Retinoids—the umbrella term for retinol products—have the potential to improve skin texture, pigmentation, and tone. These transformative effects are due to very potent formulations, which have attracted a lot of contrasting opinions—and, seemingly, even more myths about their use, leading to a lot of confusion. So, here are seven of the most common ones and the truth behind them.
Ingredients starting with ‘R’ (retinol, retinoic acid) basically do the same thing.
In a sense, that’s true. There’s a lot of evidence that shows that while retinol is more gentle than retinoic acid, biochemically, it does the same thing. It just may take longer to see the results. The same, however, can’t be said of derivatives called pro-retinols (also known as retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate), which are the gentlest—but weaker, too.
Retinoids work through exfoliation.
While there’s often peeling and redness, that’s generally a side effect of the irritation, not a true exfoliation like the one you get from an ingredient like glycolic acid. Retinoids work at a much more profound level by affecting gene expression and causing enhanced collagen production, skin smoothing, and an evening of pigmentation.
Retinoids increase your risk of sunburn.
This one’s maybe the biggest myth about retinoids and why many believe they shouldn’t be worn during the day. Retinoids do break down in sunlight. That’s why they’re bottled in opaque packaging. And they should be worn at night, but that’s to make sure they aren’t rendered inactive. They don’t make the skin more prone to sunburn. That’s a misconception that came about after participants in some early studies described putting on a retinoid, walking into the sun, and immediately burning. But that redness was likely related to heat exposure.
Retinoids work only if they’re applied to dry skin.
Yes, that’s what the instructions on the box say. But there’s no evidence that shows damp or wet skin exacerbates sensitivity. Nor will applying a retinoid to damp skin minimize its potency, either. There’s nothing about the application process that determines how much of the retinol is converted into retinoic acid, the form of vitamin A that repairs skin.
You’ll begin to see the effects in four to six weeks.
Lots of over-the-counter formulas claim you’ll see results within weeks. But, on average, it takes about 12 weeks for retinoic acid to produce noticeable changes in the skin.
The skin-smoothing benefits peak at six months.
Several studies have shown that prescription retinoids will significantly improve skin for over a year. But even at that point, don’t rush to embrace a new product. Talk to your dermatologist. You may just be ready for a stronger prescription retinoid.