Welcome to Retinol 101, an overview of the ingredient you keep hearing about, but might not know exactly what it is – or what it does. Some say retinol is an anti-aging skin care ingredient while others think it’s an acne treatment. While both sides might be correct, there’s more and our guide will give you the 101 you need to completely understand what retinol is and why you need it in your skincare routine.
What Is Retinol?
Retinol is a type of retinoid that comes from vitamin A. It's in the foods we eat, dietary supplements, and found in many beauty products. Though many people are under the impression that retinol is an Exfoliant, it’s actually an antioxidant which means it helps neutralize free radicals just like Vitamin C.
Retinol is one of the strongest go-to ingredients you can find over the counter to smooth fine lines, wrinkles, help tackle complexion issues, minimize large pores, acne, uneven texture and even hyperpigmentation.
Perhaps that’s why dermatologists call it the magic solution because of it’s ability to stimulate skin-cell metabolism, boosts cell turnover, remove dead cells and resurface the skin’s texture for a smoother, more even toned look.
The Retinoid Family Tree Explained: How Retinol Works
Retinol comes from a family of Retinoids. Retinoids are broken down into four main categories: retinyl esters, retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinoic acid. The first three are available as over-the-counter skin care products while retinoic acid is only available in prescription form.
But here’s the thing: No matter what type of retinoid you apply topically, it won’t work on your skin until it’s converted to retinoic acid. Retinyl esters, retinol, and retinaldehyde all need to first convert to retinoic acid directly on the skin’s surface in order for your skin to reap the benefits, and the more steps it takes to convert, the weaker (and therefore gentler) it will be.
Retinyl Esters -> Retinol -> Retinaldehyde -> Retinoic Acid
The least potent form of retinoids, it takes retinyl esters three steps to convert into retinoic acid on the skin — first converting to retinol and then retinaldehyde before becoming active. This means that these derivatives of vitamin A — which include retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl propionate — are quite gentle.
Products with retinyl esters are great for first-time retinoid users or people with very sensitive skin. While they may be the weakest form of a retinoid, with consistent use, they can still help address a number of skin concerns like lines and wrinkles, uneven texture and tone, and even milder forms of acne.
Arguably the most popular form of retinoids famed for its many anti-aging and skin-renewing abilities. Retinol takes two steps to convert into retinoic acid, converting first into retinaldehyde, deeming it more effective than retinyl esters. However, it’s notorious for being irritating, drying, and causing the skin to peel, which can be drawbacks for those with more sensitive skin. Because it can take some time for the skin to become acclimated to retinol.
Retinol is considered to be 20 times less potent than a prescription tretinoin since it’s time-released such that it’s delivered into the skin slowly, over a period of hours, instead of all at once upon application.
Retinaldehyde, also known as “retinal” — not to be confused with retinol — is the strongest of the over-the-counter retinoids. One step closer to retinoic acid on the conversion scale, it only takes one step for it to convert and become active, making it more potent than the aforementioned retinyl esters and retinol.
Similar to retinol, Retinal help promote cell turnover to even skin tone and texture, smooth wrinkles and fine lines, and prevent acne. Also similar to retinol is the irritation and dryness you may experience while using it; however, you can expect it to still be gentler than pure retinoic acid.
It’s worth mentioning again that the closer you are to retinoic acid, the better it works, but also the more drying and irritating it could be. In other words, when it comes to over the counter treatments, retinaldehyde is stronger than retinol and retinol ester.
As mentioned earlier, retinoic acid is the most potent form of retinoids. This is the end point molecule that is biologically active on skin, and is therefore the strongest Because it’s already active and doesn’t need to be converted on the skin, it begins to work its cellular renewal and repair magic right away. However, that means stronger side effects than its weaker counterparts (think: dryness, peeling, and irritation) are also usually part of the deal. Due to its strength, you can only get retinoic acid treatments via a prescription, which are typically issued when gentler over-the-counter treatments haven’t been successful.
Tretinoin (a.k.a Retin –A) and isotretinoin are the two prescription forms of pure retinoic acid.
