meIf you ask any dermatologist to name the “gold standard” of skincare ingredients, they’ll tell you it’s a retinoid. Going by names like retinol, adapalene, and tretinoin, the vitamin A derivative stimulates skin cell turnover and helps with a variety of skin conditions, including acne and signs of aging. Retinol is the least potent (and most common) retinoid that you can get without a prescription. Apply it at night before bed and let it work its magic while you sleep.
“Retinoids work by binding to and activating receptors in the skin called retinoic acid receptors that then affect how the skin behaves,” says Caren Campbell, MD, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Napa and San Fransico, California. “It takes time for these changes to kick in and affect the way the skin behaves, which is why retinoids take an average of six weeks to work for acne and over six months for anti-aging.”
While it takes some time to notice the benefits of retinoids, you may notice some not-so-great side effects after the first night.
“Retinoids can cause dryness and irritation,” says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD. “Retinalization is the adjustment period during which the skin adjusts to the use of topical retinoids. During this time, the skin can become irritated, resulting in dryness, peeling, flaking, 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 she needs to know before she slathers it on her skin all 365.
Why Using Retinol Every Day Can Be So Good
“When you put retinol on your skin, it gets absorbed into the nucleus of the cell, which is basically the brain of your cell, and it starts to change the 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 sebum or oil on the skin. But it does a lot of other things too.”
One of the important things it is responsible for is stimulating cell turnover, which brings new healthy cells to the surface of the skin as a means of replacing old and dead ones.
“Topical applications of retinoids affect the behavior of skin cells,” says Dr. Campbell. “They speed up skin cell turnover and remove the top layer of dead skin cells, helping to prevent these cells from clogging pores and causing blackheads and acne.” And without a buildup of dead skin, you also end up with a radiant 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 microdistribute the blemished pigment on the skin.
“Sun damage is your body trying to protect you by producing pigment,” says Dr. Hooper. “And when you’re young, it looks like a tan, but when you get older, they start to look like spots. This comes from melanin, and one of the things retinoids do is help break down that melanin.”
The (temporary) reasons why you won’t want to start using it daily
When you first start using retinol, you may experience some irritation such as skin dryness and peeling. Additionally, increased cell turnover can cause pimples that are brewing below the surface to rise to the surface, making your complexion a little worse before it gets better through a process often called “purging.”
So if you start using retinol every day, you may end up with painful inflammation and a damaged skin barrier, negating any possible positive effects. One way to avoid that irritation is to start slowly, 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 feels and pick up the pace when you feel like your skin can handle it.
You may also experience irritation if you use too much retinol or too high a concentration, says Dr. Hooper. “What often happens with people who think they can’t tolerate retinol is that they’re just using too much, too often, too quickly, and need to adjust to the product better. She says start with a small amount, and if necessary If something feels red and sensitive, you can skip it in those areas, but your T-zone hardly ever turns red and sensitive. says Dr. Hooper.
when should you start
Summer is a good time to start retinol because your skin is typically stronger in the hotter, more humid months than it is during the cold, dry winter months. However, your skin will be more sensitive if you have just spent a lot of time in the sun. Also, retinol makes your skin more sensitive to sun damage.
“You may want to leave your retinol products off for a week or two before and after a summer vacation or beach vacation to minimize the risk of sun damage to your skin, particularly if you plan to sunbathe or spend a lot of time time in the water, on the beach or outside in the open air,” says Terese Linke, director of education for Amala Beauty.
Even if you apply retinol at night, be sure to be diligent about applying sunscreen during the day.
Shop Five Retinols Below
Below are five gentle retinols made with additional moisturizing and skin-strengthening ingredients that make it easier for your skin to tolerate retinol.
Three Ships Dream Bio-Retinol + Shorea Butter Night Cream — $29.00
Three Ships Dream Bio-Retinol + Shorea Butter Night Cream is made with vegan ingredients. squalane and seed butters like shorea and murumuru to hydrate skin while promoting cell renewal with gentle plant-based retinol derived from Picão Preto, a medicinal herb native to Brazil.
SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3 — $67.00
Dr. Hirsh is a huge fan of SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3. It’s a “retinol in an extremely stable preparation,” she says. “It’s an excellent product overall.”
Learn more about retinol:
Oh hello! You sound like someone who loves free workouts, discounts on cutting-edge wellness brands, and exclusive Well+Good content. Sign up for Well+, our online community of wellness experts, and unlock your rewards instantly.
These products are independently selected by our editors. Making a purchase through our links may generate a commission for Well+Good.