The 411 on Retinol—the Wonder Ingredient Skin-Care Buffs Are Obsessed With

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You've heard all the skin-saving claims around retinol, but you aren't alone if its reputation has you feeling dubious (Is it just for those over 40? Won't it burn my skin?).

Considering all the misconceptions (the answer to those questions is no, btw), we decided to do some debunking, and tapped Rachel Nazarian, MD FAAD, dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC to fill us in on the real deal.

Dr. Nazarian doesn't shy away from recommending retinol products to her patients—she just stresses the importance of choosing a quality product. "I prefer my patients to use an oil-free, non-comedogenic product to avoid acne flares or breakouts," she says. "Look for products that are in pumps or light-blocking bottles, rather than a tub or jar, to ensure a stabilized product that doesn’t degrade rapidly."

The one that caught our eye? Algenist's ELEVATE Advanced Retinol Serum (because it's plant-based, obvi). The vegan formula fits all of the above, and is encapsulated with green algae to allow for a time release of the retinol, making it gentle enough to use morning and night on all skin types. Plus, it includes Algenist's patented Alguronic Acid, which doubles retinol's efficacy, according to a third-party scientific test.

But the real question is, does it work? And what about all those rumored side effects? It's time to set the record straight.

Scroll down for the answers to all your questions about retinol—plus, find out what happened when a beauty expert tried some for herself.

algenist retinol serum

First off, what even is retinol?

Here's the science: Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A that encourages the production of collagen, and can help decrease wrinkles, minimize pore size, and even out skin tone, according to Dr. Nazarian. 

While it is often associated with anti-aging products, retinol can also be beneficial for acneic skin (because it has a slight drying effect) and even for people going after an overall glowier complexion (aren't we all?).

It delivers those benefits by stimulating cell turnover (getting rid of old cells and producing new, healthier ones), which can help skin appear smoother and reduce blemishes and brown spots. So what's not to love?

cynthia ess algenist

If it has so many benefits, why are people freaked out by it?

As a beauty blogger who has her finger on the pulse of what's hot in skin care, Cynthia Ess can attest to the foggy understanding surrounding retinol.

"I think retinol serums have a reputation of being very harsh, and personally I get a little scared when I read on the label that it may increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun," she says. "But I know people are drawn to it because with dedicated use, retinol is very powerful and can solve a lot of skin issues."

According to Dr. Nazarian, retinol can increase your skin's sensitivity to the sun, but that solve is as easy as making sure you apply sunscreen daily (which you should consider doing anyway). She also recommends you start out with a small amount just twice a week, and remember to moisturize. That way, you can tap into all the pluses—without any of the potential side effects.

algenist retinol serum

Okay, I want to get in on the trend. Which one should I try?

With 90 percent of users reporting their skin was visibly smoother and more toned within just 10 days (in Algenist's test of 104 women who used the serum twice daily), Ess decided to take Algenist's ELEVATE Advanced Retinol Serum for a test drive. Choosing products with a proven track record is her go-to method of sorting through all the options she sees as a beauty blogger.

To her surprise, the serum worked even better than she expected during the 10-day period. "I was expecting only to see some of my hyperpigmentation left over from acne scars to fade, but actually I noticed that my skin was also a lot firmer and tighter, so it looked smoother and more even," she says.

Despite a slight increase in skin sensitivity the first few days ("I noticed my skin would tingle, but it wasn’t bad"), she only noticed positives from the experience, noting the quick-absorbing gel texture was gentle enough for both morning and night use. 

Her verdict? "It’s fantastic for any first time users interested in adding retinol into their routine," advises Ess. "I will definitely continue to use this retinol. Seeing my skin look smoother and softer during the 10-day trial is enough for me to want to continue using it until I run out." Count us convinced.

In partnership with Algenist

Photos: Courtesy of Cynthia Ess

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