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I’ve been hearing about the wonders of retinol since I was a teenager dealing with annoying acne flare-ups. Now I’m contending with the other end of the irksome skin issue spectrum – are those wrinkles on my forehead? And once again, the idea that retinol might solve my skin problems is coming into play.
Retinol is added to creams, lotions and other topical preparations to solve skin problems in people of all ages. But is it right for everyone? Here’s what you need to know about this ingredient and how it can improve your complexion.
What Is Retinol?
Retinol is a form of vitamin A — a vitamin known for its health benefits to your eyes, immune system and skin. You can find vitamin A in many meats, fish, eggs and orange-hued veggies and fruits like carrots and cantaloupe. But the retinol in skincare products is usually synthesized in laboratories. And yes, it does seem to be effective on many different skincare fronts.
“It’s like a magic wand for the skin, addressing issues from aging skin and uneven tone to acne,” says Dr. Praveen Guntipalli, a board-certified physician in internal medicine and the medical director of Sanjiva Medical Spa in Dallas, Texas. “It promotes cell turnover, unclogs pores, aids in collagen production and helps in diminishing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.”
Who Should Use Retinol?
Because of its proven effectiveness, retinol gets suggested a lot — to a lot of people. But it’s also known for slightly inflaming the skin, at least at first.
“The key to using retinol is starting slow and being consistent, as it can initially cause some irritation,” says Guntipalli.
Irritation? I don’t love the sound of that. But among beauty and skin experts, it’s generally accepted that your skin might initially respond with redness, flakiness and rawness. It’s normal, so if and when that happens, that means it’s working. Just keep applying (in tiny amounts) until your skin adapts.
“Start with a small pea size every other night for two to three weeks,” says Dr. Guntipalli. “Once your skin has adjusted, increase to every night.”
On the other hand, this aspect of retinol might be troublesome for those with sensitive skin, especially people who are dealing with eczema or rosacea.
“Remember, everyone’s skin is different,” says Dr. Anna Chacon, a board-certified dermatologist at My Psoriasis Team in Miami, Florida. “Always consult with a dermatologist or skincare professional if you’re unsure.”
Also keep in mind that retinol can make your skin more sensitive to UV rays, so always pair it with sunscreen if you’re putting it on the morning. And since vitamin A plays a role in fetal development, pregnant women should avoid retinol to avoid interfering in this process.
How To Use Retinol
If you decide to give retinol a try, begin with a patch test. Apply it to one small area of your face and wait a few days to see how your skin reacts. And take steps to temper any irritation.
“I often recommend the sandwich technique, which involves layering a moisturizer, applying retinol, and then topping it off with another layer of moisturizer,” says Dr. Guntipalli. “This method helps to mitigate irritation, making the introduction of retinol to your skincare routine a smoother process.”
And last, but certainly not least, choose your retinol products carefully. They come in varying degrees of potency and in combination with other ingredients that could boost retinol’s effectiveness, depending on what you need. And some are better than others if you’re just starting out.
“The best retinol products contain soothing or hydrating ingredients that reduce sensitivity,” says Mayra Crespo, a board-certified aesthetic/plastic surgery nurse practitioner at NJ Injectionista, which specializes in skincare and cosmetic treatments.
How can you identify these soothing ingredients on the product’s label?
“Look for retinols that contain ceramides, hyaluronic acid or niacinamide,” she says.
And take a look at these eight options, which skincare experts recommend.
This serum is often recommended for acne-prone skin, though Crespo says it’s a greater starter retinol for all skin types. In fact, she calls it “the best budget-friendly product that targets acne, wrinkles and texture.”
It’s also a great choice if you’re new to retinol because it contains calming ingredients like ceramides, glycerin, licorice root extract and niacinamide.
“These reduce redness, uneven skin tone and blemishes,” says Crespo.
Dr. Chacon recommends The Ordinary’s retinol product “for those who have used retinol before, as this is a relatively high concentration.”
Dr. Guntipalli also considers it a potent dose and calls it “a great option for those who prefer a straightforward, no-frills approach to retinol.”
Both doctors said that the addition of squalane is notable because it’s effective at soothing, moisturizing and hydrating the skin. And Crespo adds that squalane can do this without clogging your pores.
Neutrogena’s retinol serum is the least expensive option on this list and one of the mildest. This product is targeted less at fighting acne and more at smoothing fine lines and wrinkles.
“It’s a wonderful choice for those starting their retinol journey, offering a gentle introduction to this powerful ingredient,” says Dr. Guntipalli.
This serum is Crespo’s top pick for over-the-counter retinol for all skin types.
“From acne-prone to mature skin, it’s a great dupe for the medical grade retinol, and it’s from a trusted skincare brand,” she says.
What gives this product an edge? Chacon says it’s the addition of Vitamin B3 (niacinamide), which can soothe and reduce inflammation. She recommends it for those with sensitive skin.
Because it’s paired with slow-release 0.3% retinol, this product treats and hydrates simultaneously, which Crespo loves. La Roche-Posay’s product also contains soothing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin.
With only a .25% concentration of retinol, FAB Skin Lab is another good option for people just starting to use retinol. Dr. Guntipalli recommends this product for those with sensitive skin who want to give retinol a try for anti-aging. It’s also vegan and comes in recyclable packaging.
This heavy hitter — formulated to smooth, firm and plump up aging skin — has been well-reviewed in the beauty industry.
“This is great for those with mature skin, as it contains a high concentration of retinol for more pronounced anti-aging effects,” says Chacon.
Since it’s a more intensive treatment, this product might not be the best choice for retinol newbies.
Crespo calls SkinCeuticals Tripeptide-R Neck Repair a key product for the delicate neck area.
“Don’t neglect your neck and chest,” she says. “It’s great to treat the dreaded ‘tech neck’ wrinkles from looking down at our phones.”
If you can afford the price tag, the best time to start using this product is in your late to early thirties.
“It’s a must for prevention!” Crespo adds.
Drunk Elephant’s retinol cream is also pricey, but its strong concentration makes it suitable for those who want to take their retinol routine to the next level, says Guntipalli.
Meanwhile, Dr. Chacon praises it for containing “supportive peptides and vitamins for enhanced skin health.” Another bonus? It’s also a vegan and cruelty-free option.
Any products or services mentioned above were selected independent of sales and advertising. However, Simplemost may receive a small commission from the purchase of any products or services through an affiliate link to the retailer's website.