Just like my dermatologist won't stop talking about SPF (yes I know I still need to wear it in winter, Susan!!), she also doesn't stop talking about retinol. An ingredient that can be found in skincare and in your dermo's arsinary, the multitasker has been proven to help with skin concerns ranging from acne, to wrinkles, to pigmentation.
However like all good things there's a catch - in some cases, retinol can also be an irritant and increase our sensitivity to the sun, so before introducing it in to your routine, it's important to understand whether it's right for you.
"Retinol can address probably the biggest spectrum of concerns out of all skincare ingredients, which is why it's hailed as the gold standard in the skincare world," explains Joanna Fleming, Beauty Editor at Adore Beauty. "It can improve the appearance of fine lines, pigmentation, enlarged pores, textural irregularities, dullness and congestion, so it really is an all-rounder for general rejuvenation of skin appearance."
So, what is it?
Though often used as a catch-all term, retinol comes in different forms, and each has a different name - but all of them are derivatives of vitamin A. The strongest forms are only available by prescription, though there are also tons of options available over-the-counter as well.
Retinol helps firm skin by triggering collagen and elastin production and by speeding up cell turnover, working like a messenger to hurry up the process. It can also improve pigmentation, texture, acne, acne scarring, and clogged pores.
"I've used retinol for many years, and partially attribute some of my skin's radiance and "bounce" to having retinol-based products in my routine (along with a number of other cosmeceutical ingredients)," explains Fleming. "Retinol is one of those products, if you choose the right one, that can be completely transformative - there aren't many ingredients out there that can have that same impact on so many different skin concerns."
How do we use it?
The key with retinol is to start slow. For newbies, the adjustment period may involve mild flaking, dry patches, redness, and in some cases, purging (i.e., your skin will look way worse before it becomes glowy and clear—mmm, lovely).
"Retinoids have a reputation for irritation, especially when used in concentrated forms, too regularly, and too liberally. It's important to start off using a low percentage a couple of nights a week to build up your skin's tolerance, before increasing usage and/or upping retinol strengths," adds Fleming.
Start using a retinol one to three times a week before increasing to daily or every other day.
When do we use it?
While it's often thought of as a “nighttime” product, it can safely be used during the day too. If you’re applying a serum with retinol, make sure to follow it with a moisturizer, which can help combat side effects. (And SPF! Always SPF!) No matter your skin goal or the time you apply, you’ll want to put on a thin layer of retinol over your whole face rather than spot treating.
How long does it take to see results?
Depends on the product. “With a prescription, changes are apparent in four to six weeks, while OTC retinol may take more like 12 weeks,” says dermatologist Corey L. Hartman, MD. How quickly it all goes down depends on both the severity of the skin concerns you’re looking to address and the potency of what you’re using. FYI: A higher strength does not translate to a better product. How your skin tolerates retinol needs to be taken into account. “If you’ve found a suitable strength that delivers results without irritation, stay there,” Dr. Hartman says. Too much redness? Ease up. On the flip side, still breaking out or wrinkles not improving? Bump it up.
What's the alternative?
Probably the most popular would be bakuchiol. Bakuchiol is an extract derived from the babchi plant, which has a long history in Ayurvedic tradition. “Bakuchiol is the only botanical option that’s been shown to be effective,” Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, a celebrity cosmetic dermatologist in New York City tells Women's Health. “It’s great for those who can’t tolerate retinoids, retinols, and their many versions.” That’s why derms will recommend it to patients who are pregnant or have extremely sensitive skin. Interested? Try Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum, Swisse Bio-retinol renewing night cream or Andalou Naturals Rejuvenating Serum
5 affordable Retinol serums recommendations
"Everyone's definition of "affordable" is different, and that's important to acknowledge. Some of us are happy to spend $100 on a serum, but for others, that's just completely out of the budget," explains Joanna. "In my head, when someone asks for an "affordable" option, I'm usually thinking under $50, but retinol is one of those ingredients that needs to be well-formulated and often comes with a bit of a price tag, so you can find three of my picks above".
The most common form of vitamin A used in over-the-counter products, it’s also the strongest form you can get without a prescription.
The umbrella term for all vitamin A derivatives, including retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinoic acid—although it’s most commonly used to refer to prescription forms of the ingredient.
The process in which the skin adjusts to using vitamin A treatments, and the quicker cell turnover it brings on. This period is when you tend to experience side effects like flaking and dryness.
A prescription topical retinoid looked to for treating acne and, in milder forms, for its anti-aging properties.
A retinoid that was previously available only by prescription, it is now also accessible OTC. It’s commonly used to treat acne (see: Differin) and can be less irritating than other forms.