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What Is Retinol? Your Guide to This Celebrated Ingredient ----- Back

09.07.20 - Knowledge

What Is Retinol? Your Guide to This Celebrated Ingredient

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Words by Antoinette Barnardo

Retinol is a gold standard when it comes to skincare ingredients. It's used to fight acne, diminish fine lines and wrinkles, and fade hyperpigmentation. But how much do you know about this highly celebrated ingredient?

If you want to incorporate retinol into your skincare routine, you should treat it like any other new product and do your research first. Retinol has a lot of benefits, but it also comes with possible risks and side effects.

In this article, we'll explain what retinol is, what it can do for your skin, and the best ways to introduce it into your skincare routine.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A. It's a member of the retinoid family, which also includes Retin-A (tretinoin), tazarotene, and Differin (adapalene).

Retinol Versus Other Retinoids

The key differentiator between retinol and other retinoids is the retinoic acid content. Retinoic acid is a morphogen — a signaling molecule that influences the final form of a cell.

Retinoids such as Retin-A and Differin have a high concentration of retinoic acid. That's why they're only available via prescription from a dermatologist. Retinol, on the other hand, has to convert to retinaldehyde before it turns into retinoic acid. That makes it comparatively weaker than its prescription-strength counterparts, but gentle enough to be available over the counter.

What Retinol Products Do for Your Skin

Retinol is lauded by dermatologists and other skincare specialists for its numerous benefits. Here are five ways retinol can help your skin.

1. Fight Signs of Aging

Opt for retinol at the first appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol stimulates cell turnover and promotes collagen production, making it one of the best anti-aging ingredients available.

2. Prevent Acne

Retinol can fight blackheads, whiteheads, and other blemishes. In addition to its exfoliating properties, retinol also unclogs pores and reduces inflammation.

3. Reduce Hyperpigmentation

You can use retinol to fade and prevent the appearance of dark spots. According to a 2019 article in Advances in Dermatology and Allergology, retinol can rearrange melanin in the epidermis and block melanin from reaching epidermal cells, diminishing the chance for hyperpigmentation to form.

4. Brighten Your Complexion

Your skin naturally begins to shed fewer dead skin cells once you reach your 30s. Without regular exfoliation, your complexion will begin to look duller. Retinol's ability to stimulate cell turnover means it can leave your face looking brighter and more radiant.

5. Tighten Loose Skin

Your skin's three primary building blocks — collagen, elastin, and glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) — will decline over time, leading to loose, sagging skin. Retinol can help firm your skin because it stimulates the production of collagen and elastin while also regulating GAGs.

Side Effects of Retinol

Retinol isn't as harsh as prescription-strength retinoids. However, since it's still accelerating your skin's cell turnover rate, retinol itself still isn't without side effects, especially if you've never used it regularly. The following are common side effects associated with retinol:

1. Retinoid Dermatitis 

Retinoid dermatitis can develop when your skin is exposed to retinol (or any retinoid) for the first time. Symptoms include flaking, redness, and dryness. This temporary condition usually lasts for about two to four weeks or until your skin adjusts to retinol. You can buffer your retinol product with a moisturizer rich in hyaluronic acid or niacinamide to help reduce the symptoms of retinoid dermatitis. If your skin becomes severely overwhelmed by retinol, talk to your dermatologist.

2. Purging

Although retinol can prevent acne and improve skin texture, first-time users of this ingredient may experience more blemishes due to the increase in cell turnover. This is called purging. Unlike a breakout due to an allergic reaction, which usually appears where you don't see acne, purging happens in areas where you do normally break out. If you're already acne-prone, you're more likely to experience retinol-induced purging.

3. Photosensitivity

Daily sunscreen should already be a part of your daily skincare routine but doubly so if you use retinol. The increase in cell turnover can leave your skin more photosensitive. Using a retinol product without following up with an SPF can cause further damage to your skin through sunburns or blisters, and make you more susceptible to skin cancer. Save yourself from sun damage and make sure to follow up any retinol application with a sunscreen that has at least 50 SPF.

Introducing Retinol Products Into Your Skincare Routine

Whether it's via serum, eye cream, or spot treatment, follow these steps for incorporating retinol into your skincare routine to reduce the possibility of overwhelming your skin.

1. Don't Use Retinol Every Day

If vitamin A derivative products are new to you, then it's best to use them at least once a week to start. You can gradually work your way up to two to three times per week, depending on your skin.

2. Only Use a Small Amount of Retinol

It can be tempting to want to apply a large amount of product for maximum results, but less is more, especially when it comes to retinoids. You'll want to use only a small dollop of your retinol product to start to see how your skin fares with it.

3. Apply Retinol at Night

Since retinol can make your skin photosensitive, it's best to apply it during your nighttime skincare routine. However, you should still be wearing sunscreen the morning after you use a retinol-based product to further protect your skin from sun damage.

4. Be Mindful of Product Mixing

If you want to exfoliate with alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), then hold off on the retinol as this combination of products can irritate your skin. Your best course of action is to alternate your AHA and retinol products on different nights.

Layering retinol with vitamin C is also not recommended since retinol relies on a higher skin pH to be effective than vitamin C does. Using both actives together could make them ineffective.

Retinol Versus Bakuchiol

Lately, a natural ingredient that's common in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine called bakuchiol is becoming more readily available on the skincare market. Derived from Psoralea corylifolia, colloquially known as the babchi plant, bakuchiol has a gene expression comparable to retinol per a 2014 clinical study in France. That means bakuchiol can produce similar results to retinol but minus the possible side effects.

While retinol is less potent than other vitamin A-derived ingredients, it can still be too harsh for sensitive or severely dry skin types. Bakuchiol works as a suitable alternative since it won't cause any peeling or irritation.

If you become pregnant, you'll be advised to stop using retinoids as they're linked to birth defects. Bakuchiol, on the other hand, poses no known threats to mother or baby and is safe to use throughout pregnancy.

Is Retinol for You?

Whether retinol is for you or not depends on your specific skin type and concerns. A skincare product featuring a low dose of retinol would be a good introduction to retinoids, provided you take the right steps to incorporate it into your routine.

As a trade-off for being more accessible and less harsh than prescription-strength retinoids, retinol takes time to work. Don't expect to see results within a day — on average, it takes up to 12-weeks to see any marked improvements in your skin using retinol.

If you have sensitive skin or chronically dry skin, retinol may not be for you. Fortunately, you can find a retinol alternative in bakuchiol products, which will yield similar results minus any unpleasant side effects.

For peace of mind, speak with your dermatologist before incorporating a retinol product into your skincare routine to make sure it'll benefit your skin.

Words by Antoinette Barnardo

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