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Retinol 101: Decoding the Benefits of the Most Beneficial Anti-Aging Ingredient

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Regardless of how many buzzworthy beauty products hit store shelves, none have come close to taking the place of retinol—and with good reason. Studies show that just a single retinoid product can prevent fine lines and wrinkles, even your skin tone, boost collagen production, and reveal glowing, healthy skin. “Simply put, this magic ingredient can deliver incredible smoothing and resurfacing results. Thus, it helps the skin mature in a more desirable way,” says Renée Rouleau, esthetician and skincare expert.

Before we break down how it works and where it fits into your skincare routine, let us rewind and explain where it comes from. All forms of retinol are vitamin A derivatives. Vitamin A sends a message to your skin cells telling them to regenerate in a process not unlike exfoliation. That's why dermatologists have found retinoids to be so effective in treating acne, psoriasis, signs of aging (like fine lines and discoloration), and many more skin conditions.

When it comes to skincare ingredients, retinol is the holy grail—but unless you’re using it on a constant basis, there’s a good chance you aren’t quite sure what it is and how it works. For some, it also seems very intimidating—but we’re here to settle your retinol stress to help you achieve a younger-looking complexion. Ready to reap the benefits of one of the best skincare ingredients out there? Read on for all you need to know about retinol and get ready to unveil your best skin ever. You can thank us later.

About the Expert:

Renée Rouleau is a celebrity esthetician based in Austin, TX and the founder of her eponymous skincare line, Renée Rouleau skincare.
Hadley King, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist in NYC who specializes in medical and cosmetic dermatology. She is also a clinical instructor of dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

How does retinol work?

If you’ve never used retinol before, you’re probably wondering why it’s such a standout ingredient, (especially when it comes to anti-aging skincare). “Retinoids work by binding to retinoic acid receptors, which then can act as transcription factors and affect gene expression,” says Hadley King, MD, NYC-based dermatologist at Hadley King Dermatology. By doing so, they’re able to produce major changes in your skin. Not only do they increase your skin renewal process by speeding up cellular regeneration, but they can also increase the production of collagen and elastin and decrease hyperpigmentation. In the most simple terms, retinol can actually slow down the aging process while also reducing the appearance of premature aging that’s already visible in your skin.

Benefits of retinol

Its ability to produce major changes in your complexion is why retinol is praised in the beauty world. Retinol’s most impressive accomplishment is its ability to speed up cellular regeneration, in turn leaving you with a younger-looking complexion and slowing down the aging process. As we age, the rate at which our skin cells turn over slows down. When you’re in your late 20s, for example, your skin cells turn over every 28 days to unveil new, smooth skin. Once you’re in your mid-30s, however, this process slows down and can occur every 50-70 days. The result? Our complexion looks dull, dry, and wrinkles are more prominent. That’s where retinol comes in to exfoliate your complexion and clear away dead skin cells to unveil smoother, younger-looking skin beneath the surface. “By increasing the turnover of skin cells, the surface of the skin will also have better tone and texture,” says Dr. King.

Retinol can also “reduce the tendency of cells and keratin debris to clump together and clog up pores, increase collagen production and decrease discoloration,” says Dr. King. Not only does it reduce the signs of aging, (get ready to bid farewell to fine lines and wrinkles), but it also keeps acne at bay and regulates oil production, making it a skincare savior for those with oily skin who are prone to breakouts. “Topical retinoids have a comedolytic effect, meaning that they help to prevent and treat clogged pores,” says Dr. King. From cystic acne to blackheads, this makes retinol a great acne treatment for anyone dealing with pimples.

How often should you use retinol?

While you might be eager to reap the benefits of retinol, it’s a good idea to start slowly. Like, way slower than you probably think you should. This is because when you don't give your skin enough time to adjust to retinol, you can get a reaction known as retinization, which leads to red, raw, flaky, dry skin that can even sting when you sweat.

Avoid this unpleasant side effect by applying your retinoids just twice a week for the first couple of weeks. As your skin starts to tolerate the product, you can slowly bump it up to every other day and eventually every day. Wearing sunscreen during the day is another key to avoiding side effects like sensitivity, sunburn, and retinization–and, of course, a key to keeping your skin healthy in general, with or without a retinol product, so be sure to slather on the SPF. It’s also important to keep your skin moisturized. “Keep in mind that you may need to incorporate more emollients into your skincare routine when using retinoids, and limit the use of other potentially drying or irritating ingredients like alpha or beta hydroxy acids,” says Dr. King.

It’s also important to note that not all retinol products are created equal. An over-the-counter retinol, for example, isn’t going to be as strong as a prescription retinol. Retinoid is prescription-grade retinol—like tretinoin (a.k.a. Retin-A), tazarotene, and adapalene—and is the most powerful and effective form of retinol. “When applied to the skin, it converts directly into retinoic acid. It then binds to the receptors and activates the cell maturation process in the skin,” explains Rouleau. It’s often prescribed to treat skin conditions, like acne and sun damage.

