As a product formulator and practicing esthetician with over 30 years of experience, I consider myself well-versed in retinol and retinoids. Fun fact: I personally knew one of the dermatologists who was instrumental in getting this ingredient FDA approved as the first topical preventative aging product (read the full story of when I met this dermatologist. It’s a good one). So without further ado, keep reading to learn my expert tips for getting maximum benefits from a topical vitamin A product, whether it’s a prescription form (retinoid) or in an over-the-counter version (retinol).
First things first. In an ever-changing world of skincare advancements related to preventing and reversing the appearance of lines, wrinkles, indented acne scars, large pores, and brown spots, there are TWO facts that have remained constant for the past 30+ years.
- Fact #1: Certain types of vitamin A, the ingredient behind retinol and prescription retinoids, can reverse visible signs of aging. Using a topical product containing these ingredients can increase cell thickness, affect gene expression, thin the stratum corneum, and increase the production of collagen. With continued use, vitamin A can slowly improve the skin’s appearance (NCBI Study). It smoothes skin texture by lessening visible wrinkles, lines, indented acne scars, large pores, and brown spots. Simply put, this ingredient can deliver smoothing and resurfacing results. Thus, it can help the skin mature in a more desirable way.
- Fact #2: You must take special care of your skin to manage and prevent potential side effects such as dryness and irritation (especially if you’re using a prescription formula). In the early ’90s when tretinoin first became FDA-approved for treating sun damage, not much was known about controlling its side effects. If misused, the effects were often intolerable. I once had a client who was using a prescription retinoid improperly. She smiled, and in front of my very eyes, areas of her face cracked and started to bleed. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! These days, the side effects of retinol and retinoids are completely manageable (NCBI Study). All you need to do is take special care of your skin by following my expert tips.
The Most Common Types of Vitamin A Ingredients
1. Retinoid (Tretinoin)
This ingredient is derived from vitamin A and is only available in prescription formulas (with the exception of Adapalene, or Differin, which is now sold without a prescription). When applied to the skin, it converts directly to retinoic acid. It then binds to cell receptors and activates the cell maturation process in the skin. Brand names include Retin A, Retin-A Micro, and Renova.
This is an ingredient found in non-prescription formulas. When applied (assuming it’s an encapsulated, stable, and well-formulated product), it converts slowly to retinoic acid. It’s time-released, which means it’s delivered into the skin gradually, over a period of hours, instead of all at once like retinoids are. Because of this, retinol users often experience less irritation than retinoid users. Therefore, retinol is ideal for sensitive, reactive skin types, as well as those with less sun damage. Despite being a gentler option, retinol is still effective and can deliver the same results as a prescription with long-term use.
Note: Biochemically, retinoids and retinol perform the same function, which means you’ll get results regardless of which one you choose to use. Results may take a little longer to achieve with retinol-based products, but that’s exactly what is needed for vitamin A newbies and people with sensitive skin types.
3. Retinyl Palmitate
This is a storage form of vitamin A. It’s a blend of pure retinol and palmitic acid, and it’s much weaker than retinol. The process of retinyl palmitate converting to retinoic acid is considerably more complex, and the amount that ends up reaching the cellular receptor is very small. It simply cannot compare to the efficacy of pure retinol. When used in a formula, this ingredient can improve the chemical stability of retinol and act as an emollient and antioxidant, but you typically shouldn’t count on it to deliver the same smoothing and brightening results as retinol. Retinyl Acetate, Retinyl Linoleate, and Retinyl Propionate are in this same category.
This is a stable precursor to retinoic acid. When it’s stable and encapsulated, it can convert slowly within the skin to retinoic acid just like retinol.
It’s important to note that just because a product contains one of the vitamin A ingredients listed above does NOT mean it will necessarily deliver results. You must consider how the formula is made, which percentage is used, how it’s delivered into the skin, and how stable it is. You’ll usually have to do a bit of research to find all of this out. If a brand is not readily sharing this information, I consider it a red flag, because it could be representative of the product’s lack of true efficacy. Any good formulator knows this is very important information to share with their customers; they should share their product stats proudly. (Read four things to look for when choosing a retinol product.)
