Read The Label: All Your Retinol And Retinoid Questions Answered

From acne to wrinkles, vitamin A is a powerhouse ingredient that addresses many of our most pressing skin concerns. But how does it work? The AEDITION is here to answer all your questions about retinol and retinoid use.
Written by Vivien Moon
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Read The Label: All Your Retinol And Retinoid Questions AnsweredLightField Studios/Shutterstock

Feel like you need a dictionary every time you look at the ingredient list of a beauty product? Still unsure of the difference between retinol and retinoids? What about the unique benefits of vitamins B, C, and E? Are alpha and beta hydroxy acids the same thing? The skincare aisle can be overwhelming, but you don’t need a PhD in cosmetic chemistry to navigate it. With expert help, The AEDITION is demystifying and simplifying the beauty industry — one label at a time.

When it comes to aging and skincare, it seems that there’s one ingredient that is akin to the fountain of youth: topical vitamin A. Helping restore that vibrant glow while tackling fine lines and wrinkles, this powerhouse active was first introduced as an anti-acne staple before taking on the anti-aging market and marking its territory on nightstands all over the world.

Though topical vitamin A products might help diminish the appearance of fine lines, hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, and acne while giving you smoother skin, they can also cause irritation, flakiness, and redness if not used properly. So, while it is touted as the gold standard of at-home skincare routines, there are still a few myths surrounding the multitasking active ingredient that The AEDITION is here to clear up.

Is It Vitamin A, Retinol, or Retinoid?

Simply put, both retinoids and retinols are derivatives of vitamin A. They contain different concentrations of the active ingredient retinoic acid, which boosts cellular turnover and treats skin concerns ranging from large pores and acne to wrinkles and hyperpigmentation.

“Retinol is a true multitasker that helps address multiple concerns and is great when used long term,” says Beverly Hills-based celebrity aesthetician Shani Darden, whose eponymous skincare line prominently features the ingredient.

“Retinol is a true multitasker that helps address multiple concerns and is great when used long term.”
Shani Darden, Celebrity Aesthetician

Retinol products are less potent than their retinoid counterparts because of their molecular structure. Retinols tend to be milder and work more gradually than retinoids because they are composed of esters (like retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate) that need to be converted into retinoic acid before they can be used by the skin.

While retinol is the form of vitamin A most commonly found in over-the-counter skincare products (think: serums, creams, etc.), retinoids are mostly found in prescription topicals. Regardless, both are considered highly effective for men and women of all ages.

What Are the Benefits of Vitamin A in Skincare?

Topical Vitamin A Retinol Retinoids Skincare Benefits Infographic

Retinoic acid helps to stimulate cell turnover and boost collagen production, which allows it to treat three common skin concerns:

  1. Acne and Acne scars
  2. Dark Spots and Hyperpigmentation
  3. Fine Lines and Wrinkles

Its ability to promote cellular regeneration leads a reduction in the appearance of hyperpigmentation and, therefore, improves radiance. That same exfoliating quality also makes it ideal for treating and preventing acne. “It exfoliates the skin to help unclog congestive acne and clear out blackhead and whitehead acne,” says board certified dermatologist Rita Linkner, MD, of Manhattan’s Spring Street Dermatology. “It also is helpful in those with sun damage to clear out lentigines, which is brown discoloration associated with sun exposure.”

As for the most sought-after benefit of minimizing the appearance of lines and wrinkles? Board certified dermatologist Morgan Rabach, MD, of LM Medical in New York City explains that the anti-aging results come about because retinoids “minimize the appearance of wrinkles by increasing collagen production.”

Prescription Retinoids vs. Over-The-Counter Retinol

When looking for the right vitamin A product for your skincare routine, strength is a big factor. Before you start slathering on the first one you find in the skincare aisle, know that OTC retinol products might not work as quickly or actively as a prescribed retinoid.

“Prescription retinoids come in all different strengths from really weak to really strong, much stronger than those you can get over the counter,” Dr. Rabach explains. “The beauty of a prescription or medical-grade retinol is that amount has been tested and contains a predictable percentage of active retinol.”

She recommends opting for a prescription retinol to guarantee that it is coming in the purest form. “Many OTC products can claim they contain a retinol, but these claims are not FDA regulated,” she explains, adding that “you also don't know which retinoid it is or its strength.”

“The beauty of a prescription or medical-grade retinol is that amount has been tested and contains a predictable percentage of active retinol.”
Morgan Rabach, MD

While prescription retinoids might be more predictable and potent, those not ready to commit to a trip to the dermatologist can start out with an OTC variant. These products come in a range of formats (lightweight serums to richer creams and lotions) often include other active ingredients that are meant to complement the retinol while soothe and moisturize the skin.

