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Is it time to use retinol? How to know if it's right for your skin care routine

Here's everything you need to know about this popular ingredient.
Aja Koska / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Over the past few years, retinol (and its alternatives) has increased in popularity and has even become a staple feature in nighttime skin care routines everywhere. Even those who haven't jumped headfirst into using it are curious about the highly-regarded ingredient.

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. We 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 serum or cream, 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 regional education specialist for Skinbetter Science, told us.

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.

Retinol benefits

Applying vitamin A topically in the form of retinol can include the following benefits:

  1. Prevent wrinkles due to its minimizing effect, as well as smooth out existing fine lines and wrinkles.
  2. Brighten dull skin by exfoliating at a cellular level, which results in brighter and smoother new skin.
  3. Regulate oily skin and minimize breakouts.
  4. 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 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, though, 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 said. "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 said 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.

While retinol may be the gold standard anti-aging ingredient, there's an alternative for those who need something less strong: bakuchiol, a 100 percent plant-derived, non-irritating option that's just as powerful and been clinically proven to show results. Safe to wear during the day, there are several products that include this alternative ingredient.

Miss Spa Bakuchiol Regenerating Facial Sheet Mask

This gentle facial mask offers the same glow as retinol, without drying out your skin. Formulated to increase collagen protection and cell turnover, it helps smooth out uneven skin tones and soften the look of fine lines.

Herbivore Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum

This serum smooths the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Perfect for all skin types, the lightweight serum is gentle and easy on skin, and other ingredients, like polyhydroxy acids and tremella mushroom, help hydrate skin and encourage absorption.

Olehenrikson Goodnight Glow Retin-ALT Sleeping Créme

This all-in-one night cream uses bakuchiol to help deeply hydrate skin, while targeting and repairing fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots. With an exfoliating effect, it allows fresher skin to glow through.

Alpyn Beauty PlantGenius Melt Moisturizer

This super-hydrator melts weightlessly into the skin, creating a fresh, velvety finish that's perfect for makeup application. Full of essential vitamins and natural hydrators in addition to bakuchiol, it's perfect for a variety of skin care concerns.

Biossance Squalane + Phylo-Retinol Serum

This lightweight serum combines bakuchiol, hyaluronic acid and squalane for a super-moisturizing experience. Perfect for repairing uneven skin tone and helping with lost firmness and elasticity, it's great for most skin types.

When should you 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 your 40s, every other night is beneficial and in your 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 said.

Biopelle Retriderm Serum

One former TODAY editor swore by this serum for getting rid of pesky pimples. It contains 0.5 percent retinol to help reduce wrinkles and deliver firmer, smoother skin, according to the brand.

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, according to experts and shoppers

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. Here are a few picks experts and shoppers alike love to get your search started.

Tree of Life Retinol Serum

With over 16,000 verified five-star ratings and a price tag just under $12, this retinol serum is a no-brainer. One reviewer boasted "immediate results" and emphasized how well the product worked in their experience: "I know there is no such thing as a miracle product. But darn it. This serum comes real close!!"

Eva Naturals Retinol Serum

An affordable option ringing in at under $15, this serum has garnered almost 6,200 verified five-star ratings on Amazon. Several reviewers have commended the product for the lack of dryness they experienced after using it.

CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum

CeraVe offers this retinol serum with their signature hydrating ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid that can help offset the drying effects of retinol. "I've been worried to try retinol for fear of irritation but this has been great," wrote one Ulta reviewer. "Started using every other day and now every day and I've noticed a huge difference!"

RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Max Hydration Cream

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.

Neutrogena Ageless Intensives Anti-Wrinkle Deep Wrinkle Serum

Among Neutrogena's plethora of products is a great anti-wrinkle serum that is lightweight on the skin. The brand boasts a visible difference within just two weeks of use. With an average rating over four stars, it even has over 4,200 verified five-star ratings.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Oil

A 2019 Glamour Beauty Award winner, this retinol oil can help 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, according to the brand.

RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Eye Cream

Another former Glamour Beauty Award winner, this retinol eye cream is formulated specifically for the delicate skin around the eyes. Several Ulta reviewers shared experiences praising this eye cream as the "only one that works for them" after trying countless others.

Body Merry Retinol Surge Moisturizer

Heather Rohrer, PA-C, owner of Center for Aesthetic Medicine and Human Performance in Las Vegas, recommended this moisturizer featured 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!”

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Anti-Aging Retinol Serum

"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, a Los Angeles-based makeup artist.

Beauty Pie Super Retinol Anti-Aging Hand Treatment

This overnight, all-in-one treatment is great for anti-aging and evening out the skin tone on your hands. One reviewer on the brand's site called out how the hands are often neglected in anti-aging treatments and this cream offers a solution to that problem. "It sinks in lovely, doesn't leave your hands greasy and I'm already noticing a difference," they shared.

Algenist Elevate Advanced Retinol Serum

This dual-action serum is formulated with retinol to minimize any visible signs of aging. Other ingredients include a patented and exclusive green algae, and the brand's specialty alguronic acid, which supports retinol efficacy.

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

This cutting-edge formula combines retinol and superfood-rich ingredients to diminish the look of fine lines, wrinkles, and sun damage.

Senté Bio Complete Serum

Alster is a fan of this serum from Senté. It operates as a "time-release retinoid" which the brand describes as a slow-release delivery system to prolong retinoid distribution over time, which in turn is meant to make it gentler and more suitable for sensitive skin.

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