Retinol and Retin-A, or the class of ingredients called retinoids or retinoic acid, are Vitamin A derivatives. These ingredients work primarily as exfoliants. They are special because they exfoliate the surface of the skin as well as the interior of the pore, unlike salicylic acid, which works just in the pore or glycolic, which works mostly on the surface. Because of the way they exfoliate, they are especially good at getting rid of deep clogs and textural acne.
Retinol is the over-the-counter version of retinoic acid. Retin-A is the prescription form of retinoic acid. However, don’t take this to mean that Retin-A is better than retinol. Some skin types may find that they can tolerate the lower doses in an OTC retinol product.
Retinoids have many benefits aside from just their amazing pore-cleaning abilities. Retinoids are the only FDA-approved anti-aging ingredient. It was being studied for acne prevention when people started noticing that their wrinkles were going away. When you have damage to the skin, the skin responds by creating scar tissue. Scar tissue is essentially collagen that has grown back irregularly, like you see in wrinkles or in acne scars. Healthy collagen is spiraled like a slinky, and it lines up in straight lines. Damaged collagen has grown back over- or under-spiraled, and it starts to bundle together and collapse on itself. Retinoids work on these irregularities by breaking down the damaged collagen and encouraging the growth of healthy, properly spiraled, perfectly aligned collagen. So retinoids are great for decreasing the depth of wrinkle and repairing acne scars.
Retinoids also help to control melanin production, which makes them great to repair the uneven pigmentation that many people see after years in the sun. For acne sufferers, especially those with deeper complexions (think: olive skin tones and deeper), it can fade the marks that remain long after blemishes have healed.
But here come the cautions. Retin-A is aggressive. Many people experience flaking, redness, and sensitivities while they are using it. Retinol (the OTC version) may be easier to tolerate for these skin types. It takes longer to see results than the prescription strength products, but avoiding the adverse side effects may be worth it. Retinoids are also contraindicated for waxing, since it sensitizes and may cause lifting of the skin (read: a big patch of no skin… not the brow look you were going for!) Retinoids are absolutely contraindicated for pregnancy.
Retinol should always be used as part of your nighttime routine. It can cause photosensitivity, so you need to be diligent about applying a sunscreen every day (even if you get minimal sun exposure). Dermatologists usually recommend using the product every day, but more sensitive types might not tolerate that much. Stop using your retinoids if you’re going on a big beach vacation or if you’re planning on getting or have just gotten a deep chemical peel.
I really believe that everyone can find a retinoid that works for them, but you may need to try some variations to your routine or the way you use the product to minimize the adverse side effects. Here are some tips for dealing with the irritation that retinoids may sometimes cause.
- Try using it less frequently. Try it twice a week, and slowly work your way up to more frequent usage. Once you start to see the results you want, you may want to dial your usage back again.
- Apply a light moisturizer before the prescription. The moisturizer will act as a buffer between your skin and the prescription, slowing down the absorption. That can actually make a huge difference in the level of irritation.
- Use a gentle enzyme mask to dissolve away the flakiness. This will help you control your urge to pick and keep your skin hydrated and smooth.
- Try a soothing hydrating mask. Dry skin types can definitely use this help. Even acne prone skin types need this boost. Masking more frequently can help to give your skin that extra hydration and soothing that it needs.
Retinol and Retin-A are my hero ingredients. You can’t beat the multiple benefits that you get from one product. But it is an ingredient where less is definitely more, so find the balance your skin needs.