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The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide To Retinol

The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide To Retinol

So you’ve heard about retinol and you think it’s about time that you start to incorporate it into your skincare routine. Great! You’ve come to the right place. This is the complete beginner’s guide to retinol and I’ll walk you through everything that you need to know. Is it a lot? Yes. Is it interesting? I think so! Should you know this? Absolutely. Let’s get started.

guide to retinol

Guide To Retinol: What is Retinol?

Retinol is often railed as “the holy grail” of skincare ingredients. It’s a derivative of Vitamin A that has a myriad of benefits including boosting cell turnover and skin cell rejuvenation –  which is key for anti-aging.

The first thing you need to know is that you’ll often hear the word “retinol” and “retinoid” are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same thing. This is the “all thumbs are fingers, but all fingers aren’t thumbs” kinda thing. All retinol are retinoids, but not all retinoids are retinol. Are you still with me?

What Are The Types of Retinol or Retinoids?

Retinoid is a general term for the entire family of Vitamin A derivatives that includes both prescription and OTC products. Here are some of the different types of retinoids:

  • Retinol
  • Adapalene
  • Tretinoin
  • Tazarotene
  • Trifaro
  • Isotretinoin
  • Retinoldehyde
  • Retinol esters

Retinol on the other hand is a very specific type of retinoid. It’s what dermatologists and estheticians recommend for anti-aging because of the research behind it. So which one should you use? For that, you need to understand how retinoids penetrate the skin.



How Do Retinoids Work?

Basically all Vitamin A formulas begin as Retinol Esters and are converted to Retinol then to Retinaldehyde and then to Retinoic Acid. The stronger i.e. prescription-strength retinoids are pure retinoic acid and when applied to the skin will start working right away, but often with more risk of side effects.

Over the counter formulas actually have to be covered to retinoic acid via your skin. The conversion can take time but usually allows for the skin to become accustomed to the formula and therefore less chance of irritation.

What Does Vitamin A Do?

Vitamin A is naturally produced in your body but decreases as you age. Remember this post about cell turnover as you age? This is why babies have such smooth skin and older adults face issues with skin elasticity and wrinkles. The science behind it is fascinating. I mean, I wrote the post so I’m bias, but still.

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Retinoids in general help your body boost cell turnover, increase collagen production, and can help with acne.

Retinol specifically can significantly improve wrinkles, sun damage, fade hyperpigmentation, improve skin elasticity, and help with skin texture.

What Are The Side Effects of Retinoids?

Retinoids have multiple sides effects and will vary depending on the user and the formulation. Common side effects are irritation, redness, and skin drying.

Who Should Use Retinol?

Although the side effects are there, retinoids are generally safe for use by most. Most skincare professionals say that retinol should be introduced into skincare routines for most people in their 20s, usually mid-20s. This is when our skin shows signs of slowing down cell and collagen production. This guide to retinol will address how to keep your skin safe when using retinol.

Can Sensitive Skin Use Retinoids?

While every person is different, and no skincare advice is universal – yes. Most dermatologists agree the sensitive skin can be trained to tolerate retinol. As long as it’s introduced and used properly.

Which Retinoid Should a Beginner Use?

You want a formula with at least 0.1% retinol or retinaldehyde. You can work your way up to a stronger formula over time and as you finish your current formulas. I’m currently using a 3% formula from Peter Thomas Roth which took me about 4 years to work my way to.

How Do I Apply Retinol?

Retinol should be introduced to your skin slowly and with caution. The standard recommendation is this:

  • For the first two weeks, use retinol once a week. If there is limited skin irritation, up the formula for the next two weeks.
  • In the next two weeks, use retinol twice a week. If there is limited skin irritation, up the formula for the next two weeks.
  • After four weeks, use retinol every other day. If there is limited skin irritation, you can choose to move to every night or just stick with every other night. Retinol can be just as effective when used every other night vs every night. I personally use if every other night, even after years of use.

Apply a pea-sized amount to your face and neck after double-cleansing. I usually wash my face at night and apply my retinol. Then I brush my teeth, giving the formula time to be absorbed into my skin, and then moisturize. Don’t forget this step! Always follow up with a heavy moisturizer to prevent skin irritation from retinol. My current favorite is the aqua bomb by belif.

Related: The Art of The Double Cleanse – Why You Need To Do It Immediately.

When Should I Apply Retinol?

A lot of retinoid ingredients are “photo unstable” – which means that they are unstable in the light and with too much exposure they won’t work. This is why most professionals recommend that retinol be applied to your nighttime skincare routine. In fact, using retinol makes your skin more prone to sun damaging effects like burning, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation so you want to make sure you’re wearing a good sunscreen every single morning when you start using retinol in the evening. Ultimate guide to retinol pro tip!

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How long does Retinol take to work?

Unless you are using a prescription formula (which should still take a few weeks) you need to be patient with most retinol formulas. Retinol affects the skin in deeper layers and will change how your skin cells develop, these changes are happening even if you don’t see it on the surface. The rule of thumb is about 3-6 months or a minimum of twelve weeks before you say that it’s not working for you.

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Should You Use Prescription Retinol?

The most common prescription retinol is often known by the brand name Retin-A and is comprised of tretinoin as pure retinoic acid. It doesn’t need to be converted when applied to your skin and generally works more quickly. Skincare professionals estimate that tretinoin is 20 times stronger than an OTC retinol.

Tretinoin has so many anti-aging benefits like tightening loose skin, fading brown spots, and increasing collagen formation – but the side effects are intense too.

Unless you’ve seen a dermatologist, I wouldn’t recommend jumping straight into a prescription retinoid. There are so many great over the counter options available, and I’ll include some of my favorites below.

Related: How To Start a Skincare Routine For Beginners

How To Use Retinol To Treat Acne

Adapalene was formally a prescription-only formula in the US but recently became over the counter. It’s most commonly recommended for treating acne and some say that it’s more effective than tretinoin (prescription retinol) and less irritating. It’s a synthetic retinoid that works by stopping microcomedone formation.

Most over the counter Adapalene formulas come in a gel that has 0.1% Adapalene. Anything over 0.3% will require a prescription. These are a few options for you to try.

Common Retinol Alternative

Bakuchiol is commonly regarded as a retinol alternative that has the potential to be a game changer. Bakuchiol is an ingredient found in a babachi plant and has been regarded as a “natural retinol” with less side effects.

There has been one prominent independent clinical study that had 44 people in it who either used 0.5% retinol cream once a day or 0.5% bakuchiol cream twice a day and their results were measured. Those who used retinol had more signs of irritation and similar reduction in wrinkle surface area and hyperpigmentation. Looks promising, but with a small sample size, it’s not ground-breaking.

TLDR; Bakuchiol is a newer formula that scientists are still learning about. There is limited research and evidence to compare the two, but it’s something to keep your eye on. Here’s a budget option from The Inkey List in case you wanted to explore this, but there are other options in this guide to retinol.

Retinol Recommendations For Beginners

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Final Thoughts on The Ultimate Guide to Retinol

Overall, there is so much to know and learn when it comes to retinoids. As with all skincare, there is no one size fits all formula – so take the knowledge from this post and continue to do research to find what works for you. Remember, when it comes to retinol – be patient. Don’t jump into high doses or frequency and try to rush results.