A common ingredient that we often hear and read about is retinol, mainly regarding its anti-aging benefits. Dermstore, alone, carries hundreds of products containing retinol. Retinol is part of the retinoid family (also known as vitamin A) and doesn’t require a prescription—although there are prescription options for stronger strengths. With the help of a few dermatologists, we’ve confirmed some facts and busted a few myths about this superhero ingredient.
According to Beverly Hills dermatologist Jason Emer, MD, using retinol and vitamin C, also known as L-ascorbic acid, together is not a good idea. “Although both, in theory, would be good together as they are both powerful antioxidants, each one has a particular pH that allows the ingredients to work in the skin,” he explains. “L-ascorbic acid has a pH of 3.5 whereas retinol has a much higher pH of 5.” This doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the benefits of both retinol and vitamin C. According to Dr. Emer, using one in the morning and one at night might give you the results you want without irritating your skin. “I prefer to use my vitamin C during the day to fight free radical damage and my retinol, peptides and growth factors at night,” he says.
“Because retinol is a powerful antioxidant,” says Dr. Emer, “it is important to use it every day.” To encourage everyday use, he recommends starting with a lighter dose of around 0.05 percent and working your way up as your skin becomes adjusted. Starting with a stronger concentration may be too aggressive for first-time users. And because retinol exfoliates the skin and produces new collagen, the initial results may be overwhelming. “It is better to use a lighter dose of a 0.05 percent every night,” Dr. Emer says, “so your skin can retain all the benefits of the vitamin and get those cells turning over more quickly.”
Though both are retinoids, retinol and Retin-A vary greatly in their chemical makeup and strength. Retinol is a form of vitamin A that naturally occurs in the skin, whereas Retin-A is a chemical compound that is related to vitamin A. Retinol is the ingredient found in over-the-counter vitamin A products, typically at a low concentration. Because of the lower concentration, it can take a few weeks to a few months for you to start seeing results.
Retin-A is the brand name of tretinoin, a synthetic retinoid that can only be prescribed by a doctor. Retin-A is much stronger than retinol and is widely prescribed for skin rejuvenation and acne. The reason being that the strength of Retin-A enables it to boost collagen, increase cell turnover, diminish wrinkles and smooth the skin.
Most people only apply their retinol at night because it makes the skin more sensitive to light. “Retinol can actually be used both during the day and at night,” explains Dr. Emer, “especially if you are using it in combination with other ingredients to lighten brown spots. Just make sure that you use a sunblock to protect your skin from the sun.” Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ashley Magovern also addresses this misconception: “With older formulations, the sun could potentially break down the active ingredient, but this is not the case with most of the newer formulations. At any rate, we still usually recommend that you use your retinol product at night. But there is no reason to avoid it in summer months. You may be a little more likely to burn as you are getting used to it, but with time your skin should become more resilient, healthy and free of sun damage.”
Because retinol and other retinoids can cause the skin to flake (usually if the dose is too strong for your skin), they’re often compared to exfoliants. However, retinoids and exfoliants—like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)—affect the skin much differently. While retinoids penetrate deep into the skin’s layers to improve skin health, AHAs and BHAs exfoliate the skin’s surface to remove dead skin cells.
Retinoids can be combined with other products to encourage cell rejuvenation, revitalizing the topical skin layer while improving collagen production. Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a Manhattan dermatologist, notes that retinoids are frequently combined with other products to get the best outcome. A 2015 study suggests that retinoids and alpha hydroxy acids produce a synergistic effect when used together. Subjects cleansed with AHAs and then applied a retinol-based anti-aging serum twice a day (in addition to SPF 50+), which proved to be safe and effective for skin with moderate-to-severe photo damage.
There is no one-size-fits-all for individual skin care needs. In some cases, retinol may work fine for those who are looking to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, but in some situations, it may not be strong enough to treat other topical skin issues. It is best to consult your doctor to address your skin needs and find the best product that works for your skin type. Keep in mind, “retinol is also sensitive to UV and will degrade unless it is encapsulated,” says Dr. Emer. Always apply sunscreen when using these products to protect your skin, and store your retinol products in a dark, cool place to prevent them from losing their efficacy.
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