Oh, retinol. 

In skin care, retinol just might be the sexiest ingredient of all. Because I and everyone around me are all getting older, I’m starting to get more and more questions about anti-aging treatments, including retinol. This ingredient has waaaaay more benefits than just to ward off wrinkles.

To thoroughly answer everyone’s questions, I’m putting together a few posts in a series, from what retinol does to where to get it. Plus, we’ll go over how to find the right retinoid for you (more on that soon) and how to use them to yield the best results. 

There’s way more to this superhero skin care ingredient than meets the eye. 

First of all, the retinol serum sitting on your shelf? It probably isn’t actually retinol.

“Retinol” is a catchall term to describe an anti-aging, anti-acne, smoothing and firming ingredient but that isn’t accurate. Retinol actually is just one type of retinoid and retinoids are  a group of vitamin A derivatives. It’s like the way we call every adhesive bandage a “Band-Aid.”

(Since retinoid is more accurate, that’s how I will refer to the group of vitamin A derivatives. When I use the term “retinol,” I am referring to the specific type of retinoid.)


What are retinoids?

Topical retinoids are amazing for skin since they speed up cell turnover. You’re in the market for a good retinoid if you want to tackle obvious wrinkles; loss of tone or elasticity (sagging and bagging) and uneven texture. It’s also useful in shrinking the look of pores and clearing up acne. 

An antioxidant, it also works to combat the free radicals all around us that are responsible for the visible signs of aging. It also helps reveal a more youthful appearance, and revitalize dull-looking skin.


What are different kinds of retinoids?

Of all the retinoids, retinoic acid — aka tretinoin or brand name Retin-A — is the strongest. It’s the only retinoid that starts to work immediately since your body doesn’t need to convert it to use it. And it’s prescription-only.

Other retinoids that are most commonly found in over-the-counter products are retinol, retinaldehyde and retinyl palmitate. Once applied to the skin, these must undergo a conversion process where our bodies turn these derivatives into retinoic acid. Only after that conversion is your skin able to use this ingredient as retinoic acid.

The farther you move away from retinoic acid, the more conversion steps the retinoid needs in order for it to do its job. And the more steps, the weaker the retinoid is, which means a longer time to see results — if any.

Think of it like a shot of Jack Daniels vs. a Jack and Coke — a straight shot of retinoic acid is going to do the job faster.


Where can I find retinoids?

In the U.S., there are two ways to get retinoids: over the counter, like at the drugstore, beauty counter or specialty store or from your dermatologist.

Your derm always will have something way stronger than what’s in a store and the stronger the retinoid, the faster (and sometimes better) they work. 


What are the side effects of retinoids?

Retinoids promote skin cell turnover, but all these new baby cells are sensitive and side effects usually include dryness, tightness, peeling and redness, especially if this is your first foray into strong retinoids. It’s usually a “worse-before-better” type of situation and the side effects stop after about up to two or three weeks of use when the skin acclimates.


When and how should I apply retinoids?

Unless otherwise specified, apply retinoids at night after cleansing. Retinoids are some of the only skin care ingredients that like to be down on clean skin. (Because skin care is NEVER black and white, exceptions below.) 

Make sure to wait a few minutes for your skin to completely dry before application. Any water in your skin will drive the product deeper and, while that’s usually a good thing, it can be irritating with retinoids.  

Start off by using your retinoid every third night. If after two weeks your skin isn’t experiencing any irritation, start using it every other night. Eventually, you can bump it up to using it every night. 

Now, those with sensitive skin also may benefit from buffering, or a “retinoid sandwich,” which means (after cleansing) laying a light layer of moisturizer down on the skin, then applying your retinoid. Follow this with another layer of moisturizer.


Can I use retinoids with my other skin care products?

I would be careful with actives, namely alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic, lactic, citric, etc.) or beta hydroxy acid (salicylic acid). Acids are exfoliators, but so is vitamin A. Using them together can potentially reduce the effect of the retinoid and over-stimulate your skin, which means a raw, sore face. There have been studies citing it OK to mix these, but I’ve heard more horror stories than success stories. If you really love your acids, use them on alternating nights of your retinoids.

Also, when using retinoids, you must wear SPF every day. Our skin always is delicate in the sunlight, but now you’re bringing new cells to the surface and this is like baby skin. Protect it — like you should be doing anyway.


Is there any time when I shouldn’t use retinoids?

Most likely, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you’re told to stay away from retinoids.

Talk to your doctor about it.

Sometimes, if you are in prescription-strength retinoids for acne, your derm might allow you to continue using, but just monitor your use. Also, if you just found out you’re pregnant and have been using retinoids; or are pregnant and/or nursing and just discovered there are retinoids in a product you’ve been using, do not panic. Stop use, call your doctor and let them know.  


What if I have sensitive skin?

Retinoids irritate at first. Even if you have rhino skin, you might notice the peeling, redness, stinging, etc. if it’s strong enough. 

If you are very sensitive, retinoids may be hard to implement at first. However, remember those low-level retinoids, including retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and the aforementioned retinyl palmitate? The weakest of the reintoid family (called retinoid esters), they can be a good thing if you have sensitive skin.

These types of retinoids need to undergo up to three conversions inside your body before your skin can use them. While that means they take a longer time to work, they’re WAY more gentle. 

Sticking with the alcohol metaphor, if you don’t have a built-up tolerance to whiskey shots, you could sabotage yourself and your night out. Sipping on Jack and Cokes all night can ensure a relaxed, fun time without any embarrassing moments. 

(Also, don’t worry — I plan to do a post expanding on suitable low-level retinoids and alternatives for sensitive/rosacea babes.)