For many of us, it’s a daily ritual to pop a vitamin or two. Those gummies and pills do help top up our nutrients and lay the groundwork for overall health, but studies have shown that their benefits don’t typically extend to the skin. That’s where targeted vitamin-laced skincare comes in. And while these active ingredients should be the backbone of even the most basic of skincare regimens, the most studied and hailed one is vitamin A, also known as retinol.
The powerhouse ingredient is often praised for smoothing fine lines, sloughing off dead skin cells and encouraging collagen production. But that’s not all! Retinol can do wonders for acne-prone skin too. Translation: It’s a great option for just about everyone.
It’s always a good idea to find out how ingredients function, what they address and whether you should use them. Let us help you discover everything you ever wanted to know about using retinol in your skincare routine, including how and when to use it, which products to get and what precautions to take.
1. What is retinol?
Retinol is a type of retinoid, a derivative of vitamin A, most commonly added to skincare formulas because of its anti-aging properties. Vitamin A is an essential micronutrient, which means that our bodies can’t manufacture it, so we have to include it in our diet. A diet that includes a wide range of foods high in vitamin A—such as salmon, milk, eggs, carrots and tomatoes—helps with vision, growth, cell division, reproduction and immunity. However, when it comes to skincare, you see the most benefits of this antioxidant when it’s applied topically.
Retinoids (the umbrella term for retinol products) are hailed by dermatologists as multi-purpose skincare ingredients because they do more than just plump up skin; they also help with discoloration and acne. With regular use, they can produce smoother, brighter, more even-toned skin overall.
However, not all vitamin A is the same. Although both retinoids and retinol are for topical use, it’s important to note the distinction between them. Retinoids are a group of compounds (tretinoin is a common one) derived from vitamin A and only available by prescription from your doctor or dermatologist. Tretinoin is pure retinoic acid, and although it’s more potent (a.k.a. it works faster), it can also be more drying and irritating. Retinol, on the other hand, is an over-the-counter derivative of vitamin A, found in concentrations of up to 1%.
2. What does retinol do for skin?
Almost 30 years ago, dermatologists noticed that retinol, an acne treatment, also reduced fine lines, refined large pores and reversed sun damage. It’s often touted as an exfoliator, but it’s more than that; it’s also an antioxidant. With regular use, it accelerates cell turn over, making way for new cell growth. This makes way for new cell growth. It has also been shown to increase the production of collagen, the protein that gives skin strength and elasticity. With continued usage, its main key benefits are the following:
- Gives you an ongoing glow: Since retinol boosts your skin cell turnover, you’ll notice a more youthful quality to your skin.
- Smoother texture: By increasing collagen production, your skin will have a more plumped structure. Plus, the cells on the surface of your skin will be replaced more quickly, helping to smooth your skin and reduce dullness.
- Even tone: Retinol works on hyperpigmentation (brown spots) in two ways—by fading existing brown spots and by curbing the production of melanin, which causes them.
- Helps clear acne: Since retinol exfoliates the outermost layer of the skin, it also works to remove dirt, dead skin cells and oil from pores. This can help prevent the formation of pimples. It also works by getting under your skin, penetrating the dermis. This is where it stimulates the production of collagen and elastin.
- Boosts collagen production: This helps reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and skin laxity.
- Works against sun damage: The antioxidants in retinol can help repair photodamage by lightening brown spots.
3. Does retinol cause any side effects on skin?
The transformative effects of retinol are impressive, but the ingredient has gotten a bad reputation over the years. Depending on the kind and amount in a formula, the vitamin-A derivative has been known to irritate the skin, causing dryness and redness. The potential adverse effects of retinoids are temporary and are referred to as purging. This is a process when the skin will look worse before it looks better usually lasting between two to six weeks. The purge is different for everyone, but it can lead to acne breakouts, skin peeling, dryness and a range of other frustrating temporary outcomes. The good news is that these side effects are temporary and will likely improve within a few weeks as your skin gets used to the product.
If you’re concerned about sensitivity, consider a lower strength that will deliver retinol in a gentler manner. You can also try microencapsulated retinol, which is gradually released into the skin. Another option is to apply a layer of moisturizer before your retinol; it will act as a barrier, keeping skin hydrated and reducing the risk of irritation.
4. How to use retinol on skin
If used correctly, retinol can be used by nearly everyone. The trick is to start low and slow. This means you should choose a formula with a lower (.3 or .5) percentage and use it two to three times a week. If you don’t experience any dryness, that means your skin is tolerating it. At this point, start increasing your usage until you’re using it daily.
Retinol has been linked to sun sensitivity and can also be deactivated when it’s exposed to UV rays, so you should use it at night. However, dryness and peeling when first using retinol can make you more sensitive to the sun, so it’s important to add a daily sunscreen to your routine, even if you are using retinol as part of your nighttime regimen.
5. The best retinol skin products
The vitamin A-derivative is available in cream, gel and serum form. Whichever you choose, consider the overall strength of the product. If you’re just starting out, you should use a product with a low percentage. The best retinol treatment for this is a product like Vichy LiftActiv Pure Retinol Serum because it gently works to plump up wrinkles using a combination of pure retinol and soothing hyaluronic acid.
Serums generally contain a higher concentration of retinol, so there may be a greater chance of redness, peeling and dryness. You can also start with a moisturizer or gel instead so you can build up a tolerance.