As a beauty editor, the No. 1 question I get asked on a near-weekly basis, generally via frantic texts at 8 a.m. on Monday mornings, is “how do I stop aging!?” with a bunch of sobbing emojis. (The quarter-life crisis is real, folks.)
The answer is simple: You can’t—but you can make your skin look a hell of a lot smoother, less-wrinkled and—OK, yes—younger with retinoids (the umbrella name for all vitamin-A derivatives, like retinol). The problem is that retinoids often make no sense unless you’re three years deep into medical school. There’s so much incorrect or straight-up lacking information out there that people end up using the wrong products that either burn off their skin, turn them into a peeling snake or do absolutely nothing. Fun!
Either way, people are confused—meaning they’re missing out on literally the best anti-aging, anti-acne, anti-dark spot (yup, retinoids wear many hats) ingredient they could and should be using. So we’re clearing the air by breaking down the five biggest retinoid myths that you’ve probably come to accept as facts. Keep reading to become a totally new, enlightened individual, who can go forth with soft skin and a new smart-ass ability to say “did you know…” to your friends. Here’s how retinol affects your skin.
Myth No. 1: Retinols Peel Off the Top Layer of Your Skin
Uh, nope. We mean, kind of, depending on whether or not you irritate the hell out of your skin to the point where it peels off in sheets (which is never what’s supposed to happen). Unlike 99 percent of the products you slather on that just hang out on the surface of your skin, retinoids sink in and immediately start triggering cell turnover for newer, fresher skin.
“A young person’s cells turn over every 28 days, on average, but as you creep into your late 20s and 30s, the cycle slows down and cells take longer to regenerate, causing drier, more-wrinkled skin,” says dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD and assistant professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine.
But don’t freak out, you ’90s babies. “Retinoids have been scientifically proven to increase collagen production—the stuff that’s responsible for younger-looking skin—so if you start using a retinoid today, your collagen levels will stay higher and more productive as you age in comparison to your non-retinoid-using friend whose collagen and elasticity will continue going downhill,” says Gohara. Basically, you’re guaranteed to have fewer wrinkles, dark spots and fine lines than if you didn’t use anything at all—and 2028 you will thank 2018 you for that.
Myth No. 2: Drugstore Retinoids Are Junk
“There are two types of prescription retinoids: retinoic acid and tretinoin, which are the strongest types and have the highest risk of irritation, and three types of over-the-counter, drugstore retinoids: retinyl palmitate, retinaldehyde, and retinol,” says Gohara. “Not one of them is better or worse than the other; they’re just totally different formulations, with each one better suited for certain skin types over others, and prescription formulas generally geared more toward acne.”
Got all that? Cool. But we know that doesn’t really help you figure out what to slather on your face. Gohara’s suggestion: Talk to your derm to find out which retinoid to use (which you won’t do). So here’s Gohara’s second suggestion: Start with a product that has retinaldehyde—like Avène RetrinAL+ 0.1 Cream—the mildest of the retinoids, which is well-tolerated by most sensitive-skinned people and will still produce noticeable effects within two or three months. If you don’t have eczema, rosacea or sensitivity issues, though, you’re probably safe using drugstore products with retinol—like Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream, which “can be a great option for anyone,” says Gohara, and also why you’ve heard so much about them.
Myth No. 3: Stronger Formulas = Fewer Wrinkles
This is the most amount of wrong that wrong can be, and we have the studies to prove it.
“The retinoid classification system is so screwed up that people have no idea what type of formula they’re supposed to be using,” says Gohara, queen of all things #true. “You absolutely do not need prescription-strength retinoids to get the same effects in collagen production and cell turnover. Yes, you’ll probably see results from using an intense, high-dose prescription product a little bit faster than when using a milder formula, but you’ll also run the risk of hardcore irritating your skin if you use the wrong formula.”
Plus, in the end, the results will be the same. Studies have shown that super low-strength retinoids of 0.025 percent had the same anti-aging effects on skin when compared to a moderate-strength retinoid of 0.1 percent over the same course of time. so can we please stop slathering our skin in high-dose formulas and wondering why we’re peeling and burning?
Myth No. 4: Retinoids Are Only Good for Fine Lines and Wrinkles
Hell no, and that’s why we’re so in love with them.
“Consistent use of retinoids will fade dark spots and redness, smooth bumps, lessen or even clear up acne and regulate oily skin,” says Gohara. MVP of skin-care ingredients over here. The reason it helps correct so many skin conditions, she says, is because retinoids work on a cellular level, rather than just a topical level. Here’s what that actually means: “Each time your cells turn over, they create a fresh new epidermal layer, which means you’re creating pristine, untouched layers of skin fast and faster with retinol,” says Gohara. No, you won’t get a new face overnight, just as you won’t be wrinkle-free in a week, but after three months, you should absolutely notice a difference in your skin, placing you somewhere on the spectrum of just-slept-for-90-hours-straight and ethereal-baby-angel-princess.
Myth No. 5: Peeling Skin Is an Expected, Necessary Side Effect
Stop. No. If a product ever makes your skin peel, burn, sting or break out into a hive of monster goblins, then you shouldn’t be using it. It’s really that simple. Ideally, you’ll never have the peeling side effects if you choose the correct retinoid type and application frequency for your skin type, but if you do find yourself with flakes, then you’re either using a too-strong formula or simply applying it incorrectly.
“How much you apply and where you apply it is so important,” says Gohara. “At night, after patting—not rubbing, which can cause irritation—your skin completely dry, dab a pea-size amount of your face, which means one-fourth of that pea-size drop should cover each quarter of your face. After 20 minutes, apply your nighttime moisturizer.” And, stresses Gohara, do not apply retinoids too frequently. “Use it once a week for one week, twice a week for two weeks, three times a week for three weeks, and then, only if you’ve had zero irritation thus far, you can apply it every other night indefinitely.” And make sure you never use them on the same night you use your acne products (don’t worry—retinoids inherently fight acne, so you’ll still be treating breakouts, even without your AHAs, BHAs, salicylic acids or benzoyl peroxides).
And if you absolutely, positively cannot use retinoids because of pregnancy, personal taste or whatever other reason, then there are still ways to get your anti-aging jollies. Although nowhere near as powerful as retinoids, a vitamin C serum—like Paula’s Choice Resist C15 Super Booster—helps stimulate collagen production while also protecting skin against free radicals (they sound like a ’70s movement, but they actually lead to skin damage and dark spots, which are anything but fun). Just make sure to apply your vitamin C in the morning, so it can work to protect your skin during the day. And, always patch-test behind your ear first (and monitor for 24 hours) to make sure you don’t have an allergic reaction to vitamin C. Then go forth into the world as beautifully fresh and young as the baby cherub you are inside.
A version of this article was originally published in October 2016.