Chances are you’re no stranger to the retinol fuzz, and you’ve already used it in a product or another. Or you may have seen it on your friend’s bathroom cabinet, scrolling through skincare gurus Instagram, or a derm mentioned it to you. Certainly, you’ve heard that retinol is a gold-standard multitasker in skincare, whether it’s about tackling wrinkles, dark spots, or skin discoloration. There’s tons of research backing up its benefits, and anti-aging is definitely one of the areas where retinol stands out.
But as good as it can be, retinol isn’t the easiest skincare ingredient to work with. If you misuse it, you can disrupt your skin barrier, which in turn causes irritations and dryness.
Don’t worry. We’ve made it easy to understand how retinol works for anti-aging, when and how it should be used, and by whom. But first.
What is retinol?
Retinol is a type of retinoid, a form of vitamin A, praised for its massive skin regenerating power. Since it has a low molecular weight, retinol can penetrate underneath the dermis, where the connective tissues, collagen, and elastin proteins are. This allows retinol to target what happens beyond the skin’s surface, working more effectively as an anti-ager.
Lots of people confuse retinol with retinoic acid or vice-versa. While both are retinoids derivates, they work differently. Retinol first needs to be converted by special enzymes into the active form of vitamin A (retinoic acid), which can eventually affect skin cells and reduce aging signs. Tretinoin is retinoic acid and does not need to go through this conversion, thus it works more effectively. More on that later.
In 1971, when Dr. Albert M. Kligman discovered the retinoic acid for acne treatment, something happened: doctor’s older patients noticed that their skin became smoother, their wrinkles were more filled, and their dark spots brightened. After a few years, Dr. Kligman developed a product that contained a retinoid derivate, called tretinoin, in a richer base that addresses photoaging. Since then, retinol and its derivatives have been used in skincare products that target aging signs and hyperpigmentation, thanks to its ability to accelerate skin renewal.
How does retinol work for anti-aging?
The primary role of retinol is to increase cell turnover. In layman’s terms, this means retinol boosts the process of replacing dead skin cells with new, healthy ones. As retinol regulates and normalizes cell functions in the skin, it increases epidermal thickness and softens the skin’s outer layer. And as a result, wrinkles get less visible — studies prove it. However, as I’ve said earlier, that only happens when retinol is converted to retinoic acid. The conversion rate is low and varies from person to person; thus, fewer people respond to retinol than to tretinoin.
Retinol-infused products can also reduce fine lines and wrinkles by protecting collagen against degradation as well as enhancing the production of elastin fibers. Decrease in collagen and elastin fibers are often associated with saggy skin and facial wrinkles. This happens because they are the main proteins that support the skin’s structure, maintaining its elasticity and firmness. If that isn’t enough, research proved that retinol helps increase hyaluronic acid levels in the skin, which makes it look more hydrated, plumped, and dewy. Retinol may also boost the production of new blood vessels in the skin, evening skin tone.
Retinol vs. tretinoin
Available as a generic medication, tretinoin (Retin-A, generic), tazarotene (Avage, Tazorac), and isotretinoin (known as Accutane) are all prescripted retinoids. In addition, several over-the-counter (OTC) products containing retinoids are available: retinyl palmitate, the weakest form of retinoid, retinol, the most tolerable form, retinaldehyde, and adapalene, the strongest OTC option, formulated to treat acne.
Although OTC retinoids are not as effective as prescription-strength ones, they do still improve the appearance of photoaged skin. On the flip side, prescripted retinoids increase irritations risk to a point where you can’t longer use retinoids. That’s why you must consult your dermatologist before getting into prescribed retinoids.
Most people wonder if tretinoin works better than retinol. Not necessarily. Studies have shown that retinol can have similar positive effects on anti-aging as retinoic acid — “Retinol induces similar skin changes as retinoic acid application. These results were confirmed by the facial anti-aging effects observed in the retinol efficacy clinical study.”
Retinol side effects
Retinol comes with drawbacks too: it can cause sensitivities, dryness, and irritations. Mervyn Patterson, a cosmetic doctor at Woodford Medical, explained for Business Insider that the new skin cells don’t function well because they have been quickly produced. Therefore, they lack the fundamental lipid production to protect the skin properly. “The main function of the top layer of the skin is to protect us, to keep away environmental factors. The more retinol you put on, the poorer the barrier function becomes,” says Patterson.
What should I use: OTC or prescribed retinoids?
If you’re a starter, you would better limit to over-the-counter retinol products. The OTC-approved are available in almost every product form, from eye creams to serums and moisturizers. And you’d want to start with baby steps, helping your skin build a tolerance to retinol. Starting directly with intense forms of retinoids might freak out your skin, as no one can tell how your skin will respond to it. Anyway, your derm should help you decide the best percentage strength and formula for your skin type and condition if you want to go for prescribed products.
How long does it take retinol to work?
Most experts will say that it takes between three to six months of daily retinol use to notice improvements in wrinkles appearance. Usually, retinol changes collagen and elastin levels after six months, where it improves skin texture, reduces wrinkles and fine lines, and lightens discolorations. Indeed, prescribed retinoids may work faster than retinol.
When should I start using retinol products?
Retinol is effective for some, but don’t feel like you absolutely have to use it. It can happen that you can’t tolerate retinol. In case you do, starting to use retinol in your mid to late 20s would be reasonable.
Always layer your retinol product in your PM skincare routine. First of all, because retinol makes the skin photosensitive. Secondly, because at night, the HGH (human growth hormone), responsible for accelerating skin repair and cell regeneration, kicks in, making you get most of your retinol product.
How to use retinol?
The risk of skin irritation is real when applying retinoids. For this reason, it’s best to start using your retinol product every other day and gradually work up to nightly applications. After cleansing your complexion, use the product at hand with retinol and follow up with a rich moisturizer. And don’t mix retinol with vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, and AHAs/BHAs.
- 12 Best Moisturizers to Pair With Your Tretinoin Cream (Retin-A)
- Retinol and Vitamin C Together: Yes or No?
- Hyaluronic Acid and Retinol: How to Use Them Together
- How To Use Glycolic Acid and Retinol Together for Skincare
- Niacinamide and Retinol Together: Does it Work?
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6791161/, “Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments,” published in 2019 August.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26578346/, “A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin,” published in 2016 March
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20078381/, “Improvement of photoaged facial skin by topical retinol (vitamin A alcohol): a vehicle-controlled, double-blind study”