Retinol has been a longtime fan favorite anti-aging molecule. And for good reason! As a cosmetic ingredient, retinol is one of the few that has decades of research and data behind its efficacy. In fact, this is why in our book, Skincare Decoded, we refer to this active as one the Big Four and stands alongside the champs, ascorbic acid, AHAs, and niacinamide. But, you’ve probably heard of the downside of retinol - flaking, shedding, redness, dryness. While it may sound intimidating, just a couple careful steps can help you reap all the benefits with little to no side effects. So let’s do a review of retinol shall we?
But First! Let’s Review The Retinoid Umbrella
One of the most common questions we get on this topic is - “What is the difference between retinol and retinoid?” Retinoid is actually the umbrella term for the family of ingredients. It doesn't refer to any specific molecule. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common retinoids you can find on the market:
- Prescription retinoids: This includes compounds like tretinoin (Retin-A), isotretinoin (Accutane), 0.3% adapalene, and tazarotene (Tazorac) which need to be prescribed by your doctor.
- OTC retinoid: There is only one OTC retinoid available right now - 0.1% adapalene. OTC products come with a drug facts label and have a regulated concentration of the active ingredient
- Cosmetic retinoids: retinol, retinal, and retinyl palmitate (<- boooo 👎) are all in this bucket. This isn't regulated - and you can find a wild range of concentrations from a cat's sneeze worth to skin molting levels. This can get a bit wild when you’re product hunting, but you can still find some fantastic anti-aging staples here.
There’s also sort of a 4th category of cosmetic retinoids -- retinol alternatives. Ingredients such as bakuchiol, granactive retinol, and even some plant extracts are positioned as more gentle alternatives. Learn more about these derivatives here - which ones are worth trying and which ones trigger our skeptic meter.
What does retinol do for skin?
In a nutshell, retinol targets keratinocytes, dermal endothelial cells, and fibroblasts - read: skin cells that are in charge of maintaining your skin structure. The stimulated cells produce more collagen, fibronectin, and elastin. All good things!
The results? It’s one of the few ingredients out there with clinically proven skin benefits in almost all fields of skincare. Treating fine lines and wrinkles? Check. Visibly reduce hyperpigmentation? Check! Acne? Check! (check out our other retinoids article for better retinoids for targeted acne treatments). There are even studies on retinol effectively treating notoriously difficult conditions such as crow’s feet and cellulite.
It’s no wonder retinol is still to this day a superstar skincare ingredient. But since retinol is so popular, shopping for retinol can be a pain in the butt. There are so many choices and the quality can vary far and wide in between. Not to mention everyone’s skin needs are different. LET THE CHEMISTS HeLP MMKAY? Let’s bust some retinol myths to help you on your product discovery journey.
Retinol Myth Busting
Retinol Myth #1: Retinol thins out your skin and causes it to burn more easily in the sun.
While it is true that when acclimating to retinol, your skin can become more irritated and prone to sensitivities. But over time, retinol actually thickens your skin. And with or without retinol, it’s always a good idea to use daily sunscreen so you don’t have to worry about inviting photodamage.
Retinol Myth #2: The sun is retinol’s mortal enemy! Do not apply during the day!
Well, you could apply retinol during the day. Retinol as an ingredient is unstable in light. However, if you’re using a well-formulated product, it’ll last long enough throughout the day to work. Don't believe us? Well there's a study that wanted to understand just that. They found that after a four hour exposure to sun and oxygen, retinol had only degraded by <10%. So, we don't have to worry too much about applying retinol in the daytime. Also no, applying retinol during the daytime doesn’t cause skin cancer either.
Retinol Myth #3: The higher the % the better!
Okay. We confess that when we first started Chemist Confessions, we were big proponents of pushing for transparent active percentages in products. But HOLY COW the industry has completely bastardized this movement. There are now products that claim 6% retinol complex, whatever that really means. The reality is - retinol concentration is important, and the actual range of proven activity is between 0.1% and 1%.
If you're doubting that 0.1% efficacy, there's an actually study that demonstrated that using 0.1% retinol for one year can significantly improve wrinkles, mottled pigmentation, crows feet, and found an increase in collagen. So no, you really don't have to use 1% retinol to obtain reitnol's benefits. The name of the game here is to start slow and low, so find the right sweet spot for you that won’t overly irritate your skin.
Shopping for Retinol
Convinced? Ready to add retinol to your routine? Here are some chemists’ shopping tips!
*Products that use lingo such as 10% retinol complex don’t necessarily actually have 10% retinol… but this faux transparency isn’t exactly super helpful 👎👎
Protective packaging is important! And don’t forget proper storage. Retinol is notoriously unstable. So airless packaging with small nozzle sizes can help a lot in keeping your retinol fresh and effective. Don’t forget to keep your serum in that nice vampire setting! (cold & dark)
Using Retinol in Your Routine
Here are some pro tips of ours to help you incorporate this guy successfully into your routine:
- Acclimate your skin: We recommend starting with 1-2 times a week for a couple of weeks to monitor any skin changes. If you’re noticing side effects of dryness, flaking, redness, then stay the course. If you’re noticing no changes. Dial up the frequency!
- Make it Your Main Squeeze: When you’re first starting retinol, build your routine around retinol. For example: using AHAs but now want to incorporate retinol? Temporarily bench AHAs till you have a good handle on how retinol makes your skin behave. Then slowly add in your AHA step once a week
- Troubleshoot irritation: If skin is suddenly feeling uncomfortable, dial down the frequency and load up your routine with soothers.
- Sidekick actives save (skin) lives: Soothing ingredients (centella, allantoin, panthenol, etc.) and barrier helpers (ceramides, niacinamide) will keep the journey peaceful.
- Competing products: We get it, there are so many awesome skincare treatments & serums to try out there. So how do you fit them all? Our strategy is similar to our first point, decide who your quarterback skincare product is and then build around it. Remember, skincare is only truly effective when you’re diligently using it, so at least one treatment needs to be the anchor treatment that’s being used consistently every night. Time and time again we’ve seen routines get out of hand and suddenly users are juggling 4 products a night, put in rotation. If you’re in a rhythm, more power to you, but this can get really difficult to troubleshoot when irritation and dry skin pops up.
- Retinol is a tried and true active with multiple anti-aging, skin brightening & acne-fighting benefits.
- Retinol does have some side effects but these can all be well managed with a slow introduction.
- Routines with soothers, sunscreens, and skin barrier strengthening ingredients are all great sidekicks to retinol
Beginner-Friendly Retinol Products to Consider
Arash Akhavan MD, A. R., Carlotti, M., Gaspar, L., Elbaum, D., & Xia, Q. (2008, April 9). Assessing retinol stability in a hydroquinone 4%/retinol 0.3% cream in the presence of antioxidants and sunscreen under simulated-use conditions: A pilot study. Clinical Therapeutics.