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Whether you’re dealing with maskne — the popular term for acne that pops up due to wearing face masks — or are looking to prevent visible signs of aging, retinol may be the missing ingredient in your 2020 skin care routine. To help you decide if retinol is beneficial to your skin care needs, we consulted doctors across the country on everything you should know about retinol. From what age should you start using retinol to tips for application and demystifying misconceptions about retinol, including if retinol makes your wrinkles worse or not. Experts also shared how retinol helps with acne, how long it takes for retinol to work and more. Additionally, we offered up the best retinol creams and serums, according to the medical experts we consulted and editor favorites.
SKIP AHEAD Best retinol products
What is retinol?
Caroline Robinson, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and CEO of Tone Dermatology, called retinol "the gold standard in correcting the signs of skin aging." She said retinol, a vitamin A derivative, offers a multitude of skin benefits, too. These include promoting skin cell rejuvenation or turnover, repairing sun damage, slowly correcting pigment changes and addressing superficial wrinkles by boosting collagen. Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York, added that retinol reduces the tendency of cells and keratin debris to clump together and clog up pores, making it especially helpful for those with oily and acne-prone skin. Retinol products are widely available and you can find them anywhere from Amazon and Sephora to Ulta, Dermstore and Walmart.
What are the benefits of retinol?
According to board-certified dermatologist Caren Campbell, MD, and dermatopathologist Gretchen Frieling, MD, here’s how incorporating retinol into your skin care routine can benefit your skin, put simply and specifically:
- Treats acne
- Clears or purges the pores (or both), including blackheads and whiteheads
- Promotes cell turnover, which prevents signs of aging and acne
- Increases collagen and elastin production, both of which have anti-aging effects
- Brightens the skin, meaning it helps improve discoloration
- Diminishes and prevents fine lines and wrinkles
- Minimizes hyperpigmentation and photodamage
- Evens and refines skin texture and tone
Some retinoids are deactivated by sunlight so I recommend using them at bedtime.
Hadley King, MD, board-certified dermatologist
Best retinol products of 2020
King said the important part of retinol shopping is ensuring the active ingredient is retinol rather than a similar-sounding derivative. "And make sure that it is listed high in the list of ingredients, but keep in mind that retinol content of 0.1-percent or less is fairly standard," she added. Shop the best retinol creams and serums, according to the experts we consulted.
King is a fan of this peel containing .5-percent retinol and 14 percent glycolic acid, a popular type of Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA). "It resurfaces and stimulates skin renewal, collagen production and decreases hyperpigmentation, sun damage and fine lines," she noted. There's also shea butter, which hydrates and softens your skin. Alpha-H also has the Clean at Sephora seal of approval, meaning it doesn't contain the 50 ingredients the beauty retailer considers problematic.
“This serum delivers two forms of retinol in a clean formula that contains a blend of emollient botanical oils that help maintain skin hydration and minimize potential skin irritation,” said Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. After cleansing, you can pat on three or four drops of this liquid retinol treatment to your face.
King recommended this overnight cream, which boasts lactic acid (an AHA) and retinoid, helping to improve the appearance of signs of aging "with minimal irritation." She added the brand's studies "showed that it significantly reduces the appearance of wrinkles in as little as four weeks." The MDs we consulted said retinoids are an umbrella term for vitamin A-derived products, which we explore the specificities of retinoids below. Ceramide and hyaluronic acid both help to restore moisture to your skin.
Beyond the "great price point," King noted that because there are several different strengths of The Ordinary's retinol available, "the line is versatile for different skin types." We're spotlighting the .5-percent option because it incorporates squalane, an ingredient that mimics your skin's natural oils. This means it can help counteract any potential dryness that may crop up while using retinol.
King calls this gel "an excellent retinoid" that can treat both acne and signs of aging because it contains adapalene, a skin care ingredient with an anti-inflammatory effect. "Absorption of adapalene through human skin is very low. Only trace amounts have been found in the blood of acne patients following chronic topical application of adapalene in clinical trials," she noted.
Howard Lancer, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles who counts Oprah, Beyoncé and Margot Robbie as clients, launched Lancer Skincare, and name-checked one of his retinol products, naturally. However, another retinol product he recommended is from PCA. "This is an alternative product for individuals looking for a treatment that delivers pure, potent ingredients versus a full cocktail of different actives," he said. "The formula works to target discoloration on the surface of the skin."
Robinson, who is based in Chicago, called this treatment a "personal favorite." Why? The combination of retinol, bakuchiol (a gentle alternative to retinol) and vitamin C "combat multiple signs of aging." "By combining a small amount of retinol with bakuchiol, this product can deliver all of the skin benefits of retinol in a gentler way," she said. The treatment also earned a recommendation from Frieling. It uses a time-released formula to slowly deliver the retinol to your skin to avoid irritation while ophiopogon japonicus root extract moisturizes your complexion.