When you first start using a retinoid some irritation is common. Stay with it. This is known as “retinization” as the retinol retrains your skin cells to turn over at a much faster rate—a period that can take several weeks.
While all of these forms of retinol have different strengths, they all do the same thing over time with consistent use: encourage skin cell turnover.
Benefits of Retinol
Its ability to produce major changes in your complexion is why retinol is praised in the beauty world. Retinol’s most impressive accomplishment lies in it’s capacity to speed up cellular regeneration, in turn leaving you with a younger-looking complexion and slowing down the aging process.
As we age, the rate at which our skin cells turn over slows down. When you’re in your late 20s, for example, your skin cells turn over every 28 days to unveil new, smooth skin. Once you’re in your mid-30s, however, this process slows down and can occur every 50-70 days. The result? Our complexion looks dull, dry, and wrinkles are more prominent. That’s where retinol comes in to exfoliate your complexion and clear away dead skin cells to unveil smoother, younger-looking skin beneath the surface. By increasing the turnover of skin cells, the surface of the skin will also have better tone and texture.
Retinol can also unclog pores, increase collagen production and decrease discoloration. So not only does it reduce the signs of aging, (get ready to bid farewell to fine lines and wrinkles), but it also keeps acne at bay and regulates oil production, making it a skincare savior for oily acne prone skin.
How To Use Retinol And How Often
Begin with applying Retinol just once or twice a week on non-consecutive nights for first few weeks. Gradually increase how often, but not how much, you are using based on how your skin responds. A little bit goes a long way. It might feel like you’re not doing anything because you’re using so little but if you’re using the right one, it’s enough.
Take pea-sized amount and dab onto five points—the forehead, nose, each cheek, and chin. Gently rub it in to evenly distribute it over the face. Use a second pea-sized amount for the neck
Wearing sunscreen during the day is another key to avoiding side effects like sensitivity, sunburn, and retinization–and, of course, a key to keeping your skin healthy in general, with or without a retinol product, so be sure to slather on the SPF. It’s also important to keep your skin moisturized
If any redness or irritation is noted the next day, you should skip that night’s application.
An Advanced Night Routine Plan With Retinol
Use retinol for two nights on, one night off, alternating with an exfoliating acid serum (If you battle acne, pick Salicylic acid exfoliating serum, if it’s a texture/hyperpigmentation concern use AHA Exfoliating serum) and a nourishing treatment serum (Like Either Niacinamide serum or Hyaluronic acid serum or both).
The idea is since retinol is pushing up skin cells to the surface at a faster rate, this could cause micro-peeling (invisible peeling) in most skin types, so it’s important not to use it every night.
As it takes two days for the cells to regenerate to the surface and cause the skin to get flaky, using an exfoliating serum on [the third night] is perfect for removing the surface dead cells that appear. Also, retinol may work even better when used back on the skin on fourth night, because now it can penetrate deeper into the skin because of the acid exfoliation the night before.
You don’t want to over-stimulate the skin by staying in a constant state of ‘exfoliation’ and ‘cell turnover’ by using only retinol and exfoliating acids. Replenish your skin with a hydrating serum that contains skin-nourishing antioxidants, peptides, or plant derived stem cells to stimulate cell growth like Hyaluronic Acid Serum. Think of this as you would an exercise routine that rotates between weights and cardio. You want to give your skin a variety of stimulation and nutrients.
While this night routine might not be ideal for everyone, we suggest you use retinol with a cocktail of other actives because the skin performs its best when it has a variety of high-performance active ingredients instead of the same one ingredient night in and night out.
Note: If you find your skin is sensitive, peeling, or irritated, don't lose hope. You can try the sandwich technique—first apply a hyaluronic acid serum, then the retinol over it, and then a moisturizer with ceramides on top. Some tricks of the trade include shorter contact time (such as applying at dinner and washing off at bedtime)
Safety and Side Effects of Retinol
Retinol is safe to use, but there are a few things to know before diving into the new ingredient. When you first start out with retinol, it’s best to not use it every night. Using it too frequently can cause redness, drying, and peeling (whether or not this happens depends on the concentration of retinol in the product you’re using, and how much you’re using).
