I've Tried 'Em All: Why Doesn't Retinol Work for Me?

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For years I've heard my co-workers rave about certain cult-favorite retinol products: Shani Darden's Resurface Retinol Reform ($95) is a favorite of our wellness editor, Victoria, Peter Thomas Roth's Professional 3% Retinoid Plus ($82) is beloved by our editorial director, Faith, and The Ordinary's Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane ($14) is huge for our readers.

I've tried all of them. And nothing. I'll apply it as directed on the packaging, drift off to sleep with dreams of tight, glowing skin, and wake up to find my face looking… duller than when I use my usual vitamin C. So what gives? "You are absolutely right about seeing more immediate results when using a vitamin C product as compared to a retinol," Renée Rouleau, a celebrity esthetician, told me when I complained to her about my retinol woes. "But don't give up on retinol or retinoids just yet."

First things first, let's go over the definition of retinol. "When applied, retinol converts slowly within the skin to retinoic acid. It then binds to the receptors and activates the cell maturation process in the skin. This means it's delivered into the skin slowly, over a period of hours, instead of all at once upon application," explains Rouleau. "With continued use, vitamin A slowly improves the skin's appearance. It smoothes the skin's texture by lessening visible wrinkles, lines, acne scar indents, large pores, scarring, and brown spots," notes Rouleau. That being said, "The potential side effects of retinol will vary greatly across users, depending on what else they have going on with their skin."

But here's the thing: "Most people won't notice an improvement for about two months—this is why you have to stick with the program. The product is doing something for your skin, whether you are seeing the results right away or not," says Rouleau.

"Retinol works over time to retexturize and resurface your skin," adds Christine Chang, the co-CEO and co-founder of Glow Recipe. "Certain vitamin C formulations leave the skin immediately brighter and more even-toned due to the unique delivery system." Rouleau notes, "Brightness has a lot to do with pigmentation, which can be caused by brown spots and post-acne marks. That's the reason your skin will look more even-toned and 'bright.' But even though those results are immediate, you have to continually use the products to keep them. Cells will build up again quickly after using an acid, so the results are short-term unless you continue with regular use."

That being said, many women in the K-beauty community advise against retinol completely. "I never use retinol," says Alicia Yoon, skincare guru and founder of Korean skincare brand Peach & Lily. "I have very sensitive skin and there is always an adjustment period to retinols," she explains. "During this period, skin can become more fragile—thinner, basically—and results in increased sensitivity, and at times, peeling and flaking. I find that a lot of my clients also struggle with the initial adjustment period of using a retinol. On the other hand, with consistent use, after that adjustment period, there are studies that show that retinol can actually help thicken the epidermis.

So here's the thing: There are two conflicting points of view. Those that tell you to never give up on your retinol, make it through the initial adjustment period, and you'll be better off in the end. And, those who believe you should work with the products that keep your skin happy and bright from day one. For now, I'm going with the latter. While instant gratification isn't everything, I do have faith in the products that have been working for me thus far. It's up to you (and your derm) how you choose to treat your skin.

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