Frieling also advised applying the DEJ Night Cream since it offers "hydration, intensive repair and anti-aging benefits." There are multiple antioxidants such as rosemary and goji fruit extracts, vitamin C, which has a brightening effect, and a combination of retinol and bakuchiol for a gentle way to plump up fine lines and wrinkles. The lightweight cream also targets crepey and sagging skin, as well as rough texture and uneven skin tone.
As previously mentioned in New and Notable — our weekly column on the latest product launches worth knowing about — Olay recently expanded its Regenerist MAX Retinol 24 night collection to include a face serum and eye cream. According to Zeichner, this affordable offering contains a stabilized form of retinol in a specialized delivery system, along with niacinamide and a peptide. “The combination can help improve the appearance of lines and wrinkles, even tone and texture, and strengthen and hydrate the skin,” he said.
With the above expert guidance in mind and an eye towards top-rated products from reader-favorite retailers, we rounded up a couple of our editor picks for your consideration, too.
Howard Sobel, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York, launched his clean skin care line last year. In addition to retinol found in this treatment, there are peptides to help firm up your skin and chamomile extract for a calming effect. The brand claims it uses a patent-pending delivery system that slowly penetrates your skin so you get the benefits for a longer time, minus pesky irritation. It also has a Clean at Sephora seal of approval and a 4.5-star average rating from 127 Sephora reviewers.
Paula's Choice is a popular skin care brand among beauty enthusiasts and this combination retinol-and-bakuchiol treatment is highly-rated, earning a 4.3-star average rating from nearly 600 reviewers on Paula's Choice. The lightweight lotion targets signs of aging — fine lines and wrinkles — along with minimizing the appearance of enlarged pores. Are you looking for a more gentle retinol product? Opt for the Barrier Repair Moisturizer with .01-percent retinol. If you're searching for a stronger formula, consider the 1% Retinol Treatment instead.
At levels available over the counter, salicylic acid will give better anti-acne benefits than retinol.
Joshua Zeichner, MD, board-certified dermatologist
What order should you apply retinol?
After cleansing and drying your skin at night, you can apply retinol, but only if it is tolerated this way, advised King. If it's too irritating, then a thin layer of moisturizer can be applied first. “I generally don't recommend combining a retinoid with a chemical exfoliant or benzoyl peroxide because it could be too irritating and it could decrease the effectiveness of the retinoid,” she said. “Some retinoids are deactivated by sunlight so I recommend using them at bedtime.” Frieling advised that when you spread a small amount of retinol over your face, you should avoid the eye area.
What's the difference between retinoids, retinol and Retin-A?
You might have previously seen the term retinoid tossed around while consuming skin care content. According to King and Frieling, retinoid is an umbrella term for vitamin A-derived skin care products. Here we briefly explore the main differences between the three ingredients, based on the guidance from MDs we consulted.
Retinoids are vitamin A and other chemically-related compounds that are used in both anti-aging and anti-acne skin care products.
- Popular over-the-counter (OTC) retinoid options falling under this blanket term include lower concentrations of adapalene and topical retinol.
- Campbell prefers retinoids and her two OTC favorite options are from La Roche Posay and Differin.
- Prescription-grade retinoid treatments can be topical (applied to your skin), such as adapalene 0.3-percent gel, tretinoin, tazarotene and trifarotene.
- They can also be taken orally, including isotretinoin for acne and acitretin to treat psoriasis.
- Both retinyl palmitate and retinaldehyde are also considered retinoids.
Retinol is a subdivision of a retinoid and is commonly found in OTC skin care products.
- "It is a great start, as it is less irritating than the prescription strength," said Frieling.
- King added that retinols are less potent compared to Tretinoin, adapalene and tazarotene. "[Retinols] work the same way but it will take longer to see results and the potential for irritation is also lower," she said.
Retin-A is also known as Tretinoin, a brand of prescription-strength retinoid.
“Retin-A can be thought of as reversing the outwards signs of aging on the skin,” wrote Laura M. Figura, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon, in a blog post for the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. “Retin-A improves the cosmetic appearance of the skin, but it also helps treat some functional problems of the skin such as acne and precancerous conditions, such as actinic keratoses,” she continued.
- Altreno lotion is one of Zeichner’s favorite prescription-strength retinol treatments that you could potentially get from your dermatologist. “It is safe and effective in treating acne and has been found to be particularly useful in addressing acne in adult women,” he said. “It uses a specialized delivery system that even distributes the tretinoin, enhances skin penetration and maintains the skin barrier.”