Retinoids can only be damaging to skin if you have a super-sensitive underlying skin condition like eczema or rosacea and can flare and enhance inflammation. Nonetheless, patients with sensitive conditions like rosacea may still be able to use a retinoid, but they need to gradually introduce it into their skincare regimen, perhaps only one time weekly, and prep their skin with a topical moisturizer before applying the retinoid or better still opt for the mildest form “retinol esters.
Don't use harsh scrubs, astringents, toners, alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, benzoyl peroxide, and vitamin C at the same as your retinol because the combinations can dry out and irritate your skin.
Retinol can make your skin more sensitive to other products, procedures, and sunlight.
You’ll need to stop applying retinol for at least a week before things like getting a facial, laser treatment, chemical peel, waxing, or intense sun exposure because it increases your sensitivity. And, if you must go in the sun, there are some important sun-exposure precautions.
Retinol absorbed by skin at night lasts during the day so make sure to use a sunscreen diligently else you might risk getting darker.
When should I start using Retinol?
During your mid to late 20s is a good time to think about adding a retinoid into your routine. If you suffer from acne you may well start them sooner and stay on one to maintain control of your skin - and that’s absolutely fine.
Ultimately, retinol is an investment - they don’t yield results overnight. But given time and dedication, they will become a skincare essential because of the profound way it affect the skin positively.
What To Avoid or Pair With Retinol
Retinol is excellent at exfoliating skin and drying blemishes, but generally it should not be paired with other products which do the same. On the nights you use retinol, skip the exfoliating ingredients like salicylic acid and AHA.
You can still use acids (like AHAs and BHAs) with retinol, but avoid using them at the same time; for example, you could use acids one night and retinol the next, or acids in the morning and retinol at night. It shouldn’t be paired with vitamin c as well.
However, Retinol pairs well with Niacinamide, Hyaluronic acid, peptides, ceramides
How Long Does it Take to See Results From Retinol?
If you're looking for an overnight treatment, you won't find it in retinol.
Results will depend on the potency levels found in the formula and, interestingly, some people convert retinol into retinoic acid more quickly than others. On the average, the skin typically takes between three to four weeks to adapt to consistent use.
Retinols take a bit more time to work their magic. When used regularly, you can expect to see results in two to three months.
That's not to say you won't see any benefits upon the first few uses. In the short term, the benefits are that your skin will be exfoliated of dead skin cells and your pores will be unclogged.
If you're using retinol to reduce wrinkles, the process can be lengthy.
Over time, retinol help boosts collagen and thicken the deeper layer of skin where wrinkles begin to form, so long-term consistency will be worth the results.
When used longer than six months, you’ll start to benefit from new collagen & elastin production and a noticeable reduction of fine lines wrinkles and dark spots.
In short, Plan on about 12 weeks of use before you see a significant change. Be patient. It’s worth it.
The Perfect Retinol Skincare Routine
Retinol gives a whole new meaning to beauty sleep, which is why it’s best to incorporate it into your skincare routine at night.
While using just a retinol serum or cream or both is okay and it’s a popular routine we see around, Richer results from retinol might be achieved when Retinol is used every step of the way from the cleanser down to the moisturizer.
Our Recommended Retinol Night Time Layering Guide For Maximizing Result:
Step One: At night, cleanse with our Pro Retinol Cleanser. Pat Dry.
Step Two: Pour 2/3 drops of toner into cotton pad or cotton wool and extra clean face with it. Don’t wash off. Allow to absorb in.
Step Three: Apply 2/3 drops of Retinol + Vitamin E Serum and massage all over face and neck. Give it a minute to absorb all in.
Step Four: Press down and scoop with your pinkie finger for a small amount of Eye Gel onto the ocular bone beneath your eye.
Step Five: Follow through with Pro Retinol Face cream. Apply just a pea sixed and massage over face and neck.
Frequently Asked Questions About Retinol
Is Retinol For Acne?
Studies confirm that retinols are helpful for clearing acne because they can help regulate oil production and dry existing acne, but retinol can also be used for anti-aging as well.
Would Retinol Dry Me Out?
