What Is Retinol?

Second to SPF, retinol is, unquestionably, the ingredient dermatologists recommend the most. The ingredient is a wunderkind of sorts — a super multitasker proven to help with skin concerns ranging from acne, to wrinkles, to pigmentation.

But (and, of course, there’s a but), retinol can also be an irritant and increase our sensitivity to the sun. You should introduce it to your skin care routine with some advance preparation and knowledge. Still, once you understand what you’re working with, it’s a game changer for youthful, clear skin.

So, first things first: a quick primer. Retinol, though often used as a catch-all term, comes in different forms, and each has a different name (see “Learn the Language” for a crash course), but all of them are derivatives of vitamin A. The strongest forms are only available by prescription, though there are also tons of options available over-the-counter as well. Before you start using one, here’s what you need to know:

What does retinol actually do, and how does it work?

The real question: What doesn’t retinol do? It helps firm skin by triggering collagen and elastin production and by speeding up cell turnover, working like a messenger to hurry up the process. It can also improve pigmentation, texture, acne, acne scarring, and clogged pores. Just a few small things!

Should everyone be using a retinol?

“With the exception of those with rosacea or very sensitive skin, anyone can benefit from a retinol,” says Corey L. Hartman, MD, a dermatologist in Birmingham, Alabama. Dealing with acne or tackling fine lines and wrinkles? You’re an especially strong contender.

Does skin have to “get used to” retinol? What does that even mean?

The key with retinol is to start slow. For newbies, the adjustment period may involve mild flaking, dry patches, redness, and in some cases, purging (i.e., your skin will look way worse before it becomes glowy and clear—mmm, lovely). Start using a retinol one to three times a week before increasing to daily or every other day.

Are retinol products at the drugstore just as good as Rxs?

Yes, but they work in different ways. Prescription formulas (a.k.a. tretinoin) get to work as soon as you apply them. Over-the-counter formulas of the ingredient, however, have to be converted into the most active form, retinoic acid. This can happen in a one-, two-, or three-step process—and the more steps it takes, the weaker the ingredient becomes. “This is why a 0.025% tretinoin is stronger than a 1% retinol,” says Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, a celebrity cosmetic dermatologist in New York City.

Does retinol belong in an a.m. or p.m. routine?

Though retinol is often thought of as a “nighttime” product, it can safely be used during the day too. If you’re applying a serum with retinol, make sure to follow it with a moisturizer, which can help combat side effects. (And SPF! Always SPF!) No matter your skin goal or the time you apply, you’ll want to put on a thin layer of retinol over your whole face rather than spot treating. “Think of it as an investment,” says Dr. Frank. “What you do today will help your skin 30 days from now.” Read: You can prevent breakouts before they even appear.

How long does it take to see results?

Depends on the product. “With a prescription, changes are apparent in four to six weeks, while OTC retinol may take more like 12 weeks,” Dr. Hartman says. How quickly it all goes down depends on both the severity of the skin concerns you’re looking to address and the potency of what you’re using. FYI: A higher strength does not translate to a better product. How your skin tolerates retinol needs to be taken into account. “If you’ve found a suitable strength that delivers results without irritation, stay there,” Dr. Hartman says. Too much redness? Ease up. On the flip side, still breaking out or wrinkles not improving? Bump it up.

Is there an alternative to retinol?

Although there are a number of ingredients touted as “retinol alternatives,” bakuchiol is the one most experts favor. It’s an extract derived from the babchi plant, which has a long history in Ayurvedic tradition. “Bakuchiol is the only botanical option that’s been shown to be effective,” Dr. Frank says. “It’s great for those who can’t tolerate retinoids, retinols, and their many versions.” That’s why derms will recommend it to patients who are pregnant or have extremely sensitive skin. Interested? Try Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum, a creamy serum packed with bakuchiol and niacinamide to balance oil production and address hyperpigmentation.

Learn The Language:

Retinol

The most common form of vitamin A used in over-the-counter products, it’s also the strongest form you can get without a prescription.

Retinoid

The umbrella term for all vitamin A derivatives, including retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinoic acid—although it’s most commonly used to refer to prescription forms of the ingredient.

Retinization

The process in which the skin adjusts to using vitamin A treatments, and the quicker cell turnover it brings on. This period is when you tend to experience side effects like flaking and dryness.

Tretinoin

A prescription topical retinoid looked to for treating acne and, in milder forms, for its anti-aging properties.

Adapalene

A retinoid that was previously available only by prescription, it is now also accessible OTC. It’s commonly used to treat acne (see: Differin) and can be less irritating than other forms.

A powerful cream that blends retinoid with chemically exfoliating alpha hydroxy acids, yet somehow doesn’t take its toll on your skin in the process? Brilliant. 

This set pairs a 0.5% retinol with a fatty acid–infused calming milk to help soothe retinization’s effects. 

CeraVe’s gel serum combines retinol with ceramides, niacinamide, and brightening licorice root extract (yes, like the candy!) to diminish scarring and hyperpigmentation.

Begin with this affordable pick, layering the light serum under your go-to moisturizer.

A 1% retinol works in tandem with peptides and vitamins C and E to protect against sun and environmental damage. 

May we recommend a luxe oil that features 1.2% retinol and anti-oxidant-rich green tea as well as skin-plumping aminos? Thought so. 

Knock out two beauty birds with one stone: This doubled-up product takes care of your moisturizer step and also brings the retinol magic. 

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