Retinol (a derivative of Vitamin A) has taken over the beauty industry as a "miracle cream" for preventing early signs of aging (even claiming to reverse it in some cases), quickly healing blemishes, and lifting hyperpigmentation faster than any other active ingredient.
Retinols vs Retinoids:
First off, there are over-the-counter Retinols, and prescription strength Retinoids (prescription name most commonly known as Tretinoin). Retinol must be converted by the skin into retinoic acid before it can be absorbed, rendering it a much weaker version of the compound; beyond that, many Retinols are diluted into a solution (for example, Squalene oil) to make them more tolerable for our skin. Retinoids work at a much more profound level by affecting gene expression and causing enhanced collagen production, making them the more powerful than over-the-counter Retinols.
How do retinoids work?
Both retinols and retinoids promote cell turnover, consistently promoting new skin to the surface; visibly reducing the appearance of dark spots, wrinkles, active breakouts while working to prevent new blemishes. With healthy skin always on the rise, your pores have very little time to fill up and become 'plugged', which helps to prevent even the deepest cystic breakouts.
Retinols come in strengths: 0.1, 0.3, 0.5, & 1.0%, while retinoids are offered in 0.025, 0.05, & 0.1%. Note: the strongest formula of retinol available will still be far weaker than the lowest available prescription strength retinoid.
Starting with Retinols can prepare your skin for Retinoids, work your way up from the bottom!
How should I use retinoids?
Because this is an ingredient that works on a molecular level, is it so important to tread lightly. A retinoid tells your skin to shed a layer of cells, and your skin will do what's its told again, and again... meaning, if you begin using retinoids too hastily, your cells won't have the proper time to bond together before being pushed to the surface, and you'll be left with raw skin.
Because of its potency, there are some strict rules to adhere by:
1. Starting slowly is not a joke, apply a pea sized amount to dry clean skin, allow it to absorb before completing the rest of your routine; waiting between 15-20 minutes is ideal. Start using 2x weekly, then 3x, working your way up to your personal tolerance level; this could be every-other night, for those with strong barriers it could be nightly. Give yourself at least 6 months to slowly work it in before going full-throttle, see how your skin does and find your sweet spot.
*an option at the start of your retinoid journey is to mix a drop of retinol with your lotion to dilute it before moving on to applying it in its own step, this will ease you in.
2. Non-negotiable, you must wear SPF daily while using a retinoid; my forever recommendation is Elta MD 46 ($32), designed specifically for breakout-prone skin with niacinamide (reduces inflammation).
3. When you begin using any product with Vitamin A, your skin will have an adjustment period; you may experience flushing, redness, peeling, itching, breakouts (while what's been hiding beneath the surface is pushed up); this does not mean you should stop, doing so will restart your clock and you'll never adjust to the ingredient. This phase is called the "Retinol Uglies"- keep your skin extra moisturized during this adjustment period with products containing hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and ceramides; Cerave Lotion is excellent ($14), The Ordinary makes a hyaluronic serum that I mix with Cerave ($7). During this period, your skin will be shedding layers of dead skin, it's like you're lifting the rug to a world of dust - it's going to take a little time to clean it up! Nonetheless, tread lightly, but don't give up, this phase is temporary; for most women it lasts up to six-twelve weeks.
4. Harsh exfoliants on your skin while using retinol is an absolute NO-GO; absolutely no Clarisonic brushes, removing makeup with wash-cloths, granular scrubs, chemical exfoliants (more on this in the next bullet point). You're skin is in a fragile state, is it already undergoing the most intense exfoliation, you do not need anything to help it along. Doing so will cause an unnecessary amount of skin to slough off, and you'll end up with open-wound like blotchiness. DON'T TEMPT FATE.
5. Along these same lines, chemical exfoliants (AHA, BHA's) are active ingredients alongside Vitamin A, overusing too many 'actives' can exacerbate irritation, stick to using one at a time; on your days off from retinoids if you're skin isn't showing signs of irritation, a low % acid serum or toner can be a great go-between. I personally love The Ordinary's Mandelic Serum ($7), it leaves your skin dewy as is releases over time; I use it in the mornings and tretinoin at night - note: my skin is very accustomed to retinoids over the course of 6+ years.
When should I start using retinoids?
Our skins natural collagen production begins to slow down in our early twenties, i.e. what makes our skin bouncy, plump and aids in wound healing; not to mention our twenties are when many people engage in so to speak, 'the good times' which can rapidly de-hydrate the skin, onsetting early signs of wrinkles, age spots, and sagginess. The sooner you incorporate retinoids, the better chance you have at preventing these signs of aging; waiting until you see a problem, could be too late! It's like that saying "once you feel thirsty, you're body has already been depleted of water for hours", SAME GOES FOR YOUR SKIN - prevention is key!
Differin 0.1% Adapalene ($13)
The Ordinary 0.1, 0.2, & 0.5% in squalene ($6)
Cerave Resurfacing Cream ($18)
SkinCeuticals 0.3, 0.5, and 1.0% ($74) - this is what I used for 6 years before obtaining a prescription strength, highly recommend.