All Your Questions About Retinol Answered by Dermatologists

March 11, 2023
All Your Questions About Retinol Answered by Dermatologists

Retinol is a rare skincare ingredient that’s known for its ability to tackle multiple skin concerns. This vitamin A derivative is hailed as the golden standard in beauty, renowned for its effectiveness as an anti-aging ingredient. It can also help improve skin elasticity, exfoliate dead skin cells, and clear breakouts for a smoother, poreless complexion.

However, retinol can be tricky to use as it requires a consistent and dedicated application to see results. It may even worsen skin conditions before showing improvement. Additionally, retinol comes in different forms and percentages, including Retin-A and retinoid.

Despite its complexities, experts agree that retinol is worth exploring. To shed light on everything you need to know about retinol, we consulted with two board-certified dermatologists: Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin and Marnie Nussbaum.

The Experts

  • Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin is the founder of Entiere Dermatology in New York City and works as a dermatologist, clinical instructor, and skin cancer advisor.
  • Marnie Nussbaum is a certified dermatologist based in New York.

What is Retinol?

What is Retinol?
The Ordinary

Retinol, which belongs to the group of retinoids, is a type of vitamin A molecule. It comes in various forms that target different skin concerns, making it an ideal ingredient for a wide range of issues, including aging and dark spots. According to Nussbaum, Retinols are the MVPs of any skincare routine. “Retinols are vitamin A derivatives that effectively prevent and minimize fine lines and wrinkles,” she explains. In addition, Retinols have been scientifically proven to boost collagen production and improve skin elasticity.

What Does Retinol Do?

The benefits and functions of retinol are numerous and can address a variety of common skin care concerns.

  • Retinol can refine skin texture by accelerating skin cell turnover and eliminating dead skin cells, according to Nussbaum. “Retinols stimulate the skin cells on the surface to renew themselves more quickly, leading to the generation of fresh cells and a smoother, more even skin texture,” she explains.
  • Retinol can reduce fine lines and wrinkles by promoting cellular renewal, as previously mentioned. By boosting collagen production and skin elasticity, retinol can help to minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, according to Nussbaum. Additionally, retinol stimulates the formation of new skin cells, as well as the production of collagen and elastin, which can help to further reduce the signs of aging.
  • Retinol can effectively clear clogged pores, making it an ideal treatment for oily or acne-prone skin. As an exfoliant, retinol can help remove dead skin cells and prevent them from clogging pores. In addition, retinol can balance sebum production, which can reduce the size of pores and prevent them from becoming inflamed, according to Nussbaum.

How Does it Work?

Retinol works by penetrating deep into the skin, where it boosts collagen synthesis, increase elasticity, and repairs connective tissue, according to Nussbaum. However, when first using retinol or a prescription retinoid, a process called “Retinization” occurs, which can cause dryness, redness, and peeling of the skin. “Retinol essentially re-trains your skin cells to turn over at a faster rate,” explains Nussbaum. “During the first few weeks of use, there is a ‘learning curve’ or adjustment period for the skin, which is why some people may experience these irritating and inflammatory side effects.” It’s important to stick with it, though, as these initial side effects are normal and necessary for the skin to clear.

Related: La Roche-Posay’s Retinol B3 Serum Review: Gentle Glow for Sensitive Skin

What’s the Correct Way to Use Retinol?

When it comes to retinol, it’s best to follow the “less is more” approach. To avoid irritating your skin, it’s important to use it properly and not overdo it. So, how often should you use retinol? Here’s the exact recommendation.

Here are the specific recommendations for how often and how to apply retinol according to Nussbaum:

  1. Start by applying a pea-sized amount of retinol to the skin every few nights, then gradually increase frequency based on skin tolerance.
  2. Gradually increasing the frequency of use, or “upward titration,” can help maintain healthy skin and compliance while minimizing irritation.
  3. If you experience irritation, try mixing a small amount of retinol (pea-sized) with your moisturizer before applying it to the skin.
  4. Apply the retinol all over your face, but be cautious not to apply too close to the lash line.
  5. Avoid using retinol around the eyes, unless it’s a product specifically formulated for the eye area.

Levin suggests that if you find the Retinization process too harsh for your skin, you can try applying a small amount of retinol or retinoid, wait a few minutes, and then apply moisturizer to address any dryness or flaking. By the end of the 12th week, or three months later, you may notice a significant improvement in your skin’s texture.

How Long Does it Take to See Results From Retinol?

If you’re expecting immediate results from retinol, you may be disappointed. According to Nussbaum, results from retinol depend on the potency of the formula and the individual’s ability to convert retinol into retinoic acid. Typically, it takes about three to four weeks for the skin to adapt to regular use of retinol, and diligent use of Retin-A for two to three months is necessary to see visible results. Over-the-counter retinol can take up to six months to produce results, depending on its potency. However, even with initial use, retinol can still provide benefits such as exfoliating dead skin cells and unclogging pores.

Using retinol to reduce wrinkles can be a lengthy process, as a review of retinoids suggests that most people experience a significant decrease in wrinkles after about three months of use. However, with consistent long-term use, retinol can help boost collagen and thicken the deeper layer of skin where wrinkles begin to form, making it worth the wait. According to Nussbaum, using retinol for longer than six months can result in noticeable benefits such as new collagen and elastin production, as well as a reduction in fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots.

Which Retinol Products Should You Use?

Retinoids, Retinols, and Retin-A may seem overwhelming, but they are all types of vitamin A derivatives that work wonders for your skin. To break it down, Nussbaum explains that in order for retinoids to be effective, they must convert to either retinoic acid or Retin-A (which is actually the brand name for tretinoin medication). These forms of vitamin A bind to skin cell receptors and initiate the skin’s healing process.

According to Nussbaum, retinol is a milder form of retinoid and is earlier in the process, as the process starts with retinyl palmitate, then moves to retinol, then retinaldehyde, and finally retinoic acid. She notes that “Retinols are the gentlest on the skin and the least potent alternative.” However, if you’re not seeing the desired results, you can try a more potent option like retinaldehyde. And for those seeking the most powerful option available, retinoic acid (also known as Retin-A, a prescription alternative) is the way to go.

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According to Nussbaum, an eye cream that contains pure retinol, gradual release retinol, and caffeine is a great option for combating dark circles and puffiness. She recommends using it in the morning along with sunscreen, or at night.

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This moisturizer is recommended by Nussbaum as it contains long-lasting retinol, which is considered the gold standard in anti-aging ingredients. Its purpose is to minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Photo: Pexels/ Sora Shimazaki

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Margaud Raynaud is a beauty expert with over 10 years of experience in the industry. She has a passion for sharing her knowledge and tips with others and has a particular interest in skincare and makeup. When she's not writing about health and beauty, Margaud enjoys trying out new products and experimenting with different looks. Follow her blog for expert advice and inspiration for living your best life.

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