retinolSource: Daxiao Productions/Shutterstock

Without fail, every dermatologist we’ve spoken to in the past year has told us to use retinol (aka retinoids, Retin-A, granactive retinoids). Whether we’re asking for advice on dealing with oily skin, acne, uneven skin tone, aging or just how to get healthy, glowing skin, they’ll always name drop this miracle ingredient and insist that retinol is the answer to all our skincare problems. Think of it as the Beyoncé of the skincare world – a skincare star.

But with any skincare cure-all, comes a lot of questions and inevitably some confusion. So, it’s essential to know the basics: what it is, how it works, when to use it, as well as the answers to the slightly more complicated questions, like wtf is the difference between a retinoid and retinol? We spoke to two expert dermatologists for the full low down: Dr. Doris Day celeb dermatologist and author of Beyond Beautiful, and NYC-based Board-Certified dermatologist, Dr. Shereene Idriss, who specializes in facial aesthetics and rejuvenation. Here’s everything you need to know:

What is retinol?  

Retinol and Retin-A are a form of vitamin A. They’re referred to as retinoids, but they are a slightly different type of vitamin A. Dr. Day explains that there are “Several forms of vitamin A which are used in skincare products, the most common types are retinol, retinyl esters (e.g., retinyl acetate, retinyl propionate, and retinyl palmitate), and retinaldehyde. These are the ingredients you may see listed on the package label.”

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How does retinol work?

Dr. Day explains that “Retinols act on specific receptors, or targets in the skin, which helps to promote more normal maturation of skin cells. They also promote collagen production and lots of other healthy processes in different layers of the skin to help your skin look and feel healthy, smooth and even in tone.” Dr. Idriss adds “In the long run, it delivers a clearer and tighter complexion. It works on all skin tones and types but should be introduced cautiously into your regimen, especially if you have sensitive skin.”

How does retinol work for acne, aging, and hyperpigmentation?

Acne: “Retinol isn’t an antibiotic, but what it does in acne is help the skin cells that line the pores to turnover more normally, which helps avoid clogged pores and this helps prevent the pimples and blackheads of acne. It works great with other acne treatments to help clear the skin, treat existing pimples and prevent new pimples,” Dr. Day says. Speak to your doctor about a Retin-A prescription (Tretinoin), as this is the most effective form of retinoids for treating acne.

Sun damage/wrinkles: According to Dr. Day, “Retinols can help reduce sun damage effects in the skin. It helps make the deeper layers of the skin ‘thicker,’ boost collagen production, and it also blocks an enzyme called collagenase that’s triggered by the sun to breakdown collagen.”

Hyperpigmentation: “Retinols may act on various pathways of pigmentation and normalize those pathways as well as normalizing skin cell turnover. These effects lead to smoother, more even skin tone and radiant skin. I even recommend retinol for my patients with sensitive skin and rosacea – I carefully pick the formulation and combine it with other ingredients to minimize redness and optimize results. The skin is left looking young and beautiful,” Dr. Day tells us.

Top tip: It’s also a great idea to add other antioxidants, peptides and growth factors to enhance the effect of retinol on your skin.

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How often should you use retinol?

Dr. Idriss states that “It is crucial that you slowly build up a tolerance to the retinol by starting once or twice a week for two weeks, then slowly adding on a day every two weeks until you feel you can tolerate it.” Adding that “Some amount of irritation and redness is considered normal, especially in the first few introductory weeks of any retinol. If you experience it, it should be mild and manageable. It shouldn’t be so red or flaky that it can be spotted across the room.”

Top tip: Dr. Idriss says that “It’s equally important that you understand your own face and learn where on your face you can tolerate it. For example, despite having built a tolerance, I personally cannot use it around my mouth as it perpetually leads to extreme flaking and redness.”

When should you start using retinol?

When you introduce retinol into your regime (which, btw, should be in your 20s) an over-the-counter product is fine, however, when you turn 30, most dermatologists recommend a prescription-strength retinoid.

When should you use retinol?

Retinols should typically be applied at night as the active ingredient is sensitive to light. However Dr. Day told us that “some retinol is photo-stabilized and can be used during the day, but this should be written on the package, so you’ll know it’s ok to use during the day.”

Dr. Day’s fave retinol products:

retinolSource: Olay, Neutrogena, philosophy

  1. Olay Eyes Pro-Retinol Cream Treatment For Crows Feet, $33: Paired with antioxidant-rich niacinamide, this retinol fights crow’s feet in just four weeks.
  2. Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Regenerating Cream $28: A hydrating, retinol-enriched formula that can be used twice daily for speedy results.
  3. Philosophy Anti-Wrinkle Miracle Worker, $24: A fusion of wrinkle-fighting retinol and a complex of peptides, hyaluronic acid, and vitamin C elevate this formula.