How To Decide if You Should Use Retinol or Get a Prescription Retinoid From Your Doctor
I start all of my clients on retinol, regardless of how much sun damage they have. Here are some guidelines for making this decision for yourself.
Start Using a Prescription Retinoid if You’re…
- NOT sensitive at all. If you are sensitive, there’s no need to read this section, as a prescription retinoid is not best for you. (Most people have a certain degree of skin sensitivity, which is why I suggest using retinol first. If you fit the following conditions, though, you can eventually transition to using a prescription retinoid.)
- Someone who’s over the age of 35 with a long history of sun damage. You may feel like your skin shows more visible signs of aging than other people your age.
- Someone who, regardless of age, has pitted, indented acne scars from your younger years.
- Someone who, regardless of age, has melasma from the sun, heat, pregnancy, or hormones. You’ll benefit from something stronger to work deeper and faster. Again though, if you have sensitive skin, it’s best to start with retinol.
Skip a Prescription Retinoid and Use Retinol if You’re….
- Someone who, regardless of age, has thin, dry, and/or sensitive skin. This includes anyone who has rosacea, a history of eczema, or simply an easily-irritated skin type. These skin types may never adjust to a prescription retinoid due to the delicate protective barrier that’s easily compromised.
- Someone under the age of 35 with no major acne issues who is already using vitamin A to prevent wrinkles, lighten discoloration, reduce pore size, and smooth skin texture. Sticking with retinol and occasional chemical peels is perfect because you’re already getting ahead of the aging process. There’s not as much repair and reversal work to be done in those younger than 35.
When to Start Using Retinol to Prevent Signs of Aging
Assuming that blemishes are not your main concern, I generally recommend starting to use retinol between the ages of 26 and 30. The exact age will depend on your specific skin type, although I don’t suggest starting it before 26. There are two reasons for this. The first is that many people who are younger than 26 are still dealing with breakouts. Despite what you may have heard, retinol or retinoids do NOT help cystic or pustular acne. However, prescription retinoids CAN be effective for managing closed comedones. I discuss this more in detail below.
The second reason is that vitamin A speeds up the skin’s metabolism, which begins to slow in your early 30s. When you’re younger, your skin is already very metabolically active. Using retinol or retinoids too early might backfire and stir up breakouts, rashes, and more. Basically, it could disrupt the skin’s natural balance.
What to Know Before Using Retinol or a Prescription Retinoid
Avoid Using Retinol or Prescription Retinoids While Pregnant
Of course, it’s always best to consult with your doctor. In my experience, though, most advise against using vitamin A until after giving birth due to potential risks. I have not personally come across any reported evidence of either topical retinol or retinoids causing harm, but doctors are extra cautious with expecting mothers, and understandably so.
Retinol Can Be Used During the Summer as Long as You’re Serious about Sun Protection
Retinol and retinoid products deliver the best results when used two to five nights a week year-round. Using it on and off can slow progress, so it’s important to commit to using it consistently, even during the summer months. As long as you’re someone who practices sun safety and is very conscientious about preventing suntans and sunburns, then you should be just fine.
However, if you are someone who enjoys tanning or someone who hasn’t yet mastered the art of sun protection, I would suggest discontinuing your retinol or retinoid seven days before intense outdoor sun exposure. Start it back up again a week after you’ve been in the sun—assuming you don’t have a sunburn, of course. While this will slow down results, it’s super important to prevent skin inflammation and irritation.
You’ll See Better and Faster Results If You Use Exfoliating Acids in Your Routine, Too
When dry, dead cells are regularly removed from the skin’s surface, vitamin A is more easily absorbed. You’ll definitely want to start using an exfoliating acid serum, but more on that later.
Retinol and Retinoids Don’t Deliver Visible Results Quickly, so You Must Be Patient
Unlike an exfoliating acid peel that delivers immediate results, vitamin A works incredibly slowly to create change in the skin. I generally tell my clients that they won’t start seeing improved textural changes for two to four months. With continued use, you’ll see more and more positive changes. Do not give up. Stick with it!
