A Guide to Retinols: Everything You've Always Wanted to Know and More
While a few basic skincare ingredients have become household names, one is constantly part of the conversation: retinol. We’ve all heard of it, but after discussions both in and outside the office, it’s now crystal clear we’re not all exactly sure what it is—or how it works. That’s where I come in.
In an effort to get educated (and, of course, live my wrinkle-freest life), I contacted both a top dermatologist and a celebrity aesthetician for the full rundown. Because two brains—and well-cared-for faces—are certainly better than one. Dr. Rachel Nazarian of Schweiger Dermatology Group and celebrity facialist Renée Rouleau eagerly and thoroughly answered all of my burning questions, as well as the ones I crowdsourced from co-workers and friends.
Keep scrolling for all the anti-aging insight.
What is retinol?
“Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that has been used for anti-aging and found in many skincare products,” Nazarian explains.
Rouleau adds, “It can stimulate the metabolism of skin cells and encourage collagen production. Retinol can be absorbed within the skin and, when combined with certain enzymes, it’s converted into tretinoin (the acid form of vitamin A, also known as retinoic acid). Using a well-formulated and stable product with retinol will visibly reduce the appearance of sun damage, brown spots, lines, wrinkles and large pores. Its magic is in its ability to resurface the skin’s texture for a smoother, more even-toned look."
What’s the difference between retinol, Retin-A, and retinoid?
“Both Retin-A and retinol are considered types of retinoids (which is a class of medication),” says Nazarian. “Both can help with promoting faster skin cell turnover, and both are proven options for helping reverse signs of skin aging. But retinol over-the-counter—it requires conversion in the skin to the active form, while a Retin-A is a prescription product that is more potent and slightly more effective at diminishing wrinkles and fighting acne. You will need to speak to a dermatologist about getting a prescription.”
“Retin-A restores the organization of cells through cellular turnover in the epidermis, so they are less likely to fall into the pores and block them—resulting in fewer clogged pores and small breakouts,” says Rouleau. “It also improves the look of wrinkles by retexturing and smoothing the skin’s surface and reducing pore size.”
What are the pros?
“The pros of either are that you will see improvement in fine lines, wrinkles, and enhanced collagen production in the skin, with improvement in skin tone. Retin-A is just a stronger prescription version that works faster and more effectively not only for anti-aging but also for acne,” explains Nazarian.
Retin-A can be helpful for those with certain types of acne prone skin. “A prescription retinoid is very beneficial for anti-aging and works on some types of acne,” Rouleau explains, “specifically whiteheads, blackheads, closed comedones, and general clogged pores."
What are the cons?
“The cons of either,” says Nazarian, “are that over-usage can cause drying and irritation of skin. Some people with super-sensitive skin conditions like rosacea may not be able to tolerate either. Both topicals also make you more sensitive to sunlight, leading to quicker and easier sunburns. Both are also contraindicated in pregnancy,” says Nazarian.
She continues, “Retinoids can only be damaging to skin if you have a super-sensitive underlying skin condition like eczema or rosacea and can flare and enhance inflammation. Still, patients with sensitive conditions like rosacea may still be able to use a retinoid, but they need to gradually introduce it into their skincare regimen, perhaps only one time weekly, and prep their skin with a topical moisturizer before applying the retinoid. Neutrogena’s Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream ($13) is a great option which is also oil-free, and gentler options containing retinol can be found for use around the delicate eye area, such as Olay’s Age Defying Anti‑Wrinkle Eye Cream ($13).”
Rouleau agrees that there are some cons: “While Retin-A was originally a topical medication for treating acne, not all types of acne are equal. For those who get red, sore, inflamed acne (called papules and pustules), prescription retinoids may actually worsen the condition and increase irritation and inflammation in sensitive skin types. Acne is an inflammatory disease of the skin, and inflaming this type of acne with retinoids is not the best strategy to getting clearer skin. It’s very common for people to find that a prescription retinoid can worsen their specific type of acne. Upon initial use, Retin-A can cause dryness, increased sensitivity, and peeling. With continued use, this will subside.”
She continues, “Retinol is not ideal for those who get red, sore, inflamed acne as it will not give any improvement and may actually increase inflammation and breakouts. It’s also not recommended for anyone who expects to see immediate results. It’s milder in its vitamin A activity, so it will take a little longer to see smoothing benefits. Just be patient! Some people may experience some initial tightness or light dryness, but generally, most will not have any noticeable negative effects.”