Over-the-counter formulas, like retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinyl palmitate, are milder and often cause less irritation. “Retinol is considered to be 20 times less potent than a prescription tretinoin since it’s time-released,” says Rouleau. “This means it’s delivered into the skin slowly, over a period of hours, instead of all at once upon application (as retinoids are).” While all of these forms of retinol have different strengths, they all do the same thing over time with consistent use: encourage skin cell turnover.

As you eagerly await your results, patience is key. It takes “approximately 3 months to see results for prescription retinoids,” says Dr. King, who advises clients to wait “closer to 6 months” for results from over-the-counter retinol products.

Where to fit retinol into your skincare routine

Retinol gives a whole new meaning to beauty sleep, which is why it’s best to incorporate it into your skincare routine at night. The skincare savior should be kept in an opaque container, because it isn't sunlight-stable, (retinol is basically the vampire of beauty products). “Apply it to clean skin for the strongest results,” says Dr. King, who tells patients to follow up retinol application with a moisturizer. You can also use a hyaluronic acid serum after your retinol before applying a moisturizer.

If you have sensitive skin, retinol can be especially irritating. To reap the benefits with minimal side effects, Dr. King recommends adapalene. “Adapalene is a third generation retinoid with proven efficacy and tolerability for the treatment of acne and anti-aging,” she says. This over-the-counter option has a “decreased risk of irritation compared to other prescription retinoids,” says Dr. King.

If your skin still appears dry after an initial application, it might be best to dilute the retinol. “First apply a moisturizer and then apply the retinol, and then follow also with moisturizer as needed,” says Dr. King.

Side effects of retinol

While retinol boasts a bevvy of benefits, if used incorrectly, you might experience a slew of irritating side effects, (especially if you have sensitive skin). “Dryness, redness, and irritation are possible when you first start using retinol, but starting with a smaller amount, using it less frequently and increasing use of moisturizers will minimize these effects,” says Dr. King. It’s always best to consult your dermatologist before adding a retinol to your routine if you’re unsure whether it’s a good fit for your skin type.

“Most people have a certain degree of skin sensitivity, which is why I suggest using a non-prescription retinol first,” says Rouleau. Over-the-counter skincare products made with retinol or retinaldehyde are great for those who are looking for an anti-aging product or looking to correct uneven skin tone or skin texture and fade dark spots.

Products we love

Now that we’ve broken down everything you need to know about turning back the clock with retinol, we’ve rounded up the best retinol products to guide you as you embark on your retinol journey. You can also check out our top 10 retinol creams.

MURAD Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream

1. MURAD Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream

Safe for sensitive skin, this powerful night cream plumps up your complexion, all while providing much-needed hydration, all thanks to a time-release retinol that works to smooth fine lines and wrinkles without causing irritation.

SUNDAY RILEY A+ High-Dose Retinol Serum

2. SUNDAY RILEY A+ High-Dose Retinol Serum

This potent serum works overtime to reduce wrinkles while encapsulated CoQ10 helps to repair sun damage and smooth fine lines, while Hawaiian white honey, bisabolol, cactus extract, and ginger help balance and soothe your skin, leaving you with a calmer, even-toned complexion.

HEY HONEY Look Into My Eyes Retinol Eye Mask

3. HEY HONEY Look Into My Eyes Retinol Eye Mask

This anti-wrinkle eye cream will work wonders. Not only does this moisture-packed formula employ retinol to smooth and firm skin, but squalane and coconut oil plump, smooth, and hydrate the skin. Propolis, a natural antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, calms irritation and soothes skin, making it suitable for sensitive skin types.

CLARK'S BOTANICALS Retinol Rescue Overnight Cream

4. CLARK'S BOTANICALS Retinol Rescue Overnight Cream

New to retinol? Start with this time-release retinol that is loaded with vitamin E to hydrate and keep your skin looking healthy and bright. Simply apply overnight and get ready to reap the benefits of this restorative cream as it reduces the appearance of fine lines with continued use.

Retinol will keep signs of acne away and turn back the clock on the aging process unlike any other skincare product on your beauty shelf, but the key to really reaping the benefits is finding the right form of vitamin A for your skin type, adding it into your routine gradually, and having patience while it works its magic.

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About the author
Katrina Mitzeliotis Lanza
Katrina is a freelance writer and on-air correspondent with over a decade of experience covering beauty, fashion, and entertainment. When she isn't freelancing, you can catch her on QVC or chasing after her two-year-old son.
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Article Last Updated November 16, 2020 12:00 AM