What Is Retinol, Exactly? We're Glad You Asked

Julia Sachs

best retinol productsIf you’re like most skin care lovers, you’ve spent hundreds of dollars (okay, thousands--this is a safe space, we won’t tell!) looking for the perfect product that will not only fight fine lines & wrinkles but will also treat blemishes and zap the hyperpigmentation they leave behind. Few products are guaranteed to do it all, but it’s not impossible to find one that can. Enter retinol, the key ingredient that really can do it all! Unfortunately, retinol comes in many shapes and forms and not all products are created equally. While retinol may be one of beauty’s holy grail ingredients, it requires educating yourself to figure out which retinol product is right for you.

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “So what exactly is retinol?” you’ve come to the right place. This week, we’ve put together everything you need to know about this fountain of youth ingredient.

The Facts

Retinol is a form of retinoid, an umbrella term for a vitamin-A derivative comprising both retinol and retin-A. Retinol occurs naturally in the body and helps with things like cell turnover. However, first it has to be processed into retonic acid in order to be absorbed into your body. As a topical cream, retinol promotes slower cell turnover than retin-A, making it gentle enough to be used without a prescription.

Retin-A, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be processed into retonic acid in order to be absorbed, making it work much faster than any retinol product currently available. Therefore, retin-A is about 100 times stronger than retinol, so users can expect faster results than if they used the over the counter alternative. However, due to the increased strength of retin-A, there is potential for side effects like peeling or dry skin. Unless your doctor prescribes a retin-A serum, you’re not going to be dealing with it anytime soon, so don’t worry about confusing the two ingredients. What we’re focusing on right now is retinol--we just wanted to make sure you understood the difference.

The Benefits

It’s no secret that retinol is a great ingredient for fighting signs of aging such as fine lines and wrinkles. But did you also know it is a great ingredient to help fight acne, brighten your complexion, and normalize the growth of healthy skin cells by turning them over more quickly? This is why we call retinol a holy grail ingredient—it’s basically an incredibly effective all-in-one miracle worker!

Because retinol works by turning over skin cells, it works similarly to AHA chemical exfoliants which slough off dead skin cells to promote regeneration of the skin underneath. Due to this, retinol is a highly effective acne treatment and pore refiner because it deeply penetrates your skin, breaking down anything else in its path like dirt, oil, and any makeup.

In removing dead skin, retinol can do more than simply clear up pesky acne problems. Dead skin cells can often pile up over time if they’re not removed regularly, which can lead to acne breakouts because a buildup of dead skin could mean that your skin isn’t being cleaned properly. Once removed with something like a retinol, your skin will be left with an overall brighter and more even complexion. With much of the most stubborn dirt and oil gone as well, your pores are are able to shrink down causing your skin to appear smoother and clearer.

Using retinol can be a slow treatment process, so don’t expect huge results overnight. Most dermatologists and skin care experts will tell you to give any retinol product a few weeks—even a few months—to show results. Depending on the concentration of the retinol you choose, there can also be some adverse effects for people with sensitive or dry skin. Retinol may be more gentle than retin-A, but it’s still a very powerful ingredient.

Who Is Retinol For?

There are very few people that would not benefit from adding a retinol product to their skin care routine. Since retinol benefits your skin in so many ways, most people notice their skin appearing brighter, smoother, and free of blemishes after just a few months of continued and consistent use.

That being said, it is worth repeating that retinol is a very powerful ingredient. While most people will benefit from adding retinol to their nightly skin care routine, those with dry or sensitive skin may experience some less than desired effects, especially if they don’t use it correctly. Retinol products with higher concentrations may be extra drying and irritating for people with these skin types. For this reason, it’s imperative that people with dry and sensitive skin look for products with lower concentrations of retinol when they are first trying it. Furthermore, skin care professionals recommend sealing retinol into your skin with a moisturizer after applying it to help prevent peeling and increased irritation, regardless of skin type.

While retinol can be irritating for those with dry and sensitive skin, that doesn’t mean those with oily or combination skin are completely in the clear. Because retinol removes dead skin cells, taking dirt and natural oils with it, it is imperative to replace the stripped off oils with a hydrating and moisturizing product. So it bears repeating: Regardless of your skin type, be sure to pair a good moisturizer with any retinol each and every time you use it. You’ll thank us later!

How and When to Apply

As we’ve already warned you retinol is a powerful ingredient and can be irritating if used incorrectly. Moreover, retinol can also leave the skin particularly susceptible to sun exposure after just one use. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that you use retinols at night only, when there’s no chance your skin will be exposed to any damaging sun radiation. During the day, we not only recommend using a sunscreen in the morning (and reapplying throughout the day!) but you should also consider bumping up your usual SPF a few notches for added protection. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen people end up with really bad sunburns on their face simply because they were using a retinol product and skipped an SPF. Ouch!

Depending on the concentration of retinol, we recommend using the product no more than once or twice a week. Since the ingredient essentially works as a chemical exfoliant, you’ll be fine to skip your AHA cleanser on these days.

The highest concentration of retinol you’ll see in the over the counter market won’t exceed 1%. Don’t be fooled, though, that’s a very high concentration! If you’re just starting a retinol skin care routine, we recommend a smaller dose at first before easing into a stronger retinol. Something like this is a favorite of ours from SkinMedica. Not only will it do the trick, but you can start with a low dose and work your way up to 1% after your skin adjusts to the retinol. More advanced retinol users will love this one from Obagi (which also comes in lower doses), because its advanced formulation offers maximum strength ingredients.

So now that you know all about retinol, which one will you use? If you’re still unsure, you can always schedule a free consultation with one of our licensed skin care professionals. Our skin care consultants can answer any questions you may have and give you personalized recommendations based on your skin type. That’s retinol made easy!

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