Every Question You've Ever Had About Retinol, Answered
In skincare, retinol products are the closest thing to actual magic. The powerful ingredient (also known as vitamin A) is used to treat a long list of common skincare issues such as fine lines, wrinkles, acne, dullness, and large pores. Retinol can be extremely effective, but the ingredient is equal parts confusing because there's so many misconceptions about using it. Two of the biggest myths that make people so nervous about incorporating it into their routines? Retinol causes irritation so your skin will peel off, and you need to avoid the sun when you're using it.
That's why we turned to New York-based board-certified dermatologists Dr. Debra Jaliman and Dr. Shari Marchbein to set the record straight on some of the biggest questions about using retinol. Keep reading to find out exactly how to use retinol to improve your skin.
1. What's the difference between retinol, retinoids, and retinoic acid?
The three R ingredients are often used interchangeably, but they aren't actually the same thing. Retinoids is basically an umbrella term for derivatives of vitamin A. "Retinoids work by increasing collagen production as well as increasing the rate of skin cell turnover. They are highly effective at improving the texture of skin and giving it a glow, minimizing fine lines and wrinkles, evening out skin tone and even decreasing pore size," says Dr. Marchbein. "The over-the-counter retinoids are not nearly as strong as the prescription version your dermatologist can write for so if you have more oily skin or are acne prone, you should be able to start with a prescription retinol right away."
Retinol is a form of vitamin A that's regularly available over-the-counter and typically contains a lower concentration of the active ingredient. "Retinols contain lower concentrations of the retinoid," explains Dr. Jaliman. "This means it will not give you the same effect as a prescription version."
Retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate, retinaldehyde, propionic acid, and retinyl acetate are common ester forms of retinol found in these products. Over-the-counter retinols are often mixed with moisturizing ingredients to minimize irritation, which can lead lower levels of the active ingredient in these products so they're less potent.
These over-the-counter retinols are converted into retinoic acid by the skin at a cellular level in order to become active and thus, can take longer to work. "Retinoids and retinoic acid don't need to be converted," says Dr. Jaliman. "They start working as soon as they are applied to the skin."
2. Is retinol just a really strong exfoliant?
A big rumor about retinol is that vitamin A is just an extra-strong exfoliator, and that's why many people experience peeling and redness when they start incorporating the ingredient into their skincare routine. In reality, retinol works by enhancing collagen production and increasing the rate that skin turns over and regenerates. This can cause exfoliation of the outer layer of the skin. "When someone uses retinol the outer layer of the skin is sloughed off and the newer skin underneath is revealed," says Dr. Jaliman.
3. How long does it take to see results when using retinol?
Retinol isn't going to transform your skin overnight. With continued use, you'll start to see an improvement in texture, breakouts, and fine lines and wrinkles. "I typically say that dryness and irritation from retinoids can last four to six weeks. Around then we may also start seeing some improvement in mild acne breakouts," explains Dr. Marchbein. "However, it typically takes 12 or more weeks to see more significant changes in skin texture, wrinkle reduction, improvements in pigmentation, pore size etc."
4. Does your skin have to peel for retinol to work?
The peeling that some people experience when they start using retinol isn't a sign that the ingredient is working. " Although the most common side effect of retinoids is dryness and irritation of the skin, which tends to last four to six weeks, there are over-the-counter as well as cosmeceutical strength retinoids (retinol and retinal palmitate) that cause very little dryness or peeling and can still be effective," explains Dr. Marchbein.
5. Should you use retinol at morning or night?
Retinol can cause sun sensitivity, but the major reason you should use vitamin A at night is because sunlight can deactivate it. "The most important reason to not use retinoids during the day is that the majority of topical retinoids are rendered inactive by sunlight," explains Dr. Marchbein. "But the dryness and peeling when first using retinoids can make you more sensitive to the sun, so it is best to use them at night when we are repairing the skin."
Both dermatologists suggest using sunscreen that's SPF 30 or higher. A wide-brimmed hat can add another layer of protection — especially during the summer when you're outside at the beach or farmer's market.
6. How do you start using retinol?
At night, apply a pea-sized amount of your retinol product ideally 30 minutes after you've washed your face. "Start three times a week (Monday Wednesday and Friday) as dryness and peeling can be expected for four to six weeks," suggests Dr. Marchbein. "If there is no dryness or as you start to tolerate it better, use can be increased to every night."
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7. Can you use retinol and vitamin C together?
Just like brushing your teeth immediately after drinking a glass of orange juice, there's certain skincare ingredients that don't go well together. Vitamin C and retinol is one such combination. While vitamin C treats hyperpigmentation and protects skin against free radical damage, retinol builds collagen, shrinks pores, and improves texture. Since the ingredients serve different purposes, Dr, Marchbein recommends including both in your anti-aging routine along with SPF. "Vitamin C serums protect the skin from oxidative free radical damage and work best in the morning," she says. "In contrast, retinoids build collagen and help repair the skin so are best used overnight."
Another reason to separate the two ingredients is that when used at once, they can irritate sensitive skin. "There are different forms of Vitamin C used in products, which can irritate sensitive skin (like L-absorbic acid)," says Dr. Jaliman. " Since you might get irritation or discomfort, so I would err on the safe side and avoid using both together."
8. Should you use retinol on wet skin?
There's two myths out there about applying retinol on wet skin: One is that retinol is more irritating when skin is wet because it's more sensitized, and the other is that moist skin absorbs retinol better. Both are false. "As a busy mom, I can guarantee that I’ve never waited the recommended 30 minutes after cleansing my face to apply a retinoid," says Dr. Marchbein. "In contrast, there is also no good evidence that applying it to wet skin enhances absorption, so I recommend gently cleansing the skin at night (Simple Micellar Water Wipes, Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Cleanser, and CeraVe Foaming Cleanser are some of my favorites) then pat it dry and apply a pea sized amount of retinoid to the entire face."
9. Can you use retinol when you're pregnant?
"High doses of vitamin A can be harmful to an unborn child and cause birth defects, so I would refrain from using retinol when pregnant," says Dr. Jaliman.