Skin Science

Your Questions About Retinol Skincare, Answered

by Aubrey Almanza
March 24, 2020

For a while now, retinol has been widely considered the holy grail of skincare ingredients. Thanks to its ability to improve acne, scarring, sun damage and wrinkles, dermatologists agree that retinol is something of a skincare cure-all. But you already knew that, right?

It's time to dive a little deeper. Here's what you need to know about the ins and outs of retinol skincare, as well as answers to some of the most common questions about this ingredient.

What Is Retinol, Exactly?

Retinol is the scientific term for vitamin A and its derivatives. Vitamin A is an essential micronutrient that occurs naturally in fish liver, egg yolks, milk, cheese and butter. However, in addition to vitamin A's organic sources, over 1,000 retinoids (the chemical class retinol falls into) have been synthetically produced with the goal of yielding highly therapeutic benefits with fewer adverse symptoms.

The most popular — and commonly administered — synthetic retinoids include isotretinoin, etretinate, acitretin and arotinoid ethyl ester — all of which are highly effective in treating dermatologic conditions.

Who Should Use Retinol?

Retinol skincare products should be viewed as a treatment for an existing skin issue, not as a preventive measure. The best time to incorporate retinol into your skincare routine is at the first sign of acne, inflammation or hyperpigmentation. By adding the ingredient to your arsenal when problems emerge, you can quickly address skin issues before they develop into a full-blown frustration!

Additionally, retinol has been proven to improve the look of mature skin, so it's useful to introduce it into your skincare routine as soon as you notice fine lines, wrinkles or photo damage.

How Does Retinol Interact With Skin?

In simple terms, topical retinol plays a central role in acne therapy because when absorbed into the skin, it blocks several important inflammatory pathways. By obstructing these pathways, retinol reduces the release of acne-inducing inflammatory signals and nitric oxide (a marker of psoriasis and rosacea).

What Are the Recommended Usage Guidelines?

As Mayo Clinic explains, the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A for adults is 5,000 International Units (IU), which you can find in many over-the-counter products. This is a great solution for mild skin condition cases.

For more intensive treatment, the dosages used in therapy are at least 100,000 IU daily — and sometimes as high as 1,000,000 IU daily — which requires a prescription. Keep in mind that the toxicity associated with higher dosages will limit how long you can keep up treatment.

It's also important to note that higher levels of retinol aren't always more effective. Retinol is a delicate ingredient, and it requires a precise formulation and delivery to remain stable. So, even when a label boasts a high dosage, it pays to take a closer look! If the retinol is unstable, it's entirely ineffective. The easiest way to spot destabilization is if the product has turned yellow in color.

What Other Considerations Are Important?

There are a few side effects of topical retinoids that you should keep in mind. These include redness, dryness, irritation, photosensitivity, burning and stinging at the site of treatment. As such, retinol is not always advised for those with dry or sensitive skin types. Because people with normal, oily and combination skin tend to display higher resilience, these skin types may benefit from retinol usage without experiencing side effects.

If you're interested in using retinol, first try an over-the-counter product and observe your reaction (or lack thereof), then consult your dermatologist if you seek a stronger dosage. By adding this ingredient to your skincare arsenal, you can tackle almost any complexion concern!

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