Retinol is skincare’s magical elixir. The mysterious compound promises to reduce wrinkles, improve acne and diminish dark spots. In short, retinol does it all.
But as is the case with most cure-alls, retinol’s formula and proper use are largely unknown. Is it the fountain of youth or is it snake oil? We reached out to the skincare experts to find out.
Breaking Down Retinol’s Chemical Composition
Retinol is a type of retinoid, a chemical compound similar to vitamin A. Retinoids and vitamin A are structurally related and have comparable effects on the body.
“By itself, retinol is not directly active on the skin,” explained Dr. Erum N. Ilyas, founder of AmberNoon. “When applied to the skin, it is converted into retinoic acid, an active retinoid.”
That’s the main difference between inactive retinol and retinoids. Retinol needs more steps to convert into retinoic acid. Active retinoids, however, are normally only found in prescriptions, like Accutane.
In essence, retinol is the conduit that lets retinoic acid work its magic.
Retinol (And Retinoic Acid)’s ‘Holy Grail’ Effects
So, why is retinoic acid labeled a “holy grail”?
Dr. Ashley Clerk of Bardöt Beauty explained. “It can improve your acne, skin texture, dark spots, and help reduce scarring. It also helps with collagen stimulation. This, in turn, diminishes fine lines and wrinkles.”
In general, many anti-aging products simply remove dead skin cells. Retinoids, on the other hand, work on a cellular level.
“Retinoids work by prompting surface skin cells to turn over and die quickly,” esthetician and MUA Essie Button said, “making way for new cell growth underneath.”
“Studies have shown it can also help counterbalance free radicals, which can be harmful to skin cells, resulting in early aging,” dermatologist Dr. Daniel Lanzer added.
But these skincare benefits, Button warns, are “high risk, high reward.”
A Little Goes A Long Way
“When starting retinol, the rule of thumb is to go low and slow,” Dr. Clerk says. “Patients can easily overdo it by using a higher dose, too generous of an amount or using it too frequently to start out.”
While we all wish we could zap fine lines and crow’s feet by tomorrow, retinol doesn’t work that way. “Conversion of retinol to retinoic acid doesn’t happen overnight,” Dr. Ilyas says. “It takes time to convert, and it takes time to build up in the skin. Retinol is the long game.”
If used incorrectly, Dr. Lanzer cautions, “it can cause dry, flaky or irritated skin.” This is due to the cell turnover rate Button mentioned earlier.
“By increasing the rate of cell turnover, the skin can feel and appear red, raw, and sensitive,” Dr. Ilyas explained.
“The best way is to apply to a clean, dry face” Ellice Darien, founder and CEO of Ellice Darien Beauty, said. “I would first do a sandwich method three times a week to start. Use a gentle cleanser, apply moisturizer, a pea-sized drop of retinol, then moisturize again.”
It’s Not For Sun-Kissed Or Eczema-Prone Skin
Your skin texture, make up, and sensitivity also comes into play when it comes to retinol.
“If you have sensitive or eczema-prone skin, be cautious with the use of retinoids,” Dr. Ilyas said. “They may just aggravate your dryness and make it hard for you to appreciate their benefits.”
She also tends to caution her rosacea-prone patients on retinol use. This is because they are already frustrated with persistent redness, and retinol may only make it worse.
It should also be noted that retinol itself is not photosensitive. This means you can wear it in the summertime. Although, it may not work as properly.
“The product will not cause a toxic reaction in the skin from sun exposure,” said Dr. Ilyas. “Actually, UV light can inactivate retinol, making it less effective when exposed to UV. This is why it is ideally integrated into the evening routine.”
However, the skin’s sensitivity may increase. Once again, this is not due to the retinol itself, but because some users simply burn more easily. But either way, it’s always best to use a daily sunscreen—retinol or not.
Finding The Right Retinol For You
If you’ve weighed all the options and are ready to hop on the retinol bandwagon, here are two great products to try.
U.K. brand Medik8’s Crystal Retinal 1, is one of the best retinol night serums on the market. Normally, retinol needs several steps to convert to retinoic acid. This serum’s Crystal Retinal converts into acid with one step.
If you want a gentler serum, First Aid Beauty’s Skin Lab Retinol Serum would work great on sensitive skin. In addition to retinol, this formula includes hyaluronic acid, aloe and no added fragrance.
No matter which product you choose, remember to give your skin time to adjust. Retinol gives serious results. Therefore, it should be used wisely.