What Is Retinol? Understanding the Basics

What Is Retinol?

If you clicked on this article, then you’re probably asking, what is retinol?  Basically, retinol is a fancy name for Vitamin A.

I know, you probably thought it was a lot more complicated than that. Wrong.

What retinol can do for your skin, however, is much more complex than that. In fact, retinol is one of the best anti-aging ingredients available.

Getting rid of acne, fine lines and wrinkles is a no brainer for most people.  But before you rush to using a retinol, it’s best you understand the basics first.

What is Retinol?  A Glimpse At The Benefits

Benefits of Retinol
Image via Birchbox

Since the first retinol hit the market in 1971, it’s quickly become known as a cure-all for all skin problems.

From aging to acne and everything in between.

Used first as an acne medication, retinols can unclog pores, allowing other medicated creams and gels to work better.

The healthy cell turnover also helps work on that stubborn cystic acne, and reduces acne breakouts by preventing dead cells from clogging pores.

The most impressive acne benefit? It’s been shown to reduce the formation of acne scars.  So when you kick acne to the curb, there’s no remaining trace of your horrible relationship with it.

Once dermatologists realized that the retinoid was not only clearing up acne but also improving signs of anti-aging, they rebranded the product to treat wrinkles.

The first product marketed to do that was Tretinoin.

This prescription retinoid works by increasing the production of new collagen, and stimulating new blood vessels in the skin.

Retinols give skin a rosy appearance, fading age and sunspots, and helping reduce wrinkles in problem areas on the face and neck.

Retinoic acid, which is what retinols are converted into, work to increase cell turnover, stimulate collagen and elastin production, fade hyperpigmentation, and help skin stay hydrated and glowing.

If that isn’t enough, with it’s ability to stimulate the metabolism of skin cells, it also reduces large pores and evens out skin’s texture.

So when it comes to anti-aging, there really isn’t anything better to give you a youthful appearance.

In fact, many skin experts recommend using a retinol on not just your face, but also your neck, chest, and the back of your hands, as well.

Regardless of what type of retinol you’re using, you’ll reap the benefits of it’s acne fighting and anti-aging abilities.  However, you may not see equal improvement on both counts.

These medications are often marketed and FDA approved to treat certain conditions, so the use for other conditions would be considered “off label.”

So make sure you’re looking for a retinol to target your specific skincare concern first, and be pleasantly surprised when it does more for you in other areas!

woman applying face cream after shower

While those may be the most obvious (and most exciting) uses of retinol, the list of its incredible benefits doesn’t end there.

Retinols have also been known to help treat psoriasis, a chronic skin problem that causes skin cells to grow too quickly, resulting in thick, white or red patches of skin.

Often very painful, retinols are able to slow the growth of skin cells in those individuals, providing relief both physically and in its appearance.

Retinols have also been known to prevent warts, and stop their growth completely.

Dermatologists have found that this works better than most things, as it disrupts the wart’s cell growth.

For more information, check out our post on The 4 Key Retinol Benefits.

Retinols:  Busting Some of the Myths

If you’ve heard you shouldn’t wear a retinol during the day because they increase your risk of sunburn, then you’ve heard wrong.

Yes, retinol does break down in sunlight, which is why most retinols should be applied at night. (This is also why many of them have opaque packaging).

However, that doesn’t mean you’re more prone to sunburns just because you’re wearing one. If you’re seeing some redness on your face after being in the sun, it’s likely just from heat exposure.

Not to get super clinical on you, but studies have found that retinol doesn’t lower the MED, or minimal erythemal dos, of human skin.  That just refers to the amount of UV light your skin can take before it burns.

Many dermatologists will recommend using sunscreen with at least SPF 30 if you’re going to wear a retinol during the day.

But we should all be wearing sunscreen daily anyways, right?

Busting Myths
Image via Allure

If you’ve heard that retinol exfoliates your skin, that also isn’t true.

Sure, most women experience some redness and peeling from using a retinol.  But that’s due to irritation, not exfoliating away dead skin cells.

Retinol is actually a lot more complex than an exfoliator.  They actually affect gene expression and enhance collagen level.  Mind blown.

So you can (and should!) be using an exfoliator and a retinol.

If you’ve heard you have to apply a retinol to dry skin, think again.  While the instructions on the packaging might advise it, most dermatologists say there’s no reason behind it.

The retinol won’t work any better on dry or damp skin, nor will it cause extra irritation or sensitivity.

So rest easy—how you apply the retinol won’t really make a difference when it comes to how effective it is.  What makes all the difference is how much of the retinol is converted into retinoic acid, the form of Vitamin A that actually repairs your skin.

And that’s solely dependent on your skin’s chemistry and retinoid receptors.

Yep, bet you didn’t know you had those.

two women pampering their skin
Image via StyleCaster

If you’ve heard that you shouldn’t use a retinol daily, not so fast.

The truth is, it’s totally dependent on your skin.  What most dermatologists will recommend is just using a retinol once a week to begin with, and slowly working your way up.

And while there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with using a retinol in the morning, it’s best to use them just at night, since the sun can take away its effectiveness.

But if your skin can comfortably wear a retinol daily, go for it!

Keep in mind, too, that a small amount, about the size of a pea, is all you need for your face. More is not better when it comes to this product.  It’s all about consistency of use

If you’ve heard gentle retinols are just as effective as stronger ones, it just isn’t true.

We’re going to let you in on a secret.  If you see the words ‘sensitive skin’ on a label, this is normally code for a low concentration of active ingredients.

If you have sensitive skin, though, don’t worry. It’s not all doom and gloom.

