What is retinol and how do you use It?

Retinol has been a household name in the beauty industry for years, but do you know how it works, why it’s so powerful, and how it differs from retinoids? Not to worry, once you learn more about the effects of this anti-aging and spot-correcting powerhouse, you’re going to want to incorporate it into your skincare routine, stat.

What is retinol?

While retinol and retinoids are very closely related, it’s super important to understand the difference between the two. It’s complicated to fully explain how the two differ, so here’s the simplified version of retinol vs. retinoid:

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that naturally occurs in plants and animals. It plays an important role in the regulation of cell growth and healthy skin. Retinoids, on the other hand, are a class of medications that are chemically derived from vitamin A. Since retinol is milder and a bit more gentle to the skin, it’s widely available in over-the-counter skincare products. However, retinol is considered a less potent version of vitamin A. When you hear the term "retinoid," it’s referring to more robust prescription products such as Adapalene. But make no mistake, even though retinol isn’t as intense as stronger retinoids, it doesn’t mean it’s not effective in battling everything from wrinkles to acne — even in adults.

Until recently, the more robust retinol products (with more possible side effects) were available only by prescription. Today some retinoids, such as Adapalene, are available over the counter to treat acne. In fact, Adapalene is a star player in our ProactivMD Essentials System + Teen Duo and ProactivMD 3-Piece System.

Retinol benefits

Retinol is touted as one of the leading skincare ingredients, but what does retinol do, and who can benefit from it? Unlike other anti-aging and acne products, retinol doesn’t remove dead skin cells. Instead, the tiny molecules that make up retinol penetrate deep beneath the epidermis (top layer of skin) to your dermis — the second, inner layer of your skin.

When retinol is applied to the skin, cells at the basal layer (the innermost layer of the epidermis) start to divide. This causes new cells to travel to the surface of the skin while old cells shed away. At the same time, retinol works to neutralize free radicals and stimulate collagen and elastin production, which reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and large pores while improving skin tone and texture. In other words, it’s basically a super ingredient.

We can’t not mention that retinol can also treat severe acne — including residual scarring — because it helps keep your pores free from debris. It also controls oil production, which prevents the formation of comedones (blackheads and whiteheads), and papules and pustules (inflamed pimples). Retinol has also been proven to balance your skin’s natural hydration levels because its exfoliating properties remove the dead skin cells that may be contributing to moisture loss.

What side effects does retinol have?

All anti-aging skincare ingredients have potential side effects, and retinol is no exception. First-time users may experience redness, irritation, peeling, dryness, itchiness, and scaly patches. If you already have overly sensitive skin, use retinol with caution and ask a skincare professional before adding this active ingredient into your routine. But don’t stress; for the most part, these side effects are only temporary.

How to use retinol

While you can’t just hit the ground running with retinol as you would some of your other skincare products, it’s still easy to adopt into your skincare routine. Here are some easy tips for using and adjusting to retinol.

Apply retinol at night

Retinol increases sun sensitivity, which can cause further damage to your skin if it’s not protected. Apply it at night and always use a sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 during the day.

Ease into it

While you may be anxious to see results, going gangbusters with retinol right off the bat is only going to cause irritation instead of working to improve your skin. Start by using retinol 2-3 times a week — never two days in a row. If you don’t experience any redness, irritation, or flakiness, you can gradually add an extra day, providing your skin can tolerate it. While some side effects are normal, monitor how your skin is reacting so you can adjust frequency.

Don’t overdo it

When it comes to applying retinol, a little goes a long way — a pea-sized amount will do. When you’re first starting out, you may even want to mix your retinol product (such as a serum) with your face moisturizer, so it’s a bit more gentle on the skin during the adjustment period.

How Long Does Retinol Take to Work?

There’s no such thing as a quick fix, and consistency is vital if you want to see results. Prescription-strength retinoids can take at least 12 weeks to show results while over-the-counter formulas can take as long as six months to produce the same results. Don’t give up. The results will speak for themselves if you stick with it.

Now that you know more about the amazing benefits of retinol, how it works and when to use it, check out our ProactivMD Essentials System + Teen Duo and ProactivMD 3-Piece System that harnesses the power of Adapalene — prescription-strength formulas, no prescription needed.