Rebecca Norris
Updated Mar 20, 2020 @ 4:27 pm
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Credit: HelloGiggles

Fine lines and wrinkles are a part of life, but, with the right ingredients, they don’t have to be a super noticeable part of your complexion if you don’t want them to be. While ingredients like peptides and niacinamide are associated with slight wrinkle reduction, the real winner is retinol. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Scratch that—of course you have. While the hero ingredient is shouted from the rooftops of almost every major skincare brand, not everyone knows what it is, or, more importantly, why it’s so effective at creating a younger-looking visage. To help uncover the facts, we chatted with a couple of the top dermatologists. Ahead you’ll discover everything you need to know about the holy grail anti-aging ingredient.

What is retinol?

While retinol is a coveted ingredient in the skincare world, it’s important to look at its origin to fully understand why it can so effectively turn back the clock on your complexion. According to board-certified dermatologist Dendy Engelman, M.D., retinol is the active form of vitamin A, which regulates collagen production and promotes skin repair in the body. By adding it into skincare products, cosmetic chemists can hack the way skin ages by replenishing the very ingredient that helps keep complexions radiant and youthful.

How does retinol work?

When something seems too good to be true, it helps to know the details to decide whether or not you can trust in its promised results. According to Dr. Engelman, “retinoic acid (aka retinol and retinoids) is an extremely effective cell-communicating ingredient that can connect to almost any skin cell receptor site and tell it to behave like a healthy, younger skin cell.” What’s more, she explains, it also functions as an antioxidant, allowing it to repair free-radical damage—which is a major reason that skin shows signs of aging in the first place.

What’s the difference between retinol, retinoid, and retin-A?

Here’s where it gets tricky. While retinol is the most-talked-about form of vitamin A, retinoids are where we should start. According to board-certified dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, M.D., retinoids are essentially a basic umbrella term for both over-the-counter retinols and prescription retinoids, and scientific studies back this up. “Retinols, which are readily available over-the-counter, contain a lower concentration of the active retinoic acid ingredient than retinoids,” she says. Additionally, she says that prescription retinoids have a much higher concentration of the active ingredient so therefore are more readily available for the skin to use, which is why most dermatologists recommend retinoids (not retinol) for heavy-hitting rejuvenation.

As a result of their concentration levels, retinol and retinoid affect the skin differently. According to Dr. Levin, while retinol and retinoid have the same goal and purpose, “retinol works more gradually compared to the retinoid treatments prescribed by a dermatologist due to their difference in molecular structure and how they are processed in the skin.” This means that while you might notice eye-catching retinoid results in a matter of days, it could take weeks to notice a change from retinol.

Then there’s retinoic acid or tretinoin. The prescription-only ingredient is the most active form of vitamin A, not to mention the fastest acting. “Biochemically, retinoid and retinol, do the same thing—it may just take longer to see results with retinols, since they are weaker,” Dr. Engelman says.

Is retinol good for your skin?

There’s a reason why everyone and their mother swears by retinol—it gets the job done. And by job, we mean increasing collagen production, reducing collagen breakdown, accelerating skin cell turnover, improving discoloration, hydrating skin, and even reducing acne. In other words, it truly is a hero ingredient. Of course, if you ask someone with sensitive skin, they may say otherwise. That’s because, as Dr. Engelman points out, retinol is known to cause dryness, redness, and irritation when first introduced into a routine. However, if you stick to finding a way to keep at it, pretty much any dermatologist will tell you it will be worth it. Dr. Engelman says that with continued usage of this ingredient over time, you can see an improvement in fine lines and wrinkles, texture, and tone as it strengthens the skin barrier.

What’s the best way to incorporate retinol into your routine?

Given that retinol (in all its forms) can cause some irritation at first (Dr. Levin says this is thanks to a process known as retinization, which is characterized by redness, dryness, and flaking), it’s important to know how to safely and effectively add it into your routine. First things first, ease into it. Instead of applying your retinol product every night, Dr. Levin recommends doing so every third night to gauge how your skin reacts. If after two weeks your skin seems to be doing well, increase to every other night, and eventually every night.

