Of all the serums and boosters and creams in my skin care regimen, one thing I always ensure to include (as does seemingly every other beauty editor) is what dermatologists like Dr. Jwala Karnik of Suneva Medical call the gold standard in anti-aging skincare: retinoids.
“Retinoid is a vitamin A derivative that unclogs pores, boosts collagen to reduce fine lines, and speeds cell turnover to even out discoloration and smooth the skin,” says Dr. Karnik. Retinoids can also thicken skin Sound like a dream ingredient? The science backs it up, but alas, there’s a downside: “It can also irritate skin, which is why the stronger retinoids require a prescription, but they are also the most effective.”
So how do retinoids work? According to skin care expert Paula Begoun of Paula’s Choice Skincare:
“When applied topically, retinoids function in multiple ways. Primarily, they work as cell-communicating ingredients, essentially connecting with a receptor site on a skin cell and “telling” it to behave in a more normal and healthier manner. Retinoids have benefits for more than 125 different skin issues, from acne to psoriasis to wrinkles and other signs of sun damage.”
Prescription formulas, like the tretinoin cream pictured above, contain retinoic acid, the magic ingredient that fights visible aging. Less potent retinoids (like retinol — don’t get the two mixed up) need to be converted into retinoic acid by the skin at the cellular level, which is why it may take longer for results to show. (In fact, for both retinoids and retinol, experts say you have to give it at least three to six months to see results.)
Retinol is available over-the-counter and in various potencies and concentrations. Generally, pure retinol is stronger than retinol derivatives like retinyl palmitate, but it’s difficult to determine the strength in various skin care products, according to Dr. Karnik. “While the molecule is important, so is the concentration of the molecule and how well the cream penetrates the skin. You may need to test different products to find the one that works best for your skin.”
Another factor in looking for an OTC retinol product is its relative instability when exposed to air, water or light, according to dermatologist Craig Kraffert of Korean skin care line Amarte, an issue for many potent skin care ingredients like vitamin C, which makes packaging and formulation really important. “Encapsulation of retinol within antioxidant-stabilized, nano-sized lipid particles has been shown to enhance both retinol’s stability and absorbability,” he says. Amarte not only uses such encapsulated retinol in their products, the packaging is opaque and in pump form to minimize contamination. I like their Overnight Express Therapy sleep mask on nights when I’m not using my prescription retinoid (more on why I alternate nights below). For a more affordable alternative, skin care brand RoC packages pure retinol in their Retinol Correxion line in special aluminum tubes to keep out destabilizing light and air.
The most common side effect of retinoid and retinol is dry, peeling, irritated skin, and many people quit too soon because of it. “Most people can manage through the side effects by temporarily reducing the frequency of application,” says Dr. Karnik. Indeed, I used to suffer from flaking and dryness, especially around the mouth (and I don’t even use it around the mouth —the potent stuff migrates!). But since I’ve switched to 0.025% tretinoin (the generic for Retin-A) and use it every other or every third day, I’ve been able to escape those side effects. Remember, when it comes to retinoids, more is not better — it’s that potent. Never use more than a pea-sized amount for your entire face (I know, for us beauty people, an exercise in some serious restraint), and start slow to acclimate your skin. Don’t do what my dad did — he smeared a large dollop over his sunspots and literally burned his skin.
Thankfully, I don’t have any side effects with OTC retinol, but if you’re a newbie to retinol looking for an OTC, look for a retinol product with emollients and humectants like hyaluronic acid or shea butter to reduce the potential for flaky skin, adds Dr. Karnik. You can also apply moisturizer after your retinoid product has absorbed, for best results, suggests Dr. Kraffert, while others suggest applying a face oil before your retinoid to minimize irritation.
Ready to incorporate a retinol into your regimen? Here are three to try:
Amarte Overnight Express Therapy: In addition to nano-encapsulated retinol, this sleep mask contains the antioxidant protein silk extract to stimulate collagen production, a nano-encapsulated peptide-based epidermal growth factor and, my favorite and do-it-all ingredient, propolis.
Verso Dark Spot Fix: Featuring the brand’s highest dose of Retinol 8 (retinyl retinoate), a stabilized Vitamin A complex which is eight times more effective than standard retinol, this lightweight serum contains antioxidants and niacinamide to fight hyperpigmentation.
Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment: This no-nonsense, lotion-feel serum contains 1% retinol, along with other potent antioxidants, as well as licorice, oat extract and other anti-irritants to help to minimize side effects.
Have you tried retinol? If so, which ones and how did it work for you? Any side effects?