What Does Retinol Do, Exactly? Experts Break It Down

Everything you need to know about the skin care multi-hyphenate.

<p>Getty Images</p>

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Although skin care ingredient trends may come and go, there is one standout that all pros agree on decade after decade—retinol. So what is it exactly?

“Retinol is a form of vitamin A that falls into a class of ingredients called retinoids,” explains Ryan Turner, M.D., dermatologist and assistant professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “Retinols started their use in anti-aging in the 1980s and its efficacy in treating many skincare concerns is nearly unmatched by any other ingredients and as a result, has been the cornerstone ingredient of dermatologist-recommended at-home anti-aging skincare for decades.”

From minimizing fine lines and sun damage to taming acne and texture issues, retinol is a skin care multi-hyphenate. “Think of retinol like a personal trainer for your skin cells that encourages optimal functioning in production of retinol,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital.

“Retinol is perhaps the best-studied ingredient of all time—it helps to improve the appearance of aging skin including softening texture, even out tone and lightening hyperpigmentation, enhancing  radiance and minimizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.” Need we say more?

Meet Our Expert

  • Ryan Turner, MD, is a New York City dermatologist and co-founder of TRNR Skin.

  • Marina Peredo, MD, is a dermatologist with Skinfluence, a private practice in New York City and founder of Skinfluence skin care.

  • Joshua Zeichner, MD, is a dermatologist in New York City and associate professor of dermatology and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Consider this the ultimate guide to retinol. Whether you're a retinol newbie or a veteran user, read on to understand how it works, how to use it, tips for preventing side effects, and the retinol products that we are all about right now.

What Is Retinol?

“Retinol is a form of vitamin A,” says Dr. Turner. “Our bodies don’t naturally make vitamin A therefore it must be consumed or in the case of skin, applied topically to get its benefits.”

But not all retinoids are equal. “Your skin can only recognize retinoids when they are in their active form which is retinoic acid,” Dr. Turner says. “And you can only get retinoic acid via prescription, which is tretinoin, a  familiar brand name is Retin-A.”

This means that all other forms, including OTC skincare products that contain retinol, have to be converted to retinoic acid by skin. Why this is important: “Some forms of retinoids must go through several conversion steps before it becomes retinoic acid, which is why some retinoids are less irritating than others,” he says.

There are several classes of retinoids, each with varying strengths. “Think of retinoids as a hierarchy—retinoic acid, the active form, is at the top, with retinal, which is also known as retinaldehyde, directly below it—and this ingredient only converts once to become retinoic acid,” says Dr. Turner. “Retinol is next and must convert twice, making it weaker than retinal but stronger than the last group of retinoids, retinol esters, which include ingredients like retinyl palmitate, which are very mild.”

Benefits of Retinol

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“[Retinol] helps smooth the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, fade discoloration, make pores look smaller, prevent acne, and treat existing blemishes, as well as boost the radiance of the skin,” says Dr. Turner. “And it does all of this by helping to promote collagen production, stimulate cellular turnover, and regulate oil production within the skin.”

Why is promoting collagen production cellular turnover so crucial? “Collagen is what makes skin more resilient, firm, and even in texture,” explains Dr.Turner. “And by speeding up cellular turnover, you’re helping your skin to shed the dead cells that build up on the skin’s surface that create uneven texture and tone, improving the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and discoloration, plus help control acne for clearer skin.”

But pros are also all quick to point out that you can’t get the benefits of retinol if you are not a consistent user. “You may start to see benefits in four to six weeks, though you’ll really see the best outcome several months after starting retinol,” says Turner.

What Retinol Does to the Face

Retinol has a range of benefits for the skin, including fading fine lines and wrinkles and renewing skin overall, explains Marina Peredo, M.D., a New York-based dermatologist.

“The pros of retinol also include improvement in tone, texture and your overall complexion. It’s  also used to reduce acne, acne scarring, discoloration and to smooth skin, not to mention it’s a great exfoliant because it begins the process of removing dead skin cells and unclogging pores.”

