Lobster-red skin, stinging sunburns, and flakey complexions have long been the stuff of retinol-use lore. So, it’s no wonder that some of us stay away from the stuff, thinking it’s too harsh. Dermatologists swear by retinol, counting it as a must-have for just about everyone (second only to SPF), even those with sensitive skin. And, research over the past 30 years has shown that retinol can tackle a ton of dermatological concerns, including acne, wrinkles, and rough or discolored skin. Not bad for a single active ingredient.
“I don’t know a single dermatologist who doesn’t use a retinol product on their skin,” says Heather Rogers, MD, a Seattle-based dermatologist and clinical assistant dermatology professor at the University of Washington. “We’ve all read the studies and we all use it.” Before we dive in, you should know that there are three levels of retinoids: pure retinoic acid, which is the strongest and prescription-only; retinol, which is sold over the counter and is weaker and less irritating than the pure stuff; and retinol derivatives, which are also sold over the counter and are more gentle than retinol.
It’s true; you might not completely avoid irritation if you use the stuff. But, you can minimize it by being strategic. For someone completely new to the world of retinol, Dr. Rogers suggests using a derivative twice a week to avoid stressing out the skin. If yours still reacts adversely, she recommends moisturizing beforehand. Once you’re comfortable with biweekly applications, you can increase the frequency until you’re comfortable with everyday use.
For some, the next step would be transitioning to a prescription concentration of retinoic acid. But, no matter what stage you’re in, don’t expect overnight results. While some research shows improved skin in as little as a month, Dr. Rogers says you should commit to a retinoid product for at least three months before judging whether or not it works for you.
Read on for the non-prescription strategies to soothe your particular skin woes.
The retinol in Luna is delivered via cold-pressed oil, which makes is hydrating andcorrective.
Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil, $105, available at Sephora.
This treatment kicks ass in the wrinkle-fighting and hydration departments, thanks to an A-plus combination of retinol, glycerin, and niacinamide.
Olay Intensive Repair Treatment, $28.99, available at Ulta Beauty.
Some non-prescription retinol products moisturize your skin with hyaluronic acid, an ingredient that keeps skin plump and hydrated.
Avène Eau Thermale Retrinal H.A.F. Firming Gel, $46, available at DermStore.
If your skin needs even more hydration, you can pair your retinol product with a heavier moisturizer — just apply the retinol first, which will help you absorb more of the hydrating stuff.
SkinMedica Retinol Complex 1.0, $90, available at SkinMedica.
For a more affordable option, check out this serum from Neutrogena, which we think works just as well as the expensive stuff. The lightweight formulation contains retinol to brighten the skin and fade dark spots while hyaluronic acid provides an extra kick of hydration.
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum, $23.99, available at Ulta.
While you may be drawn to retinoid products with vitamin C, since they have pigment-fighting properties, Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical dermatology research at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, cautions against those. “Vitamin C and retinol can inactivate each other,” he says, so choose your products wisely. He suggests using a vitamin C serum in the morning to prevent further dark spots and a retinol product in the evening to repair damage.
SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex .25, $60, available at SkinMedica.
SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex .25,$60 $57, available at DermStore.
Dr. Rogers says those with hyperpigmentation should be particularly religious about their sunscreen use. “Retinol will help lighten the skin, but after five minutes in the sun, your body is going to make more brown,” she says. “So, you have to be incredibly diligent about limiting your exposure to UV, in addition to using retinol in the evening.”
Verso Dark Spot Fix, $150, available at DooBop.
Even if your skin can tolerate a daily retinol dose, if you’re looking to brighten up your complexion, it may be best to take a few nights off. While retinol can help even out your skin tone and minimize wrinkles, it won’t necessarily slough off those dead, dulling cells. Dr. Rogers suggests alternating between a retinol product and a glycolic cream for your evening routine.
Dr. Dennis Gross Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Solution, $88, available atSephora.
A glycolic cream can help pull away dead skin cells and reduce the appearance of brown spots. Some new products on the market, like Kate Somerville RetAsphere Micro Peel, combine glycolic acid and retinol. To further brighten your complexion, Dr. Rogers suggests using a vitamin C serum during the day.
Kate Somerville RetAsphere Micro Peel Retinol Glycolic Cream, $90, available atNeiman Marcus.
A big misconception about retinol is that the skin around the eyes is too sensitive to tolerate the ingredient. Not so, say doctors. But, because that area is more delicate, you should use a retinoid specifically designed for it, says Dr. Zeichner. “It’s better to use a retinol eye cream than a face cream on the eyes,” he says. “Eye creams are typically specially formulated for sensitive eye skin. Many contain hydrating ingredients, lower retinol concentrations, or a special vehicle to minimize the irritation.”
Dermalogica Age Reversal Eye Complex, $75, available at Dermalogica.
Dr. Rogers suggests you start by using a product with a weak retinol concentration twice a week, like La Roche-Posay Redermic R Eyes, which uses .01% pure retinol, and work your way up to more frequent usage before moving on to a stronger formula.
La Roche-Posay Redermic R Eyes Intensive Dermatological Anti-Aging Eye Corrector, $46.95, available at Drugstore.com.
