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Ingredient Info

Retinol: Everything You Need to Know About the Buzziest Skin-Care Ingredient

It seems everyone is trying to use retinoids in their routines — but why? Experts break down exactly what the vitamin A derivative does and how to make it work for your skin.

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Considering it's one of the buzziest and most expert-recommended ingredients available in skin care today, there's still a lot of mystery and confusion surrounding retinol. Beauty shoppers know it's touted as one of the most-effective and proven ingredients. Allure's annual Readers' Choice Awards survey revealed that retinol is one of the most sought-after components in skin-care products — but even some of the savviest shoppers are still unsure why and if it's right for them, ask which products are the best retinols, and seek clarification on the terminology of retinol vs. retinoids.

While you don't necessarily need a dermatologist's or cosmetic chemist's grasp on the intricate scientific details of what makes retinol such a popular powerhouse, it's always a good idea to get more familiar with how ingredients function, what they address, and if you're a good candidate for using them — especially when there are as many myths surrounding them as there is hype, as with retinol products

Meet the Experts:

Luckily, dermatologists and cosmetic chemists are more than happy to share their knowledge about retinol in a way we can all understand and put to use next time we're in the market for a serum, cream, oil, or even prescription topical in the retinol family.

In this story:

What exactly is retinol?

Just like many vitamins can have alternate names — like how vitamin C is also known as ascorbic acid and niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 — retinol does, too. "Retinol is one of the main forms of vitamin A," Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat, tells Allure. "It can help stimulate cell turnover as well as help stimulate collagen production."

However, the term retinol has become a not-always-accurate catchall for vitamin A-derived ingredients in beauty products. Retinol, more accurately, is one of several types of retinoids. "Retinoids is the general term that includes all the vitamin A derivatives both natural and synthetic," says Caroline Chang, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Rhode Island Dermatology Institute. The topical retinoids most commonly used in skin care, she says, are retinoic acid, retinol, retinyl esters, and retinaldehyde (or retinal aldehyde).

Also known as tretinoin, retinoic acid is the most bioavailable retinoid. In other words, "Retinoic acid doesn't need to go through any conversions, so it is readily available and faster-acting" than other retinoids, according to Sheila Farhang, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Avant Dermatology & Aesthetics. And because of that, Dr. Chang says, it's typically available only in prescription form — mostly commonly as Retin-A.

Retinol, to be precise, is the alcohol formulation of vitamin A, not to mention the version most commonly used in skin-care products, according to Dr. Chang. "Retinol has been shown to improve tone and texture, dyspigmentation, dryness, and fine lines," she says. But there's a catch. "It is less irritating than tretinoin, but also 20 times less potent because it needs to convert into retinoic acid."

That doesn't mean over-the-counter retinol isn't effective, however. "Retinol can benefit skin at levels as low as 0.01 percent to the maximum recommended level of 1 percent," Robinson tells Allure — great news for newcomers who may want to start at a lower level and work their way up in retinol strength.

Retinyl palmitate, the ester of retinol combined with palmitic acid, is also frequently found in skin care. Retinol esters, in general, are precursor molecules to retinol, which means they need to be broken down first into retinol and then into retinoic acid. "Therefore, they are less potent than retinol," Dr. Chang says.

And finally, there's retinaldehyde or retinal aldehyde. Because "[retinal] can be directly converted to retinoic acid and is more stable than retinol," David Kim, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Idriss Dermatology in New York City explained, it's closer in efficacy to retinoic acid than retinol is. 

What can retinol do?

You've probably heard that almost everyone can benefit from using retinol, and that's not an exaggeration. "[Retinoids] are keratolytics, which means they increase skin cell turnover and are known to stimulate collagen synthesis," Dr. Farhang says.

So what does that mean for your skin-care concerns and goals? If you're looking to diminish common signs of aging and sun damage by smoothing skin texture and evening skin tone, using a retinol product is highly recommended by experts. "It can help reduce the look of wrinkles, as well as smooth, even out, and firm skin," Robinson tells Allure.

Although smoothing lines and boosting elasticity may be the first perks that come to mind when you think of retinol, its mechanism can also help with breakouts and what they leave behind, like dark spots and other pigmentation issues. "From an acne standpoint, the increase in cell turnover helps unclog pores," Dr. Farhang explains. "This also helps decrease the appearance of brown or red post-acne spots — post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation — as well as help collagen synthesis for acne scarring."

Dr. Farhang says that the stronger, prescription-strength retinoids like tazarotene are typically used to treat acne, while over-the-counter formulas are for signs of aging — though over-the-counter adapalene formulas like Best of Beauty Award-winning Differin Gel are indicated as an acne treatment. "Thankfully, a lot of the nonprescription retinoid products have really improved their formulations by having the retinol release over time," she says. 

She recommends Neutrogena's retinol products, like Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Oil, because of its sustained-action retinol formula, and Senté Bio Complete Serum, formulated to go easy on sensitive skin or skin that isn't yet accustomed to using retinoids. We also love Paula's Choice Resist 1% Retinol Booster, which incorporates a slow-release system to deliver its active ingredient.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Oil

Senté Bio Complete Serum

Paula’s Choice Resist 1% Retinol Booster

How should you get started using retinol?

If you're new to retinoids or prone to irritation — even if you're not prone to irritation — you may find that your skin can be reactive when the vitamin A derivative is introduced to your skin-care routine. Both Dr. Chang and Dr. Farhang recommend initially using a small amount of a retinol product every other night to avoid these side effects. "For the sensitive areas under the eyes, I would use a milder retinoid in a cream base," Dr. Chang advises. We love The Inkey List Retinol Eye Cream for its gentle, hydrating, slow-release formula and super affordable price. 

"On the face, I prefer a serum formulation followed by moisturizer" to combat any potential irritation, dry skin, or flaking that might occur. Her favorite over-the-counter serum: RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Night Serum Capsules. If you personally prefer a cream format, try the Best of Beauty Award-winning SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Overnight Cream.

The Inkey List Retinol Eye Cream

RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Night Serum Capsules

SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Overnight Cream

For prescription-strength retinoids, Dr. Farhang has her patients start off twice a week and then gradually increase to every night over the course of a month. "I recommend waiting about 30 minutes after washing the face so the natural facial oils are back," she says. She also sings the praises of a technique called flash contact, which means rubbing in the retinoid and then washing it off. "Studies show your skin still benefits from this."

That may be because retinol works best when you use it sparingly, according to Dr. Chang. "Applying more at one time to your skin won’t give you faster results, it will just cause more irritation," she tells Allure.

Another application method loved by dermatologists: the sandwich technique. This involves applying a base layer of moisturizer onto the skin prior to your retinol product, and then again after. "Studies have shown that this base layer of moisturizer does not dilute or reduce the efficacy of the retinoid, but instead helps with tolerability," board-certified dermatologist Shari Marchbein, MD, has previously told Allure.

But no matter whether you're a retinol newbie or it's an old hat, one rule is always the same: Sunscreen is a must. "Since retinol brings your skin back to its normal balance, it can make your skin more easily prone to burning," Dr. Chang adds. "The way to combat this would be to wear sunscreen daily while using a retinol — which is something everyone should be doing anyway."

Ready to feel more confident when reading your beauty products' ingredient labels? Enter, the Allure Ingredient Index. In this comprehensive guide, you'll find everything you need to know about the most in-demand (and under-the-radar) ingredients in your favorite skin-care products.

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