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What Is Retinol & Why Does Your Skin Need It?

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If you ask any esthetician or derm what product you should be incorporating into your routine to combat early signs of aging, it's likely that their first answer will be retinol. This supercharged ingredient, which previously was only available with a dermatologist's prescription, has increasingly made its way into the mainstream with more over-the-counter options available. With so many brands creating their own formulas, and many estheticians swearing it's their holy grail ingredient, it has many novice beauty consumers wondering, what is retinol and why do you need it?

"Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that will boost collagen in the skin, minimize fine lines and wrinkles, smooth the overall texture of your skin, and decrease pigmentation," Shani Darden, celebrity esthetician and founder of Shani Darden Skincare, tells The Zoe Report. She continues, "Retinol helps to speed up cellular turnover which brings new skin to the surface faster, and also stimulates collagen production to plump up fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol can also really help to clear up skin. The cellular turnover process helps to remove dead skin cells which can end up clogging pores and eventually turn into breakouts."

So with all of these benefits in mind, there are a few things to know before you decide to invest in a retinol product. Read on to learn more about retinols, including what skin types can use it and what formulations are the most effective.

What Retinol Is: A Restorative & Preventative Ingredient

"Retinol stimulates cell turnover to fade hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone and helps to increase collagen production to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles," Christine Chang, co-founder and co-CEO of Glow Recipe, tells TZR. "It's known for repairing damage from environmental stressors caused by UV rays, pollution, and more."

While folks with mature skin tend to incorporate retinol into their routines later on in life, it can also work as a preventative treatment starting in your 20s "to prevent blemishes, acne, and skin stress," according to Chang's Glow Recipe Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Sarah Lee. "When retinol is applied to your under-eye area, it helps address dark circles and milia," she says.

Who Should Avoid Retinol: Pregnant Women & People With Skin Sensitivity

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It's a generally known rule that pregnant women shouldn't use retinol because some products have been known to cause spinal and facial deformities in fetuses. "During pregnancy, you want to use products that are non-systemic, which means they do not enter the blood stream," Darden explains. "Ingredients like retinol and salicylic acid should be avoided during pregnancy as a small amount does absorb into the body. As always, it's best to consult with your doctor about what is safe for you and baby." In addition to expectant mothers, people with skin sensitivity shouldn't use it either because the ingredient can sensitize the skin even further and cause further irritation.

Skin Camp esthetician Airi Williams recommends that people with rosacea or open inflamed nodules should absolutely avoid it. "[Retinol] can be drying and sometimes aggravating, even to normal skin, so it could potentially be a trigger to someone with rosacea [or open inflamed nodules]," she explains. "[It can] cause the blood vessels to be more visible [or make] skin the peel and flake more than usual."

She continues, "On the other hand, it could potentially help someone with a more mild case of rosacea to combat the inflammation and/or redness in the skin. It comes down to picking the lesser evil, so to speak. Using retinol could potentially help but could also be trigger, so weigh out your options and ask yourself which problems you would rather deal with."

What Retinol Is Strongest: Over The Counter Serum Retinols Are The Most Potent

Prescription retinols are always going to be the most potent formulas available, but if you're not battling severe acne scarring or hyperpigmentation, it's likely that you won't need something that strong. If you're looking for an over-the-counter option that still packs a punch, look for a serum.

"There are retinol-based oils, creams, serums, and eye creams, but it will always be most effective in serum form," Darden explains. "Serums contain the highest concentrations of active ingredients that are able to better penetrate the skin than a moisturizer will." Darden has a retinol serum in her eponymous skincare line that boasts 2.2% encapsulated retinol, as well as 2% lactic acid to encourage gentle exfoliation.

However, if your skin is more sensitive but you still want to see if retinol is right for you, one of those other formats — oils or creams — might work better for you.

"Traditional retinol has the tendency to activate directly on the skin's surface, which can cause irritation or inflammation," says Lee. "An effective alternative is an encapsulated retinol formula instead, that will slowly time-release the retinol deep into skin's layers instead of all at once. By pairing encapsulated retinol with skin-nourishing ingredients, we found the right recipe to provide gentle, but potent benefits to skin." One great example of this type of formulation is Glow Recipe's Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask, which can be used as both a nighttime moisturizer in a light layer, or as a rinse-off mask in a heavier layer.

When Should Retinol Be Used: Only At Nighttime

"Retinol should always be used at night. It can make your skin more sensitive to the sun so it should not be used during the day," says Darden. "Also, you're going to get the most benefits from it using it at night because that is when your skin is in repair mode and the most receptive to treatment products."

After using retinol in your night routine, you need to remember to wear sunscreen the next day. "Retinol thins out the the outer skin layer, which explains the dewy glow patients experience with use," says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a board-certified dermatologist in NYC. "At the same time, that effects makes the skin more sensitive to sunburn. The stratum corneum [i.e. the outer layer of skin] becomes thinner no matter what time of the day you use retinol. The reason for applying at night is not because it makes you less sun sensitive, but rather because it prevents UV-induced inactivation of the retinol itself."

When In Your Skincare Routing Should Retinol Go: Closest To Your Skin

"Retinol should be applied on clean skin," says Darden. "Wash your face, gently pat it dry, and then apply your retinol. Follow up with a hydrating serum like a hyaluronic acid if you need extra hydration and then a great moisturizer for your skin type."

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What Are The Downsides Of Retinol: It Isn't Stable

"While effective, pure retinol is unstable in formulation and is easily inactivated by UV light and heat," says Dr. Zeichner. "Retinol also does not play nicely with other ingredients, and may be broken down by ingredients like hydroxyacids and benzoyl peroxide. You also need to be cautious when combining pure retinol with other temperamental ingredients like vitamin C, which is just as easily inactivated. Combining the two products may lead to breakdown of both compounds."

The best way to find out if retinol might work for you is to slowly introduce it into your routine and eliminate all other actives while your skin gets acclimated to it. Dr. Zeichner recommends that his patients combine retinol with a moisturizer. He has them apply a moisturizer first to prime and hydrate the skin so it acts like a buffer to minimize the risk of skin irritation from retinol.

Dr. Zeichner says, "Look for moisturizers that contain ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic, acid or colloidal oatmeal to hydrate and repair the skin barrier. It may be counter-intuitive, but I find moisturizing first to be helpful and should not interfere with penetration of retinol to the skin."

How Much Retinol Do You Need: Only A Little Bit

Though it's a strong product, retinol can be applied with your bare hands to your face. "The amount you apply really depends on the particular retinol you're using. With a prescription formula, you should really only apply a pea sized amount to the whole face," says Darden.

She continues, "Over the counter formulas you can use a little more, but you still have to introduce it very slowly. I always recommended starting with 1 night a week and building up slowly from there. Add in one additional night each week, building up to as often as your skin can tolerate. For some people this will be every night, and for others it may be two nights a week or every other night."

If retinol sounds like it would be a good addition to your routine, here are some more products that you should try out.