You’re Not Going to Get Anti-Acne Benefits With Retinol. You Might with a Prescription Retinoid, But Only For Certain Types of Breakouts
Yes, prescription retinoids like Retin-A were, in fact, originally developed in the ’70s for treating acne. It wasn’t actually discovered until later that the ingredient also helped with wrinkles. That explains why, for a long time, retinoids had the reputation of being a go-to for acne. The truth is, they’re not for everyone. All skin is different and so are the type of breakouts that each person experiences. (This explains why you may hear about a product working like magic for one person and then making another person’s breakouts worse!)
The type of acne prescription retinoids work best for is comedonal acne. This is the type that appears as whiteheads, blackheads, closed comedones, and clogged, non-inflamed bumps. Retinoids restore the organization of cells through cellular turnover. This, in turn, prevents cells from getting trapped and blocked in the pore-lining which in turn, prevents those little non-infected bumps from forming.
Prescription retinoids do not work well for sore, inflamed pustular acne or cysts. In fact, when someone has infected pustular and cystic acne, retinoids may actually make them worse. It’s far better to use products that have more proven breakout-fighting benefits, such as salicylic acid, tea tree, beta-glucan, niacinamide, manuka, sulfur, lactic acid, and benzoyl peroxide. (On that note, beware of skincare brands that claim their retinol product can treat acne AND wrinkles as a one-stop-shop. This is false and anyone sharing this is simply not informed of how retinol really works. Trust me on this!)
As for retinol, since it contains a lesser dose of vitamin A, it doesn’t work as hard as retinoids do to clear clogged bumps. If breakouts are your main concern, I usually advise focusing on clearing blemishes first. Once the skin is clear, you can start using a retinol product to prevent the visible signs of aging. However, there is now a 1% Differin (adapalene) gel retinoid formula available without a prescription. It’s worth adding to your routine to see if it alleviates breakouts.
One more note on retinol and breakouts—I suggest using an exfoliating acid serum that contains salicylic acid on nights you’re not using the retinol to increase vitamin A’s efficacy. I’ll discuss this more at length in a bit. I recommend the Renée Rouleau BHA Clarifying Serum to all of my clients, as well as the Zit Care Kit for making all kinds of blemishes disappear quickly.
It’s Best to Avoid Oil-Based Retinol Formulas If You’re Prone to Clogged Pores
Some retinol formulas are kept stable in a blend of pure oils. This gives them a somewhat greasy feel on the skin. While dry skin types can always benefit from oil saturation, oily and breakout-prone skin types should avoid these types of formulas. (After all, the underlying cause of blemishes is oil—oil breeds bacteria and bacteria lead to blemishes.) Choose your formulas wisely!
If You Have a History of Eczema, You Should Use Retinol—Not a Prescription Retinoid
Vitamin A is very active and breaks down the skin’s protective moisture barrier through its aggressive cellular turnover process (basically, it causes dryness). That explains why people who have eczema-prone skin find that retinoids can cause flare-ups. In this case, it’s best to only use retinol.
Even If You Only Apply a Prescription Retinoid to One Area of Your Face, It Can Affect Your Entire Face
Some people apply prescription retinoids strategically in an effort to target a specific area. For example, some people apply it only around their eye area. They think this will help eye-area wrinkles while sparing the rest of their face from dryness. In reality, the ingredient travels underneath the skin. Even if you apply a retinoid strategically, it will work everywhere, which means you can experience dryness everywhere.
A Step-By-Step Guide to Using Retinol
As I said before if you’re new to using vitamin A, I suggest starting with a non-prescription version such as retinol. To reiterate, the reason is that you want to introduce vitamin A slowly. Most people who start with a prescription (without proper usage instruction) eventually give up because their skin becomes too dry and irritated. If you have a prescription and haven’t been able to use it successfully, consider putting that on hold for now. Start with non-prescription retinol first to introduce it to your skin gradually. Advanced Resurfacing Serum is the retinol product that I personally use. It’s also the one I recommend to my clients. The formula is effective because it combines stable retinol AND skin-firming peptides that help prevent loss of tone.
