Retinol or treninoin (prescription only) are derivatives of Vitamin A thus making them antioxidants, very powerful antioxidants to be specific. Treninoin (Retin-A) is only available as a prescription. Most over the counter retinol products use retinol, retinyl proprionate, retinyl acetate, retinyl lineolate, and retinaldehyde. This class of skincare products are amazingly popular. Everyone from tweenagers to your 80 yo grandma can use a retinol formulation. Due to its popularity it’s also gained a few myths along the way that need to be dispelled.
Why use retinol?
Retinol will boost production of collagen helping to plump the skin, reducing fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol will also even out skin tone reducing the appearance of darker patches. Retinol is not a skin bleach though. It takes around 12 weeks before you start to see improvement. Because it is such a strong antioxidant, retinol also has some antimicrobial properties and is very often used to treat acne.
Popular Myth: Is Retinol an exfoliant?
Absolutely not and these products should not be used as such. Many people who first start using retinol notice peeling, which is a completely normal and is a very common side effect. I had quite a bit of peeling, especially around my mouth. This peeling will stop after your new skin comes to the surface and that skin can tolerate the dose. Usually this will stop after a couple of weeks although the redness may last for up to a month. For me it takes about 10-14 days before the peeling goes away and around 3 weeks for the redness to go away.
If you do have a lot of skin irritation and you can’t handle it, do use it less frequently, try a smaller dose if possible, and if you’re starting with Retin-A as your first retinol product you may need to switch to an over the counter product, which generally have less skin irritation issues.
What’s the difference between an exfoliant and retinol?
Exfoliants are specifically designed to remove dead skin from the surface. This can be via physical or chemical means. The skin will not become tolerant of this process. Chemical exfoliants don’t penetrate deeply into the skin, infact they barely penetrate at all. The skin peeling most people go through is a side effect of the powerful antioxidant and should end after a couple of weeks. Retinols are designed to penetrate the skin deeper than chemical exfoliants. Yes, retinol will cause some skin peeling; however, it is not the same as an exfoliant.
How long will my face peel?
When I started to use retinol, I used Obagi Medical’s Retivance Skin Rejuvinating Complex. This is what my dermatologist recommended and sold in her office. It is silicone based and gives a matte finish. When I began using it, I used a little in my worst areas (T-zone) only at night. By the first morning my skin felt irritated and dry but no peeling yet. By day 3, my skin was peeling and furious with me. The worst of it was around Day 7 and by Day 10 I could tell I was on the down swing. My skin was still irritated but it was definitely less irritated that when I started. After around 2-3 weeks I was good to go and started to use my retinol 2x a day in my problem areas and 1x a day all over my face.
For most, it seems to take around 10 days to 2 weeks to stop peeling and up to 3 weeks or a month for the irritation to go away.
The skin irritation and peeling is worse if you start using the prescription strength product as your skin’s introduction to retinol. This is why most dermatologists recommend an OTC product first since they’re milder, especially if you’ve never used a retinol before. Although prescription retinol will be more powerful and work better don’t be discouraged if your dermatologist refuses to write you a script until you’ve used an OTC product for 6 months to a year.
To keep my skin more comfortable I use facial spray with no alcohol in it and heavier lotions. Heavier lotions help to seal in the skin’s moisture. While your skin is peeling your moisture barrier will be horrible. But fear not, it’ll be better than ever after it’s finished peeling and the skin irritation is over.
Popular Myth: You shouldn’t wear retinol during the day
Yes you can! I’m typing this while I have retinol on actually. This is a pretty old tale that just isn’t true. Due to the sensitive skin many have when they first use retinol, sunlight can be a little extra irritating and drying. But by no means does this mean your skin is more sensitive to sunlight and you’ll burn faster. When using retinol make sure to use a sunscreen though. You’ll take two steps forward with retinol but 3 steps back if you don’t wear at least an SPF 30 sunscreen during the day (even if you stay inside).
Who Should Use Retinol?
Retinol can be used by anyone. If you have oily skin, your oil production should go down a little. Dry and dehydrated skin types will need to beef up their moisturizing routines. Sensitive skin types should start with the lowest possible dose in order to make sure their particular skin condition can handle retinol.
OTC versus Prescription Retinol
Don’t immedately run to your doctor asking for a prescription version of retinol. Tretinoin is incredibly strong and most dermatologists suggest starting with an OTC product first before jumping into the prescription strength products. Tretinoin can also cost an arm and a leg, especially if you don’t have insurance.
My Favorite OTC Retinol Products
Differin Gel has to be hands down the most well known product for acne prone skin especially those with cystic acne. As a teen in the 2000s, everyone used Differin at some point in their acne fighting days. Differin Gel uses the active ingredient adapalene at 0.1%. Differin is the only prescription product to now be available over the counter making it a favorite and well tested retinol product. It’s generally well tolerated although like all retinol products there can be some skin irritation. I used Differin Gel when it was still a prescription only product as a teenager. It did wonders for the acne on my face, but didn’t do much for the acne along my chest and back which was severe.
Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Treatment is definitely something I’ve used before. It has been renamed over the last several years from 1% Retinol Booster. When I used the product I had minimal skin sensitivity issues. It’s a great place to start for those who have never used retinol. One of the biggest issues that I had when using it was that there wasn’t much power behind the product. I used it for 1-year and really didn’t see a huge improvement where I should have. Retinol is the primary retinoid used which makes this great for for sensitive skin or retinol-virgins. If you use this and want to use something more powerful look at retinaldehyde or retinoic acid.
Exuviance’s Super Retinol Concentrate is an incredibly gentle 0.2% retinol cream that I’ve used a lot during hormonal outbreaks. The retinol is microencapsulated in this formula which leads to decreased irritation. It’s worked well especially along my chest and decolletage when those outbreaks occur. I use it at night when outbreaks happen and the next morning, without fail, those outbreaks are almost gone.
Clinque’s Fresh Pressed Clinical Daily + Overnight Boosters with Pure Vitamins C 10% + A (Retinol) is a fairly good introduction to Retinol and Vitamin C. I’ve used these a few times before I have big events when I want an intense one-stop-shop program for my face. There’s little worry of the product going bad because it isn’t mixed until you’re ready to use it. Push the button up top to break a cartridge containing the active ingredient, shake shake shake, then use. The product is guaranteed for 7-days and you do get 7-days worth of product for the face and neck. Another perk of the Clinique system is the addition of salicylic acid which will help clean those pores even further.
The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane is a product I have not used as of yet but the ingredients list is solid. For those wanting to stay away from silicones, which is very common in retinol products, this is the product you’ll want to try first. The Ordinary has a wide range of retinols that’s worth it’s own post to breakdown which one is best for which face type. At $6.70, is an INCREDIBLY inexpensive resource that’s hard to pass up. This is in squalane so the formulation will be more oily unlike the other products which uses silicones as carriers. While skin gets use to retinols, it’s common for skin to dry out considerably which is why The Ordinary uses an oil based product. Because of the oil content, I’d only recommend this product be used during nighttime and just let the squalane moisturize while the retinol does it’s magic.
Hopefully this helps answer some questions on retinol. What other myths have you heard about retinols? Post in the comments below and leave leave a like if you want to see more like this. Coming soon is an advanced breakdown of retinol and a breakdown of The Ordinary’s entire line of retinol.