Is there any ingredient more hyped, loved, feared, or misunderstood than retinol? The powerful vitamin A derivative is now more accessible than ever, thanks to new over-the-counter releases like Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream and Mara Beauty Algae Retinol Oil. But, per usual, this boost in popularity has triggered an onslaught of rumors. Sensitive skin can’t handle retinol! It shouldn’t be mixed with AHAs! It thins out your skin! To separate the rumors from the realness, The Zoe Report consulted dermatologists and found out the retinol facts that you may have bypassed.
"Retinol can be beneficial for inflammatory conditions such as acne and redness, or for signs of mature skin, like lines and wrinkles," Dr. Neil Sadick, a dermatologist at Sadick Dermatology in New York City, tells The Zoe Report. "It's also useful for preventing the signs of aging by encouraging the production of collagen." Sign me up, right?
Not so fast. Retinol famously causes irritation for many who use it, since it's essentially re-training your skin cells to turnover at a faster rate. There's a "learning curve" for the skin during the first few weeks of use, which typically presents as dry skin, redness, peeling, and overall inflammation.
Despite the side effects, dermatologists maintain that everyone can benefit from a dose of retinol — yes, even those with sensitive skin. However, in this case, what you don’t know actually can hurt you. Read on to discover literally everything you need to know about retinol — from how to incorporate it into your skincare routine to common mistakes to avoid — to gracefully sidestep the side effects.
1. How Retinol Works To Fight Wrinkles
“Retinol is thought by dermatologists to be the most effective cosmeceutical rejuvenating ingredient,” Dr. Craig Kraffert, a board-certified dermatologist, tells The Zoe Report. “The benefits are scientifically proven via rigorous studies and include improving conditions associated with chronological aging, such as wrinkles and fine lines. It alters the behavior of aged epidermal and dermal cells so they act in a more youthful manner, while preserving and enhancing skin’s supportive blood vessel network.”
2. You Don’t Need To Wait Until You Have Wrinkles To Use It
“It is erroneously thought that retinol products are best reserved until wrinkles have already developed, but this is not true,” Dr. Kraffert says. “It is completely appropriate for 20-somethings to incorporate retinol into an anti-aging skincare regimen.”
3. Prescription-Strength Treatments May Be A Better Fit For Fighting Acne
While OTC retinol is ideal for treating and preventing signs of aging, dermatologists say that those looking to eliminate acne may want a prescription dose, instead. "Over-the-counter versions are primarily used for anti-aging benefits," Dr. Joshua Zeichner of Zeichner Dermatology tells The Zoe Report. "But prescription-strength retinoids, such as tretinoin, have been used for decades to treat acne." If fewer breakouts is what you're after, talk to your dermatologist before filling your Sephora cart.
4. Even OTC Retinol Can Cause Irritation
“Retinol has a very diverse set of biological effects, the main in skin are reduction of inflammation and stimulation of collagen production,” Dr. Sadick says. That being said, it has some not-so-great effects, too. “Common side effects can be irritation, redness, flaking, and peeling,” he says. “It’s not uncommon to feel a tingling effects when you apply retinol-containing cream.”
5. Look For Formulations With Soothing Ingredients To Mitigate The Risk Of Irritation
“Retinol products are often mixed with antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E; colloidal oatmeal; or peptides, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid,” Dr. Sadick notes. “These ingredients work synergistically with retinol to counteract irritation, and provide hydration and nourishment to the skin.”
6. It Doesn’t Thin Your Skin
“There are a few myths about retinol products that may erroneously shy potential users away, including the idea that retinol products will thin out skin over time,” Dr. Kraffert says. “This is simply not true; retinol has a tendency to slightly thicken skin.” The ingredient does this by boosting your natural production of collagen, leading to fewer fine lines and wrinkles and plumper, bouncier skin.
