A Beginner’s Guide to Retinol: Everything You Need To Know

by Roxanne Fequiere January 29, 2018
ReadA Beginner’s Guide to Retinol: Everything You Need To Know Photo by @mackenziehoran

So you’d like to have smooth, youthful, blemish-free skin, but the process of acquiring it sometimes feels like alchemy. We’ve been there. Luckily, it seems that skincare has its own silver bullet of sorts when it comes to treating wrinkles, fine lines, and much more. Retinols have been on the market in various forms for a while, but for those of us who aren’t well-versed in active ingredients, choosing one can be a bit daunting. We spoke to New York City-based dermatologist, Dr. Doris Day, the author of Beyond Beautiful: Using the Power of Your Mind and Aesthetic Breakthroughs to Look Naturally Young and Radiant, to give us the retinol rundown and put us on the path to the skin of our dreams.


What are retinols, Retin-A, and retinoids?

Retinols, Retin-A, retinoids—it’s easy to get tripped up over what’s what if you’re a retinol novice. Unless you have a prescription from your dermatologist, you don’t need to worry about using Retin-A, which “can work really well in different dosages, but it can be also irritating to the skin,” according to Dr. Day. “That was the first one that we really had available, and basically it was only available by prescription,” she says. Then came retinoids like hydroxypinacolone retinoate, or HPR, an ingredient that provides essentially the same results but with less irritation, and can be included in over-the-counter products.


Smooth skin, from the inside out

So what makes retinol so necessary for luminous skin? “Sometimes, as you get older and hormones change, your skin cells don’t turn over the way that they should,” says Dr. Day. “What happens is they kind of pile up, and that can make your skin look dull and more wrinkled.” Retinoids promote skin cell turnover, which not only visibly smoothes out your skin, but also boosts collagen production, which firms the skin, too. “So it’s really a myth that these products make your skin thinner: they don’t,” Dr. Day explains. “They make your skin actually firmer, healthier, and thicker, in the levels where it matters, but it makes the outer level—the stratum corneum—flatter, and smoother, which is why people say ‘thinner.’”


How to get started

Unless you have a retinol product that’s specifically formulated for daytime use, you should apply retinol at night—at first, every other night, and then every night, with moisturizer applied directly afterward. “What you might see in the beginning is some flaking and peeling, not because it’s an exfoliator, but because that skin cell turnover may be evening out and you may notice,” says Dr. Day. “Generally, if you peel, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just you don’t want to suffer through it—so you can go slower, you can hydrate more.” Once you start using retinol, though, you should make it a regular part of your routine. Don’t think of retinol as a spot treatment or a temporary solution.


If you’re thinking about using retinol, you may want to take a look at the ingredients in your other favorite products too. “If you’re using a benzoyl peroxide or glycolic acid, those may minimize the effect of the retinol, retinoid, or retinoic acid. So unless they’re designed to be used together, you should allow a few minutes between one and the other, so the skin can adapt,” says Dr. Day.


Do you have any lingering questions about retinoids? Ask away!

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