This is a great option for any eye-cream haters out there. The formula is so lightweight, you might even forget you put it on.
RoC Eye Cream, $19.99, available at Ulta Beauty.
Those with sensitive skin are the most likely group to shy away from using retinoids. But, they can still reap some of the rewards, as long as they ease into it slowly. Start with retinol derivatives (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate) or natural forms of retinol (like chicory root, tara tree, and beggars stick flower), which are all gentler and less irritating. And, look for products with simple ingredient lists. If they still stress out your skin, Dr. Rogers and Dr. Zeichner suggest applying a moisturizer first. Once you’re ready to graduate to a stronger dose, look for a time-release, low-level retinol that will deliver gradual results.
Ren Bio Retinoid Anti-Aging Concentrate, $60, available at Sephora.
Dr. Rogers points out that the most sensitive areas on the face are those where skin rubs together: the corners of the mouth, where the nose meets the cheek, and the eyelid area. Those with sensitive skin should build their retinol tolerance slower in these parts of the face.
Paula’s Choice Skin Recovery Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum, $28, available at Paula’s Choice.
Retinol packs a powerful punch when it comes to fighting acne and the shadowy scars it leaves behind. Regular use helps clear up your complexion by pulling dead skin cells out of pores, which makes them look smaller. It’s also an anti-inflammatory, which helps with redness.
Dr. Rogers suggests the blemish-prone use a face wash with benzoyl peroxide (an anti-inflammatory) or salicylic acid (which helps dry out excess oil) in the morning, and follow up with a retinoid at night, which will help stimulate cell turnover and lessen any post-pimple dark spots.
Bioelements Oil Control Sleepwear, $62, available at Bioelements.
Many retinol products are formulated for mature skin and made to moisturize — a not-too-helpful feature for many acne sufferers, who don’t need more oil on their mugs. So, look for non-greasy formulas.
When your skin is ready for prescription-strength retinol, ask your dermatologist for a gel formula or whether a retinol mixed with clindamycin (an antibiotic used to treat acne) might be the best fit for your skin.
SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0, $63, available atSkinCeuticals.
Dr. Rogers says retinol has been shown to help with rosacea in the long term. Even so, “this is the group that has to be the most careful, because they’re prone to more redness already and retinol makes people redder in the beginning,” she says.
She suggests rosacea sufferers make sure their skin is relatively under control before starting a retinol treatment. “Don’t start on a retinoid while having a rosacea flare,” she advises. “I would prescribe a rosacea medicine for two to four weeks before I have them start using a retinoid product.”
Environ AVST 1, $66, available atdermaconcepts.com.
When you first start to incorporate retinoids into your skin-care routine, look for simple, cream-based products with short ingredient lists and go very slowly. In the mornings, apply your anti-redness cream and sunscreen. In the evenings, wash your face, apply moisturizer before your retinoid product, and follow up with the anti-redness cream. Be prepared to experience a little discomfort early on. “It’s important to know that your rosacea might be a little worse in the first two weeks,” Dr. Rogers says. “But, don’t give up.”
iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance Plus, $135, available at SkinStore.
Those with oily skin will likely tolerate retinol best, says Dr. Rogers. People in this group also tend to adapt to non-prescription formulas faster and become candidates for Rx-strength retinoic acid in a shorter period of time.
Revision Retinol Complete, $90 available atRevision Skincare
Both Dr. Rogers and Dr. Zeichner say those with oily skin should use a cleanser with salicylic acid to absorb excess oil; then apply an oil-free retinol formulation (in a higher concentration, if your skin tolerates it well). The strongest-concentration retinol product available OTC contains 2% retinol. If you’re a retinoid newbie, start with a 1% concentration or lower; then work your way up to 2% before seeking a prescription.
Dr. Brandt Overnight Resurfacing Serum, $85, available at Sephora.
If you have combination skin, do some evaluating before choosing a retinoid. Notice where your skin is more oily and where you tend to break out, as well as where it’s more dry or flakey. Choose a retinoid geared toward your complexion’s multiple aspects.
Vichy LiftActiv Retinol Ha Concentrate, $55, available at Vichy.
Oilier zones will likely play nice with retinol, so you may be able to apply a stronger concentration to these areas of your face, like 1%. But, in drier areas, consider using something less strong at first, like a .5% or lower concentration that also contains moisturizing ingredients.
Amarte Aqua Cream, $93, available at Amarte.
Wrinkles & Age Spots
The first studies to show that prescription retinol helps improve sun-damaged skin were published back in 1986 and 1988. These days, over-the-counter retinol is just as effective for treating sun damage as the prescription kind, says Leslie Baumann, MD, a Miami-based dermatologist and author of The Skin Type Solution. Retinol is known to battle sun damage by increasing collagen production.
Renée Rouleau Advanced Resurfacing Serum, $83.50, available at Renée Rouleau.
To help tackle the different aspects of skin aging, both Dr. Baumann and Dr. Rogers suggest complementing retinoid usage with antioxidant and sunscreen products. Dr. Rogers recommends using a vitamin serum and sunscreen in the morning, followed by a retinoid product at night.
True Nature Botanicals Pacific Night Serum with Retinol, $150, available at True Nature Botanicals.