And because retinol is the ultimate multi-tasker, Dr. Peredo says you may even see fewer blackheads and smaller pores. She explains that younger patients who use it for pore purposes and breakouts can naturally transition to using it as they get older because they’re looking for more of the anti-aging benefits of this powerhouse ingredient. “You will continue to see gradual improvement in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, giving your skin a fresher, plump appearance as you continue to use products containing retinol,” she says.

How Often to Use Retinol

It’s possible to use retinol daily, but pros recommend working up to that. “Before you use retinol for the first time, try a little bit on a small area of skin for a patch test to see if you have any redness or irritation,” says Dr. Peredo. “If none occurs, then start using it at bedtime twice a week.”

Dr. Peredo also cautions to avoid the delicate eye area, always do an even thin layer all over and apply face moisturizer on top of it, not prior to retinol, so it can easily be absorbed.

Dr. Turner recommends working your way up in the amount of retinol you use on your skin daily and scanning the label for the exact percentage to mark your progress (for example, .3% to .5 % and then 1%). “You can work your way up to higher strengths as your skin adjusts,” he says. “After you have the maximum benefits from the 1% formula, you’re likely ready for the prescription version which is Tretinoin.”

How Long It Takes to See Retinol Results

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“It takes several weeks of continuous use before you will start to notice any results from using retinol,” says Dr. Zeichner. “However the good news is that the benefits of retinol continue with chronic use over months to years. Although you may not see drastic changes over the first weeks, Dr. Turner recommends noting the subtle positive changes to your skin that are occurring to help stay consistent. “You may start to see positive changes to your skin in a month or so, though they will be minor—skin may look a little smoother, a little brighter or you might have fewer breakouts,” he says.

Of course, the strength of the formula matters. “The stronger the retinol formula is, the faster you’ll see results but also a study shows that long-term use of certain retinol formulas may provide different results,” explains Dr. Turner. “For example, lower concentrations of retinol may be more effective in addressing overall skin tone and elasticity while higher concentrations may have a better effect on wrinkles, enlarged pores, and other texture concerns.”

When to Start Using Retinol

Retinol may be buzzy, but when you start using it depends on the benefits you're looking for. “Tretinoin is actually indicated on the label as being for patients age 12 or older for the treatment of acne. However, if your skin doesn’t actually need retinol, I wouldn’t start using it for anti-aging in the tween years, as skin cell turnover is much faster when you’re younger and in fact, early use may be damaging to such young skin if not done under closer monitoring by your dermatologist,” Turner says.

If you're using retinol for healthy aging purposes, the mid to late 20s is a good starting point. “You can consider incorporating retinoids into your anti-aging  skincare routine in your twenties, but after that point, it’s never too late to start,” says Dr. Turner. “And earlier use will help delay skin aging, and prevention is always better than trying to reverse signs of aging later.”

For Dr. Zeichner, retinol use is non-negotiable and should definitely begin by age 30. “We know that skin cell turnover naturally starts to decline after the age of 30 which is is why I always recommend that my patients start incorporating retinoids into their skin care routine at this time as well,” he says.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the potential downsides of retinol?

Dr. Zeichner explains that retinol may cause dryness and irritation during the first few weeks of use, due to a process called retinization. It also increases sensitivity to the sun. “So if you’re using retinol, it is important to wear sunscreen every morning.”

When is the best time to use retinol?

“The best way to use retinol is at night,” says Dr. Peredo, who recommends that you wash your face first, then wait for at least 20 minutes in order to give the skin time to restore its natural oils. If irritation occurs, she suggests applying retinol, waiting 30 minutes, then applying a moisturizer over it.

Is there anyone that should avoid using retinol?

Dr. Peredo explains that although there is no research to raise an alarm, professionals recommend that you should not use retinol while pregnant or breastfeeding.

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