The Guide to Retinol (and How to Tell If You Need It in Your Skincare Routine)

Debating whether you need retinol in your skincare routine? We’ll cut to the chase: If you want to diminish signs of aging and encourage new surface cell renewal, then yes. Yes, you do. However, it’s not as simple as purchasing the first tube of retinol cream you see at the drugstore, slathering it on and calling it a day. Product potency, skin condition and lifestyle all factor into this new addition to your regimen. We partnered with Mary Kay to break it all down. Here, your guide to retinol, including suggestions on how to find the best one for you.

woman touching face looking in mirror
kate_sept2004/Getty Images

1. So What Is Retinol, Exactly?

While retinol is often used as a catchall term for topical products containing a vitamin A derivative, it’s technically a type of retinoid. Vitamin A is a micronutrient our bodies use to support a healthy immune system, reproductive system, vision and cell growth. Our body converts beta-carotene from plants such as carrots and spinach into vitamin A. Retinoids are versions of vitamin A that are used to tackle skin problems like acne, wrinkles and collagen deficiency.

Included in the retinoid family are retinol, retinoic acid, tretinoin, retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate and retinyl acetate. (Lots of medical terminology here, but just know that if you find any of these listed as an ingredient, the product has retinoid in it.) Some versions are less irritating to the skin, and therefore more commonly found in skin care products.

2. Are Retinol and Retinoids Different?

There are different types of retinoids, and retinol is a type of retinoid. As we mentioned above, retinol is a vitamin A derivative that our skin converts into retinoic acid to provide anti-aging benefits to the skin. Most retinol products don’t require a prescription, but some retinoids and certain concentrations do.

mary kay clinical solutions
Mary Kay

3. What Do Retinol And Retinoids Do To The Skin?

When you apply this ingredient topically, the skin converts it into retinoic acid. Once converted, it stimulates collagen production and cell renewal. Originally formulated in the 1970s to combat acne, retinol is now touted as one of the best anti-aging ingredients available. It has been proven to help reduce the appearance of fine lines, promote even skin tone, smooth rough patches and brighten dark age spots.

There is a trade off when you use retinol or retinoids though. Prescription retinoids or prescription concentrations of retinol work very aggressively, so you may see faster results but it’s also less tolerated by the skin. Skin dryness, redness and irritation are commonly associated with these prescription treatments. Retinol below prescription levels is a great balance for getting all the sought-after skin benefits while still being tolerated by the skin with appropriate usage guidance.

4. Got It. So, Which One Should I Use?

If you’ve never used either, we recommend you start with a non-prescription retinol.

“Finding the right retinol product for you is important,” says Dr. Lucy Gildea, Chief Scientific Officer at Mary Kay. “For example, Mary Kay’s new Clinical Solutions™ Retinol 0.5 is pure, potent retinol at 0.5 percent concentration, which is a highly concentrated level while still being nonprescription, and why I recommend it. However, you want to listen to your skin and be careful when using a pure retinol alone, as this is when you might experience skin discomforts, especially if you’re a first-time user or have sensitive skin. I recommend Mary Kay's Clinical Solutions™ Retinol 0.5 Set and our unique retinization process to simplify the search for an effective retinol with minimal discomforts,” Gildea continues.

If your skin can handle retinol, you may also talk to your dermatologist about whether or not prescription retinoids are safe for you. But heads up: If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you should avoid using both altogether. While there’s no definitive study concluding that topical retinol or retinoids cause birth defects, it’s strongly advised that pregnant women do not use either. If you’re trying to get pregnant or expecting, stick to a vitamin C anti-aging product for now, but if you have any questions, then consult your physician.

woman in towel touching face universal
kate_sept2004/Getty Images

5. What Are Some Tips For Using Retinol Effectively?

For best results, use retinol products at night. Make sure you continue to wear SPF on a daily basis as it is still hands down the best thing you can do to protect your skin from damage. Cover up with SPF 30 or higher and wear a hat, just to be safe. Retinol use will be all for naught if the sun is beating down on your skin all day.

Since it does have a tendency to dry skin out, most people use retinol at night and pair it with moisturizing products, like the Mary Kay Clinical Solutions™ Calm +Restore Facial Milk. And if you’re a first timer, the facial milk can also be used to dilute the pure retinol by following Mary Kay’s unique retinization process to help your skin acclimate. This lightweight formula features plant oils (coconut, jojoba seed, safflower and olive) to deliver a power shot of rich fatty acids that nourish and soothe skin. It also includes glycerin and sugarcane squalene—known to help prevent water loss. This benefit is essential during the retinization period when skin is prone to increased dryness.

Remember, the retinol journey is a marathon, not a sprint. So, stick with it—results are on the way.

angela pares

VP, Design + Branded Content

Angela Pares is the VP of Design + Branded Content at Gallery Media Group, where she oversees the ideation and execution of sponsored content campaigns across PureWow, ONE37pm and...