Welcome to Retinol 101, an overview of the ingredient you keep hearing about, but might not understand exactly what it does. Though we are all guilty of letting our skin health slide from time-to-time, once you have reached your mid to late 20s, dermatologists suggest incorporating a retinol product into your regimen for best, long-lasting results. If you never thought much about your pores and have gotten by with washing your face (sometimes) and applying moisturizer (when you remember) — consider this your wakeup call.
Since retinoids (forms of vitamin A that come in endless concentrations, shapes and sizes) carry a higher potency than other skincare products or ingredients, you should talk with a dermatologist before incorporating it into your routine. But before you even make an appointment, our guide can give you the 101 you need to understand what a retinol is and why it matters.
What is retinol — and what does it do for the skin?
Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., F.A.A.D., explains a retinol, which is the over-the-counter version of a retinoid, encourages skin-cell maturation and boosts cell-turnaround, removing superficial dead skin and flattening the top layers of our cells. Simply, when used effectively, it will leave your face looking smoother, with fewer bumps or red patches, giving a youthful, healthy and even-toned complexion. “They also help promote new collagen production, which can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and thicken skin, to help it appear more firm [sic] over time,” she adds.
We thought retinols were for acne?
Yes, but retinol can also be used for anti-aging. Board-certified dermatologist Papri Sarkar, M.D. says it is a misconception many people have about the use of retinols. “People remember retinoids from their teenage days when their doctor gave them Retin-A and can’t move past that idea. The truth is that you can use it for some serious anti-aging effects including building collagen and treating fine lines and wrinkles,” she adds.
Won’t a retinol dry me out?
Sometimes — but probably not, according to Sarkar. Because retinols are the over-the-counter, no-prescription-necessary version of a retinoid, they are not as intense on the skin. Though they could make you more sensitive to the sun during the summer — you should always wear SPF when using retinol — or cause some dry patches in the winter, it is mostly the concentration, time of day and frequency that matters.
In general, Shainhouse says a retinol should be used as part of your pre-bedtime regimen, and not during the day, when you are more sensitive. Why? A retinol works to slightly exfoliate your skin, revealing layers underneath in rapid speed. “Skin cells are programmed to develop and make their way to the skin surface over two weeks, and then shed over two weeks. This process can slow down as skin ages and cells are often retained in the top layers, leaving skin dull, flaky, clogged. The application of topical retinoids ensure that skin cells mature and shed as they are supposed to. It can speed the process of skin shedding,” she says.
When you are in doubt or pregnant/nursing, ask your dermatologist to make a recommendation for you, along with a treatment plan on how often you should use your retinol, and mixed together with which moisturizer or cream.
How to use retinol:
Though everyone’s skin type, needs and goals are different, if you are ready to give retinols a chance, Sarkar suggests starting slow, only using a pea-sized amount one to two times a week — a little bit goes a long way. “It feels like hocus pocus because you’re using so little but if you’re using the right one, it’s enough,” she says. “You can increase the number of times per week as [you] tolerate it, but it’s best to ease into the routine.”
It is also smart practice to apply a moisturizer or hydrating oil right before or after you use a retinol, to be extra mindful of irritation and to ensure you are still giving your pores the hydration they need.
How long until you see results?
Though Shainhouse says that with prescription retinoids you could see a big difference in a few weeks, retinols take a bit more time to work their magic. When used regularly, you can expect to see results in two to three months.