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Retinol: 8 Myths and 8 Facts Revealed

Writer and expert2 years ago
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Ah, retinol – an ingredient that both amazes and puzzles us. Retinoids (or vitamin A derivatives) have created a lot of buzz for years and yet have been subject to some speculation because – well – they do it all. From anti-aging properties to keeping skin tone even, retinol tackles several specific skincare needs at a time, making it a skincare staple for any beauty fanatic. 

However, we’ve all had our fair share of questions before committing to this product: Can retinol be used during the day? Is there really a “purge” period? What if I have acne-prone or sensitive skin? Despite the many questions that pop up when thinking of retinol, many swear by it while others still hesitate to try. But, a lot of what we think we know about retinoids and retinol could be wrong.  

So, we’re breaking down a few myths and including a few facts about retinol to put your mind at ease. 


Retinols require 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.

In fact, many dermatologists recommend sticking with retinol for more than four or six weeks, as results show up after twelve weeks. As your skin adapts to retinol, irritation is less likely. If the irritation gets too uncomfortable, reduce usage but push through – the many benefits of retinol are worth it.  

Retinol is 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. Mona Gohara, a board-certified dermatologist and associate clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine. “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. 

Using multiple retinol-based 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.” 

However, it’s worth mentioning another myth here: that retinol should not be used for the area around your eyes. Actually, retinol works wonderfully for the undereye area! If you’re applying retinoids up to the eyes, you’ll see the results as this area is particularly sensitive and prone to damage. 

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. 

Combining retinol with vitamin C will give better results.

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.  

Retinol exfoliates and so can’t be combined with AHAs BHAs or other exfoliants.

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. 

 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 photodamage. 

Retinol and Retin-A are the same thing. 

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. 

Low strength retinoid doesn’t do anything.

All retinoids speed up your collagen production (which equals smoother, plumper, fresher-looking skin), regardless of which type you choose. And by all we mean that this also includes any gentle retinoids. 

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.  


Retinol can be used every day.

Retinol is an antioxidant, which means it can be used every day. Start off with a lower dose (o.o5%), slowly working your way up as your skin adapts and adjusts. If you’re a first-time user, try and avoid stronger concentration retinol as the results can be overwhelming, irritating skin.

Retinol can be used during night and day. 

This one might surprise you the most, as we’re made to believe retinol causes sun damage. SPF should always be worn, mind you, but the idea that retinol will damage skin without it... not so true. The reason retinol is encouraged to be used at nighttime is because it is rendered inactive by sunlight. However, you can absolutely use it, night and day, especially if you make sure to keep skin moisturized. Don’t skip the SPF!  

Retinol may not be for everybody.

There is no one-size-fits-all for individual skincare 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. 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. 

Retinol slows down the aging process by increasing collagen production. 

Normallyour skin regenerates every 28 days. But, once we reach our mid-30s, this process slows down and so we get wrinkly skin. Thankfully, retinol works at a cellular level and increases collagen production, which means it aids in cell turnover and keeps skin smooth and plump.  

You can (and should) start using retinol early. 

You read that right – you don’t have to wait! In fact, it's best to start early with retinol as this wonder product keeps skin looking healthy and youthful regardless of ageAnd, fun fact: retinoids were originally used to treat acne in young people.  

Bakuchiol is a natural alternative to retinol. 

Most retinoids are derived from animal products, and these have been wrongly considered more effective or potent than those that are plant-based. If you’d prefer cleaner retinoids that won’t cause too much dryness or irritation, bakuchiol is an excellent replacement 

Retinol must be used regularly to work. 

Sadly, once you start using retinolyou’ve got to commitNot only does it take 12 weeks for results to show, but your skin will adapt and so you’ll have to up the potency every year or so. Remember retinol works at a cellular level, and if you stop using it, it’s like taking a step back and starting from zero. So make sure to stick to it so you don’t risk losing all the benefits! 

Not too sure if retinol’s your thing? Vitamin A will work.

There are some alternatives to retinol that still give skin that enviable youthful appearance. For example, carotenoids or rosehip seed oil share some of retinol’s properties without stripping skin of moisture. Bear in mind, though, that the cell turnover process might be slower if not using retinol 

If you're feeling curious to try a new brand or take the plunge into retinol, you can shop some of our favorites here.

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