Retinol Products

The world of over the counter anti-aging products are often geared towards marketing rather than efficacy. In truth, many dermatologists recommend that patients stick to the basics of cleansing, moisturizing, and sunscreens, and aren't as enthusiastic or opinionated about the skincare aisle. Retinol, however is an important ingredient that many dermatologists recommend unreservedly.

What is retinol and is it different from a retinoid?

Retinoid, retinol, retin-A, no doubt it’s confusing! Retinoids are a class of chemical compounds related to Vitamin A. Retinoids have many uses in dermatology, both applied topically (on the skin) or systemically (ingested). Acne, psoriasis, and photoaging are some skin concerns that are treated using retinoids1. One of the most well known uses involves Isotretinoin (better known by its trade name, Accutane) to treat moderate to severe acne.

Retinoids can be divided into ones that can only be prescribed, and those that are available over the counter. Prescription retinoids include Tretinoin, Adapalene, and Tazarotene. These are powerful drugs, and have substantial evidence supporting its use for anti-aging2. Retinol is a type of retinoid that can be found in over the counter anti-aging products. Other types of retinoids that can be acquired over the counter include retinaldehyde, retinyl propionate, and retinyl palmitate2, however, retinol has shown the most evidence backed efficacy in treating wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and other signs of aging3. Generally, over the counter retinoids are less powerful, but also less irritating for the skin, making it safer to use for the general public.

What does retinol do for my skin?

Like its more powerful prescription retinoid counterparts, Retinol has several benefits on the skin:

  • Reduce wrinkles and even out complexion
  • Reduce lentigines (brown spots, sometimes called sun spots)
  • Stimulates collagen production
  • May help photo-aging, reduce scars, and hyperpigmentation

Although retinol is typically weaker and in lower concentrations than prescription strength retinoids, it still gets the job done, and causes less irritation in general. Retinoids have a lot of evidence backing it, along with hydroxy acids, and vitamin C for anti-aging. The key benefits, however, is that the evidence of efficacy is solid and concrete, something that can’t be said of many ingredient claims, which are often speculative at best.

What are some of the side-effects of retinol?

Topical retinol has similar side-effect profiles as its more powerful retinoid cousins. Generally with the lower concentration, however, the side-effects are less severe than the prescription strength retinoids. For most people, the skin gets used to the retinol over a period of a 2 to 4 weeks, and the side-effects often disappear over time.

  • Retinol commonly causes irritation to the skin
  • Retinol can sometimes cause the skin to become more sensitive to UV light
  • When adding retinols into your skincare, make sure to wear sunscreen
  • It can also be drying, especially for patients who already have a dry skin type (creams or lotions are recommended over gel for people with dry skin)
  • It can sometimes cause acne to flare

How long does it take to see improvement?

  • Retinol can take 10-12 weeks or even longer to take full effect.
  • Be patient, and wait for about 3 months before moving on or coming back to your dermatologist.
  • Retinol products are typically not cheap, making cost a legitimate concern.

Any advice for using retinol products?

  • Like any other product, do your research. Thankfully this is much easier now than ever. Read the product reviews from customers that have used the product before.
  • Be mindful of other parts of your skincare routine. Retinol products are often irritating, especially at the start when your skin is not used to it. Fill your cleansing and moisturizing routine with gentle products.
  • Apply these products at night time. Retinoids degrade when exposed to the sun, so you are at minimum, not maximizing its benefits when you apply these products during the day. Some experts further claim that it may in fact be photosensitizing and damaging if used during the daytime where sun exposure is expected.4
  • Packaging can be a controversial subject, but for retinol, it clearly deteriorates when exposed to sunlight or air. It’s best if the product uses a pump or spray, but if it is in a jar, use the product up in a timely manner to ensure that you get the best value.