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What is Retinol? The Superhero Anti-Aging Ingredient

by Dr. Amy Yuan


If you’re not already on the bandwagon, chances are you’ve at least heard a thing or two about the much deliberated ingredient, retinol. On one hand, it has a reputation as a miracle worker, but on the other hand it’s said to wreak havoc on sensitive skin. So, which one is it? Is it safe? Does it really work? We’re here to answer all of your questions and show you how retinol just may be the transformative ingredient your routine’s been missing.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a compound that belongs to the retinoid family of vitamin A derivatives, commonly found in skincare products. You can easily get your hands on over-the-counter retinoids, such as retinyl palmitate, retinol, and retinaldehyde—or snag a stronger version by prescription, like tretinoin (Retin-A) or tazarotene (Tazorac). All retinoids work by supercharging cell turnover, which can result in a variety of skin improvements, from diminishing hyperpigmentation and acne to boosting collagen and softening fine lines and wrinkles. They are by far the most clinically studied and praised topical anti-aging ingredients out there.

If you’ve heard that retinoids don’t make for the best night cream for sensitive skin, think again; it’s all how you approach it. Retinol is one of the weaker retinoids available, which makes it a great first step for sensitive skin types or those who are just beginning their retinoid journey, as many retinoid products cause irritation when you first start using them. But according to studies, retinol works just as well as the stronger options, and although it may take a bit more time to show results, it does so without causing nearly as much peeling, dryness, redness, or breakouts during the acclimation period.

Benefits of Using Retinol

There are so many skincare ingredients out there that promise the world, but few of them come close to holding up their end of the deal like retinoids do. They are scientifically proven to increase collagen levels, iron out lines, smooth out texture, improve elasticity, brighten dark spots, even out tone, and even treat acne. Retinol, in particular, is both equally as effective and yet gentler than its prescription counterparts, so it’s a perfect starter retinoid.

Tips for Using a Retinol Night Cream

So, you’re ready to dabble in some retinol. Here’s what you should keep in mind:

Start Slow and Low

Retinol is a powerful antioxidant, so your skin may not be able to tolerate a high dose on the daily when you’re just starting out. The best solution is to begin with a lower concentration around 0.05 percent and build up from there. You may also find it best at first to only use it two or three times a week (you’ll still see rave results!), and then gradually climb to daily usage as your skin grows accustomed.

It Doesn’t Always Play Well With Others

Because retinol is apt to cause some sensitivity, you’ll want to be careful using other strong products alongside it. For example, harsh cleansers and alcohol-based toners can strip the natural oils that protect your skin from reacting too strongly to a potent newcomer like retinol. Face acids like glycolic or lactic acid can also amp up any irritation or dryness caused by retinol. And lastly, vitamin C serums don’t work well with retinol, mainly due to the fact that they can alter pH level, rendering both ingredients less effective. It doesn’t mean you can’t use all of these things; it just means you’ll want to strategically schedule some for one day and some for another (or some for AM and some for PM).

The Sun Is Not Your Friend

As if it wasn’t the case already, retinol exacerbates this truth, which is why you’ll more often find retinol in a night cream rather than a day cream. Not only does retinol make skin more sensitive in the presence of sunshine, but it’s also less effective when exposed to UV rays. So, always store your products in a cool, dark place, and make sure to wear sunscreen and sunglasses when you’re outside.

Moisturize, and Moisturize Some More

To mitigate the irritation associated with retinol usage, stay on top of that moisturizer. By speeding up cell turnover, retinol notoriously causes dry, flaky skin. You may find that your skin tolerates a cream retinol formula better than a gel formula—but either way, mixing it with a moisturizer (or sandwiching it between two layers of moisturizer) is an excellent way to ease into it without sacrificing efficacy.

Most Importantly, Listen to Your Skin

Rules are just rules. At the end of the day, knowing your skin is what matters, and the best retinol night cream is the right one for you. So, it’s a good idea to discuss options with a dermatologist if you’re not sure what’s ideal for your complexion. And remember, listening to your skin also means checking back in every now and then, too. What worked for you in the summer may not work for you in the winter. Or if you’ve moved to a new climate altogether, that can affect your skin’s relationship to the products you’re using, too, retinol included. Just know that many over-the-counter formulas take twelve weeks or so to show results, so plan to wait at least that long before committing to (or ditching!) a new product.

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