Does retinol dry out your skin, and is that normal?

In short, yes, but only at first. Dr. Doris assures us that “When you first start using a retinoid you may experience peeling as part of that process, although it is not exfoliation. For example, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and lactic acid or other exfoliating ingredients make the skin cells less sticky by loosening the glue that holds skin cells together, which can cause peeling and exfoliation. Retinols don’t have that same effect. Instead, retinols help normalize skin cell turnover, which can initially cause peeling because the skin cells normalize and mature, then slough off more appropriately. Once this is done, the peeling will slow down or stop, and the skin looks smoother and more radiant. If you keep peeling, you may need to switch to a different formulation of retinol or increase moisturization along with it.”

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Does this mean you shouldn’t use an exfoliator and retinol together?

Dr. Doris says that “You may need to exfoliate less often since the stratum corneum (the very outer layer of dead skin cells that can pile up and make your skin look dull), becomes more compact and smoother when you use retinoids. Depending on your skin thickness, overall skin quality, and other conditions, you may also want to consider switching to more gently lactic or phytic acids instead of glycolic acid.” Dr. Idriss says  “I recommend exfoliating on the days that you do not use any retinol in order to minimize any potential irritation.”

What’s the difference between over-the-counter retinol and prescription retinol?

All skincare products are not created equally, which means some products will have a stronger form of retinol and others will have a higher concentration. You may see it listed as granactive retinoid, retinol or Retin-A. Retinoid is the name of the active ingredients, retinol and Retin-A are different concentrations of retinoids: retinol is the weakest form that you can get over the counter. Here’s the breakdown:

Retinol: Retinol is the weakest form of retinoids (it is still strong in comparison to other skincare ingredients), but it’s also the most easily tolerated by the skin. Retinol needs time to be converted into retinoic acid (the active form of vitamin A) when it comes into contact with your skin. This makes retinol the mildest retinoid, but also the most well tolerated by the skin.

Retin-A (also known as Tretinoin): This is most commonly found in prescription-strength acne and aging formulas. Unlike retinol, Retin-A doesn’t need to be broken down by the enzymes in your skin, as it converts directly into retinoic acid. This makes it roughly 20 times stronger than retinol.

The most important retinol rule:

Every dermatologist stresses the importance of using an SPF! Because retinol helps your skin become younger and healthier, that skin is more sun-sensitive. Dr. Day says “It’s always important to use sunscreen and be sun smart every day, all year round, to prevent wrinkles, blotchy skin, and skin cancer. It’s the single most important way to make sure you age beautifully.” Dr. Idriss agrees that retinol “May make you slightly more sun sensitive, but regardless you should always practice sun-safe methods and apply a minimum of SPF 30 on a daily basis!”

Dr. Idriss’ fave retinol products:

retinolSource: Skinceuticals, SkinMedica, Clark’s Botanicals,

How do you tell the difference between a retinol purge and a breakout?

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Purging is a skin process that often occurs when you start using an exfoliating product that encourages skin cell turnover, so when you first start using a retinol, purging is very common. For the first couple of week, as your cell turnover intensifies (this is a good thing) your pores will de-bunk (again this is good), however, it can feel and look like your skin is breaking out. This is why it’s important to introduce retinol gradually into your regime. A purge is often mistaken with a breakout; the difference is that a ‘purge’ will happen almost immediately after you use a retinol and will be widespread, whereas a breakout will occur in groups. A purge shouldn’t last longer than two weeks, if it does then check in with your dermatologist and stop using the product.

Our fave retinol products:

retinolSource: SkinCeuticals, Roc, The Inkey List

  1. Skin Ceuticals 1.0 Maximum Strength Refining Night Cream, $82: A super-charged retinol formula to treat everything!
  2. Roc Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream, $23: The number one drugstore retinol that promises to reduce expression lines and deep wrinkles in 12 weeks!
  3. The Inkey List Retinol, $13: An affordable yet effective 1% retinol serum. Read the full review.

How To Use Retinol – Key Takeaways:

  • Retinoids are the star of the skincare world and can help to improve enlarged pores, hyperpigmentation, acne, fine lines, and scarring.
  • Start your retinoid journey with an over-the-counter retinol before moving to a prescription.
  • If you have sensitive skin or a history of eczema, stick with retinol, and introduce it extra slowly into your routine.
  • Be prepared for a potential purging or peeling process when you begin using retinol.
  • ALWAYS wear sunscreen when using retinol; at least SPF 30 with a 4-star UVA rating or higher.
  • Use retinol at night only, unless it specifies otherwise.
  • If you’re still unsure of what to begin with, check with your dermatologist first.

Have you guys tried retinol before? Let us know if you have any more questions in the comments below.