7. It Doesn’t Lead To Skin Cancer, Either
“Another incorrect idea is that retinol products increase the risk of skin cancer,” Dr. Kraffert tells TZR. This may because the ingredient makes skin more sensitive and thus, more prone to sun damage. “But in actuality, retinoid products like retinol are well known to correct pre-cancers, slow growth of existing skin cancer and decrease the risk of developing new skin cancer,” he says.
8. Retinols Should Always Be Paired With Sunscreen & Antioxidants
“Retinoids perform best when included within a skincare regimen that also emphasizes daily use of broad spectrum SPF 30 or higher sunscreen on all exposed skin,” Dr. Kraffert says. Since retinol makes the skin more sensitive to pollution-induced irritation, “inclusion of antioxidant [or anti-pollution] skincare products within one’s daily skin care regimen is also important,” he says.
9. You May Want To Use Retinol Less Frequently In The Winter
“In the winter, our skin becomes drier and more sensitive, so it's important to listen to your skin — sometimes we’re able to use retinols nightly in the summer months, but need to cut it down to a few times a week in the winter months,” Dr. Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, medical director of Mudgil Dermatology, explains.
10. Try To Avoid Smoking While Using The Product
“Completely avoid cigarettes and secondhand smoke,” Dr. Kraffert advises. Retinol makes the skin more sensitive to environmental aggressors, so retinol-treated skin is more likely to be damaged by pollution particles from smoke.
11. Water Can Exacerbate Irritation
“Wait 30 minutes after washing your face to apply retinol,” Dr. Audrey Kunin, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of DERMAdoctor, tells The Zoe Report. “Water mixed with retinoids can exacerbate the side effects.” Check the ingredients of your toners, essences, and serums before you apply retinol, too. “Water is frequently number one ingredient in skincare and can accidentally cause irritation,” she explains.
12. It’s Best To Use Them At Night
“The best way to use retinol is at night, where you are resting and the agent can work in full force, without being interrupted by exposure to sun, elements, excess facial muscle movement,” Dr. Sadick says.
13. Don’t Mix With AHAs, BHAs, or Benzoyl Peroxide
“While the latest retinol formulations are nano-encapsulated and thus somewhat immune to chemical degradation, retinol itself is an inherently unstable molecule that is rapidly oxidized and degraded by benzoyl peroxide and cosmeceutical strength AHA products (in addition to UV light and environmental oxygen),” Dr. Kraffert says. In layman’s terms, these ingredients will cancel each other out. “For best product results, one should not mix retinol products with AHAs, BHAs, or benzoyl peroxide.”
14. Start Small And Work Your Way Up
“OTC products do not always disclose the percentage of retinol they contain, but are typically less than one percent,” Dr. Sadick says. “That’s a pretty strong percentage, so if you have never used retinol before, start with a lower percentage, such as 0.5 percent. It may be wise to perform a skin test prior to using it on the face.”
“One percent has been shown to be the most effective OTC level of retinoid,” Dr. Kunin adds. “Anything with a higher level may lead to skin irritation.” However, once your skin has become accustomed to retinols, you can (slowly) increase the percentage you use for better results.
15. You Don’t Need To Use Retinol Every Night
“Less is more,” Dr. Mudgil says. “Some patients are able to use retinol nightly, some folks can only use it two to three times a week. If your skin is getting irritated, try using less product. If your skin is still getting irritated, cut down the frequency of application.”
Ahead, 12 over-the-counter retinols to use (with caution!) for smooth, clear, youthful skin.
Zelens' version includes pure, encapsulated retinol alongside two retinoids: "Hydroxypinacolone retinoate (an esther of all-trans retinoic acid), and retinyl palmitate (an esther of retinol and palmitic acid)," a representative for the brand tells us. "This time-released, oil-free retinol treatment promotes skin renewal and improves skin tone and texture with minimal or no irritation."
Hyaluronic acid helps your under-eye area stay plump while retinol kickstarts your body's collagen production, resulting in brighter, smoother skin.