What Does Retinol Do? Experts Break Down the Go-To Ingredient

An easy guide to the ingredient you can’t stop hearing about.

What Does Retinol Do _ Woman applying a skincare product to her face

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No skincare ingredient quite compares to the power of retinol. Great for all skin types, this all-star ingredient has been around the beauty scene for decades and has been beloved by dermatologists and skin experts alike. “Retinol first gained popularity for its ability to treat acne," says Yashi Shrestha, cosmetic chemist and director of science and research at Novi Connect. "Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, retinol became even more famous in the skincare industry due to research showing its anti-aging benefits."

The professionals are also fans of the ingredient. “Dermatologists love retinol because it’s very multi-tasking,” adds Naana Boakye, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Bergen Dermatology. "In addition to tackling acne and fine lines, it can also address psoriasis, hyperpigmentation, and other skin concerns."

As a result, it’s hard to walk down a beauty aisle without seeing retinol highlighted as the star ingredient of a product. But if you’re unsure of what it exactly is and what it does, you’ve come to the right place. 

What Is Retinol?

Retinol (also sometimes referred to as vitamin A1, all-trans-retinol, or pure retinol) is one of the many types of retinoids, which describes all forms of vitamin A; all retinoids eventually turn into retinoic acid, which is the active form of vitamin A that is responsible for the anti-aging and acne-fighting benefits. While retinol and retinoids are used interchangeably, there is a significant difference between the two.

Let's start with retinol. Available over-the-counter, "retinol is a less-potent form of retinoid converted into retinoic acid in the skin," says Shrestha. Though retinol is a less potent form of a retinoid, “it still demonstrates many of the same benefits like increasing skin cell turnover and stimulating collagen production,” adds Tiffany J. Libby, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Providence, RI.

Meanwhile, while "retinoids" is the umbrella term for all forms of vitamin A, it's often used to describe versions that are available by prescription only, since they offer retinoic acid. As a result, "they are more potent than retinol and can penetrate the skin more deeply, making them more effective for treating fine lines, wrinkles, and acne," says Shrestha. They include tretinoid, tazarotene, and adapalene, which is currently the only form available over-the-counter.

If you’re trying to get savvy about the ingredient labels on your skincare products, make this mental note: “One ingredient that is sometimes confused with retinol is retinyl palmitate," says Shrestha. "While both are forms of vitamin A, retinyl palmitate is an ester of vitamin A that is less potent than retinol and is not converted into retinoic acid in the skin." As a result, it's not as effective.

To geek out further about retinol, “there are other compounds along the conversion pathway from retinol to retinoic acid," says Dr. Libby. "It starts with retinyl esters to retinol, which then converts to retinaldehyde, and, finally, retinoic acid. These other precursor molecules are often used as well in cosmeceuticals and can be confusing to consumers when deciding which to choose."

Clearly, the world of retinol can get pretty tricky, especially for a novice. But a quick chat with your dermatologist can help you determine what the best type and strength of retinol is best for your skin. 

How Does Retinol Work?

“Retinol binds to retinoid receptors in the skin cells, which triggers several cellular responses that lead to skin rejuvenation and improvement in various skin concerns from fine lines to dullness to acne,” says Shrestha.

Basically, retinol signals to the skin to normalize skin cell turnover quicker and more efficiently. “The science behind retinoids and retinol is complex and involves multiple cellular processes," she says. "However, the result is a significant improvement in the appearance and health of the skin."

The Benefits of Retinol

We’ve already talked about how retinol encourages skin cell turnover and increases collagen, but what exactly does it all mean for your skin? Let’s dive into the specific benefits of retinol:

It improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles

“When retinol is applied to the skin, it penetrates the deeper layers of the skin and stimulates the production of collagen, a protein that provides support and structure to the skin," says Shrestha. Since collagen production decreases as we age, leading to wrinkles and sagging skin, increasing collagen via retinol can offset these effects.

It evens out texture and brightens skin

Retinol also helps to boost skin cell turnover. "This helps to even out skin tone and texture," says Shrestha. Another bonus here: Retinol offers antioxidant properties, so it help repair and protect skin from damage caused by free radicals, which are unstable molecules that contribute to fine lines and dark spots.

It helps clear up acne

Studies have shown that retinol is extremely effective in treating and preventing acne because it efficiently encourages new skin cells to produce. Since dead skin cells and excess sebum buildup are the main culprits of blemishes, retinol gets ahead of acne by shedding those old cells more quickly.

How to Use Retinol in Your Skincare Routine

After washing your face with a pH-balanced cleanser, use a retinol treatment like Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream, Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil, or Dermalogica Dynamic Skin Retinol Serum. A little goes a long way: “Use a pea-sized amount of product,” says Dr. Boakye. “I can’t stress enough that a small amount is plenty. Any more than that can increase irritability."

Then, use a soothing moisturizer. “You want to focus on moisturizers that have good humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid that combat the dryness that can occur with retinol use,” she says.

Ideally, it should only be in your evening routine. “Retinol breaks down with sunlight making it less effective, and also has the potential to irritate your skin,” says Dr. Boakye. If you need to use it during the day, “apply it at least 30 minutes before you head outdoors — and make sure to layer it under your sunscreen,” she says. 

Start by using retinol once a week to build up your skin’s tolerance. If you’re not experiencing any adverse side effects like redness, excess dryness, or stinging, from there, “you can increase retinol usage to two or three times a week,” says Dr. Boakye.

Used consistently, it’ll take a solid “30 days for the skin cells to cycle from the bottom layer to the top. So, at minimum, it will take around this time to start seeing visible improvements in skin tone and texture with using retinol," Dr. Libby says. From there, it'll be a few months before you see meaningful changes in your fine lines and wrinkles.

What Are the Drawbacks?

As with other skincare ingredients that cause cell turnover, retinol might cause skin purging. “You have to tough out that period of two to four weeks. Use excellent emollients to soothe your skin meanwhile,” says Dr. Boakye.

Another common side effect is irritation and flaking, a.k.a. a process called retinization. "Retinization results from the revved-up skin cycle renewal process and causes skin flaking, which can annoy some patients," Dr. Libby says. "It generally lasts for around a month and signals that your retinol is working, so I encourage patients to stick it out during this period and continue moisturizing."

When to Avoid Retinol

Though retinol is a weaker form of retinoid and is generally well tolerated by all skin types, “it’s possible it can still irritate,” says Dr. Boakye. “Those with very sensitive skin who are still feeling reactive even with a small amount of retinol once a week can try a more gentle retinol alternative like bakuchiol,"

Also, those who are pregnant and breastfeeding should avoid using retinol. Though there isn’t any known link to congenital disabilities, doctors always recommend erring on the side of caution. A retinol alternative is a safe bet here, too.

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