Retinol—a word used often, but not always understood. You might use your nightly retinol cream because the label said it “diminishes wrinkles” or “firms skin,” but do you know why or how? What about Retin-A, which only your derm can prescribe? Is there really a difference between the two? We decided to get to the bottom of the debate and asked dermatologist Dr. Vermén M. Verallo-Rowell all our pressing retinol-related questions. Turns out, there’s a lot about this compound you might not know.
Click through the slideshow above for everything you need to know about retinols and Retin-A!
Verallo-Rowell says that they’re both considered retinoids and first-generation compounds derived from Vitamin A, but Retin-A is much stronger. “Tretinoin is the very first natural retinoid made for topical use,” Verallo-Rowell says. “[At first] it was used for acne, and later it was found to be excellent for photoaging the skin.” The first brand name was Retin-A, and now there are other brands, like Avita and Renova, which are used to treat everything from acne to discoloration.
Retinol, on the other hand, is way more mild and found in many products that don’t require a prescription. In the U.S., the FDA has classified it as a cosmetic ingredient, while Retin-A is considered a drug.
Since they’re both derivatives of vitamin A—a natural vitamin that your body needs at every age—Verallo-Rowell says that you can use them at any age. However, Retin-A has been studied and proven to help with the treatment of acne, so it is usually used when acne starts showing up. “[Retin-A] tends to dry your skin and make it sensitive, so it’s usually started in an older child who’s starting to experience oiliness and pimply skin—not on the sensitive skin of younger children,” Verallo-Rowell says. Retinols, as the weaker, gentler version, can be started at the same time, but are usually geared to anyone starting to experience wrinkles and sagging skin.
Common side effects of Retin-A are similar to other prescription acne products: warmth or stinging after applying, which can lead to redness, dryness, itching, and mild burning. Some people even say that their acne gets worse before it gets better, though this usually lessens after two to four weeks.
“Although retinol is classified as a cosmetic—not a drug like Retin-A is—studies have shown that it does have effects that are similar to those of Retin-A, but only at higher doses,” Verallo-Rowell says. If a product with retinol is manufactured, formulated, and packaged with care to avoid oxidation and loss of potency, a higher concentration of Retinol will yield better effects, without the side effects of Retin-A. But here’s the problem: many products that tout themselves as made with retinol don’t actually have to declare the concentration of retinol, and might not be as well-produced as its prescription counterparts. “In fact, retinol is often listed as an inactive ingredient!” Verallo-Rowell says. So, always check the ingredient list—“Vitamin A” or “retinol” should be near the top of the list if the product really does what it promises.
Verallo-Rowell says it depends on the concentration of retinol in your OTC product, which unfortunately, isn’t usually declared.
It may take up to 8-12 weeks to start noticing positive results from Retin-A—it all depends on the strength, form, and how often you’re told to apply it.
“I compound Retin-A in virgin coconut oil, or apply Retin-A on top of coconut oil,” Verallo-Rowell reveals. “This way, I can customize the dosage for each patient, based on his or her particular history, tolerance levels, patch test results, and more.” Even at higher concentrations, she finds that her patients can almost immediately start using the product once a day without a sensitivity problem, because of the healing, antioxidant-filled, and anti-inflammatory nature of virgin coconut oil. Looks like we’ve found another use for it other than oil pulling…
For a prescription retinoid like Retin-A, Atralin, Renova or Avita, Verallo-Rowell suggests starting off with a hypoallergenic cleanser, then using a gentle moisturizer and daily SPF that contains titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and iron oxide—preferably at 3.2% or higher in colored SPF products. In the evening after cleansing, she says to apply the coconut oil to your face and neck and allow it to sink in for a few minutes. Then, apply a pea-sized amount of your retinoid product and spread it lightly over your face—and don’t forget your neck and chest!
Use this system with your retinoids once or twice a week, taking note of any areas that become dry, red, or scaly for one to two weeks. If no redness or other reactions occur, she says to increase your application to every other night for another one to two weeks, then increase to nightly application if your skin can tolerate it. “Once you’ve used the product for 3 months without irritation, ask your dermatologist for the next highest concentration of the retinoid,” she says. “They usually come as 0.025%, 0.05%, 0.1% and so on.”
Verallo-Rowell says there a couple things to keep in mind when using a prescription retinoid. First, avoid all moisturizers that contain salicylic acid or glycolic acid—they can make your skin more sensitive. Cleansers with these ingredients are okay, however, because they wash off with your skin products. Lastly, steer clear of facial scrubs, chemical peels, sun bathing, and facial waxing—all of these can irritate your skin and leave your complexion looking raw and irritated.
Want to ease into the retinoid game? Keep clicking to shop our favorite OTC retinols!
Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM ($65)
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Solution ($85)
Dr. Brandt Skincare Revitalizing Retinol Eye Cream ($55)
Shiseido Benefiance Pure Retinol Instant Treatment Eye Mask ($63)
Philosophy Help Me SPF 30 Sunscreen ($48)
Roc Retinol Correxion Sensitive Night Cream ($23)
Kate Somerville RetAsphere 2-in-1 Retinol Night Cream ($85)