- King noted Alreno lotion works with sensitive skin because it contains hydrators and moisturizers “to make it more tolerable.”
- Other options include tazarotene and adapalene, a prescription medication that is FDA-approved to treat acne, said Freling, who added "Retin-A is more tightly regulated than OTC retinol."
What age should you start using retinol?
As long as you are not pregnant nor are breastfeeding, then “topical retinoids are safe for long-term use,” said King. The general guidance from the experts we spoke with is: Start in your 20s for preventative anti-aging benefits — sooner if you’re dealing with acne.
More specifically, King, Campbell and Robinson all noted that you can use retinol to treat acne while you’re young to help banish breakouts and pesky pimples. Robinson advised starting retinol in your mid-20s or at the first sign of skin dullness. For anti-aging, you can consider incorporating a retinol into your beauty routine once you hit your late-twenties or early thirties. Why? That age group is when your collagen production starts to slow down, said King.
At the end of the day, the decision to use retinol is up to you and potentially based on a consultation (or several) with your board-certified dermatologist (or several) to determine whether retinol is the right fit for your skin care goals and lifestyle.
What does your lifestyle have to do with using retinol? According to the pros, there are a few reasons why you might need to make some adjustments and level up your commitment to your current skin care routine if and when you start using retinol. Here’s why:
- Retinol plays nicely with gentle, non-irritating skin care ingredients, such as glycerin, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid and ceramides.
- The pros advised that you avoid layering retinol with other potent ingredients, including L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C), AHAs and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs).
Retinol and sunscreen
If you’re not committed to wearing and reapplying sunscreen — most derms we previously spoke with advised you apply SPF even while indoors and exposed to sunlight — then retinol might not be the right fit for your lifestyle. Why do you need to wear sunscreen while using retinol? It lies in both the short- and long-term skin changes that crop up when using retinol.
“While retinol thins out the outer skin layer, or stratum corneum, it actually thickens the lower skin layer,” explained Zeichner. He said the stratum corneum thinning “occurs relatively quickly” and results in more radiant, glowing skin. “The improvements in fine lines and wrinkles is a longer term benefit that occurs.”
However, he was quick to point out that because retinol thins out the outer skin layer, it can increase the risk of sunburn, so he advises you wear SPF daily.
Retinol and acne
How can retinol help with acne? As previously mentioned, retinol targets acne. Zeichner noted retinol can “likely prevent and help treat” breakouts and address aging skin concerns at the same time.
How long does it take for retinol to work for acne?
Retinol takes several weeks to start to show any benefits in the skin, according to Zeichner. “It works by binding to retinoid receptors in the skin, which then turn on genes to rev up collagen production and encourage the cell to divide,” he said.
Zeichner also noted that retinol is not a good spot treatment for breakouts that you want to clear up overnight.
Is retinol or salicylic acid better for acne?
If you have ever suffered from pimples, then you’ve likely heard about salicylic acid. It’s a popular acne-fighting ingredient found in everything from face cleansers and scrubs to body washes and spot treatments. Salicylic acid is classified as a BHA and helps slough away dead skin cells and control excess oil. According to Zeichner, salicylic acid is cleared by the FDA as “safe and effective in treating acne.” “If you have an angry pimple or recurrent breakouts, I would recommend salicylic acid as your go to treatment over the counter instead of retinol,” he said. “At levels available over the counter, salicylic acid will give better anti-acne benefits than retinol.” However, he noted that prescription-strength retinols “are much more potent on the skin.”
Other retinol myths and expert tips
Can retinol make you look older or make wrinkles worse?
According to both King and Frieling, the answer is no, retinol will not make your wrinkles worse or make you look older. In the short-term, retinol may cause dryness, irritation or peeling that make the skin look more dried out and wrinkled. However, it is not a long-term outcome, according to King. Frieling added that retinol accelerates skin cell turnover, and retinol works at the cellular level to "truly resurface” your skin. “In doing so, your skin is more brilliant, youthful, smooth, clear, and softens fine lines and wrinkles.”
Is retinol the best skin care ingredient for aging skin?
According to Freiling, retinol is “one of the best” ingredients for anti-aging benefits. “It doesn’t just help with smoothing and preventing fine lines and wrinkles but also stimulates collagen and elastin production, which we lose with age,” she said.
Freiling noted that your overall skin tone will appear brighter and smoother, your pores will look smaller and your skin will get more plump. King said that while retinoids “are the most data-proven treatment for anti-aging other than sun protection,” you can also consider incorporating other ingredients into your routine, such as antioxidants, anti-aging peptides and growth factors.
CORRECTION (Sept. 29, 2021, 5:40 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the medical specialty of Gretchen Frieling, MD. She is a dermatopathologist, not a dermatologist.