Darden, for instance, formulated her cult-favorite Retinol Reform serum with lactic acid, niacinamide, and aloe vera to even skin texture while also calming the complexion. “Retinol Reform has lactic acid to gently exfoliate, which allows for some immediate smoothing and brightening benefits while the retinol does it’s work behind the scenes,” she explains. “I formulated it to also include aloe, which helps to soothe the skin and offset dryness. Overall, it’s important to make sure you’re keeping the skin hydrated.”

When and How to Add Vitamin A to Your Routine

Because it has origins as an anti-acne treatment, age doesn’t necessarily play a strong factor as to when to start using a retinoid, but it is always best to consult your dermatologist before making significant changes to your regimen — especially at a young age.

Patients in their late twenties who aren’t already using a retinoid or retinol to treat acne, may start to incorporate it to counteract the loss of skin elasticity, and it is never too late to add it to your routine. Men can use it too, of course, though Dr. Linkner advises that guys “make sure to use more retinol than women because of the increased density of hair follicles.”

Whether you are in your twenties or fifties, starting with an OTC retinol or a prescription retinoid, patience is a virtue. To avoid the irritation, flakiness, dry skin, and redness that often accompanies introducing vitamin A into your routine, be methodical in your approach and understand that, like with everything in life, good things come to those who wait. It should be noted, however, that vitamin-A derived skincare is not considered safe for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

“Men should make sure to use more retinol than women because of the increase density of hair follicles.”

Rita Linkner, MD

Darden advises her clients to “start slowly with one night a week.” From there, you can “add one additional night each week” and “build up to as often as your skin can tolerate.” Ultimately, “it’s so important to build up slowly and allow your skin time to acclimate,” she says.

Another tip? Cut back on the rest of your routine. “It’s best to limit the use of other actives when introducing retinol into your routine, so that you don’t irritate or over-exfoliate the skin,” Darden shares. To minimize any irritation, Dr. Linkner encourages her patients to “apply a moisturizing cream prior to retinoid use.” She says the extra layer “creates a buffer” that “in essence, dilutes down the retinoid.”

Using a hyaluronic acid-based product prior to retinol, meanwhile, can “increase its potency,” Dr. Linkner says. Darden also believes in pairing retinol with an HA product and is a fan of Dr. Nigma’s Serum No 1 and iS Clinical’s Hydra-Cool because they “will deeply hydrate and help skin hold on to moisture.”

Side Effects of Retinoid & Retinol Use

As with any skincare product, results are not immediate and certainly not miraculous. In the case of retinols and retinoids, skin irritation and flakiness are common for many in the beginning. While retinoids can exacerbate skin conditions like eczema and rosacea, most patients can successfully use the ingredient. “Sometimes people think that they are allergic or can't tolerate retinol when their skin gets dry,” Dr. Rabach says. “But these are normal side effects that can be minimized if you are using the correct strength and amount.”

Biggest Misconceptions About Retinoids & Retinols

Throughout the time that retinol has been accessible, there have been misconceptions about its safety and efficacy. On the flip side, the degree to which some users sing its prasises may have you wondering if it is too good to be true. To clear up the most common confusion, we asked our experts to clear up the myths.

Myth 1: You Shouldn’t Use Retinol in the Summer or Morning

Retinol and retinoids are best used at night — but not for the reason you might think. Contrary to popular belief, retinol does not make the skin more susceptible to burning, but retinoids have been shown to break down and deactivate in the sun (hence the opaque packaging they come in). For best results, apply the product to clean, dry skin after the toner step in your nightly routine. But don’t take this as an excuse to skimp on sunscreen. Wearing a high-SPF, broad-spectrum sunscreen everyday is still a must to prevent sun-related damage.

Myth 2: You Can Overuse Retinol

On a day to day basis, Dr. Rabach says the idea of retinol ‘overuse’ is a myth. “The only time I would say someone is overusing retinol is if their skin is super dry, flaky, and sensitive,” she shares. With that said, Dr. Linkner does believe in regularly switching up your skincare routine to maximize performance and benefits. She recommends a cadence swapping out your regimen once per season, which will ensure your complexion is always being treated for its specific needs.

Myth 3: Retinol Will Thin Your Skin

“The biggest misconception is that continued use thins the skin,” Dr. Linkner says of regular retinol and retinoid use. There doesn’t seem to be scientific evidence to back up this claim and because of the ingredient’s regenerative qualities, it actually keeps skin smooth and youthful.

The Takeaway

Vitamin A might seem like the fountain of youth, but, as with any active ingredient, it should be approached mindfully for best results. Yes, it can help treat acne, diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and correct pigmentation, but users should always be mindful of the time of day they are using it, the amount of product they are applying, and its potency. Prescription retinoids will always be stronger than their OTC counterparts, but no one product or ingredient is a silver bullet and patience will always be key. “Overall, retinol is best when used long term,” Darden says. “You have to stick with it to really see the benefits.”

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VIVIEN MOONis a senior editor at AEDIT.

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