Retinol: Everything You Need To Know

Ingredient Investigation

Retinol: Everything You Need To Know

By Janell Hickman

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Due to its multifaceted nature, retinol has easily landed the title of the “darling of dermatology” without much contest—it’s a skincare powerhouse that works both on signs of aging and eliminating acne. But, if you’re not already using a retinol (or even in if you are!), it can be confusing. Retinoids have many forms (natural and synthetically-derived), names (retinyl palmitate, retinol, retinal, tretinoin), and percentages or concentrations available. While Rx products pack more punch, don’t sleep on OTC products either. Below, we break down both the benefits (and drawbacks) of including retinols in your skincare mix.
How It Works

According to a 2019 dermatology brief, vitamin A and its derivatives are among the most effective substances for slowing the aging process (i.e. fine lines, rough texture, dryness, and dark spots). In essence, retinoids regulate the cell apoptosis (skin cell death and turnover), differentiation (the process of a cell changing from one cell type to another), and proliferation (the healing phase). Stay with us here.

Here’s an easier way to think about it—our skin is set up like a house, both with bricks (skin cells) and cement (the intercellular matrix). “As cell renewal naturally slows down, our skin gets thicker and stickier. Babies have the softest skin because cell turnover is more frequent,” explains Heyday Skincare Educator, Glenise Gomez.

“As we age, our cells break down less frequently, so we have layers and layers of dead skin leftover. When we think about our house, it just needs one working roof—not layers and layers of material.”

That’s where retinols come in. They effectively penetrate into the skin, break up that intercellular matrix (or cement), and cause the cells that were stuck and coagulated on the surface to start the repair process.

“They work so well that they thin the skin,” continues Gomez. “It can sometimes lead to inflammation—redness, itching, or burning. When the skin isn’t used to retinols, it will fight against them with a histamine response. That’s why we recommend progressive treatments instead of aggressive ones.”

Think Progressive Versus Aggressive

Yes, we get it, retinols sound awesome and a little scary. So before you dive into them full throttle, you have to gauge your skin’s response. First, it’s important to remember that everyone’s skin reacts to vitamin A differently.

“Progressive is important,” emphasizes Gomez. “I encourage everyone to go low and slow, you always need to understand how to properly combine your products. With retinols, you need to be very careful not to pick or pull at the skin. When you see that flaking, just be patient.”

If you’re already using a light facial scrub three times per week, you might minimize it to one or two times per week. Then, replace that third day with a retinol serum that you leave on the skin. Always start your retinoids once per week, gradually increasing by one day each week. Give your skin time to gauge its response. Dry skin types might be more prone to reaction, as opposed to oilier skin types.

Increased cell turnover means skin is more sensitive to outside factors—like the sun. SPF is a must-have when using retinols.

Any time you’re using a product that increases cell turnover, the skin is prone to sensitivity. Exposing this resurfaced skin barrier to UV rays can increase the risk of hyperpigmentation. Only use retinols at night, and always apply sunscreen as part of your morning routine, and reapply often.

Mix with Caution

Due to the potency of retinols, certain ingredients (and products) don’t mesh well together and can cause further irritation. Make sure to chat with a Skin Therapist when starting a retinol to set your skin up for success.

Gomez encourages clients to use vitamin C paired with SPF during the day, and a moderate retinol at night—pending your skin’s response. She also cautions against using any type of AHA or BHA because they’re going to cause peeling and proliferation (aka wound healing) of the skin.

Another combo you should skip? Retinol and benzoyl peroxide. Both ingredients are exfoliating and dry the skin out. This is specifically important for those with acneic skin types. “Many people with acne tend to over exfoliate, but that actually causes more harm than good,” says Gomez.

She suggests pairing retinol with a hyaluronic acid to seal hydration in. “That’s what I recommend to anyone who is in the process of healing. It’s a good solve for when your skin is peeling.”

Our Top Retinol Picks
This Exfoliating Mask

This exfoliating mask is a great beginner retinol for oily and acneic skin types, or anyone experiencing folliculitis.

This Rx-Level Night Cream

A blend of peptides, plant stem cells, and retinols, this hydrating night cream helps nourish and repair skin while you catch some Z’s.

This Silky Nighttime Serum

A gentler serum thanks to encapsulated retinol formulated with soothing birch bark extract and vitamin E to soothe redness, irritation, or dryness.

This Heavy-Hitting Repair Cream

A gentler serum thanks to encapsulated retinol formulated with soothing birch bark extract and vitamin E to soothe redness, irritation, or dryness.

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