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Your Essential Guide to Retinol

Every day we wake up a day older- fact- every day using retinol will help your skin to act younger- also fact.  

We love retinol- let us count the ways that it helps our skin:

  • Thickens our epidermis over time (no more crepey skin)
  • Evens out skin tone and texture (the clearer the better)
  • Balances oil production (we can shine without our skin being shiny)
  • Speeds up healthy cell turnover (welcome new little darlings)
  • Encourages collagen production which smooths fine lines and wrinkles (the plumper the better)

What is the difference between retinol and retinoid? Retinol at its core is a vitamin A derivative- a retinoid. Retinol, retinal, hydroypinacolone retinoate (HPR), retinoic acid are all retinoids but at different stages of conversion (use to the skin), with retinol being the most well known and widely used in OTC serums and creams- and what we are mostly discussing today.  

Both retinol and retinal (retinaldehyde) need to turn or convert to retinoic acid to activate the retinoic acid receptors in your skin. Enzymes in your skin react to both retinol and retinal and “turn” them to their next conversion. Retinaldehyde requires one conversion to get to retinoic acid, making it a bit stronger than retinol (which takes two). Why not just skip to the acid? Most people know retinoic acid as Tretinoin(tret), and it is available by prescription- much stronger than the average person requires and and can commonly result in skin irritation. Retinol and retinal are both available OTC (over the counter), and offer the same benefits over time, just with less chances of irritation or overuse that could compromise the skin barrier.  

There are a lot of questions about how and when to use retinol. We’ve laid out a basic structure to get you more confident starting out.

When to start using a retinol? We typically recommend starting a retinol in your mid to late 20’s for antiaging benefits or earlier for acne.

How to choose your retinol? If you are new to retinol, it is best to start with a gentle retinol when first incorporating it- we like Maya Chia’s “The Straight A Serum” and Synergie Skin’s “Ultimate A”. When you are ready to go for a more advanced retinol, we like Synergie Skin’s “Acceler-A” (Formulated with Hydroypinacolone retinoate (HPR)- the next generation vitamin A ingredient which requires no metabolic conversion by the target cell in order to exert its numerous beneficial effects) and ZENii London’s 1% “Advanced Retinol  Complex”.

How to start? Start slowly-when it comes to retinol, more is NOT better. Begin using 2-3x per week and work your way up to using it nightly- watch for irritation- if your skin feels a little more dry or sensitive, or if you find you are breaking out- you can skip for a day or two if needed. You can also dilute it with a bit of moisturizer, but keep an eye on the irritation before bringing it back in full to your rotation. If you are currently using other exfoliants, you may want to opt for a gentle exfoliant depending on skin sensitivity, reduce the frequency (2 times a week) and don’t use your retinol and exfoliant on the same evening.  

When do you use it? Use at night- retinol is highly unstable and can be compromised in its efficacy if exposed to environmental triggers (sunlight, pollutants) so it is best used in the evenings, as part of your night-time skincare routine. Use on clean, dry skin and and you can wait to add additional products (moisturizer, oils, night creams used immediately could dilute the strength.) if you like (15- 20 min), or follow with finishing products right away to reduce liklihood of sensitivity.


How do you optimize its benefits? Aka- how to make retinol do the most for you-this means coupling your retinol with a good antioxidant and vitamin rich serum- you need to give  your skin all the tools it needs to do the hard work that you are asking of it-and as we all know-teamwork makes the dream work.  Use your retinol at night, and your antioxidant/vitamin serum during the day.  


How long does it take for retinol to work? For results, consistency is key. Don’t give up if you see some minor irritation and breakout when you start- back off but keep up use until your skin adjusts (can take 3-4 weeks for some). You may notice some benefits of increased cell turnover within a few weeks (less dead skin, clogged pores), and reduced fine lines, wrinkles, and pigmentation within 3 to 6 months (and beyond)- depending on frequency and potency of retinol you are using. Remember, retinol works deep within the skin to boost collagen and repair damaged cells, so patience is key if you want to reap the long term benefits.


What to remember when using retinol?  SPF.  ALWAYS use a good SPF when using retinol- your skin will be sloughing off the dead(!) cells faster, and you need to protect the new ones that are revealed.  We can’t stress this enough.  USE THE SUNSCREEN.