make your skin look amazing initially makes it look worse. Start with a non-prescription retinol first and introduce your skin to it gradually.”
She also recommends going easy on using it, and to slowly introduce it into your nighttime skincare regimen. “Start by using your retinol product two nights on, one night off,” she says. “Repeat throughout the week. For best results, you must use retinol consistently (and often!), but your skin has other needs, so you don’t want to use it every single night. Plus, anything more could be too much for your skin since it’s such a biologically active ingredient.”
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Another quick tip: don’t put your moisturizer on right after applying your retinol serum or cream. “Using a cream or lotion right after applying retinol may dilute it slightly,” Rouleau suggests. “It’s best to first let it absorb for 20 minutes. Or, you can use a retinol serum that has a lotion-like texture. This can offer hydrating and protective benefits, thus skipping the need for moisturizer altogether.”
Although moisturizers may affect retinol’s results on your skin, Rouleau does suggest incorporating chemical exfoliants into your routine to boost the power of this ingredient. “You’ll get better and faster results if you use exfoliating acids in your routine, too,” she says. “When dry, dead cells are regularly removed from the skin’s surface, vitamin A is more easily absorbed. You’ll definitely want to start using an exfoliating acid serum.”
And as a last tip, you should seriously use sunscreen when using retinol, especially during the warmer months. “As long as you’re serious about protecting your skin from the sun to avoid a tan or sunburn, retinol can be used during the summer months,” says Rouleau. “Retinol and retinoid products deliver the best results when used 2-5 nights a week—year round. Using it on and off can slow progress. So, it’s important to commit to using it consistently. As long as you’re someone who is very, very conscientious about not getting a sunburn or suntan and practices sun safety, then you should be just fine.”
Want to give retinol a try? Then perk up your complexion with our favorite retinol-infused products, below:
Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream
If you’re just introducing retinol into your skincare routine, then grab my personal favorite retinol cream. This lightweight cream contains 1% retinol to diminish dark spots, fine lines, and wrinkles over time. Plus, it also contains vitamin F, an essential fatty acid for plumping and hydrating skin.
Skin Design London Retinol Fresh Skin Treatment
If your skin lingers on the oily side of the skin type spectrum, then try this pick. Created by Shaheen and her team at Skin Design London, this cream-to-gel formula helps retinol seep into skin to transform a dull, uneven complexion into a velvety-smooth finish.
No B.S. Retinol Night Cream
Formulated with a powerhouse mix of retinol, aloe vera, and hyaluronic acid, this night cream will give your skin a boost of hydration as it smooths out the kinks in your complexion, all while you catch up on you beauty sleep.
Renée Rouleau Advanced Resurfacing Serum
This gentle serum contains a lower dose of retinol, making it a perfect fit for sensitive skin types.
Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion Eye Cream
Show your undereyes some extra TLC by zapping away crows feet and fine lines with this potent eye cream. It contains a delicate formula to target the sensitive eye area, while tightening and smoothing the skin for a more youthful look.
Alpha-H Beauty Sleep Power Peel
This Aussie brand is all about our favorite vitamin A-derived ingredient, and this power peel certainly will not disappoint. Fueled with retinol, glycolic acid to exfoliate and refine skin, and moisturizing shea butter, this overnight peel will help you achieve the best skin while you slumber away.
The Ordinary Retinol 1% In Squalane
This serum is as simple as it gets: it contains 1% retinol (which seems teeny, but trust us, it’s more than enough) along with ultra-hydrating squalane to give your skin exactly what it needs.