For the most part, my skin is pretty low-maintenance. Without fail, though, I do experience a few weeks of dryness and major irritation during winter, but other than that, I don't have very many complaints about my skin. After talking to some dermatologists about my "normal" skin type, they told me that a lot of it can be chalked up to genetics. So I guess I've been pretty blessed in that department—my 67-year-old mom's skin still looks plump and smooth, with a few fine lines and wrinkles here and there.
But the thing is, even though my skin doesn't have many issues, I know I have to do my best to take care of it. And now that I'm in my 30s, I'm trying to be more proactive about my skincare routine. Practically every dermatologist I've interviewed for various stories has told me that prevention is key when it comes to anti-aging—and it's never too early to start giving your skin some TLC. While I don't mind a few wrinkles and fine lines, I do want to make sure my skin stays as plump, glowy, and smooth as it can for a long time.
Since applying sunscreen is the number one thing you can do to protect your skin, I make sure I slather that on every morning, even when I'm working inside most of the day. In addition to sunscreen, retinol is another anti-aging powerhouse that can do so much for your skin, and I prioritize it in my routine to keep my skin in good shape. And after a couple of years of sticking to those two "hero" products, I can tell you that they definitely do a stellar job of protecting my skin and making it look and feel healthy. I mean, I still get carded more often than not, so I think I'm doing something right.
You probably know what sunscreen is, but you might be a little hazy on retinol. The power-packed ingredient is actually a vitamin A derivative that's great for the skin. Board-certified dermatologist Ife Rodney, MD, FAAD, of Eternal Dermatology and Aesthetics, shared some of the benefits:
1. It increases cell turnover to get rid of dull, damaged skin cells.
2. It stimulates collagen production in the skin to both prevent and treat fine lines and wrinkles.
3. It removes dead skin cells and unclogs pores, making it an excellent solution for clearing up blackheads, whiteheads, and acne.
4. By clearing your pores, retinol increases the effectiveness of your other skincare products.
5. Retinol is usually the first line of defense for dermatologists for fighting acne, evening skin tone, and reversing the signs of aging.
It's not too early to get started with retinol, either. "Vitamin A derivatives like retinol will help promote collagen synthesis at the age that your collagen is when you are using it," explains board-certified dermatologist Naissan O. Wesley, MD, Arbonne's scientific advisor. "We are born with a great deal of collagen in most of our tissues, and the amount of collagen tends to diminish over time with normal aging. [Retinol] may be used for teenage acne, but for the purposes of aging well, if well-tolerated, it may be used beginning in someone's 20s or 30s."
When it comes to applying retinol, less is more, especially if you're just introducing the product. I will say that since retinol can cause some irritation, it did take a bit for my skin to get used to the product. But once it did, it was totally worth it.
"A very common mistake is applying too much of the retinol product with the hopes of getting better or faster results," Rodney says. "With retinol, more is not better. Using too much at once can cause—sometimes unbearable—redness, peeling, and stinging. At the same time, using it inconsistently would not give you the results you expect. Start with the lowest strength, and use it twice a week for a couple of weeks. Then, increase to three or four times a week as tolerated."
Give it enough time to work its magic. One common mistake that Vanessa Coppola, APN-C, FNP-BC, board-certified nurse practitioner and founder of Bare Aesthetic, sees people making is getting impatient about the product. She says it typically takes 12 weeks to see a noticeable improvement.
You'll want to apply retinol after you wash and dry your face at night. "This is because retinols are not photostable, meaning that exposure to sunlight degrades the active ingredient, retinoic acid," Coppola says. "Moist or damp skin has increased permeability, and therefore may lead to more initial irritation from application of the retinol. Applying a retinol to dry skin limits the absorption, allowing sensitive skin to develop a tolerance for the product." Make sure you moisturize well afterward and wear sunscreen in the daytime.
Pay attention to what you're using in conjunction with retinol, too. Avoid using similarly irritating skincare products. "You have to be careful when combining with AHAs and salicylic acid, as they all can cause redness and irritation and dry your skin out further," says Sunitha Posina, MD. "Other ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide cancel each other out and essentially make it completely ineffective." She also recommends skipping retinols the day you're exfoliating or doing microdermabrasion. Coppola says you can rotate the products, so you could use retinol two times a week, an exfoliating serum two times a week, and a hydrating serum three times a week, alternating each night.
