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There’s a dizzying array of trending skincare ingredients floating around the internet, but retinol is one that really lives up to the hype. The darling of dermatologists and estheticians can be found just about everywhere — from nighttime serums and moisturizers to daily acne treatments — and with good reason: “Retinol is the OG exfoliator, skin thickener, and collagen stimulator. Of all the skincare ingredients, it’s the one to keep using,” says double board-certified pediatric and cosmetic dermatologist Karan Lal BAZAAR.com.
What is Retinol?
Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, which also contains retinal (or retinaldehyde) along with over-the-counter or prescription retinoids such as tretinoin. Retinaldehyde is more potent than retinol, but less irritating than a prescription retinoid. But before these ingredients can affect the skin, they must be converted into retinoic acid.
“Retinaldehyde is considered more potent than retinol because it only takes one step to be converted to retinoic acid to have its effect on the skin,” says board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick of MDCS Dermatology in NYC. While retinol can be used by all skin types, it’s especially great for someone who can’t tolerate a prescription retinoid, as might be the case for someone with dry or sensitive skin.
Retinaldehyde is a great option for someone who has been able to tolerate a retinol but isn’t seeing the results they want and wants to try something more potent, or for someone who can’t tolerate a prescription retinoid. As an over-the-counter or prescription retinoid, it helps regulate skin cell turnover, prevent pore clogging, and improve overall skin tone and texture while stimulating collagen production.
Do OTC Retinols Really Work?
As for what’s available at your local drugstore, Garshick notes that over-the-counter retinoids are synthetic and consist of fine line-reducing retinols (available in concentrations, acne-fighting adapalene and retinaldehyde, which is ideal for those looking for more advanced improvement .
For patients who are retinol newbies, she often recommends RoC’s Retinol Correxion Sensitive Night Cream, a plumping hyaluronic acid treatment to help reduce signs of aging. Both Garshick and Lal also suggest the Clinical Skin Retinol and Peptide Refining Serum 2.5, which is safe for sensitive skin. It combines ingredients like retinol, bakuchiol, ceramides and more to reduce fine lines and discoloration without irritation. And for the delicate eye area, Lal is a fan of La Roche-Posay’s hardworking Redermic R Retinol Eye Cream.
At what point in your routine should retinol be used?
Retinol is best applied at night, usually after cleansing and before your usual moisturizer. “It’s important to remember to apply only a small, pea-sized amount to the entire face to minimize the potential for irritation,” advises Garshick. If you have dry or sensitive skin, experts often recommend applying moisturizer first and then applying retinol to further reduce the risk of skin inflammation.
When can you expect changes in your skin?
It takes a minimum of about four weeks and a maximum of three months to reap the benefits of retinol, as dermatologists say the skin resurfacing benefits align closely with the timeline of collagen production.
Can women who are pregnant or breastfeeding use retinol?
While it is not recommended that pregnant or breastfeeding women use retinol topical products, safer alternatives, such as bakuchiol, azelaic acid, peptides, and low concentrations of alpha hydroxy acids, can be equally helpful in refining skin texture and tone.
Why does retinol irritate your skin?
Since retinol comes in different percentages, from 0.5 to 2.5, dermatologists recommend starting low and slow with the first application once or twice a week when adding one to your regimen. Plus, it’s best to only use one retinol-based product at a time to avoid irritation. “If you notice redness, flaking, or burning skin, it may be time to take a retinol break,” says Lal. “These are signs that your skin is very responsive to retinol. Take a break, use a moisturizer, and slowly reintroduce retinol into your routine once your skin has healed.”
For more recommendations on which prescription retinol, retinol, or retinoids are best for you, consult with a board-certified dermatologist who can best develop a specific action plan for your skin needs.
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