“Another tip to ensure tolerability is to apply with a moisturizer,” she notes. “Apply a pea-sized amount of the retinoid first, wait a few minutes, and then apply a moisturizer to combat any dryness or flaking.”

Additionally, if you find success with applying less-concentrated retinol but are hoping for more noticeable results, it might be time to consider opting for a prescription-strength product. Dr. Levin says that “if you have more oily skin or have tried retinoids in the past, then prescription-strength retinoids such as Tretinoin, Atralin, Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Tazarotene, Fabior, or Tazorac can be tolerated but still need to be slowly up-titrated.” Conversely, if your skin is super sensitive, she recommends starting with Differin Gel, which is the only retinoid readily available over-the-counter. “It is more tolerable than other prescription retinoids,” she explains.

Lastly, as much as you might want to try adding retinol into your routine, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, now is not the time. While the ingredient is a godsend for your skin, it’s been shown to negatively affect fetal development.

What should you look for in an OTC retinol?

OTC retinol is often diluted further by being mixed with other anti-aging ingredients. Additionally, Dr. Levin points out that these retinols are in ester forms (you might see retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate, or retinaldehyde on the label) which requires even more time to be converted into active retinoic acid. While these ingredients work to hydrate, heal, and protect the skin, they also take longer to show results, so be patient when incorporating them into your routine.

Dermatologist-recommended retinol products to consider:

Ready to reap the rewards of retinol? Start off on the right foot by checking out some of the winners from the 2020 Beauty Crush Awards and four dermatologist-recommended picks below.

1Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum

Available at Dermstore

“This is a great intro to retinol serum for people who are looking to dip their toe into anti-aging. It really is much gentler than most of the formulas I’ve tried, and after two weeks of use, I saw less clogged pores,” says one HG tester of this drugstore pick.

2Olay Retinol24 Night Moisturizer

Available at Target

This moisturizer received a 24/25 score, with testers praising how smooth their skin looked after using it. “I could instantly feel the difference on my skin the next day,” raves an HG tester. “It’s baby soft and the retinol doesn’t feel intense at all for the results I’m getting. It’s magic.”

3Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask

Available at Sephora

Face masks don’t have to be rinse-and-go. This Glow Recipe mask can be used overnight for added benefits or can work in as little as 20 minutes as a quick skin-boost if that’s your preference. It’s a good introduction to retinol since it’s gentle enough that even sensitive skin types can use it without irritation. One HG tester commented that her skin looked less congested the day after using it, and adding that she didn’t notice any dryness sometimes associated with retinol products. Additionally, our testers were impressed by how cooling it felt on skin, how soft it felt after washing off, and how it didn’t transfer onto their pillows when using overnight.

4Differin Gel

$12.86 (orig. $14.99)
Available at Amazon

When it comes to acne concerns, Dr. Engelman says you can’t go wrong with Differin. “Differin Gel contains a powerful retinoid to clear acne and prevent future breakouts as well as to prevent acne scarring,” she explains. “It is the first retinoid available over the counter and it is gentler compared to other retinoids.”

5Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules

Available at Macy's

If you struggle with dry skin, check out these complexion-changing capsules. “They are formulated with ceramides, which help to hydrate the skin and can combat some of the irritating and drying effects retinols have on the skin,” Dr. Engelman explains. “Additionally, they have olive, sunflower, and avocado oils in the formula, so they add additional hydration to the skin while providing all of the benefits of topical retinol.”

6Alastin Skincare Renewal Retinol

Available at Alastin

Dr. Levin applauds this formula for its retinol-meets-lipid formula. As a result, the anti-aging treatment is anti-inflammatory, which means it’s less likely to cause any irritation when incorporated into your routine.

7SkinBetter AlphaRet Overnight Cream

Available at SkinBetter

“AlphaRet has a well-tolerated retinol that has the same efficacy as Tretinoin 0.025% cream but also has antioxidants, peptides, and ceramide,” Dr. Levin points out. Dr. Engelman adds that “the product is a bit more moisturizing and can serve as a buffer to the potential irritation of vitamin A.”