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There are a dizzying number of trending skincare ingredients floating around the internet, but retinol is one that actually lives up to the hype. The dermatologist- and aesthetician darling can be found just about everywhere—from nightly serums and moisturizers to daily acne spot treatments—and for good reason: "Retinol is the OG exfoliator, skin thickener, and collagen stimulator. Of all of the skincare ingredients, it is the one to keep using," double board-certified pediatric and cosmetic dermatologist Karan Lal tells BAZAAR.com.
What Is Retinol?
Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, which also includes retinal (or retinaldehyde), along with over-the-counter or prescription retinoids, like tretinoin. Retinaldehyde is more potent than retinol, but less irritating than a prescription retinoid. But before these ingredients can have an impact on the skin, they need to be converted to retinoic acid.
"Retinaldehyde is considered more potent than retinol because it only requires one step to be converted to retinoid acid in order for it to have its effect on the skin," says board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick at MDCS Dermatology in NYC. "While retinol can be used by all skin types, it's especially great for someone who is unable to tolerate a prescription retinoid, as may be the case for a person with dry or sensitive skin.
Retinaldehyde is a great option for someone who has been able to tolerate a retinol but isn’t seeing their desired results and wants to try something more potent, or for someone who is unable to tolerate a prescription retinoid. As an over-the-counter or prescription retinoid, it helps regulate skin cell turnover, prevent pore clogging, and improve overall skin tone and texture while boosting collagen production."
Do OTC Retinols Actually Work?
As far as what's available at your local drugstore, Garshick notes that over-the-counter retinoids are synthetic, and consist of fine line-reducing retinols (available in concentrations, acne-fighting adapalene, and retinaldehyde, which is ideal for those seeking more advanced improvement.
For patients who are retinol beginners, she often recommends RoC's Retinol Correxion Sensitive Night Cream, a treatment with plumping hyaluronic acid to help with signs of aging. Both Garshick and Lal also suggest the Clinical Skin Retinol and Peptide Refining Serum 2.5, which is safe for sensitive skin. It combines ingredients like retinol, bakuchiol, ceramides, and more, to reduce fine lines and discoloration sans irritation. And for the delicate eye area, Lal is a fan of La Roche-Posay's hardworking Redermic R Retinol Eye Cream.
At what point in your routine should retinol be used?
Retinol is best applied at night, usually after cleansing and before your go-to moisturizer. "It's important to remember to only apply a small pea-sized amount for the entire face to minimize the potential for irritation," Garshick advises. If you have dry or sensitive skin, experts often recommend applying moisturizer first, then dabbing on retinol to further reduce skin inflammation risk.
When can you expect to see changes in your skin?
It takes at minimum around four weeks, and at maximum up to three months to start reaping benefits from retinol, as dermatologists say skin turnover benefits closely align with the timeline of collagen production.
Can women who are pregnant or nursing use retinol?
While it's not recommended that those who are pregnant or nursing use topical retinol products, safer alternatives, like bakuchiol, azelaic acid, peptides, and low concentrations of alpha hydroxy acids, can be equally beneficial in refining skin's texture and tone.
Why is retinol irritating your skin?
Since retinol is available in varied percentages, from 0.5 to 2.5, dermatologists advise starting low and slow with initial application once or twice per week when adding one to your regimen. Additionally, it's best to use only one retinol-based product at a time to avoid irritation. "If you notice redness, flaking, or skin burning, it may be time to take a retinol break," Lal says. "These are signs your skin is very reactive to retinol. Pause, use moisturizer, and slowly incorporate retinol back into your routine once your skin has healed."
For more recommendations about which retinol, retinal, or prescription retinoids is best for you, consult with a board-certified dermatologist who can best provide a specific plan of action for your skin needs.
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