Retinol Isn't Actually That Scary—We've Got the Study Notes to Prove It
While a few basic skincare ingredients have become household names—vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, salicylic acid—the substance that can really get a crowd of skincare buffs talking is retinol. We’ve all heard of it, but after discussions both in and outside the office, it’s now crystal clear that we’re not all exactly sure what it is—or how it works and quite frankly, we’re a little bit scared of the stuff. That’s where I come in.
In an effort to get educated, I contacted both a top dermatologist and a celebrity esthetician for the full rundown, because two brains—and well-cared-for faces—are certainly better than one. Below you’ll see that Rachel Nazarian, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group and celebrity facialist Renée Rouleau had so many incredible insights that make the whole retinol situation a lot clearer.
What is retinol?
“Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that has long been used for antiageing,” Nazarian explains. “It can stimulate the metabolism of skin cells and encourage collagen production," Roleau adds. "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." Sounds dreamy, right?
So what's the difference between retinol, Retin A and retinoids?
This is where things get a little more confusing. “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 ageing. Retinol over-the-counter 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 organisation 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.”
So why is it worth adding retinol to your regimen?
“The pros of either 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 antiageing but also for acne,” explains Nazarian.
Retin-A can be helpful for those with certain types of acne-prone skin. “A prescription retinoid is very beneficial for antiageing and works on some types of acne,” Rouleau explains, “specifically whiteheads, blackheads, closed comedones and general clogged pores."
Is there anything to be worried about?
“The cons of either,” says Nazarian, “are that over-usage 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 moisturiser before applying the retinoid. It’s also worth noting here that this particular retinol skincare range works particularly well on sensitive skin.”
Rouleau agrees that there are some cons: “While Retin-A was originally a topical medication for treating acne, not all types of acne are equal. For those who get red, sore, inflamed acne (called papules and pustules), prescription retinoids may actually worsen the condition and increase irritation and inflammation in sensitive skin types. It’s very common for people to find that a prescription retinoid can worsen their specific type of acne. Upon initial use, Retin-A can cause dryness, increased sensitivity and peeling. With continued use, this will subside.”
Can you use retinol in 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.”
At what age should you start using retinol?
Nazarian recommends, “There are no true guidelines on how early you can start a retinoid, 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.”
Can any other ingredients mimic the effects of retinol?
“There are many other topical antioxidants, peptides and extracts that can have similar antiageing benefits to retinoids. The benefit of retinoids is that they can be found over the counter and can be very affordable. Remember you’re going to be using this for many, many years! It has a well-established research record and is undoubtedly one of the best tools we have in our anti-ageing battle.”
Below we’ve cherry-picked a few of our favourite retinol products, but you’ll find our favourite formulas that supply retinol for sensitive skin here.
Colbert MD Illumino Face Oil (£100)
After going in for Dr. Colbert’s Triad Facial, I became officially hooked. As such, I’m buying whatever he’s selling. 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.
This chemist option proves you don’t always have to spend a lot of money to use great skincare. It contains pure retinol to help reduce fine lines and deep wrinkles in 12 weeks of use. In fact, one reader experimented with the product, and her review was glowing: “I used my old moisturising cream on one side of my face and RoC Retinol Correction Deep Wrinkle Night Cream on the other side of my face for 3 months. I asked my friends and family if they could see less defined wrinkles on one side of my face versus the other. Almost everyone chose the side with the RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream as the side with lesser wrinkles.” Pretty amazing, huh?
StriVectin Advanced Retinol Intensive Night Moisturizer (£85)
StriVectin’s formula allows for all the wonderful antiageing 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.
Opening Image: Lolita Says So