If you’re wondering if retinol will dry out your skin, the answer is, maybe— but probably not if used with a moisturizer. Because retinols are the over-the-counter version of a retinoid. They are not as intense on the skin. It is mostly the concentration, time of day, and how often you use retinol that you should be concerned about.
Can I Use Retinol While Pregnant?
The safety of retinol and retinoid products during pregnancy depends on their strength. Retinol products contain low levels of the active form of vitamin A, so your doctor might OK these during pregnancy. Consult with your dermatogolist to make a recommendation for you. Topical retinoid products are much higher in active vitamin A than retinol products, so they pose more risk for pregnant women.
And retinoid products you take by mouth are even more dangerous for your baby than those used topically. You should never take isotretinoin or other oral retinoids to treat acne or anything else if you are: Pregnant, Considering pregnancy and Breastfeeding.
Can You Apply Retinol on Only One Area of the Face?
Applying retinol strategically to target a specific area—like crow’s feet or smile lines for example—won’t have the intended effect. Retinol travels underneath the skin. Even if it’s applied in one place it will migrate and stimulate your entire face.
Pro Tip: Always avoid using retinol on the thin and delicate skin around the eye area unless it is a product specifically formulated for the eyes like Neutriherbs Pro Eye gel.
What To Do on “Off” Nights?
Retinol encourages sun damaged skin cells to rise to the surface for easy removal. On your no-retinol nights, using a gentle exfoliating acid once or twice a week will accelerate the removal process. If your concern is acne, then go for salicylic acid exfoliating serum, if hyperpigmentation then pair retinol with AHA Exfoliating serum.
Should I Use Retinol in the AM or PM?
While it’s true that retinol can cause sun sensitivity, the main reason you should only use it at night is that sunlight can deactivate it. Retinol should be used at night as a vital part of the repair that happens as we sleep.
Should Retinol and Vitamin C Be Used in the Same Routine?
Yes absolutely. As an AM/PM strategy but never layered together. For daytime, a serum that combines L-Ascorbic Acid and Ferulic Acid at a high 20 percentage like Neutriherbs Super Booster Vitamin C Serum provides strong anti-oxidant protection and inhibits melanin (brown spots) from forming in the first place. Retinol, by contrast, promotes the collagen building and cellular turnover that happens as we sleep. For restoring mature skin, these two ingredients—in tandem use—offer ramped-up repair.
Should I Use Retinol on Damp Skin?
We always direct our customers to cycle through their skincare routine in a ‘state of slightly damp’. Applying each product in their routine to moistened skin promotes the deeper absorption of products. Except for retinol. Applying retinol to damp skin can be irritating. Wait for at least 5 minutes after gently cleansing the skin and patting it dry. Then apply retinol to the entire face.
Will Retinol Thin My Skin?
In a word no. But here is how retinol works on the skin—layer upon layer. Topical retinoids do thin out the top layer of the skin (known as your barrier). This is what creates the dewy, glowing look that comes with consistent use. This also explains why retinol makes the skin more sensitive to the sun. Overall, retinol will help thicken the skin by promoting active collagen production.
Must I use Retinol With a Sunscreen?
Retinol does make your skin more sensitive to the sun. And those fresh new cells retinol stimulates are vulnerable to damaging light. Highly recommend: use a hydrating, mineral sun protection at an SPF of 30 or higher like Neutriherbs Broad spectrum SPF 50 for an effective level of protection.
Pro Tip: If you are planning a lot of time in the sun (an extended beach vacay or a cruise, for example) discontinue your retinol use 7 days before intense exposure. Then, start up your retinol use 1 week after you’ve been in the sun. If you are sunburned (please, don’t get a sunburn) then wait until it’s gone. Yes, this slows down your results, but it’s important to follow this guideline to prevent any skin irritation and inflammation.
Will Retinol Make Me Purge?
Skin purging is when increased breakouts and blemishes pop up after starting to use a resurfacing or acne product. Not everyone experiences purging, but it is possible with any ingredient that accelerates skin’s renewal process or tackles acne Like Retinol. Purging typically lasts between 2-6 weeks and is followed by significantly fewer and less frequent breakouts over time. Trust us, even though the purge isn’t fun, the end results will be worth it. Stick with it!