What Is Retinol? Everything You've Wanted to Know and More

Updated 09/01/19
retinol guide
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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 clear that many of us still aren't exactly sure about what it is—or how it works.

In an effort to get educated (and, of course, live my wrinkle-free best life), I contacted both a top dermatologist and a celebrity esthetician for the full rundown. Because two brains—and two well-cared-for faces—are certainly better than one. Rachel Nazarian, MD, 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 the answers to every retinol question you’ve ever asked.

retinol guide
 Grace Kim/Byrdie

What Exactly 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,” says Rouleau.

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 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 Benefits of Using Retinol?

“The pros of both retinol and Retin-A 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 also 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 generally clogged pores."

Are There Negative Effects of Using Retinol?

"The cons of either,” says Nazarian, “are that [over-use] 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."

When it comes to gentler options, Nazarian likes Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream ($16), which is oil-free.

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.”

When Should You Start Using Retinol?

“There are no true guidelines on how early you can start a retinoid," says Nazarian, “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.”

When Should You Apply Retinol?

“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-sized 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 that weekly routine with a retinol serum might look like:

  • Monday and Tuesday: Retinol
  • Wednesday: Exfoliating acid serum (like Renée Rouleau Ultra Gentle Smoothing Serum, $48)
  • Thursday and Friday: Retinol
  • Saturday: Hydrating serum (like Renée Rouleau Skin Drink, $45)

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 into 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.”

And now for a few of our favorite retinoid products and the reasons we love them:

Colbert MD Illumino Face Oil $150
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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.

NaturaBissé Essential Shock Intense Retinol Fluid $115
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Perhaps the most luxurious of the bunch, this ultra-moisturizing fluid keeps your skin supple and hydrated through the night and into the next day. It’s silky, it’s fast-absorbing, and it’ll make you look younger to boot.

Roc Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream
RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream $25
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This drugstore option proves you don’t always have to spend a lot of money to get great skincare. It contains pure retinol to help reduce fine lines and deep wrinkles in just 12 weeks of use.

Skinceuticals Retinol Cream 1.0 $88
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Formulated with 1% retinol (the highest concentration of pure retinol available), this product is no joke. It works to help reduce the look of photo-damaged skin, minimize the appearance of pore size and wrinkles, prevent blemishes, and even skin tone.

StriVectin Advanced Retinol Intensive Night Moisturizer $112
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StriVectin’s formula allows for all the wonderful anti-aging benefits but none of the irritating side effects. Chock-full of retinol and copper, it’ll restore your skin while you sleep to keep it bright, wrinkle-free, and healthy.

Now that you have your anti-aging down, read these 21 beauty hacks every woman should know.

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