Skin-Care Tips

4 Dermatologists Break Down Exactly What Happens To Your Skin When You Add Retinol Into Your Routine

Photo: Getty Images / Justin Lambert
If you ask any dermatologist to name the "gold standard" of skin-care ingredients, they'll say it's a retinoid. The vitamin A derivative—which goes by names like retinol, adapalene, and tretinoin—stimulates cellular turnover in your skin, helping with a range of skin conditions including acne and signs of aging. Retinol is the least potent (and most common) retinoid that you can access without a prescription. Slather it on at night before bed and let it work its magic while you sleep.

"Retinoids work by binding to and turning on receptors in the skin called retinoic acid receptors that then impact how the skin behaves," says Caren Campbell, MD, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Napa and San Fransico, Califonia. "It takes time for these changes to begin and impact the way the skin is behaving, which is why retinoids take time to work, on average, six weeks for acne and six-plus months for anti-aging."

While it takes some time for you to notice the benefits of retinoids, you might notice some not-so-great side effects after night one.

"Retinoids can cause dryness and irritation,” says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD. “Retinization is the adjustment period during which the skin adapts to the use of topical retinoids. During this time the skin may become irritated, resulting in dryness, peeling, scaling, redness or a burning or stinging sensation."

So what happens when you use retinoids every day? Deirdre Hooper, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Louisiana, says the results can be amazing... but there are a few things you should know before you slather it on your skin all 365.

Why using retinol every day can be so good

"When you put retinol on your skin, it's absorbed into the nucleus of the cell, which is basically your cell's brain, and it starts changing things that your skin does," says Dr. Hooper. "It was invented in the '60s to treat blackheads and it works to do that—it changes the consistency of your sebum, or the oil of your skin. But it also turns out to do a lot of other things."

One of the big things it's responsible for is stimulating cellular turnover, which brings healthy new cells to the surface of your skin as a means of replacing old, dead ones.

"Topical applications of retinoids impact how the skin's cells behave," says Dr. Campbell. "They speed skin-cell turnover and remove the top layer of dead skin cells which helps keep these cells from clogging our pores and causing blackheads and acne." And without a buildup of dead skin, you also end up with a glowing complexion.

Retinol also stimulates collagen synthesis. This leads to thicker skin, explains Dr. Hooper, which makes fine lines and wrinkles less visible. It also helps to micro-distribute blotchy pigment in your skin.

"Sun damage is your body trying to protect you by producing pigment," says Dr. Hooper. "And when you're young, that looks like a tan, but when you get older, it starts looking like blotchy spots. This comes from the melanin, and one thing retinoids do is help to break up that melanin."

The (temporary) reasons why you might not want to start off using it daily

When you first start using retinol, you may experience some irritation like dryness and flaking skin. Plus, the increased cell turnover may cause any pimples that are brewing below the surface to come to the top, making your complexion a bit worse before it gets better through a process that's often referred to as "purging."

So if you start using retinol every day out of the gate, you can end up with some painful inflammation and a damaged skin barrier, negating any potential positives. One way to avoid that irritation is to start slow, explains Ranella Hirsch, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Boston. "For most people, using retinol every day is something to work towards," she says. Maybe you start every other day. Or every third day. Listen to how your skin is feeling and pick up the pace when feel like your skin can handle it.

You can also experience irritation if you're using too much retinol or too high of a concentration, says Dr. Hooper. "What usually happens with people who think they can't tolerate retinol is that they're just using too much, too often, too quickly and they need to ease into the product better. She says to start with a small amount, and if needed, apply a barrier before applying your retinol. You can also limit the retinol to your T-zone to start. "If anything feels red and sensitive, you can skip it on those areas, but almost never does your T-zone become red and sensitive," says Dr. Hooper.

When you should start

Summer is a great time to start retinol because your skin is usually stronger in the warmer, more-humid months than it is during the cool, dry months of winter. However, your skin will be more sensitive if you've just spent a ton of time in the sun. Plus, retinol makes your skin more sensitive to sun damage.

"You may want to drop your retinol products for a week or two before and after you take a summer or beach vacation to minimize the risk of sun damage to the skin, in particular, if you plan to sunbathe or spend a lot of time on the water, or at the beach or out outside in the elements,” says Terese Linke, director of education at Amala Beauty.

Even though you apply retinol at night, make sure you're diligent with sunscreen application during the day.

Shop five retinols below

Below, you'll find five gentle retinols that are made with additional moisturizing, skin-strengthening ingredients that make it easier for your skin to tolerate the retinol.

Fab Skin Lab Retinol Serum .25% Pure Concentrate, use retinol every day
First Aid Beauty Fab Skin Lab Retinol Serum .25% Pure Concentrate — $58.00

The First Aid Beauty Fab Skin Lab Retinol Serum .25% Pure Concentrate combines retinol and peptides with hyaluronic acid, colloidal oatmeal, aloe, and ceramides—all ingredients that Dr. Hirsh says are soothing.

Absolute Joi Skin Refining Night Oil with Retinol and Vitamin C + E — $57.00

The Absolute Joi Skin Refining Night Oil with Retinol and Vitamin C + E is a blend of retinol and soothing oils like jojoba, argan, and moringa. It also includes moisturizing squalene. Note that it also includes rosehip oil, so you may want to avoid it if you’re sensitive to rose, or more generally, to fragrance in skin care.

Three Ships Dream Bio-Retinol + Shorea Butter Night Cream — $29.00

The Three Ships Dream Bio-Retinol + Shorea Butter Night Cream is made with vegan squalane and seed butters like shorea and murumuru to moisturize your skin while promoting cellular turnover with a gentle plant-based retinol derived from Picão Preto, a medicinal herb that’s native to Brazil.

Kate Sommerville +Retinol Vita C Power Serum Firming & Brightening Treatment, use retinol every day
Kate Sommerville +Retinol Vita C Power Serum Firming & Brightening Treatment — $98.00

Kate Sommerville +Retinol Vita C Power Serum Firming & Brightening Treatment pairs retinol and vitamin C which “have synergistic benefits, plus a nice antioxidant profile,” says Dr. Hirsh.

SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3
SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3 — $67.00

Dr. Hirsh is a huge fan of the SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3. It is a “retinol in an extremely stable preparation,” she says. “It’s an excellent overall product.”

Get more retinol info:

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