This beginner’s guide to retinoids explains how they can help you firm up your skin and clear up breakouts.
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If you were to ask dermatologists to share a beneficial skin care ingredient, there’s a good chance they would say some kind of retinoid —a family of Vitamin A-based topical products.** One of these retinoids, retinol, can appear in products you’ll see in the skin care aisle. But some people remain concerned about the reputation of retinol for causing irritation. Here, health care professionals help demystify retinoids so you can decide if you want to incorporate them into your skin care regimen.
What are retinoids?
Retinoids are a class of molecules that include retinol and various “close cousins“ in structure. They can be either natural or synthetic in origin. In terms of skin care, retinoids can help regulate skin cell turnover — the pace at which skin sheds dead cells — and in doing so, helps to even out skin tone, improve hyperpigmentation and smooth texture, according to Macrene Alexiades, MD, a dermatologist in New York City and associate clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine.
Topical retinoids include both over-the-counter and prescription versions; while they all offer similar benefits, they can differ in strength. “Retinoic acid is the active compound,” says Dr. Alexiades. A prescription-only retinoid called tretinoin contains retinoic acid and are therefore active right out of the tube. Several years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved one former prescription-strength retinoid, Differin Gel 0.1% (adapalene), to be sold over the counter.
On the other hand, the retinol in over-the-counter formulas, such as Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 MAX Night Face Hydrating Moisturizer, has to undergo a conversion process in your skin that transforms them into retinoic acid. This acts like a speed bump, making it less potent, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “But less potent also means gentler and better tolerated.” Also, you should know that benzoyl peroxide or alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) such as citric or lactic acid can degrade retinols and make them less effective. So keep an eye out on ingredient labels.
What are the benefits of retinoids?
As we age, the production of collagen — the protein that gives our skin structure — slows down, causing fine lines, wrinkles, and sagging skin. Collagen is also damaged by exposure to UVA and UVB radiation.
So, retinoids to the rescue! By stimulating new collagen production and encouraging cellular turnover, retinoids help the skin shed dead cells that cause dullness and rough texture. This same process helps reduce acne.
Are there risks with retinoids?
There can be side effects from retinoids, but most of these are the result of prolonged, high-dose use. These include redness, itching or scaling of the skin. If you notice these or any other symptoms from a topical skin product, discontinue immediately and contact your health care provider.
It’s important to note that pregnant women are discouraged from using topical retinoids. There is a small risk that they may affect the pregnancy.
How do retinoids work?
It’s recommended to consult with your dermatologist before giving retinoids a try. Before starting a retinoid regimen, consider your skin concerns, goals and history. If you’re dealing with breakouts or want smoother, brighter skin and a more even tone, you’re likely a good candidate — so long as your skin is fairly resilient. “Those with sensitive skin, dry skin, red or rosy skin, or who have a tendency to flush are probably not good candidates for retinol,” says Dr. Alexiades.
Retinoids vs. retinol
Retinoids are the overarching category in which retinol is a member. Prescription-strength topical retinoids are much, much stronger than retinol — and that strength can be irritating to the skin. Almost all over-the-counter retinol creams (with the exception of Differin) are less potent, and thus are gentler and a great place to start if you’re interested in the potential benefits.
What does retinol do for your skin?
Like retinoids, retinol can help thicken the skin and promote collagen production, which can help contribute to an overall more youthful appearance. But remember, retinol is not as strong as a prescription-strength retinoid. That means using the over-the-counter products may not yield results that are as dramatic as those of a prescription. That said, a recent study comparing a retinol serum and a topical retinoid showed that subjects using the serum saw improvement in both dryness and visual skin smoothness in comparison to their topical retinoid counterparts.
Is retinol right for your skin care routine?
Dr. Zeichner acknowledges that retinol may be harsh or irritating, especially for the first month of use, in part because people tend to apply too much or too often. “More is not better,” he warns. “I recommend using only a pea-sized amount for the full face.” You’ll also want to take your skin type into consideration. If your complexion is prone to dryness, look for retinol creams, which will deliver more nourishment; those with oilier or combination skin types may want to seek out a retinol serum that won’t sit heavy on the skin’s surface or congest pores. (Retinol is also not safe to use during pregnancy, so consult with your healthcare provider before trying any new products.)
When you do find your product of choice, start slow: Apply every other night or even once every three nights when you begin your retinol usage. This will help your skin to acclimate to your new regimen.You’ll also want to protect your skin after incorporating retinol into your routine. Retinoids can make you more susceptible to sun damage— the reason many begin using the ingredient in the first place. Use a formula with a high sun protection factor like La Roche-Posay Anthelios Tinted Mineral Light Fluid Sunscreen SPF 50. This one will not only shield you from sun damage, but also add a sheer tint to even your complexion and enhance your new retinol-induced glow.
Hydration, courtesy of a good moisturizer, will help stave off irritation too. If you’re really concerned about sensitivity, you can try the “sandwich technique.” It means putting your retinoid on between two layers of moisturizer. Max out moisture by using a moisturizer like Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Night Cream; the hyaluronic acid pulls water into the skin, so the retinol can go to work.
When shopping for retinol creams, consider both the packaging claims and the formulation itself. For example, if you tend to overzealously apply skin care products (which you shouldn’t do with retinol), look for retinol creams in pump packaging so you can easily dispense a small amount.
It's worth noting that some of the best retinol cream options contain “gradual release” technology courtesy of encapsulated retinol, which means that the active ingredient is enclosed in tiny polymer shells that slowly dissolve and absorb into the skin, rather than absorbing all at once, which could sensitize the skin. You’ll still get similar benefits as a regular retinol, but you may have less irritation. CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Face Serum features both encapsulated retinol and pump packaging for a smooth and comfortable experience.
You can also rev up your skin care regimen with a retinol serum rather than a cream. This product uses the gradual release technology mentioned above for slow and effective absorption of retinol. It also features glycerin, a skin hydrator, and vitamin B3, also known as niacinamide. Niacinamide is an ingredient that offers a host of benefits, including having antioxidant effects, improved skin barrier function, reduced redness and dark spots, and even decreases fine lines and wrinkles. Just don’t forget to wear your sunscreen!
*This content is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Consult with your health care provider before taking any vitamins or supplements, and prior to beginning or changing any health care practices.
** These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.