By now, there’s a good chance your best friend, your work wife and your mother are all avid users of retinoids (the umbrella term for all vitamin-A derivatives, like retinol). But with popularity comes misinformation. To help navigate your line-smoothing, skin-brightening journey without any bumps (literally), Dr. Mona Gohara, a board-certified dermatologist and associate clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine, reveals the five retinol myths that need to officially go away.
- MYTH: Retinol automatically requires a “purge” period.
The severe peeling, irritation, and breakouts people associate with retinoids? They’re not at all necessary. Though, yes, some light flaking and mild breakouts (in acne-prone individuals) can happen during the first two to four weeks after starting retinoids, you can minimize most of the side effects by starting low and slow.
First, pick the gentlest of retinoids, like retinyl palmitate (try Embryolisse Creme Anti-Age Raffermissante) for sensitive skin, or a lower concentration of pure retinol (like SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex 0.25) for all other skin types. Use a blob the size of a pea—not a lima bean, kidney bean or any other random vegetable. Then, “apply your retinoid two nights a week for two weeks, three nights a week for three weeks and then every other night or every night indefinitely,” says Dr. Gohara. “Going slow gives your skin more time to adjust, so it doesn’t freak out all at once.”
- MYTH: All retinoids are equally good for acne.
“Acne is caused when your dead skin cells shed and accidentally clog the hair follicle, which allows bacteria to build until the follicle gets inflamed,” says Dr. Gohara. “The stronger the retinoid, the better it can regulate that shedding.” So even though your gentle anti-aging night cream helps keep pores clear to an extent, it’ll only do so much for acne—especially if the formula also contains rich, pore-clogging ingredients. “The best OTC retinoid for treating acne is adapalene, which usually comes in an oil-free, gel-based formula,” she says. Our pick? La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1%. It’s potent (so, again, start slow), but it’ll zap acne and smooth fine lines over time. Basically, any retinoid is better than no retinoid—but, if you want the fastest results (and if your skin isn’t especially sensitive), head to your derm for a prescription-strength formula.
- MYTH: Using multiple anti-aging products is better than one.
Retinol eye cream plus retinol face cream plus retinol serum? Recipe for a face fire. “There’s only so much collagen your skin can produce, so even if you douse yourself in retinol, you’re not going to turn the clock back 20 years,” says Dr. Gohara. “Generally, retinol once a day will hit that max capacity.”
- MYTH: Retinol can only be applied to dry skin.
Retinoids can be…high maintenance. Some formulas work best on bone-dry skin, others can be used right after washing your face, and dermatologists are often divided in their opinions on how to apply them for max efficacy. A simple solution for the very confused (and very tired)? Time-released retinol. Unlike traditional retinoids that penetrate your skin as soon as you smooth them on, time-released formulas (like Alchimie Forever Advanced Retinol Serum) have little encapsulated spheres of retinol that slowly break open and sink into your skin over several hours, making them ultra-stable, regardless of how quickly you apply them after patting your skin dry.
- MYTH: A low-strength retinoid doesn’t really do anything.
All retinoids speed up your collagen production (which equals smoother, plumper, fresher-looking skin), regardless of which type you choose. Sure, your gentle, retinol-infused night cream won’t reduce your wrinkles as quickly as pure, prescription-only tazarotene (which, FYI, is the strongest retinoid in existence), but all over-the-counter retinoids will work in the long run, says Dr. Gohara, and usually with far fewer side effects.