Is Retinol Really the Answer to All of Your Skin-Care Woes?

For many people in the skin-care world, retinol is considered liquid gold. The skin-care ingredient is touted by dermatologists and skin experts alike for its unmatched ability to boost cell turnover, which works like magic to fade hyperpigmentation and dark spots, treat acne, and smooth out fine lines with continued use. Oh, and that's not all retinol can do: it can also improve skin's elasticity, exfoliate, prevent and fade sun damage, and even out one's skin tone.

Sound too good to be true? We know, but we can assure you it's not. Here, with the help of skin-care experts, we're breaking down everything you need to know about the ingredient retinol, including the difference between retinal vs. retinol, common retinol side effects, and more, so you can start to reap the benefits.

What Is Retinol?

So, first: what is retinol for skin? Simply put, retinol is the purest form of vitamin A. A little less simply put, it falls within a category of over 2,500 different chemicals called retinoids. The reason these forms of vitamin A are so effective is because when they're applied to skin, retinoids are converted into retinoic acid. Our skin loves retinoic acid because it communicates well with our cells, improving the way they form and mature.

The key to finding a powerful retinol boils down to how well it converts to retinoic acid once it hits your skin, and there are two routes you can take when it comes to incorporating this skin-care ingredient into your regimen — it can be purchased over the counter or prescribed by a doctor.

Retinol Benefits

If you're wondering, "What does retinol do?" the answer is quite impressive. Vitamin A is essential to new cell growth and stimulating collagen production. When cell turnover slows down, signs of aging become more visible. Think: wrinkles, fine lines, dark spots, discoloration, and uneven texture.

When applied topically via a skin-care product, retinol can help reduce signs of aging: strengthening the epidermal protective function, reducing transepidermal water loss, and protecting collagen from degrading. It can also help treat acne by decreasing sebum production and preventing dead skin from clogging pores through cell turnover. In other words, it may just be the holy grail ingredient you've been seeking for a smoother, brighter, and more even complexion.

Tretinoin vs. Retinol: Prescription vs. Over-the-Counter Retinol

The main difference between over-the-counter and prescription retinol is the concentration of ingredients. This affects its ability to convert to that wonderful retinoic acid our skin is so receptive to. Cosmetic and procedural dermatologist Jody Comstock, MD, advises you to consider three things when choosing between medical grade and OTC: the timeline you have in mind for desired results, your skin's sensitivity, and how much you want to spend.

Because retinol is less potent, retinol products are easy to purchase over the counter, unlike products that feature other, more potent types of retinoids and require a prescription to procure. For example, a 0.1 percent retinoid cream you'd get from your dermatologist, such as Tretinoin, is much stronger than a one percent retinol cream you'd purchase from the drugstore. Since retinol features a smaller concentration of retinoic acid, it may be more tolerable and less irritating, especially for those with sensitive skin.

Since prescription retinol is more intense, it can cause skin to become red and flaky. It can also be expensive if your insurance doesn't cover it. If you don't think you can tolerate red, flaky skin (or you don't want to make your wallet weep), using a more gentle, store-bought product can give you the same benefits and results as using a prescription; it just takes a bit more time. Plus, unlike most prescription retinols, "an over-the-counter [formula] is gentle enough to use daily, which allows it to become part of your routine," says Celeste Hilling, CEO of Skin Authority.

When shopping, keep in mind the packaging of your retinol product matters. "Retinol is so delicate that it deactivates quickly if the formula inside the bottle is exposed to light — even if it's encapsulated," says celebrity aesthetician Renee Rouleau. "The worst offender is a clear bottle with no box. It has likely been sitting on a shelf under lights for potentially months at a time. The light is rendering the retinol product ineffective." Another big no-no for retinol is heat, so be careful not to leave this product in your car or bathroom when you shower. "Along with heat and light, oxygen is a major enemy of sensitive ingredients like retinol," said Rouleau.