When shopping for a retinol cream, you'll want to do your research and study the ingredients. "Look for products from a trusted brand with authentic retinol and not any retinol derivatives. Retinyl propionate is a common example," Rodney says. "Keep it simple. You don't need to break the bank for 'rare' or 'special' additional ingredients. Let the retinol do the work. Make sure the container is airtight and opaque, as light exposure may reduce the potency of your retinol."
And think about your specific skin needs. Wesley says a younger person with oily, acne-prone skin may want a retinol in a tolerable but less emollient vehicle like a gel or cream. But someone with drier or aged skin may want something that is an emollient. When trying out a new retinol product, do a test on a small area of the skin to see if it causes any irritation.
Take a look at some of the retinol creams and products the experts and our editors recommend below.
Shani Darden's retinol is an editor favorite and also Posina's recommendation. "This is the best basic one that I have noticed most skin types tolerate well," she says.
"It's a great fragrance-free drugstore brand that's potent and includes niacinamide, which soothes the effects of the retinol," Rodney says.
Both Posina and Coppola recommend Differin's gel. "It is a well-tolerated type of retinoid, traditionally used for acne, that works very well for sensitive skin and also has anti-aging benefits," Coppola adds.
This is my go-to night cream. It doesn't seem to irritate my skin like other retinols might and leaves my skin hydrated. Plus, the vitamin C in this formula gives me a nice, bright glow.
"It contains retinol and hyaluronic acid, so your skin stays hydrated while the retinol goes to work," says Rodney. "This cream also contains an extra layer of protection with SPF 30, which is great if you forget to put on sunscreen before heading out the door."
"This is the more affordable option for many people," Posina says. "It is lightweight and has a multivesicular technology, which helps release ceramides slowly throughout the day, so it leaves the skin hydrated and not irritated." Coppola agrees that it's a gentle option and that the niacinamide and ceramides in the formula work to calm and soothe the skin.
Skinbetter's AlphaRet cream comes highly recommended, with Rodney, Posina, and Coppola all vouching for it. Rodney even says it's her go-to night cream. "This unique combination of a high-strength 1% retinoid with an AHA (glycolic acid) reduces irritation to the skin normally encountered by higher-strength retinols," Coppola says. "This product is wonderful and is really an innovation of double-conjugation technology, allowing slow release of the active ingredients to the skin. Skin is hydrated, smooth, and glowing with noticeable, clinically evident results at 12 weeks."
SkinCeuticals is a trusted brand, especially among Who What Wear editors, so it's no surprise that its cream is highly effective. This specific formula is extra-strength, so it's good for people whose skin is already conditioned to retinol. It also contains a soothing complex to calm and comfort the skin.
"This is another drugstore option that works great and is heavier than the CeraVe because it's a cream-based one. Dry skin types may opt for this if they need more hydration," Posina says.
"When you're ready to increase the dosage, try Drunk Elephant's A-Passioni Retinol Cream," Rodney says. "It contains natural ingredients and 1% vegan retinol. It can help with reducing wrinkles, evening your skin tone, and boosting your collagen."
Posina also recommends this one from First Aid Beauty. It works well for sensitive skin and those who are just starting with a retinol regimen.
Murad's retinol night cream also contains niacinamide, which will support the skin's natural barrier. Apply it to your face, neck, and chest as part of your nighttime skincare routine.
In addition to retinol, this creamy treatment contains vitamin C to reduce the appearance of brown spots, licorice extract to relieve skin irritation, and oat extract to soothe.
"It contains a controlled-release ceramide-encapsulated retinol with stabilized vitamin C (a helpful antioxidant) to keep the retinol in its most active, purest, and most potent form while benefitting from the moisture barrier protection provided to the skin by the ceramide," Wesley says.
Wesley also recommends this product, which contains bakuchiol, a plant-derived ingredient that works similarly to retinol but isn't as irritating. "Even with bakuchiol, care should be taken to begin products slowly, as otherwise, some redness or some dryness may occur, but the products are often able to be used by those who may not be able to tolerate retinol," she says. "AgeWell Moisture Restoring Cream With 0.5% Bakuchiol and AgeWell Intense Repairing Night Cream With 2% Bakuchiol are both great options, depending on someone's skincare needs, that contain bakuchiol as well as the benefits of antioxidants, plant stem cell extract, and hyaluronic acid."