Retinol Is A Skin Care Essential — But How Do You Find The Right One?

Knowledge is key.

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how to choose a retinol

The skin care industry is filled with buzzy ingredients that help you protect, prevent, renew, and replenish your way to more youthful skin. But among the many employed, none have quite reached the magnitude of retinol. As the gold standard ingredient for anti-aging and a hero for severe acne, it has become a major game changer for skin care routines. So naturally, there are a number of products formulated with the ingredient on the market. But with so many options, finding the right one for your skin concerns can be tricky. Skeptical? Just try Googling “how to choose a retinol?” and see what comes up. Despite being well revered for its benefits, there are a handful of factors that go along with making the best selection.

“Many people start using retinol in their mid 20s or early 30s as a preventative measure to delay signs of aging, but it can also improve existing signs of aging for those well into their 50s and 60s,” says Dr. Michele Green, a New York City-based board-certified cosmetic dermatologist.

If you’re in-tune with the skin care industry, you may already know the difference between the terms retinol and retinoid. But for a deeper understanding, TZR turned to two leading dermatologists to get the full scoop on how the popular ingredient is measured, its full range of benefits, and who should use it.

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The Basics Of Retinol

Before we dive too deep, let’s discuss the basics. The term retinoid refers to a group of compounds that are derived from vitamin A. Retinol, falls under the umbrella of retinoids and is the most commonly known form. There are four main categories of retinoids: retinyl esters, retinol (which also includes esters), retinaldehyde, and retinoic acid which are collectively referred to as the hierarchy of retinoids. Though they all work to provide anti-aging benefits, they must first be converted to the biologically active form of retinoic acid. “Retinoic acid is the form that allows the skin to obtain the benefits because it binds to and activates retinoic acid receptors in the skin,” says Dr. Green. The more conversion steps that are needed to reach retinoic acid means the the weaker and gentler a formula will be.

According to Dr. Green, retinol takes two conversion steps to reach retinoic acid, which makes it gentle enough for over the counter purchase. She explains that retinol is further broken down into smaller groups known as esters. “Many products are formulated with a single ester of retinol, which increases the number of conversions and makes the product even more gentle for use.” Though there are four esters, retinyl palmitate is most commonly used in formulations.

The Different Types Of Retinol

Dr. Dendy Engelman, a board-certified dermatologist at Shafer Clinic Fifth Avenue, and director of dermatologic surgery at Metropolitan Hospital in New York City, tells TZR that there are two types of retinol available for over the counter purchase (OTC) that offer different levels of strength: retinyl palmitate and retinaldehyde.

Despite being the retinoid form that follows retinol in the hierarchy, retinaldehyde falls into the umbrella of OTC formulas. This also means that it offers a more robust result than any of the retinol esters, and works deeper in order to improve skin concerns like firmness and elasticity. Dr. Engelman tells TZR that retinaldehyde is a good option for those who want more powerful results without having to use a prescription retinoid.

As an ester, retinyl palmitate is slightly weaker than the retinaldehyde. In that vein, it still works to provide benefits like, boosting collagen production and improving cell turnover, but in a gentler way. “Since retinyl palmitate is the least potent OTC option, it’s most suitable for those with sensitive skin and those who only have minimal skin concerns,” says Dr. Engelman.

The Levels Of Retinol

Retinol products also vary in concentrations ,which can play a role in how strong and effective they will be. According to Dr. Engelman, 0.25%, 0.3%, 0.5%, and 1% are the most common amounts used today. To determine which will work best, she explains that skin type, concerns, and sensitivity to the ingredient are the top considerations to account for when shopping for a new product. “ I usually recommend that patients start with 0.25% - 0.5%, and increase from there if desired or necessary,” she says.

For obvious reasons, those with sensitive skin should first test lower levels (like 0.25%) of retinol, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to rule out higher concentrations. “Retinizing the skin can be a process, and it’s best to go slowly with the frequency of application,” says Dr. Green. “If you are new to the ingredient, I recommend using it gradually, say once a week for one week, twice a week for two weeks, three times a week for three weeks in order to mitigate side effects.”



Adapalene, isotretinoin, tazarotene, and tretinoin are all common types of retinoids that offer the full range of benefits retinoic acid can provide and while they do work for anti-aging issues, they’re often used to treat deep acne conditions. “For cystic and hormonal acne, retinoids are used to clear the pores and treat rough and uneven skin,” says Dr. Engelman. These kinds of retinoids are much stronger than retinol and typically require a prescription for use. Unlike retinol they can be administered through both topical and oral treatments.

Topical Retinoids

Just as is the case with retinol, the concentration of retinoids can benefit a number of conditions. “Tazarotene, for example, is one of the most potent topical retinoids used to treat acne in lower doses, while stronger concentrations are typically prescribed to treat psoriasis,” says Dr. Green. It is slightly less effective than retinoic acid because it does not bind to as many receptors on the skin. But its potency also means that it can be irritating making it most suitable for those who have tried and successfully tolerated retinol and weaker retinoids previously but are looking for better results.

Adapalene is on the gentler side of retinoids, and thus, is the first FDA-approved retinoid available over the counter for treating acne. This form works similarly to tazarotene to fight acne, and as Dr, Engelman notes, is great for someone looking for a solution that is both effective and affordable.

Oral Retinoids

Though tretinoin can be topical, it is most commonly considered an oral retinoid and is only available by prescription. Dr. Green explains that tretinoin is made of retinoic acid and therefore provides powerful benefits that can be seen almost immediately with use. “However, due to the strong retinoic acid, it can irritate or dry out the skin making it difficult to use if you have sensitive or mature skin. “Similarly, isotretinoin is also orally prescribed for a range of acne conditions including comedones, cysts, and nodules because it works to decrease oil production and destroy the bacteria that cause it.

When Should Retinol Be Used?

Retinol can be found in myriad of topical skin care products such as serums as well as face and eye creams. And while they can be used in tandem with other anti-aging-focused ingredients it’s critical that they are applied at night. “Retinol is a photosensitizing ingredient that makes the skin abnormally sensitive to UV radiation and other damaging effects of sun exposure,” says Dr. Green. Following its nightly use, you should be applying a daily sunscreen to further protect your skin.

This routine holds true regardless of the level of retinol you choose to use. But if you are opting for a product containing retinaldehyde, extra precautions should be taken during the warmer months. In fact, Dr. Green notes that due to the increased vulnerability, it’s best to decrease the frequency of use in the summer — especially if you enjoy days at the beach.

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