Retinoid, or vitamin A, is one of those skin care ingredients that does it all. It boosts collagen, brightens skin and even treats breakouts. So … why isn’t everyone using it? The short answer is that retinoids have a few drawbacks, such as irritation and sensitivity. But because of this year’s unique circumstances — lockdown, quarantine, you see where we’re going here — there may be no better time to try it.
“We are social distancing and staying home more — which means that it’s easier to have some downtime if you experience mild irritation while your skin is adjusting to a retinoid,” says Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “And sun sensitivity can also increase while our skin is adjusting to a new retinoid, and staying indoors will help minimize that risk.”
Applied topically, retinoids do a lot. “In general, these molecules help to regulate the growth and differentiation of healthy skin cells,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Elliot Weiss of the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York in Southampton, N.Y. “Retinoids help to boost collagen production in the skin, reduce areas of excess pigmentation, smooth out areas of skin roughness, decrease markers for photo damage in the skin and reduce inflammation around the follicle.” Translation: It transforms skin so that it’s firmer, smoother, brighter and clearer.
Sounds too good to be true, right? That’s where the drawbacks come in. “All these great benefits don’t come without some possible problems,” says Weiss. “The most common side effects from using topical retinoids are redness, flaking, stinging and dryness.”
And if you have very sensitive skin as it is, you might not be able to tolerate it at all. However, that’s rare — and if you’ve tried a retinoid in the past only to stop after experiencing irritation, you’re not alone. “People get frustrated by the skin irritation they experience when they start using a retinoid and they think they can’t tolerate them,” says King.
Most people can indeed tolerate retinoids. (The major exception is if you’re pregnant; retinoid use isn’t recommended at all in that case.) They just require an acclimation period with consistent use. First, less is more. “Retinoids should be begun first at the lowest concentration and at the lowest interval,” says Weiss. “Over the course of weeks, if tolerated, these products can be slowly applied more often and or at higher concentrations.”
This acclimation period varies widely, but most people will need anywhere from a few weeks to two months to get adjusted. Start by applying it once or twice a week at night. If you don’t notice any excessive irritation, you can bump it up to two or three times a week. (By excessive irritation, that means anything more than pinkness and dryness, which is normal.)
No irritation? You can increase your frequency again. “This process continues until either the patient is using it daily without problems or reaches a frequency of application that is tolerable,” says Weiss. More significant dryness or stinging should be a signal to take a break or decrease frequency. Slight pink color and dryness is usual during acclimation, but anything more is a signal to give skin a break.
The right application can help skin adjust and minimize irritation, too. After applying moisturizer, “use a pea-sized dab to cover the whole face,” says King. “If you’re particularly sensitive, mix the retinoid with a moisturizer in your hand and then apply.” There’s also the “sandwich” method, in which you layer the retinoid between two layers of moisturizer.
Also, save it for your nighttime skin care routine. “The majority of topical retinoids are rendered inactive by sunlight, and the dryness and peeling when first using retinoids can also make you more sensitive to the sun — so it is best to use them at night,” says Dr. Shari Marchbein, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. Even so, diligent sunscreen use is a must, especially if you want to maintain results, and yes, even if you’re inside more than ever.
By the way: When you’re shopping, you might see both retinoid and retinol. Retinoid is the umbrella term for all the vitamin A derivatives, including retinol and retinyl palmitate. However, it’s most often used to describe prescription-strength derivatives, such as tretinoin, adapalene and tazarotene. Retinol and other forms found in over-the-counter products are weaker. “They work the same way, but it will take longer to see results — and the potential for irritation is also lower,” says King.
Here are the retinoid and retinol formulas to put on your radar.
Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask ($49; sephora.com)
“Formulations that have more emollients will tend to be more tolerable for dry skin,” says Weiss. This overnight mask contains avocado oil — plus, the retinol is encapsulated, which allows it to reach the deeper layers of skin without irritation at the surface.
If you’re on the hunt for a serious anti-aging formula, this is a good bet. “It contains retinol, peptides to boost elastin and bisabolol to soothe the skin,” says Marchbein. “The retinol is encapsulated, which allows for slow release of the retinol with improved tolerance.”
This treatment uses adapalene, which is technically a prescription-level retinoid. But the FDA approved it for over-the-counter use in a concentration of 0.1%. “Over-the-counter retinoids, such as adapalene, are less irritating and more suited for acne or sensitive skin,” says Weiss.
RoC Retinol Correxion Max Daily Hydration Anti-Aging Crème ($24.99; target.com)
From one of the first brands to double-down on retinol products, this is more like a moisturizer (with hyaluronic acid and glycerin to boot) that just so happens to have retinol in it. It’s said to deliver results in a matter of weeks.
This formula buffers the drying effects of retinol with nourishing squalane. And not only is the price point great — so much it looks like a typo — but “there are several different strengths available, which makes the line versatile for different skin types,” says King. No wonder it keeps selling out. Don’t worry though, it regularly comes back in stock.
AcneFree Adapalene Gel ($9.97, originally $11.99; amazon.com)
King recommends this treatment to many of her patients. Like Differin, it contains 0.1% adapalene. “It has a decreased risk of irritation compared to other prescription retinoids, and excellent efficacy for treating acne and for anti-aging,” says King. Plus, she says, it also has an anti-inflammatory effect.
Marchbein is a fan of this serum, which contains both retinol and a second, time-released version of retinol to deliver heavy-hitting benefits for lines and wrinkles, as well as hyperpigmentation. Don’t worry: There’s also niacinamide, a powerful anti-inflammatory ingredient to keep it from being too harsh.
The speed demon of the group, this serum features an ingredient called retinol SA. It’s a combo of retinol, glucose complex and hyaluronic acid that;s intended to deliver results quickly — we’re talking about one week. Not surprisingly, it’s one of Marchbein’s picks for first-time retinol users.
Do you have dark spots from the sun or breakouts? Retinol can help, especially in this formula. “It contains encapsulated retinol, niacinamide and licorice root to fight redness and discoloration,” says Marchbein. “It also contains three ceramides, which are responsible for creating a healthy, intact skin barrier and maintaining proper skin hydration.”
Ghost Democracy Lightbulb Vitamin C Serum ($34; ghostdemocracy.com)
Those with sensitive skin or who are expecting, we see you. Instead of retinol, this serum uses bakuchiol. “It is one of the few retinol alternatives for which studies back up the pseudo-retinol effect of anti-aging and skin brightening,” says King. “Bakuchiol seems to be activating the genes that regulate collagen and elastin production, the same ones retinol activates.” And it does so without the typical side effects or pregnancy risks.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailer’s listed price at the time of publication.