Beauty 101: Retinol

We're going back to basics to help you understand exactly what's in your favorite beauty products.

Thinkstock; Art by Tanya Leigh Washington

Ever wonder about that certain ingredient you keep spying on the back of your favorite beauty products? Don't let fancy words or labels keep you from knowing exactly what you're putting on your face and body. With our new series, Beauty 101, we're going back to the basics of skincare. With the help of industry pros, we'll break down a common ingredient found in many of today's popular products and give you the 411—think of it as Cliff's Notes for the beauty aisle. This week, we're tackling an ingredient you've likely come across many, many times: Retinol.

Consulting Experts:

Peter Thomas Roth, CEO, Peter Thomas Roth Clinical Skincare

Dr. Gervaise Gerstner, L’Oréal Paris consulting dermatologist

Katie Rodan, M.D., Proactiv/Proactiv+ co-founder and dermatologist

Marina Peredo, MD, PC, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, founder of Spatique Medical Spa

Debra Jaliman, MD, author of Skin Rules

What it is:

Retinol is an over-the-counter derivative of vitamin A that is synthesized from the breakdown of beta carotene and can be used to treat skin conditions such as acne, wrinkles and aging.

How it works:

"In the skin it 'normalizes' the epidermis, helping to shed the dulling, dead cells that collect on the skin’s surface and increasing epidermal cell turnover," says Dr. Rodan. "It also thickens the dermal layer of the skin by boosting collagen production and increasing the dermal matrix. In accomplishing these tasks, retinol helps smooth fine lines and wrinkles, as well as unplugs pores that become easily blocked in acne-prone skin." 

In the simplest terms, retinol works by increasing skin-cell turnover.

Who should use it:

Really anyone can use retinol, however those with acne and aging skin are the primary users. Dr. Peredo explains it's highly recommended that people begin using retinol in their 30s, but adds if acne or a specific skin condition is a concern, retinol use can start earlier. However, she warns that those with sensitive skin conditions like rosacea or eczema should be cautious when using a retinol-based product, as it can increase sensitivity and irritation. 

"Retinol can be incorporated into a skincare regimen for sensitive skin at a low concentration and used only several times per week," she says. But of course, if retinol is too strong, she says retinaldehyde-based products may be a better option for those with severe sensitive skin.

Where to find it:

Due to retinol's sensitive nature when exposed to light, products that contain the ingredient tend to appear in product applied at night, according to Dr. Peredo. This can be night creams, eye creams, serums, masks, etc.

How much you need:

The concentration of retinol in products varies from about .3 to 1 percent, according to Dr. Jaliman. Of course, our experts explain the amount of retinol used differs from person to person and skin type to skin type. It's recommended to start out with a small percentage and work your way up, if needed, but remember a little bit can go a long way. According to Dr. Peredo, a product with as little as .05 percent retinol is enough to yield results if used regularly.

As for actually applying the product, not a lot is needed either. Dr. Rodan suggests using enough product to apply a thin layer over the skin. "For the face, a pea-sized dollop should be enough to cover," she explains.

How often to use it:

"Retinol products can be used every night," says Dr. Jaliman. "But with a more sensitive skin, you may want to start by using it every other night." Roth agrees, adding once the skin has adapted to the ingredient's potency, retinol use should continue regularly to maintain anti-aging benefits. As with any topical product though, discontinue use if severe irritation occurs.

How long you should use it:

"Retinol can be used all year long," explains Dr. Gerstner. "It's a forever product." Just because results have been achieved doesn't mean a retinol regimen should stop. "Once people start using retinol, they continue choosing to achieve optimal results," says Dr. Jaliman. "The reason is that the skin keeps aging, so you need to maintain the progress."

Common myths:

"It is a myth that retinol use thins the skin, resulting in commonly experienced sensitivity," says Roth. "In fact, retinol use does not result in thinning skin, as retinol is proven to help slow the loss of collagen, a natural skin plumper. The sensitivity common to retinol use is the result of skin renewal and sun exposure. New skin is more prone to burning. This is why it is imperative to incorporate a high level of SPF into one’s daily regimen before any sun exposure."

Dr. Peredo adds that thanks to new breakthroughs in technology, many retinols are delivered via time-release formulas, which help minimize skin irritation.

Many advise against using retinol while pregnant or breast feeding, but most doctors say it's okay to use low-dose, over-the-counter retinol. Higher doses or prescription levels of the ingredient should be avoided. But of course, consult your doctor for proper medical supervision. 

Former Senior Associate Beauty Editor at StyleBistro. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram: @CaitlinSMiller Follow me: Google