Ingredient Lowdown Series: The Truth About Retinol

Ingredient Lowdown Series: Retinol


When it comes to learning about the latest product ingredients that’ll make my skin supple and glowy, my inner science nerd can get lost in beauty Reddit rabbit holes for hours.  Are you combating blemishes and redness?  I’m about that BHA life.  Need a facial oil that won’t clog your pores?  Argan oil is level 0 out of 4 on the comedogenic scale.  But retinols as an anti-aging cure-all?  I was on the fence.  

First, what is retinol?  Retinol is derivative of vitamin A, popular for its acclaimed and swoon-worthy anti-aging benefits.  Based on what I can see and what I’ve heard, 99.999% of experts think retinol is the absolute best ingredient if you’re looking to hold onto your youth for as long as possible.  I’ll take some on my face, hands and neck with a side of cucumber facials please.  Oh, and bonus points for also increasing collagen production and speeding up cell turnover, not to mention preventing acne forever.

But I’ve heard so many sides to the story — they’re game-changing but they expire quickly, retinol keeps your skin plump but also gives UV rays direct access to your face.  The list goes on really.  Beauty studies about the Millennial generation have shown a declining interest in using anti-aging products, instead focusing on overall wellness and “aging gracefully.”  Do I really need to worry about a natural wrinkle or two in the next forty-something years?  That being said, we did some *more* internet research sifting through and demystifying this magical ingredient once and for all.  

Retinol… or Is It Retinoid?

I always thought these were the same thing and perhaps a singular vs. plural debate.  Turns out, not so much.  But they do the exact same thing biochemically!  Retinol is a little gentler, found in OTC products (think Olay Pro-X Deep Wrinkle, RoC Retinol Correxion, etc…), and may take longer to work, whereas retinoids are found in prescription skincare and of higher potency (we’re looking at you, tretinoin).  So depending on how intense you want to go with your treatment, you’ve got options girl.  

If you’re confused by all the terminology, here’s a quick list of the most common types you’ll find in ingredients lists, from the least to most potent:

  • Retinyl palmitate — found in OTC products
  • Retinol — found in OTC products
  • Retinaldehyde — found in OTC products
  • Synthetic retinoid — mostly prescribed, but Differin will soon be available at your local drugstore
  • Tretinoin (retinoic acid) — mostly prescribed or available through med spas or physicians


Keep It Fresh

While we may be guilty of keeping products for a little too long after their expiration dates (plot twist: mascara should be tossed every 3-6 months), products with retinol are no different.  When it comes to high-potency ingredients, take a cue from Outkast and keep things so fresh and so clean clean.  Air and sunlight will weaken ingredient potency (just like vitamin C), so ideally your bottle of retinol should be sealed with a secret-combination lock and only opened in the dark shadows of your bathroom at dawn.  Just kidding! An opaque bottle with an air pump will do just fine.  

Am I Radiant Yet?

The allure of retinol is said to be the fast-acting results (over-the-counter formulas claim an average of four weeks).  But the truth is, good things take time (See: acne purging).  Gary Fisher, professor of dermatology at the University of Michigan Medical School, says it can take an average of 12 weeks of retinoic acid to see noticeable changes in your skin.  In other words, align this skincare regimen with a new squats routine and you’ll probably see significant results for both around the same time.  Incorporating retinol to your routine isn’t always a quick adjustment though.  It may take a couple weeks or so for your skin to adjust, but minor irritation on your skin is to be expected; minor is the key word here, meaning slightly drier-than-usual, reasonably flushed and very light peeling.  For the few who may have major skin freakouts,  discomfort or irritation, try a lower percentage and decrease your frequency to twice a week, or even mixing with your current moisturizer while you work up to something higher.

Doesn’t Play Nice With Others

Let’s just say, retinol is an independant woman that never liked team sports; it doesn’t always mix well with other ingredients.   Retinol works from deeper layers of the skin, and when mixed with acids that focus on superficial layers of the skin, the pair could actually be irritating, counterproductive and even burn your skin.  We know, yikes.  If you’re starting to get into retinol, stay away from lactic acid, glycolic acid, salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide.  No need to ditch these ingredients completely, of course.  You can switch back and forth between routines every couple weeks or so.  Some ingredients retinol does play nicely with include niacinamide, ceramide, and hyaluronic acid–all key players in bringing that moisture back into your skin.  

Retinol vs. UV Rays

Contrary to popular belief, retinol does NOT make you more prone to sunburn (thank you beauty goddesses), though with any symptoms listed above, you’ll want to cover with at least SPF 30 anyway.  Retinol does however, deactivate in the sunlight, so you should stick to treatments at night for maximizing that efficacy.  Add retinol to your EOD-unwinding ritual and make it a thing: Netflix, wine, retinol, P.F Candles.  Gang’s alllll here.  

My retinoid prescription and I are in a 10-month relationship.  I admit, it wasn’t an intentional decision as much it was an add-on for my acne prescription.  And it’s hard to pinpoint whether it’s actually the meds, or my young-looking genetics keeping my skin tight.  But if I have something to even out my skintone and actively keep collagen in check, I definitely think I’ll keep it.   

Will retinol newbies try this out?  What works for our retinol veterans?  Tell us below!


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