This is Your Skin on Retinol: Your Complete Guide

Victoria Moorhouse
skin care retinol

Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill
Blend Images/Getty Images

Knowledge is power when it comes to anti-aging skin care ingredients. Would you slather a cream all over your face if you didn’t know exactly what it did? That’s how you may feel about a little thing called retinol, which is called out in practically every skincare product on the market right now. Even though we’re used to hearing a lot about it, we need to know how much is fact and how much is marketing double-speak. So what does retinol really do? We caught up with an expert to break it all down—what it does, how it works, the results you can expect, and much, much more. Consider this your ultimate anti-aging

You might be talking about two different things. 
Retinols, retinoids, Retin-A—what is the deal!? If you’re confused by these similar-sounding terms, we get you. Dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross tells us that retinoids are the category name of these vitamin A derivatives, but that retinol and retinoids vary in their chemical structure. Practically speaking, retinol (and their derivatives) can be included in over-the-counter creams and serums, whereas a retinoid can only be prescribed by your doctor.

They do amazing things for your skin.
Overall, this category is packed with anti-aging benefits. “They stimulate the production of new skin cells,” Dr Gross says. “They also help to fade dark spots resulting from photo-aging, hyperpigmentation, hormonal changes, and blemish scars. Prescription-strength retinoids renew the skin and treat acne, reduces appearance of fine lines, and helps with skin discoloration.”

If you’re a newbie to the category, start with retinols.
We won’t lie: prescription-strength retinoids can be tough on your skin. If you’re prone to dryness, you may want to start out with an over-the-counter retinoid, which will give give you anti-aging and skin-improving results in a much more gentle way. “Retinol is much more gentle than prescription retinoids, and I find often people can tolerate using retinol daily but often need to stop prescription retinoids to allow the skin to calm down,” Dr. Gross says. “Retinol is a potent anti-aging ingredient and because its tolerated so well—unlike retinoid prescription strength—so using it everyday makes for great results.” However, if you’re not happy after using it for about 3 months, he says you should check in with your dermatologist to see what more you could be doing.

So what are the side-effects?
There are some skin concerns associated with the ingredient that you should be aware of. “Based on the chemistry of the ingredients, which cause a drying effect of the oil glands, even over the counter retinols can lead to redness and flaking,” explains Dr. Gross. “UV sensitivity is another side-effect that is based on increased uptake of the sun’s rays. The redder the skin, the more the skin absorbs sun’s rays. Skin is already inflamed with baseline sun sensitivity, the sun’s rays can heighten this reaction.”

These effects can be more dramatic when it comes to prescription retinoids. The peeling, redness and sensitivity usually lasts a few weeks, so make sure you baby your skin while it adjusts. Keep in mind that this won’t last forever, and that the results will make it all worthwhile!

So can it do damage to dry skin?
If that redness and flaking thing scares you because of preexisting dryness, Dr. Gross says that lotions and creams may be a better option than a retinol gel.

There’s options for oily skin, too.
If you are struggling with oily skin and want to know how to incorporate your retinol, peels may be an option to consider. “These penetrate deeper and control oil while improving wrinkles and complexion problems,” says Dr. Gross.

It can be found in all types of products—and anyone can use it.
No matter your specific preferences in skin care, you can find something with retinol that fits into your routine. If pores are your concern, StriVectin has formulated an Advanced Retinol Pore Refiner ($99, that works to tighten pores while improving skin texture. Other products combine the power of retinol with other beneficial ingredients—take Dr. Gross Skincare Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Solution ($88,, a formula infused with the anti-inflammatory ingredients, antioxidants, moisturizers, and even exfoliators. Shiseido even produces eye masks infused with the ingredient, while there are plenty of night creams and cleansers on the market that include the ingredient.

So when should you start slathering it on? This ingredient has no age requirement, which means even if you’re in your early 20s, you can give it a go.

“Done right, retinol is a very, very powerful tool and applicable to everyone—in your 20s or 60s. There is no right or wrong age—anyone who is serious about anti-aging, whether it be preventative or restorative, should have retinol in their anti-aging routine,” Dr. Gross says. And over time, you’ll see some great results. “Whatever your aging concern is, your skin will globally look better with retinol,” he says. “Continued use will treat discoloration and leave skin looking brighter, younger, and more alive.”

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