1. Start by Using Your Retinol Product 2 Nights on, and 1 Night Off
Repeat this throughout the week. For best results, you must use retinol consistently (and often!). Your skin has other needs, though, so you don’t want to use it every single night. Plus, using it too often could prove too much for your skin, since it’s such a biologically active ingredient.
Following the two nights on, one night off rule will result in four nights a week. If you are over 40 with a history of sun damage and your skin isn’t overly sensitive, you can use it four to five nights a week. However, no one should use it for more than five nights a week. This can eventually result in increased sensitivity and a waxy and unnatural appearance.
On the other hand, if you’re under 40 and your skin is fairly sensitive, you might start by using it only twice a week. Then after two months, you can work up to using it three nights a week. Eventually, work up to four nights a week. When in doubt, start slow and increase as you go along. If you’re experiencing dryness or irritation, you’re either using too much or using it too often. This is a sure sign that you should cut back. Remember: using retinol or retinoids successfully is a marathon, not a sprint.
2. Avoid Applying Moisturizer Immediately After Applying Retinol
Using a cream or lotion right after applying retinol may dilute it slightly. It’s best to let it absorb for 20 minutes. Or, you can use a retinol serum that has a lotion-like texture. This can offer hydrating and protective benefits, thus skipping the need for moisturizer altogether.
3. Maximize Results and Minimize Potential Side-Effects By Using an Exfoliating Acid Serum on Opposite Nights
This is really important. Retinol works to encourage dull, sun-damaged skin cells to rise to the surface for easy removal. Using a gentle, alcohol-free exfoliating acid serum once or twice a week (such as one with glycolic, lactic, salicylic, or mandelic acid) will accelerate these cells’ removal. Vitamin A can then absorb deeper into the skin to perform its best. Using both will reveal a smoother, more even-toned texture.
A lot of people use exfoliating toners that contain acids. They often ask me where they should plug that into a retinol or retinoid routine. I never suggest that my clients exfoliate every day, so I don’t recommend using an acid-based toner every morning and night. This is regardless of whether or not you’re using any vitamin A products. If you want to use an exfoliating toner, I would suggest using it on the nights that you use the retinol or retinoid. It can act as a pre-treatment/primer to allow the vitamin A ingredient to absorb deeper into the skin.
Did you know that acids actually help correct dryness? When people experience surface dryness (due to age, drying products, airplane travel, etc), their first instinct is to apply face oil or a heavy moisturizer. This is helpful for pushing moisture into the top layers of the skin, but the dry, expired cells want to (and desperately need to) come off. Over-moisturizing may interfere with and slow down cell turnover. Regularly using exfoliating acids is like saying “out with the old and in with the new” to your skin. This is why top dermatologists and skincare professionals recommend acids so widely.
4. Once a Week, Skip the Exfoliating Acid or Retinol and Use a Hydrating Serum Containing Antioxidants, Epidermal Growth Factors, or Peptides
Your skin requires a variety of ingredients to age healthily. Therefore, you don’t want to constantly stay in exfoliation/cell turnover mode by only using acids and retinol. It’s just like your exercise routine. When working out, it’s best to alternate between various types of exercise, so you’re getting a little bit of everything. Your skin appreciates the same variety. The Renée Rouleau Firm + Repair Overnight Serum is the one I often suggest to my clients.
5. To Boost Results, Get a Professional Chemical Peel or Give Yourself One at Home
Once you’ve been on your new retinol routine for two months, it’s good to kick it up a notch. Try introducing your skin to a chemical peel—especially if you’re someone who has large pores, wrinkles, and discoloration from sun damage. A peel is essentially a stronger version of retinol. It’s intensifying your skin’s collagen-boosting activity to encourage faster smoothing results. Synergistically, they both support one another in the quest for smoother, more even-toned skin.
