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.
- Ron Robinson, is a cosmetic chemist and founder of skin-care brand BeautyStat.
- Caroline Chang, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Rhode Island Dermatology Institute.
- Sheila Farhang, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Avant Dermatology & Aesthetics.
- Shari Marchbein, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
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.
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).