Retinol Is Truly a Multipurpose Ingredient—Here's How to Use It

Your Ultimate Guide to Retinol


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Every so often, a skincare ingredient will garner so much buzz that it leaves everyone scrambling to get in on the action, even before becoming properly educated about it. For quite some time now, retinol has definitely been that ingredient—and for good reason. Dermatologists and skin experts so consistently call out this highly effective active for its anti-aging, skin-rescuing benefits that immediately heading to Sephora to get your hands on a new bottle may feel like the only logical step.

Here at Who What Wear HQ, you'd be hard-pressed to find an editor not already on the retinol train. What is it, though? The widespread adoration is all well and good, but we thought it important to take a step back and truly break down exactly what this supposed miracle ingredient is, how it works, and how to determine if its a good addition to your skincare regimen.

With the help of top skin experts in the game, we've put together this go-to guide to retinol. Read to get informed and then shop the pro-approved product picks.

Retinoid vs. Retinol: What's the Difference?

"Retinoids are the family of ingredients that include both retinol and Retin-A," says Ronald Moy, MD, FAAD, of Moy Fincher Chipps. It's worth noting that the brand name Retin-A is commonly used when referencing the prescription-strength topical medication called tretinoin. "Retinoids are all forms of vitamin A, where retinol is a gentler version of vitamin A and Retin-A is the strongest form of vitamin A," Moy says. "Think of retinoids as the umbrella in which retinol and Retin-A are under."

How does retinol actually work?

"The main function of retinol is cell turnover and growth, resulting in many benefits ranging from a more even and clear tone to the skin to diminished fine lines and wrinkles," says skin expert Joie Tavernise, esthetician and founder of JTAV Clinical Skin Care in New York City. "When retinol is applied topically, it breaks down into retinoic acid. This acid directly impacts the cell structure in the skin, which stimulates collagen production. In turn, increased collagen reduces the appearance of wrinkles, helps fade dark spots, and evens out tone and texture."

Moy also says that retinol is not only safe but beneficial for those with darker skin tones. "There are a few common skin concerns that darker skin tones experience like hyperpigmentation, skin texture, and uneven skin tone. Retinol is a great ingredient to combat these issues and works well for those with higher melanin levels. As always, if using retinol, it's important to wear a broad-spectrum SPF," he instructs.

Are there any negative side effects?

According to Tavernise, "The most common effect we see from the use of retinol is dry skin. This can be managed by using a hydrating moisturizer to balance out any dehydration and restore a healthy equilibrium to the skin."

Moy adds that photosensitivity is also something to be cautious of. "Direct sunlight breaks retinol down and can irritate the skin if exposed for too long to strong sunlight, so it's best to protect the skin if you're a retinol user," he says. "Retinoids do cause the skin to become more sensitive to sunlight, so your skin may react if the proper protocol isn't ensured, like wearing a broad-spectrum SPF every day. For the best results, use at night and let your skin really absorb the effects while you sleep." 

At what age should one start using retinol?

"The early signs of aging tend to show up in our 20s, so this is a good time to incorporate a retinol product into your routine. If you didn’t start in your 20s, it’s never too late to find the right retinol product for your individual skin," explains Tavernise. Moy points out that in some cases, doctors may suggest starting a bit younger to treat conditions like severe acne in teenagers.

Of course, consulting your trusted board-certified dermatologist is always the safest way to determine whether it might be the right time to begin incorporating retinol into your skincare regimen.

Which active ingredients should one use alongside a retinol regimen?

"A few active ingredients that can complement retinol are DNA repair enzymes known for treating and reversing skin damage caused by the sun, environment, and blue screens," says Moy. Tavernise loves a cocktail of retinol, vitamin C, and SPF for glowing skin. "To round out your skincare regimen, a vitamin C serum with antioxidants and SPF should be applied in the morning to repair the skin while also helping correct past signs of aging," she advises.

Which active ingredients should one avoid while using retinol?

"Definitely avoid benzoyl peroxide, as it is extremely irritating while using retinol," Tavernise cautions. "Other exfoliants, such as scrubs and acids should be avoided as well." Moy agrees, adding that both physical and chemical exfoliants could be a recipe for disaster while using retinol. "Exfoliating ingredients such as AHAs like salicylic acid and glycolic acid could lead to dryness and skin irritation. Also, avoid physical exfoliants—anything that has a bead-like texture."

Now that you've had a crash course on all things retinol, keep scrolling to find the best option for your routine.

Retinol Oils

"It's infused with hemp-derived cannabis oil to help calm skin while 1.2% clean retinol works to reverse aging. It's a great product for a retinol beginner but provides effective results," says Moy.

Retinol Creams:

"Retinol infused skincare is an accessible option for all, with many different variations that work for different skin types and ages. Prescription formulas are very helpful to some, but I think that overall the market is filled with very effective products ranging from mass to luxury with something for everyone," explains Tavernise.

Retinol Serums

Moy points out that serums like this one by Shani Darden are perfect for resurfacing the skin. "This is a gentle treatment that feels soft on the skin and helps skin cell turnover over time," he explains.