These types of retinols are often referred to as “gateway retinols” in the dermatologist community.  If your skin can tolerate that tube of product, you can gradually work your way up to a stronger concentration.

If you’re heard you won’t see results for four to six weeks, sadly, it’s probably longer than that.

If you’re using an over-the-counter product, versus one prescribed by your dermatologist (more on that later), then you’ll probably be waiting closer to 12 weeks to see those results.

We don’t mean to sound like a downer, but if you stick with it for that long, you will see noticeable changes.

You just have to be patient.

If you’ve heard that you should stop applying a retinol if your skin gets irritated—nope! Not true.

I know. This is basically the exact opposite advice of what you’ve heard about other face products.

But when it comes to a retinol, you really do have to push through the irritation.

It’s all part of the process—even if it’s not so fun.

Give your skin two to three weeks, and after that point, your skin cells will begin to adapt and be able to better tolerate it.

If the irritation is totally unbearable, though, then just decrease the amount of times you’re using it per week.  Or drop to a weaker formula.

If you’ve heard that you shouldn’t apply a retinol to your eyes, the opposite is actually true. You absolutely should be applying a retinol to your eye area!

It’s true—the skin around your eyes is sensitive.  Super sensitive.

But that’s also where most of your damage is.

And studies have shown that people who use retinol right up to the eye get the best results.

Plus, even if the skin is super sensitive by your eye, it’s no more likely to get red and flaky than skin anywhere else on your face.

Also, if you happen to get it in your eye…don’t panic! Sure, it’s going to sting, but it won’t do you any harm.  We promise, you won’t lose your eyesight.

Retinols vs. Retinoids

blonde woman with clear skin
Image via New Beauty

If you’re asking yourself, what is retinol, then you’ve probably heard its sister terms—retinoid and retin-A.

For all of these skincare ingredients, however, what the skin is actually using is retinoic acid.  Retinoic acid is an extremely effective cell-communicating ingredient that has the ability to connect to almost any skin cell and tell it to behave like a healthy, younger skin cell.

This is why retinol is the Holy Grail ingredient when it comes to anti-aging products.

While the products do the same thing, there actually is a slight difference.

A retinol is an over-the-counter product that contains a form of retinol in ester forms.  When the product uses the ingredient in this form, it has to be converted into retinoid acid by the skin at the cellular level.

What the heck does that mean for you and me? Basically, the more conversions it takes for the ingredient to reach the retinoic acid form, the weaker it is.

That’s why you see so many women running to their dermatologists to get a prescription for a retinoid.  These prescriptions are often called Retin-A and Tretinoin.

Basically, the retinoids contains a higher concentration of the retinoic acid, anywhere from .5 to 2 percent concentrations.

So while the retinol and the retinoid do the exact same thing for your skin, it will take longer to see results with a retinol.

Who Shouldn’t Use a Retinol?

woman dipping her hand in cream jar
Image via Oprah

If you asked your dermatologist, what is a retinol?, you’ll hear them say it’s a gift from the skin gods.

So when it comes to who should be using a retinol, the answer is clear: anyone and everyone.

In fact, prepare to be shocked: Most dermatologists recommend starting to use a retinol as early as your late teens.

So whether you already have signs of aging that you’re hoping to rewind the clock on, or if you’re just trying to stay ahead of the game, you should be using a retinol.

The first retinoid was FDA approved almost 40 years ago as a prescription for acne treatment, so it’s a great fit for anyone who is struggling to keep unwanted blemishes at bay, too.

But what about individuals who shouldn’t use a retinol? Surprisingly, there are a few exceptions.

First, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, avoid using a retinol.

If you’ve known anyone who’s taken Acutane, than you already know this.  Studies have shown that when taken orally, retinoids can cause serious birth defects in babies.

So even if you’re just applying them topically, doctors will recommend that you avoid using a retinol or retinoid while pregnant or breastfeeding.

Secondly, if you’re someone who waxes their eyebrows or any other area on your face.

Waxing can cause excess redness on your skin, and can even rip some of your delicate skin off when using a retinol.

You don’t have to avoid using one altogether, but it’s best to stop using your retinol completely several days before your next waxing appointment.

Finally, though rare, there is a small percentage of people with ultrasensitive skin who may never be able to tolerate a retinoid.

If that’s you, just stick to using a gentle exfoliator a few times a week, and make sure to use sunscreen to prevent collagen loss in the first place.

Does Your Dermatologist Have to Prescribe a Retinol?

Nope! There are plenty of great over-the-counter retinols available to you.  In fact, some of your favorite skincare brands probably carry one in their product line.

And the great news? They’re much more affordable than a retinoid.

On average, a 20-gram tube of a retinoid will cost you about $75 dollars after insurance coverage.

For retinols, however, you can find one at almost any price point, and can easily pick one up at Walgreens or Sephora, and everywhere in between.

While a retinol may not work as quickly as a retinoid, it does yield the exact same results.

If you’re more budget conscious and willing to be more patient, it’s worth it to save a few bucks, and a long wait in your dermatologist’s waiting room.

Woman Touching Face
Image via Byrdie

So, what is retinol?  I guess the better question is, what isn’t a retinol?  With its ability to fight acne, rewind the signs of aging, and everything in between, it’s a wonder why more people aren’t using one.

Treat yourself by introducing the Holy Grail of skincare products into your weekly skincare maintenance.

Whether you’re 25 or 55, struggling with acne or not a blemish in sight, a retinol is the best thing you can do for your skin today.

And if you’d like to know exactly how to use retinol in your skincare routine, be sure to check out this post.