What is retinol? Here are the benefits, uses and side effects you need to know

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?

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?

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 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.

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.

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. Biopelle Retriderm Serum, $84, Amazon

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 Sent Bio Complete serum and SkinBetter Science's AlphaRet Overnight cream, to name two. )

For non-prescription retinol products, Alster recommends the following.

RoC Retinol Correxion Max Daily Hydration Anti-Aging Crme

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 typical price for over-the-counter purchases is $24, but can be found on sale on Amazon for $15 a real steal!

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Face Oil Retinol Serum

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.

RoC Retinol Correxion Anti-Aging Eye Cream

Another Glamour Beauty Award winner, this retinol eye cream is formulated specifically for the delicate skin around the eyes.

Body Merry Retinol Moisturizer Anti Aging/Wrinkle & Acne Face Moisturizer Cream

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, an Los Angeles-based makeup artist.