Retinol 101: A Guide to the Gold-Standard in Skin-Care Actives

If you’ve walked the aisles of any beauty store, you’ve seen retinol front and center on dozens of product labels. Skin-care brands are boasting their use of retinol because of its ability to address many complexion issues, from acne to wrinkles, with one step. However, because retinol is a powerful active, users should have all the facts before slathering it on their faces (it’s also available in body products now, too). If you have spotty knowledge about the longtime skin savior but want to reap the benefits, read on.

What is retinol?

In the simplest terms, retinol is a derivative of vitamin A and a key ingredient in many cell processes. “Every skin cell has retinoid receptors because retinoids are so important in various cell functions,” Beverly Hills, CA dermatologist Ava Shamban, MD explains. Celebrity aesthetician Shani Darden adds, “In skin care, retinol is an ingredient that’s beloved for its ability to penetrate deep into the skin and help address multiple issues, thereby keeping skin looking youthful and glowing.”

So, if it’s just an ingredient derived from vitamin A, why is it so powerful? Celebrity facialist Joanna Czech explains that “vitamin A is one of the most beneficial vitamins for the skin.” Dr. Shamban notes that retinol’s participation in cell pathways makes it an unniably potent ingredient. “I have always loved retinol as an ingredient, and I have seen firsthand what an incredible effect it can have on the skin,” adds Darden.

01 The Side Effects

Retinol’s reputation for making skin dry, itchy, flaky, and red has probably preceded it. Dr. Shamban says these symptoms can be referred to as retinoid dermatitis, which is a temporary condition that doesn’t usually exceed a month, but is nonetheless bothersome. Darden notes that these side effects are most commonly seen in conjunction with the use of prescription retinol, which tends to be stronger.

With any retinol formula, the pros advise starting slow. “Begin with one night a week, adding one additional night each week, and build up to as often as your skin can tolerate,” Darden explains. “This will allow your skin time to acclimate and help offset irritation.” Additionally, Czech notes that some forms of retinol can make skin more sensitive to the sun, so it’s essential to wear sunscreen daily when the active is part of your regimen.

02 Prescription vs Over-the-Counter

When it comes to choosing a retinol that’s right for you, it can be challenging, as there are many options. The first decision is whether you want a prescription or over-the-counter formula. Dr. Shamban explains that the most notable difference between the two is the concentration, and ultimately, the strength.

“Prescription formulas work faster than OTC, but because of how fast they work, they can cause dryness, redness and irritation,” says Darden.

The best way to make this decision is to discuss what would be best with your dermatologist. If you do begin using prescription-strength retinol, you’ll want to schedule regular visits with your dermatologist to monitor your journey.

03 It Reduces Wrinkles and Fine Lines

For those who wish their fine lines and wrinkles would disappear, retinol is the right ingredient to use, and is possibly most well-known for its ability to combat those stubborn signs of aging. According to New York dermatologist Julie Russak, MD, “Retinol and its derivatives are the most effective ingredients in delaying and reversing the process of skin aging.”

Czech says that retinol “slows down the effects of the aging process by speeding up cellular turnover and increasing collagen production.” By boosting collagen, as well as elastin, retinol helps to plump up fine lines and wrinkles. “This plumping effect helps ‘fill in’ the fine lines, and ultimately leads to a smoother, more youthful appearance,” says Darden. And, the benefits don’t stop there. Not only can retinol help improve the appearance of existing fine lines, but it can also work to prevent future wrinkles from forming, so skin can look younger for longer.

04 It Combats Acne

If you have stubborn acne and you’ve tried your fair share of products to no avail, it might be time to put retinol to the test. Darden says retinol helps keep your skin clear and blemish-free by sloughing away dead skin cells before they clog your pores. Retinol can also unclog already congested pores. By clearing pore pathways, retinol also makes it easier for other acne treatments to be more efficient in fighting pimples.

Dr. Shamban notes that retinol also has anti-inflammatory properties. These properties can come in handy if you have inflammatory acne or other inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis or dermatitis.

05 It Tackles Unwanted Spots

From acne scars to sun damage, many people suffer from unwanted spots. If you don’t want your face to look like a connect the dots activity page, give retinol a chance. One of retinol’s many powers is that it can help remedy some of the most stubborn spots on your skin. Photoaging can be especially nefarious, but retinol is often able to address the brown spots and uneven tone that can come with damage from the sun.

“Retinoids affect cellular growth and differentiation on the level of nucleic acid receptors. Retinol improves signs of photoaging both in pathology and clinical studies,” says Dr. Russak. She explains that after UV light exposure, there is an increase in metalloproteinases that leads to photoaging. “When used consistently, retinoids are able to help reverse and prevent sun damage related aging.”

06 It Smooths Out Uneven Texture

Wrinkles, scars, rough patches, and general bumps can lead to uneven texture on your face. When you aspire to have your face resemble a smooth, glazed doughnut, uneven texture can be a real roadblock. Whether you only have a couple of offenders or your face is laden with peaks and valleys, retinol may be able to help your case.

“In the epidermis, retinoids influence secretion and production responsible of signaling molecules that are for the proliferation of the top layer of the skin,” says Dr. Russak. “They protect against collagen degradation and improve and increase angiogenesis/blood supply to the epidermis. This also enhances epidermal cell turnover.” All this to say, retinol can improve the appearance of the top layers of your skin, resulting in a smoother, more even-looking texture.

07 It Addresses Hyperpigmentation

Retinol is the perfect product for aging skin as it targets multiple signs of aging. Hyperpigmentation tends to become a more prominent issue as we age. While using retinol to address any wrinkles or fine lines, you can also
rely on it to tackle hyperpigmentation.

Dr. Shamban explains that retinol has the power to even out the pigment layer of skin. According to Darden, not only will retinol reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation, but it will also help brighten the skin for a more luminous and even tone. All these wonderful benefits occur because “retinol supports healthy cell turnover, which is the process of bringing fresh new cells to the surface,” explains Darden.

08 It Minimizes Pores

Feeling like you have crater-sized pores on your face can be distressing and even cause make-up application to be more complicated. It can be a struggle to find a product that truly seals up your pores and keeps them shut tight. As if that weren’t enough, large pores can easily be a gateway to more pimples and more problems.

Luckily, retinol is known to help minimize the appearance of pores and keep them free of congestion, says Darden. By clearing out pores that are clogged with oil and dead skin cells, retinol will help them appear smaller. Additionally, as retinol boosts your collagen production and decreases your oil production, you’ll start to see your pores shrink.

Did You Know?

Because retinol can cause sun sensitivity, experts suggest applying products containing the ingredient at night. This is also when skin enters repair mode, making it even more beneficial.

On the Market

Over-the-counter picks:

Prescription Picks:

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Dr. Russak: Retin-A Micro

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