Retinol: What Is It, And What Do I Need To Know About Using It?

What You Need To Know About Using Retinol

June 29, 2021 Updated July 15, 2021

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Even if you’re a casual consumer of skincare products, you’ve likely heard of retinol, the oft used skincare ingredient. Like the ubiquitous terms “anti-oxidant” or “alpha hydroxy acids,” it seems like everything has retinol in it — but what is it exactly? Well, you’re in luck because this article is going to give you the 411. (Sidebar: I did a quick poll with some young people to see if they knew what 411 meant, and though they knew the term, they didn’t know the origin. This is probably why I am researching skincare products that contain retinol.)

What is retinol and what does it do?

Retinol, an over-the-counter (OTC) version of retinoids, is often used as a blanket term to describe vitamin A derivatives generally utilized in anti-aging and acne treatment products. The antioxidant comes in many forms — the strongest of which are only available via prescription like Retin-A. Retinol is the strongest version you can get OTC.

In the right products, retinol can help visibly reduce lines and wrinkles, large or clogged pores, sun damage, brown spots and pigmentation, and acne and acne scarring. It can increase skin firmness by encouraging collagen and elastin production as well as resurface the skin for smoother texture and tone.

If it sounds like magic, that’s because it kind of is.

Decreases appearance of fine lines and enlarged pores

The reason why retinol works so well is because instead of eliminating dead skin cells on the surface of your skin like many other products, retinol goes under your epidermis (outer layer of skin) to increase elastin and collagen production in the dermis (middle layer of skin). As a result, it plumps up your skin and decreases the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and pores. Plus, because retinol also helps with exfoliation, your skin’s tone and texture will be much improved.

Treats scarring and severe acne

Another benefit is that it contains comedolytic agents — which in normal speak refers to things that prevent comedones (acne from pore blockage) and blemishes from forming. Thus, products containing retinol can help if you have severe acne or acne scars. Just remember that it may be about six weeks before you start seeing results.

Balances skin hydration

Due to retinol’s mild exfoliating effects, it removes dead skin cells which if not removed regularly, can block pores and lead to dry and patchy skin. It may also help oily skin by controlling sebum (oil) production in your pores.

Who can benefit from retinol and how do you use it?

Almost everyone can benefit from retinol. However, if you have very sensitive skin or rosacea, retinol can irritate and further inflame your skin, worsening your symptoms. In addition, it is not recommended for pregnant or nursing people, or people planning to get pregnant or nurse. If you want to reduce the appearance of fine lines, acne, scarring, and improve your skin’s tone and texture, you may want to explore products with retinol.

Start off slow

Though retinol has many benefits, keep in mind that you should ease into using the product in order to avoid skin irritation. Experts say to start using retinol once or twice a week on non-consecutive nights, and then if you find that your skin reacts well, to slowly scale up usage to nightly.

Beware of side effects

Like all products, there are possible side effects. Some common side effects include dry, irritated, and peeling skin, itchiness and redness. Usually, the side effects are temporary and will go away once your skin becomes accustomed to retinol. However, if you keep experiencing skin irritation, you may want to stop using the product or using something with a lower dosage of retinol.

If you are using more than one product containing retinol, you may be inadvertently using a higher dosage of retinol so please read your product labels. You can also try gradually building up to daily use or waiting 30 minutes after face washing to apply retinol products.

Tips on how to safely use retinol

Even though it’s approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that doesn’t mean you can use it however you want. Here are a few tips to help you use retinol safely.

Lather on the SPF or use at night

One of the main risks of using retinol products is increased risk of sunburn, so either slather on the SPF, avoid direct sun exposure, or restrict using retinol products to before bed. Sun exposure can also exacerbate the side effects of dry and irritated skin, too.

Avoid if pregnant

Due to the increased risks for miscarriage and birth defects when pregnant, retinol isn’t recommended for pregnant people. If you are trying to conceive, or even think you may want to have kids soon, speak with your medical professional to see if you should be on oral contraception to prevent accidental pregnancies.

Be careful if you wax

Because waxing removes not only hair follicles but a layer of skin, experts recommend stopping retinol use for several days prior to waxing. Retinol works by removing dead skin cells and if you wax while using retinol products, you risk exposing live skin cells and can cause scarring, skin discoloration, irritation, and dry skin. If you insist on using retinoids while also waxing, you may want to consider putting on moisturizer right before you use retinol products so that your skin can’t absorb the retinol as deeply.

Avoid if you have eczema or psoriasis flare up

If you have eczema or psoriasis — especially when you have an active rash or patch of inflamed skin, using retinols may make your symptoms worse. Check with your medical professional for alternatives.

Products that work well with retinoids

Some products that work well in conjunction with retinoids are hydrating cleansers, and products containing niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, and ceramides.

Avoid using with the following products

To avoid further irritating your skin, don’t use retinol products with Vitamin C, toners, astringents, toners, heavy scrubs, alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, or benzoyl peroxide.

Keep in mind that there is some concern that retinol can possibly be carcinogenic in the long term based on rodent studies. However, more studies will need to be conducted in humans to confirm if that is the case for usage in people. Please discuss these issues with your medical professional.