At TODAY we take care to recommend items we hope you’ll enjoy! Just so you know, TODAY may get a small share of the revenue.
Using interviews with specialists, online reviews and personal experience, TODAY editors, writers and experts take care to recommend items we really like and hope you’ll enjoy! TODAY does have affiliate relationships with various online retailers. So, while every product is independently selected, if you buy something through our links, we may get a small share of the revenue.
For people over 30 who are into skin care, retinol is something they use often, have considered or at least wonder about from time to time.
But what exactly is this ingredient so often seen in creams and serums alongside buzzwords like "age-defying," "anti-wrinkle" or "reparative?" Is retinol safe? When should it be used and why?
Look no further to find answers on whether it's time to incorporate retinol into your skin care regimen. TODAY Style sat down with skin care industry experts to get all the details on this popular product.
What is retinol?
Retinol is a synthetic derivative of vitamin A, the group of fat-soluble vitamins common in carrots, eggs and sweet potatoes.
According to Dr. Tina Alster of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery, when retinol is applied topically, it converts to retinoic acid by specialized enzymes found in the skin. Retinoic acid can also be applied topically, but is much harsher than a retinol cream or serum, as it does not convert naturally over time.
What does retinol do?
"Retinol is a gold-standard ingredient in skin care because it alters the behavior of aged cells so they act in a more youthful manner. It smooths and refines skin's texture, enhances skin radiance and treats aging," Amanda von dem Hagen, a licensed esthetician and international educator for Glo Skin Beauty, told TODAY.
When retinol is incorporated into age-preventive skin care routines, it helps accelerate skin renewal, enhance collagen production and reduce the appearance of aging, uneven texture and age spots.
Applying vitamin A topically in the form of retinol can include the following benefits:
- Prevent wrinkles due to its minimizing effect, as well as smooth out existing fine lines and wrinkles.
- Brighten dull skin by exfoliating at a cellular level, which results in brighter and smoother new skin.
- Regulate oily skin and minimize breakouts.
- Fade dark age spots, sun spots and hyperpigmentation and even out complexion over time.
Retinol side effects
Since retinol is such a powerful ingredient, it can cause the skin to redden or peel if it's incorporated into a skin care regimen too quickly or used too often. Flakiness, dryness and even some breakouts can occur when retinol is first added to a routine. Typically, it just takes a little time for the skin to adjust.
"Begin slowly by adding it into a nightly routine one to two times per week for the first week and increasing it gradually from there, depending on how the skin reacts," von dem Hagen told TODAY. "If there is visible redness or peeling, use it once per week for a month then increase to twice per week and monitor the skin for irritation before increasing use."
Von dem Hagen said those using a retinol cream or serum to allow it to absorb in the skin for 20 to 30 minutes before applying another product on top. It is also imperative to use sunscreen daily to protect skin while using retinol, as it can become more sensitive to sun.
Alster told TODAY she always advises her patients who are considering pregnancy, or are pregnant or nursing to consult their obstetrician before beginning or continuing their retinol treatment. Other retinoids, such as prescriptions like Isotretinoin that's taken orally to treat acne, have shown harmful side effects for pregnant women, including miscarriage.
When to begin using retinol?
Von dem Hagen highly recommended incorporating a retinol product into a skin care routine at age 30, three to four times a week. By the 40s, every other night is beneficial and in the 50s, 60s and beyond, incorporate a retinol product five to seven times per week.
Retinol for acne
Due to its powerful cell renewal property, retinol can be incredibly helpful for people who often have acne and breakouts. It helps to normalize cell turnover and has an exfoliating effect that stops pores from clogging and pimples, blackheads and cysts from forming.
For teenagers suffering from severe acne, Rosa Sollecito, who owns a strictly organic, chemical-free line of skin care called AloeMoist Organics, said it's vital to check with a dermatologist first and be sure to not mix retinol with other ingredients that could overdo its effects.
"If you are using an acne routine or products that include benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid or a prescription product, which may already have some form of retinoid and may even be stronger than over-the-counter skin care, adding more retinol could irritate the skin," Sollecito told TODAY.
Biopelle Retriderm Serum, $84, Amazon
One TODAY editor swears bythis serum for getting rid of pesky pimples.
Retinol vs. retinoid
Vitamin A is composed of two parts: retinoids and carotenoids. Retinoids stimulate the production of collagen, hyaluronic acid and elastin, which is what reduces visible wrinkles and large pores, heals acne and fades hyperpigmentation. Retinol (along with Retinyl Palmitate and Retin-A) is one form of a retinoid.
Best retinol creams and serums
When it comes to prescription recommendations, Alster said it's important to let your dermatologist know what other products are in your routine to make sure they are complementary. (Alster likes Senté Bio Complete serum and SkinBetter Science's AlphaRet Overnight cream, to name two.)
For non-prescription retinol products, Alster recommends the following.
- 1. RoC Retinol Correxion Max Daily Hydration Anti-Aging Crème, $19 (usually $25), Amazon
RoC advanced retinol formula is a good option for someone who wants to buy something online rather than go through their dermatologist. It should be used for at least eight weeks to see results of diminished wrinkles and age spots.
- 2. Neutrogena Ageless Intensives Anti Wrinkle Deep Wrinkle Serum, $15 (usually $22), Amazon
Among Neutrogena's plethora of products is a great anti-wrinkle serum that is lightweight on the skin. The typical price for over-the-counter purchases is $24, but can be found on sale on Amazon for $15 — a real steal!
- 3. Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Face Oil Retinol Serum, $25, Amazon
This 2019 Glamour Beauty Award winner, helps minimize signs of aging by reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It also helps repair dry skin and claims to show results within a week of use.
- 4. RoC Retinol Correxion Anti-Aging Eye Cream, $13, Amazon
Another Glamour Beauty Award winner, this retinol eye cream is formulated specifically for the delicate skin around the eyes.
- 5. Body Merry Retinol Moisturizer Anti Aging/Wrinkle and Acne Face Moisturizer Cream, $23, Amazon
Heather Rohrer, PA-C, owner of Center for Aesthetic Medicine and Human Performance in Las Vegas, recommended this moisturizer in TODAY's guide to the best drugstore wrinkle creams.
“I swear by this moisturizer! It's packed with 2.5 percent retinol and hyaluronic acid and a ton of organic ingredients including aloe, sunflower oil, jojoba oil, green tea and dandelion that are packed with nutrients and antioxidants for intense hydration and nourishment," she said. "Retinol helps eliminate and reduce signs of aging, improve appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and improve skin texture, which is a must for flawless-looking skin. This is definitely a hidden gem!”
- 6. La Roche-Posay Redermic R Anti-Aging Retinol Serum, $57, Amazon
"This cream contains a small amount of Retinol for slight exfoliation and cell turnover — which is great for anti-aging — and vitamin A to stimulate collagen. It not only combats wrinkles, but also targets dark spots and pigmentation. I love that this formula is hypoallergenic, without fragrance or parabens and won’t clog pores,” said Lydia Sellers, an Los Angeles-based makeup artist.