There are many types of peels, so you’ll want to consult with a trusted skincare professional to find out which type and what frequency is best for your skin. I generally recommend that clients get light to medium chemical peels (ones that make your skin shed for a few days after) six to eight times a year. You can get lighter peels every other month.
The Renée Rouleau Triple Berry Smoothing Peel is great to use three to four times a month. There are no harsh side effects, only beautiful results to increase the skin-smoothing benefits of retinol. You can also give yourself a DIY chemical peel at home if you happen to have a tube of a prescription retinoid lying around.
6. If You Think You Want to Start Using a Prescription Retinoid, Introduce It Slowly After 6 Months
Of course, you’ll have to consult with a doctor about this. There are so many different kinds, but your doctor can suggest what’s best for you and your specific skin goals. You should start with the lowest strength.
How to Introduce a Prescription Retinoid Into Your Routine
Weeks 1-4: Substitute Your Retinol Serum with a Prescription Retinoid One Night Per Week
After cleansing, immediately apply an alcohol-free toner. Leave it damp, then apply a thin layer of a lightweight moisturizer to the skin before applying your retinoid. The moisturizer cannot be heavy or greasy at all. Wait for five minutes and apply a pea-sized amount of the prescription to the entire face. (I recommend treating the neck and chest with retinoids, too. Use an extra pea-sized amount for this area as well.) Let dry for 20 minutes and follow with another application of moisturizer. This time, you can use your normal moisturizer. Ideally, use one that keeps the skin’s moisture barrier intact and sensitivity to a minimum. The Renée Rouleau Phytolipid Comfort Creme is a great option for new retinoid users.
Note: There has been much discussion in years past about whether or not using a moisturizer underneath vitamin A affects its performance. Most believe that it does not interfere with penetration. Instead, the right moisturizer can keep the moisture barrier intact to prevent dryness. This is truly the secret to making a prescription tolerable. I always recommend the Renée Rouleau Sheer Moisture Lotion to my clients due to its light texture and stable antioxidants. Retinoids can cause “micro wounding” in the skin, and antioxidants help stop the resulting inflammatory response. This makes Sheer Moisture a perfect companion to prescription formulas.
Weeks 4-10: Repeat the Above Process But Now Substitute Your Retinol Serum with a Prescription Retinoid Two Nights Per Week
Think of your prescription retinoid as a workout for your skin. You don’t want to lift the heaviest weights on day one. Instead, you want to take it slow and gradually build up to it over time.
Weeks 10+: Repeat the Above Process But Now Substitute Your Retinol Serum with a Prescription Retinoid Three Nights Per Week
For most people, I suggest sticking with this routine for the long run. You’ll alternate nights between your original retinol serum (eventually you can drop this), a retinoid, an exfoliating acid serum, and a hydrating serum. You’ll use your prescription retinoid three nights a week while giving your skin an amazing variety of other active ingredients. They’ll all work synergistically to improve the look of your brown spots, wrinkles, and large pores.
If you have very sun-damaged skin, you may want to increase the prescription retinoid to four nights a week after six months. Also, consider upgrading to a new one with a stronger percentage. I do, however, discourage people from getting too excited and using it too frequently. Over time, this can cause the skin to appear tight, shiny, and waxy, almost like a plastic Barbie doll. I can spot someone who is overusing prescription retinoids a mile away, and it’s not a great look. It just doesn’t look natural.
The Bottom Line
I’ve seen the results retinol and retinoids can provide on so many of my clients’ faces in the past 30 years of my career. While I’m super proud of the retinol formula I created, there are other great ones out there, too. You just have to do your due diligence since it’s a tricky ingredient with which to work, and not all formulators know how to make the best products.
I’ll leave you with one last thought. As I mentioned previously, using a retinol or retinoid is a marathon, not a sprint. It can take a while to see results, meaning you won’t get immediate gratification. To truly reap its benefits, without incurring dryness or irritation, deliver a slow drip of it to the skin. I recommend using it regularly for the rest of your life…or until a better anti-aging product takes its place! And if that’s the case, I’ll be sure to let you know. For now, head on down Retinol Road.