Everything You Need to Know About Retinol

Including how, when and why you should use it—straight from the pros

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Retinol might be skincare’s most loved and feared ingredient. (Photo: Getty)

Let’s be honest, building a skincare regimen can be intimidating. From the valid financial concerns (which products are worth the splurge, anyway?) to which ingredients should and shouldn’t be mixed, not to mention the entire concept of 10-step routines, there’s a whole world of information out there that’s just waiting to be absorbed as rapidly as hyaluronic-acid-rich face cream applied to desert-dry skin. At the very top of that list? Retinol, and the many (*many*) questions about the tempting ingredient.

There’s still lots of confusion about how to use it, when to start and, most importantly, whether or not it’s suitable for everyone, so it’s no wonder retinol is the number one growing Google search term when it comes to face care. When something sounds so good (see ya later, dark spots and wrinkles; hello, firmer skin and smaller pores!) but also kind of scary (ever heard the term “face dandruff”?), intrigue is inevitable.

If you’re looking for answers to every question you’ve ever had about retinol, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve tapped the pros to clear up, once and for all, any misconceptions about skincare’s most beloved (and feared) ingredient.

So, what is retinol and what does it do?

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative. It’s used to address a wide range of skin concerns (hence its popularity), from fine lines and wrinkles to dark spots and acne.

“When retinol is applied topically, it breaks down into retinoic acid,” says Joie Tavernise, aesthetician and founder of NYC-based JTAV Clinical Skincare. “This acid directly impacts the cell structure in the skin, stimulating collagen production. In turn, increased collagen reduces the appearance of wrinkles, helps fade dark spots and evens out tone and texture.”

Read this next: The 5 Most Common Skincare Ingredients—and How to Actually Use Them

Has its use evolved over the years?

Actually, yes! “As a commercial skincare ingredient, retinol was initially used to treat acne, blackheads and dead-cell buildup in pores,” says Dr. Howard Murad, the dermatologist and founder of LA-based Murad Skincare. In fact, the very first study on the effect of retinoids on acne was published back in 1943. “But early on, we discovered that it also had some useful properties in terms of helping reduce fine lines and wrinkles,” explains Dr. Murad. “These days, retinol works in three ways: It exfoliates, aids in the production of collagen and fights free radicals.”

What’s the difference between retinol, Retin-A and retinoids?

“Retinol and Retin-A are both forms of retinoids,” explains Tavernise, who suggests thinking of them as all existing under the retinoid umbrella. “Retinol is the most common form, which you see in retail skincare products. Retin-A, also known as tretinoin, is a prescription topical cream typically used to treat acne. It is very strong and can cause severe dehydration in the skin.”

“Retin-A is a much stronger and more powerful alternative for treating severe acne and scarring,” agrees Dr. Murad. However, he says that regular use of a topical treatment that contains retinol will still result in improvements in acne and scarring due to the exfoliation and removal of dead skin.

Can anyone use retinol?

Contrary to popular belief, retinol is actually suitable for most skin types—it’s just about finding the right percentage and formulation for you, especially if you’re someone with sensitive or reactive skin. If you have extremely sensitive skin (think: prone to rosacea or psoriasis), then retinol may not be recommended, but you can consult your dermatologist to determine whether or not that’s the case.

Read this next: Should You Switch Up Your Skincare Routine When You’re on Your Period?

What about the new “retinol alternative” that everyone’s been talking about?

You may have heard of a new, plant-based ingredient called bakuchiol, which is being touted as a gentle, non-irritating alternative to retinol that provides similar benefits. As mentioned above, most people can tolerate retinol if they land on the right percentage and formulation for their skin type (something that can be done with the help of your dermatologist). But if you’re finding that retinol just isn’t agreeing with you, Tavernise says that bakuchiol is a good alternative. “Some people are unable to use retinol due to pregnancy, vitamin A allergies or other reasons, and this is a great way to receive the benefits of cell turnover,” she explains. “Studies have shown bakuchiol to be effective in providing a significant decrease in fine lines and wrinkles, dark spots and loss of firmness without any harsh side effects.”

But while studies have shown that bakuchiol certainly has some great benefits, it’s still a bit too soon to draw definitive comparisons with retinol. After all, the first study on bakuchiol’s effects on skin was just published in 2014—that’s after more than 70 years of retinol research and studies. “The research is promising,” says Jordan Pacitti, aesthetician and founder of Jordan Samuel Skin in Seattle. “However, to me, it is not truly an alternative to or replacement for retinol.” Our advice? Definitely keep an eye out for new findings on bakuchiol, and give it a try if you have ultra-sensitive skin (or if you’re just curious!), but if retinol has been working for you, there’s no reason to stop using it.

Is there a “right age” to start using it?

Since it’s a more intense ingredient and can also be on the pricier side, feel free to hold off on incorporating retinoids into your routine until your mid- to late-20s, which is when the first signs of aging show up on skin. “However, if you have acne, you may be prescribed a retinoid as early as your teenage years,” says Dr. Murad.

What’s the best way to incorporate retinol into a skincare routine?

“I recommend working it into your existing routine slowly at first and then building up usage over time,” suggests Tavernise. “Start by using it once a week to allow your skin to become accustomed to the new ingredient, and then after about three to four weeks you can use it three to four times a week, at night. Use a pea-sized amount before your moisturizer, and be sure to use a sunscreen during the day,” she adds, as the use of retinoids increases skin’s photosensitivity and may make you more prone to sun damage and burns.

Is there an ideal percentage of retinol that consumers should look for?

“The percentage situation has gotten out of hand,” says Pacitti. “Many companies promote vitamin A ‘blends.’ This doesn’t really paint the whole picture of its strength. As they blend together weaker derivatives of vitamin A, it can be hard to tell what percentage of pure retinol you are actually getting. Pacitti says as a general rule, you can start anywhere between 0.25% and 1% and adjust up or down as needed.“Everyone is very different and will need to see what strength they can tolerate.”

Read this next: Let’s Get to the Bottom of the “Right” Way to Apply Your Skincare

Some brands are coming out with body-care products that feature retinol. Is this necessary?

“I firmly believe that treating the skin on your body is just as important as treating the skin on your face,” says Tavernise. “Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and it’s very important to take time to treat the skin from the neck down. Retinol can be helpful when treating stretch marks, keratosis pilaris (which is also known as ‘chicken skin’ and often appears on the back of the arms) and overall tone and texture.”

Below are six of our favourite retinol skincare products—three for more experienced retinol users and three others that are great if you’re just getting started, as they feature soothing, nourishing ingredients alongside the retinol to ensure your foray into the world of vitamin A is as smooth as your skin will soon be.

And one last reminder to wear sunscreen—always, but especially when using retinol.

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