“Lastly, I don’t recommend Retin-A or retinol it for anyone who doesn’t take sun safety seriously. Daily use of sunscreen is crucial to seeing successful results with a retinoid,” says Rouleau.
Can you use retinol during the summer?
“If you would like to use a retinoid in the summertime, it’s imperative that you wear a high-SPF broad-spectrum sunscreen daily,” suggests Nazarian. “Along with sunscreen, because your risk for burning is so high, I would avoid peak hours of sun and wear a broad-brim hat when outdoors.”
At what age should you start using retinol?
Nazarian recommends, “There are no true guidelines on how early you can start a retinoid, but if you’re old enough to be thinking about wrinkles, you should be doing something to prevent them! I find that most women benefit from starting a retinoid treatment in their late teens or early 20s.”
Similarly, Rouleau recommends retinol for those in their late 20s who have minimal to no breakout activity—as this is when cellular turnover starts to slow down. She continues, “Simply put, the best candidate is for those whose breakout years are behind them. If someone has sensitive, easily irritated skin, retinol is a good ingredient to prevent the look of aging whereas a prescription retinoid could be too irritating. With continued use, retinol works to fade hyper-pigmentation (brown spots and patches) and give the look of smoother skin in a gentler, non-drying way than a prescription form.”
What time of day should you apply?
“Most retinoids are not photo stable or sunlight stable, meaning they should be kept in an opaque well-sealed container and used only at night. Generally speaking, I suggest all of my patients begin using a pea-size amount once weekly over their moisturizer. They would gradually increase how often, but not how much, they are using based on how their skin response. If any redness or irritation is noted the next day, you should skip that night’s application.”
Rouleau adds, “Apply your retinol serum to the entire face and neck. Wait three minutes and apply a small amount of moisturizer, if needed. Use the retinol serum for two nights on, one night off, alternating with an exfoliating acid serum and a nourishing treatment serum.” Here’s what a routine with a retinol serum should look like:
- Monday-Tuesday: Retinol
- Wednesday: Exfoliating acid serum (like Renée Rouleau AHA Smoothing Serum 10%, $42)
- Thursday and Friday: Retinol
- Saturday: Hydrating serum (like Renée Rouleau Skin Drink, $41)
Rouleau breaks down why this particular schedule works: “Since retinol is pushing up skin cells to the surface at a faster rate, retinol can cause micro-peeling (invisible peeling) in most skin types, so it’s important to not use it every night. Because it takes two days for the cells to regenerate to the surface and cause the skin to get flaky, using an exfoliating serum on Wednesday is perfect to remove the surface dead cells that appear. Also, retinol may work even better when used back on the skin on Thursday, because now it can penetrate deeper in the skin because of the acid exfoliation the night before. Then, a hydrating serum is added to the mix once a week to give the skin a break, using barrier repair and nourishing ingredients to keep the skin calm and hydrated. It’s also important to do it this way simply because the skin performs its best when it has a variety of high-performance ingredients instead of the same one ingredient night in and night out.”
Are there any all-natural ingredients that mimic the effects of retinol?
“There are many other topical antioxidants, peptides, and extracts that can have similar anti-aging benefits to retinoids. The benefit of retinoids are that they can be found over the counter and can be very affordable. Remember you’re going to be using this for many, many years! It has a well-established research record and is undoubtedly one of the best tools we have in our anti-aging battle.”
And now for a few of our favorites and the reason we love them:
Colbert MD Illumino Face Oil ($140)
After going in for Dr. Colbert’s Triad Facial, I became officially hooked. As such, I’m buying whatever he’s selling. This face oil soothes the skin while also delivering a one-two punch of retinol and vitamin C. Plus, the helpful blend includes marula oil for hydration, passion fruit oil for elasticity, and borage seed oil to improve your skin’s overall texture.
This drugstore option proves you don’t always have to spend a lot of money to use great skincare. It contains pure retinol to help reduce fine lines and deep wrinkles in 12 weeks of use. In fact, one reader experimented with the product, and her review was glowing: “I used my old moisturizing cream on one side of my face and RoC Retinol Correction Deep Wrinkle Night Cream on the other side of my face for 3 months. I asked my friends and family if they could see less defined wrinkles on one side of my face versus the other. Almost everyone chose the side with the RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream as the side with lesser wrinkles.” Pretty amazing, huh?
Now that you have your anti-aging down, read these 10-second beauty hacks every woman should know.