6 Things You Need to Know About Retinoids

Rachel Krause
Fabrice Lerouge/Getty Images

Fabrice Lerouge/Getty Images

Trendy acne-fighting and anti-aging products will always have their day in the sun, but let’s not forget the time-proven stalwarts. The first retinoid was approved for the treatment of acne in 1971, and in the past four decades, retinoids have become the go-to prescription product for blemishes, wrinkles, and more. Yes, they’ve been around for a while, but that’s because they work—so if you’ve eschewed this standby in favor of newfangled serums and creams to lackluster results, it may be time to reevaluate. If you’re considering bringing a retinoid into your skin care routine, here’s everything you need to know before you get started.

They’re a form of vitamin A.
The words “retinol” and “retinoids” sound like nothing we’ve ever heard of existing in nature, but surprise—both terms are basically just another name for the active form of vitamin A, which is a potent antioxidant. That gives retinoids their ability to unclog pores, boost collagen, and fight signs of aging.

It takes time to see results.
There’s a good chance that your skin will look worse before it looks better, so if you notice flaking, breakouts, or slight irritation within the first few weeks or even months, it usually isn’t cause for alarm. In fact, it can take up to six months for some less potent retinoids to make a visible improvement, but full-strength prescription treatments can also take 6-8 weeks.

They treat a variety of skin ailments.
Retinoids are beloved in the skin care industry for their ability to address fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots, and acne, but topical retinoids can majorly benefit other skin conditions as well, like eczema, psoriasis, and even warts.

Over-the-counter versions can help, too.
Retinol is available in over-the-counter serums and creams, but prescription retinoids are the more potent vitamin A compounds. While you’ll often see more noticeable results faster with prescription treatments, there’s no harm in giving OTC products a try, too. However, don’t be put off by the prescription aspect—most dermatologists are happy to prescribe retinoids, and if you have insurance, they’re usually not particularly expensive. In fact, they may very well be cheaper than that fancy moisturizer with retinol you were about to spring for.

They work by helping your skin shed.
Retinoids encourage dead, damaged skin to move over (read: slough off) and make room for new cell growth, which means healthier, younger-looking, newer skin. That’s why some retinoid users experience redness or flaking when they first begin using the treatment, but it’s actually just doing its job as an exfoliant. Most people can find a concentration and formula that suits their skin type and tolerance, but if you experience more irritation than is comfortable, try using it only every other night.

You should only use them at night.
Retinoids increase photosensitivity, so they can cause you to burn faster when exposed to sunlight. It’s best to use them only overnight when you’re sleeping, when your skin is at its most receptive and when you won’t be outdoors. That said, a good, high SPF sunscreen worn (and reapplied!) over your other skin care treatments can mitigate the skin’s sensitivity.

Read more from Daily Makeover: The Best Anti-Aging Ingredients for Your Age, Simplified