When it comes to anti-aging skin care, few others can claim to have the same wrinkle-fighting benefits of retinol. Yet even with all the wonders this skin care MVP can do, many still don’t fully understand how it works or how to use it properly. And despite its popularity, retinol can be intimidating for some—especially those with deeper skin tones or sensitive skin.
To get the scoop on this widely-talked-about ingredient, we spoke to top dermatologists and skin care experts about what exactly retinol is and how to choose the right one for you.
What Is Retinol and What Does It Do?
Dr. Ryan Turner, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, explains retinol—along with other retinoid ingredients like tretinoin and retinoic acid—is a specific type of retinoid in the vitamin A family. “Retinols are generally considered weaker versions of vitamin A and the term retinoid is usually used when referencing stronger prescription-type products such as tretinoin or adapalene,” adds Dr. Turner.
Although retinol is a milder form of retinoid, it doesn’t hold back when it comes to fighting signs of skin aging. “Retinol increases the blood flow to the skin, which will ultimately improve collagen production,” explains Dr. Adam Mamelak, a board-certified dermatologist in Austin, Texas. “When retinol is applied directly to the skin, the basal cells, which are the lowest level of skin, will start to divide. This division activates new epidermal cells to migrate to the skin surface. More new cells appear on the surface, which sheds the excess, causing the exfoliation process to occur,” notes Dr. Mamelak.
As a result, signs of aging like fine lines and wrinkles become less noticeable. “In addition, it can improve skin tone and texture and reduce the look of hyperpigmentation, age spots or sun spots,” adds Dr. Konstantin Vasyukevich, a facial plastic surgeon in New York City.
When Should You Start Using Retinol?
While you may have first heard about retinol from your skin care–savvy mom, using retinol can actually be beneficial at any age—especially if you want to treat skin conditions like dark spots, hyperpigmentation, acne scars and psoriasis, says Dr. Vasyukevich. He adds, “It’s best to start using retinol in one’s mid-20s or early 30s, once you start to see early signs of aging. You can use retinol as a preventative measure before seeing any obvious signs of aging as well.”
Dr. Anna H. Chacon, a dermatologist in Weston, Fla., echoes this, saying, “It should be part of your bedtime skin routine in your 30s and above. We really begin to [show signs of aging] in our 30s—this is when wrinkles, seborrheic keratosis, pigmentary changes and more start to appear. Retinol helps delay these characteristic features of aging, which are undesirable for most.”
Is Retinol Safe to Use on All Skin Types?
Although retinols work well with all skin types, Dr. Mamelak warns that those with sensitive skin may need to be more careful and go slow when adding the ingredient into their skin care routine. “Retinol can cause redness, irritation and scaling. Although most will get used to using a retinol product over time, it’s best to start slow,” explains Dr. Mamelak.
Retinol can also be used by people of all skin tones, notes Dr. Chacon. “In fact, I am skin type IV (olive or light brown skin) and I have definitely had success in using retinoids on my skin as part of an evening rejuvenating regimen,” she says.
According to Dr. Turner, retinol can be particularly beneficial to skin types prone to dark spots. “Deeper skin tones often have more concern about uneven skin, discoloration or hyperpigmentation. Retinols can help reduce epidermal melanin production and increase exfoliation of any unwanted pigmented areas such as those left behind after an acne outbreak,” he says.
While retinol boasts some incredible benefits for many skin types and tones, this ingredient should be avoided when trying to conceive and stored away during pregnancy.
Choosing the Best Retinol Product for Your Skin
According to Dr. Heather D. Rogers, a board-certified dermatologist in Seattle, Wash., retinol comes in multiple strengths; the most common are 1%, 0.5%, 0.3% and 0.25%. If your product doesn’t specify the percentage of retinol on the label, it usually means the concentration is weaker than 0.25%. This may not give you the full benefits of retinol. “Studies suggest you need to use at least 0.25% retinol or 0.025% tretinoin to be effective, so I recommend using a product that specifies the percentage,” Dr. Rogers explains.
When choosing a retinol product for the first time, it’s best to start with the lowest concentration before moving up. Another thing to consider is your skin type. “If you have thick or oily skin, try a higher-strength product. If you have thin or dry skin, start with the lower-strength option,” Dr. Rogers notes.
Your skin type is also a factor when it comes to deciding whether to use a retinol serum or cream. Serums are lighter, less congesting and easier to absorb, so they are typically best for those with oily or acne-prone skin, says Dr. Turner. On the other hand, dry skin types can benefit more from using retinol creams “for extra hydration and slower delivery of the active ingredients,” Dr. Turner adds.
How to Use Retinol for Best Results
When used correctly and consecutively, retinol has been shown to deliver results—brighter, smoother skin—in as little as four weeks. However, some people find retinol too harsh on their skin, so they discontinue the treatment before they even see any results.
Retinol products are best used at night after washing and drying your face, adds Dr. Rogers. If it’s your first time using retinol, here’s the best way to start:
- First one to two weeks: Apply just two nights in the evenings each week.
- Next two weeks: Apply it every 2nd night.
- After 4 to 6 weeks of use: You should have a good idea of how your skin is tolerating it. If it’s tolerating well, increase usage to nightly application.
- After 8 to 12 weeks: Once skin’s tolerance is built up after about 8 to 12 weeks, it is fairly easy to use nightly. Decrease usage anytime you need to.
A Few Pro Tips to Prevent Irritation
Doing a skin patch test can help alleviate your concerns about using retinol, especially if you have highly reactive skin. To do this, Dr. Rogers suggests putting a dab just underneath your jaw and waiting for 48 hours before trying it on your face. If your skin starts to get dry, irritated or flaky, stop using the retinol. Wait for your skin to return to normal before trying again with less product. “It is also a good idea to follow your retinol with a moisturizer, especially those with hyaluronic acid and ceramides, to help with flakiness and irritation,” adds Dr. Vasyukevich.
Likewise, wearing sunscreen during the day is crucial, says Dr. Mamelak. “Because the skin cells are rapidly producing, they lack the adhesion and lipid production to protect the skin. Skin becomes very sensitive to sunlight, so using products with SPF is mandatory,” he explains.
Best Retinol Creams and Serums
Now that you know how retinol works and what it can do for your skin, here are our top picks for best retinol creams and serums.