Retinol has a long and proven track record. It’s widely considered to be the gold-standard ingredient for skincare.
Retinol is a form of vitamin A that, when it’s applied topically, is converted by enzymes in the skin into retinoic acid. And retinoic acid is clinically proven to improve fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation and generally revitalize the skin.
It can, however, cause some redness and irritation. The specific retinol you choose, and how you use it, can go a long way toward minimizing the risk of such a reaction and ensuring the retinol does exactly what you expect it to do. To that end, here are a few things you should know before you buy retinol.
Not all OTC retinol products are the same
Retinol is commonly used in lots of over-the-counter skincare products, but the concentration is not consistent. It can range from as little as .05% to as much as 2%. And while the concentration is important, it’s usually listed only on products from medical-grade and physician-dispensed companies. So, begin your search there.
If you’re new to retinol, start with the lowest dose available. Even the products that contain small percentages can be effective at treating the signs of aging, minimizing the appearance of prominent pores, improving tone and texture, and helping your skin look better overall.
Start by using retinol two to three times per week for two weeks. If you have sensitive skin, once a week is enough in the beginning. As you become more tolerant, you can gradually increase the frequency and the concentration. If you’re trying to address deep wrinkles or pronounced hyperpigmentation, you’ll ultimately want to work your way up to a 1% concentration.
Generally, it takes about two months with a given product to see a difference.
The type of retinol is important, too
The type of retinol is just as important as the concentration. Retinol is the over-the-counter alternative to prescription-only retinoic acid, but there are other over-the-counter retinoids. Two of the most common are retinaldehyde and retinyl palmitate.
They’re all vitamin A derivatives. And they all work about the same way, but the retinoids require some additional steps before they’re converted into retinoic acid, which makes them a little less potent than retinol.
How you apply it is as significant as when you apply it
Beyond starting with a low concentration, it’s also important to know that less is more when it comes to retinol products. In fact, using more will increase the potential for irritation.
Apply a pea-size amount to the back of your hand. Then dab it onto your cheeks, nose, forehead, and chin. Be especially careful when applying it around your eyes. Once it’s fully absorbed, apply a gentle moisturizer. That will mitigate some of the retinol’s drying-out effect.
On the days that you use it, you’ll also want to make retinol the lone active ingredient in your nighttime skincare routine. (Because retinol can be inactivated by the sun, it’s best to save it for the nighttime.) Pairing retinol with alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy can lead to severe irritation. And benzoyl peroxide can inactivate or be inactivated by retinol.