The best retinol product will be in an airless container. This packaging keeps the product potent until the very last drop." Take this into consideration when shopping for a retinol product, as you want to make sure your money is going towards a formula that will stay effective down to the last drop.

How to Use Retinol

Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to retinol — it's best to gradually introduce the ingredient into your regimen. Dermatologists often advise that your skin may need time to "retinize," or work up its tolerance, for about six weeks before you can use it with more frequency or at a higher concentration. Board-certified dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, recommends you start with a low strength of 0.25 percent once a week and to work your way up to a stronger formula slowly, if needed. "Stronger is not always better," she says. "You need to train your skin to tolerate vitamin A, and derivatives are a great way to do that."

After your skin becomes acclimated to it, you can increase usage to twice a week and build up from there. Both Hilling and Dr. Comstock agree you should start to see results within 10 to 14 days, with more dramatic results within six to eight weeks. In the world of skin care, that's pretty impressive.

Apply a pea-sized amount — any more than that isn't necessary and won't speed up your results — and wait for it to fully absorb (ideally 20 minutes) before applying a moisturizer, since any product applied quickly after may dilute the retinol. Additionally, retinol can make your skin more sensitive to UV rays, so always use retinol at night and apply a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher the morning after use.

Because retinol makes your skin more sensitive, you want to make sure you don't over-exfoliate or irritate your complexion. But you can use your retinol and your exfoliating products together in harmony. "Retinol is not technically an exfoliant, however, in an effort to not over-irritate the skin, I do not recommend using a leave-on acid exfoliator like a serum along with retinol in the same routine," says Rouleau. "Retinol with an acid combination can be too active and you risk damaging the skin's protective barrier." This includes products formulated with glycolic or lactic acids, but that's not all.

Retinol Side Effects

Because your skin is experiencing more rapid cell turnover, light flaking or peeling and worsened acne is completely normal for the first few weeks as your skin purges. It's also common for first-time retinol users to experience mild irritation, dryness, and sun sensitivity as skin adjusts, but anything beyond that — intense flaking, redness, even burning — is a sign that you should stop and consult your dermatologist.

Can You Use Retinol While Pregnant?

All of our experts agreed that retinol should not be used by anyone who is pregnant, nursing, or has liver or kidney problems. So if you fall into one of these categories — or if you have any other concerns before trying out retinol — consult with your doctor.

Using the Retinol Sandwich Method

Some users, especially those with sensitive skin, may benefit from a method called the retinol sandwich, in which a layer of retinol is sandwiched in between two layers of moisturizer to purposely help dilute the effects of the retinol and reduce irritation. On your retinol "off" days, apply soothing and moisturizing products to give your skin a chance to recover before it's time for your next "on" day.

Ingredients to Avoid With Retinol

"Avoid mixing retinol with acne treatments containing salicylic acid, as they cause drying and redness as well," says Dr. Engelman. "Avoid mixing benzoyl peroxide with retinol as it has been shown that the two ingredients together have a tendency to deactivate each other." But there is an exception to this rule: if the products have been specifically formulated to be used simultaneously, then it's OK.

Starting retinol doesn't mean you have to give up AHAs and BHAs forever — it's just until your skin fully adjusts. "Over time, the skin acclimated to vitamin A derivatives like retinol and retinoids and gentle exfoliants containing AHA/BHAs can be slowly incorporated into your routine."

If you're using retinol to fade acne scars or hyperpigmentation, you may be thinking retinol and vitamin C are the perfect skin brightening mix — but that's not the case. "Retinol users should avoid vitamin C products that sting when applied to the skin," says Rouleau. "Most vitamin C products out on the market use the acid forms of the vitamin, like ascorbic acid." That doesn't mean you need to choose one over the other — you just need to be strategic in application.

Retinol should always be used at night; vitamin C, on the other hand, should be used in the morning to protect against free radical damage and provide your skin with antioxidants. You never want to layer them together in the same routine. And when in doubt, consult with your dermatologist.

Additional reporting by Jessica Harrington and Stephanie Nguyen