If you’ve given any serious thought to your skincare routine, you’ve probably heard about retinol. You may have heard that it may minimize the appearance of wrinkles. Maybe you’ve heard it can even give your skin a glowy appearance. But what is retinol, exactly, and why is it considered a gold standard in skincare?
Retinol is an ingredient in dozens of skincare products, so it must do something good, right? When used correctly, retinol may indeed help you achieve the kind of healthy skin you’ve always dreamed of.1 But it’s not like splashing water on your face. It’s important to use retinol carefully. Read on to find out why — and how.
What Exactly Is Retinol?
You may have heard that vitamin A may help change the appearance of aging skin. That’s because vitamin A is a retinoid. Retinoids are fat-soluble substances that may be able to reduce the appearance of aging on the skin.21
Let’s look at the science. Your skin contains distinct retinoic acid receptors, or RARs.3 RARs allow for retinol’s absorption into the skin. In fact, at least one retinoic acid receptor, RAR-gamma, may exist almost exclusively in the skin.4,5
Some powerful retinoids, like tretinoin (the active ingredient in Retin-A), are prescription only.6 But other retinoids are available in over the counter (OTC) products. Retinol, sometimes listed as retinyl acetate or retinyl palmitate, is the most potent of the OTC retinoids.7,8,9
Why Might You Need Retinol?
About one-third of the proteins in your body are collagens. These collagens are the building blocks of many cell types. They’re also what helps your body’s largest organ — your skin — stay young and healthy-looking.10,11
Elastin is another protein that is essential to youthful, supple skin. As its name suggests, elastin supports the skin’s ability to snap back into place instead of sag downward. Together with collagen, elastin can help support younger-looking skin.12
Over your lifetime, free radical damage may break down the collagen in your skin.13 And as you age, the human body starts to produce less and less of vital proteins like collagen and elastin.14 Your skin may start to look duller, less taut, and more wrinkled.
And that’s where retinoids like retinol come in.
What Do Retinoids Do?
Retinoids may help your skin in multiple ways. They’re commonly used to help improve the appearance of:
- Clogged and/or enlarged pores
- Age spots15,16,17,18
How Does Retinol Work?
A lot of anti-aging and blemish products work by exfoliating dead skin cells on the epidermis — the outer layer of skin. Retinol may also help clear away dead cells on your skin’s surface. But it also goes one layer deeper, into the dermis.
Retinol doesn’t just help clear dead skin. It may also support your body’s natural defense against free radicals in your skin, enhancing and preserving its collagen and elastin. Those proteins may help give aging skin a plumper, smoother appearance. They may also help reduce the appearance of enlarged pores and blemishes.19,20
How Do You Use Retinol In Your Skin-Care Routine?
Retinol is available in a variety of creams and gels. Studies show that even a 0.1% retinol formulation may have significant effects with sustained use.21,22
Hyaluronic acid may help your skin retain the moisture that it can lose as you age. With its moisturizing properties, It may help to offset the drying and redness that can sometimes accompany retinoid use.23
Avoid combining benzoyl peroxide and retinol, as these two ingredients may cancel out each other’s effects.24
You can also take retinol as a dietary supplement, in the form of cod liver oil. People with vitamin A deficiency often take cod liver oil — and retinol is a vitamin A derivative. Certain foods, like liver and eggs, may also provide your body with added retinol.25
Always check with your doctor to find out whether retinol is right for you. While it may have many benefits, retinol may not be for everyone.
When you first work retinol into your skincare routine, you may experience redness, dryness, or tightness in your skin. This is especially true for sensitive skin. Your skin may adjust after a few weeks, though.26
Studies show that many topical, over the counter retinoids may be safe to use during pregnancy. But if you are pregnant, be sure to discuss retinol with your doctor before using it.27,28
Feel Comfortable In Your Own Skin
When you look in the mirror, you may see things that no one else can see: a blemish here, a wrinkle there. You’re probably your own harshest critic. But no matter how others see you, everyone wants to go out into the world feeling their best. Retinol may be able to help you achieve the kind of glowing, healthy skin that will make you feel just that.