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Debating whether you need retinol in your skin care routine? We’ll cut to the chase: If you want to diminish signs of aging and encourage new cell growth, then 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. Let us break it all down for you. Here, your guide to retinol, including the six things you absolutely need to know.

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1. So what is retinol, exactly?

Scientifically speaking, retinol is a synthetic derivative of vitamin A. This means it’s a man-made version of vitamin A, a micronutrient our bodies use to support a healthy immune system, reproductive system, vision and cell growth. Beta-carotene is one version of vitamin A we get from plants such as carrots and spinach. Retinoids are active versions of vitamin A that tackle skin problems like acne, wrinkles and collagen deficiency. 

Included in the retinoid family is 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 in a product, it has retinol in it.) Retinoic acid is the compound doing all the hard work; the others are diluted versions that are less irritating to skin and therefore more commonly found in retinol products. Retinoic acid, Retin-A and retinoids are typically available only with a prescription.  

2. Are retinol and retinoids different?

Technically, yes, they are. But only in strength. Both are vitamin A derivatives that our skin converts into retinoic acid, the most potent version of the compound. Retinol contains a lower concentration of the active ingredient, while retinoids are stronger (they readily absorb into the skin without having to be converted). For this reason, retinol can be found in over-the-counter products, while retinoids require a prescription.

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3. What do retinol and retinoids do to the skin?

When you apply this ingredient (whether in a cream, serum or oil), it penetrates deeply, reaching skin receptors (enzymes) that convert it into retinoic acid. Once converted into retinoic acid, the skin then uses it to stimulate collagen production and cell growth. Originally formulated in the 1970s to combat acne, retinol is now touted as the best anti-aging ingredient available. It has been proven to reduce fine lines, even skin tone, smooth rough patches and brighten dark age spots. The only downside: Because of the lower concentration, it works gradually (think around 12 weeks).

Retin-A and retinoids, on the other hand, are the strongest iterations of retinol products, which is why you usually need a prescription for them. These don’t require contact with enzymes to become activated—they get to work instantly, but can cause a lot more irritation.

4. Who should use retinol? 

Anyone interested in keeping a youthful glow or decreasing signs of aging should use a retinol product. In fact, the sooner you begin using retinol, the sooner your skin will acclimate itself to retinol’s effects. You see, many people experience redness or irritation when they first add retinol to their routine—it is an acid, after all. The good news is that skin gets used to this active ingredient over time, and positive results show after three to six months of continuous use. 

This means you’ve got to be diligent about application. Starting and stopping can confuse the skin and make it difficult to build up a tolerance or see any wrinkles disappear. Users in their 20s may only need to use retinol a couple times a week. Collagen production doesn’t really slow down until your mid 20s. As you get older, increasing the frequency to several nights a week is smart (as long as your skin can handle it and no longer experiences irritation).

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5. Who should not use retinol?

While there’s no definitive study concluding that topical retinol causes birth defects, it’s strongly advised that pregnant women do not use retinol or retinoids. If you’re trying to get pregnant or expecting, stick to a vitamin C anti-aging product for now. As alluded to above, people with sensitive skin may also want to ease into the retinol game. Look for a product with a very low percentage of retinol and use it just twice a week to start. Allow your skin plenty of time to acclimate (again, this could take 12 weeks or more) before increasing frequency or potency. And whatever you do, don’t sign up for a chemical peel during retinol use. Your skin can’t handle both treatments at once.

6. What are some tips for using retinol effectively?

Wearing SPF on a daily basis is still hands down the best thing you can do to protect your skin from damage. Dermatologists and skin care experts differ on whether or not retinol increases skin’s sensitivity to the sun, but at the end of the day, it really shouldn’t matter. 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 a hyaluronic acid serum (before applying) and a thicker moisturizer (after applying). Remember, slow and steady wins the race when it comes to using retinol.

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