Before we dive into the world of retinol, we need to understand another skincare term; retinoids. Let's think of retinoids as the mother of all retinol. In other words, retinol is simply a \type of retinoid that is used in non-prescription skincare products (the products you get from the shelf). All retinoids are a compound (chemical substance) derived from Vitamin A - an essential nutrient for the human body.
To make it easier to understand, here's a diagram that outlines the relationship between Vitamin A, Retinoids and Retinol.
If you want to learn a bit more about retinoids, check out this Glamour Magazine article that does a great job of outlining the differences between retinol and retinoids.
Now that we've sorted out the family tree of Vitamin A let's take a closer look at retinol:
- What it actually does for the skin
- How to incorporate it into your skincare routine
- What to expect when using retinol regularly?
What does retinol do to our skin?
Retinol has been thought of as the world's best wrinkle-fighting ingredient. It has been praised for its ability to treat a plethora of skin issues, specifically acne. Even so, dermatologists have claimed that retinols are the best anti-aging ingredient currently available on the market.
Retinols work by increasing the skin's cell turnover rate. On the skin's surface, retinol exfoliates the skin by increasing the speed at which new, healthy skin cells replace the old ones and helps our pores stay clear and unclogged. By keeping your pores clear, retinol can prevent acne and even reduce acne scars!
What makes retinol different from other chemical exfoliants that work on the skin's surface is that retinol can also work beneath the epidermis (outer layer of the skin). When applied to the skin, retinol reaches the middle layer of the skin (the dermis) and increases the production of collagen and elastin. Remember when we talked about collagen's role in younger-looking skin? Well, retinol has an active role in plumping the skin to improve the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines by increasing collagen.
In a nutshell, retinol's superpower is that it helps the skin both at and underneath the surface to exfoliate while at the same time boosting collagen production.
How to integrate retinol into your skin routine:
Retinol sounds like a dream product, no wrinkles, no acne...it must be an ingredient I can integrate into my everyday routine, right? Well, no, actually. To avoid damage to the skin, there are a couple rules to follow when starting to use a retinol product.
1. Start with a low-percentage retinol
Retinol can be irritating. It is best to start off with a lower percentage (weaker formula) and then gradually work your way up to higher percentages. This also goes out to my sensitive skin people who know their skin gets easily irritated! Look for retinol products with a concentration between 0.01 and 0.03. These percentages are low-strength retinol and are great for introducing retinol to your skin.
Even small percentages of retinol can affect your skin; however the lower the percentage, the longer the time it will take to see results. Once you feel like your skin can tolerate lower retinol percentages, you can try increasing the percentage.
- Moderate-strength retinols: 0.04% - 0.1%
- Higher-strength retinols: 0.5% - 1.0%
2. Don't use retinol every day
Patience is key with retinol, and that includes not using it every single day. I promise you results don't happen overnight, and it's not worth damaging your skin by using retinol every day. Try introducing retinol twice a week and add a day every two weeks if you feel like your skin can handle the increase.
3. Apply retinol at night and use sunscreen in the morning
Retinol makes your skin extra sensitive to the sun's UV rays, so it is best to use retinol at night when you are not exposed to the sun. It is also crucial that you apply sunscreen every day to ensure that your skin is protected, even on cloudy days - yes, you heard me, CLOUDY DAYS.
4. Avoid using retinol and an exfoliator on the same night.
There comes the point when your skin routine is doing more harm than good, and this can happen when your skin is over exfoliated. Try applying retinol and a chemical exfoliant on different days of the week to avoid skin irritation.
What to expect when you start to use retinol:
Warning: you may experience redness, dryness, and flakiness when you start using retinol.
Don't be alarmed! You have the “retinoid uglies” and this is normal. Remember that retinol speeds up cell turnover, getting rid of the old skin layer faster than usual and therefore causing more flakiness (this is called skin purging). Even if the skin ain't a pretty picture, keep with the retinol, this skin reaction is normal and should subside with continued use as your skin builds a tolerance.
To help reduce skin irritation, try layering the retinol on top of a moisturizer. Adding a moisturizer around sensitive areas such as the eyes is a great tip when starting your retinol journey.
Like any skincare product, results aren't immediate (it can actually take months). Don't get discouraged if you don't see your acne or wrinkles disappear in a few weeks, as all good things take time.
A few retinol product recommendations:
- Paula's Choice 0.03% Retinol + 2% Bakuchiol Treatment
- Paula's Choice 1% Retinol Treatment
- The Inkey List Retinol Anti-Aging Serum
- Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Moisturizer
- SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex 0.5
- The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane