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Do You Really Need…to Use Retinol?

If a product is all over Instagram or in all of your friends’ medicine cabinets should you be using it too? Welcome to “Do You Really Need…”, a new series where we discuss, with the help of some experts, how to determine whether or not a trendy or divisive product really belongs in YOUR skin care routine. Today we’re chatting about retinol.

Retinol is not a new ingredient and yet it has become a buzzword in beauty of late and suddenly it seems like everyone is attempting to incorporate some form of retinol into their routines. The ingredient is touted for its ability to smooth texture, clear skin, lighten hyperpigmentation, and reduce and prevent wrinkles. Personally, I have always been weary of it, as my only experience was in the form of a prescription Retin-A that dried the life out of my skin and made my breakouts worse. So as I noticed the uptick in retinol usage, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is it really an ingredient so many people should be diving into? Here, we break down what you need to know to make an informed decision about whether or not you really need retinol.

What Is Retinol?

Retinoids are “a family of compounds related to Vitamin A,” says NYC-based dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner.  When asked why the ingredient is so popular he says, “Retinol helps calm inflammation, enhances cell turnover, and stimulates collagen production. Collectively, these effects improve skin radiance and strengthen the skin’s foundation to minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.”

Is There a Difference Between Over-the-Counter and Prescription Retinol?

According to Dr. Zeichner, the primary difference between the two are strength of the product. Prescription retinols are a form of Retin-A (the original brand name for the medication tretinoin), also known as tretinoic acid. Because this form is a direct acid, it is the most powerful form of retinol out there. The most common side effects include burning, redness, peeling, and flaking, and for that reason, is only allowed by prescription.  Typically, this prescription is given to patients suffering with deep, cystic, or persistent acne, but can be effective when it comes to mild acne, as well.

Over-the-counter retinols, on the other hand, are more gentle in delivery than Retin-A. Whereas prescription retinols deliver it as an acid directly to the skin, over-the-counter retinols must come in contact with the skin, so that enzymes within the skin can convert it to retinoic acid. Because the skin converts it itself, OTC retinols tend to have far less irritation, but it also takes longer to see results. It is typically not recommended to those who suffer from cystic acne, but instead to those looking for an effective form of anti-aging or an antidote to mild-mannered acne, or other forms of congestion such as closed comodones or blackheads.

So Should You Use Retinol?

If you get breakouts here and there, AHAs like glycolic acid and BHAs like salicylic acid can be perfectly sufficient for your skin. For more persistent or stubborn acne, be it inflammatory or non-inflammatory, retinol can be the right route. If you’re new to the ingredient or are unsure of which type is best for you, we recommend consulting with your dermatologist first, or at least starting with a more mild form of it to avoid an adverse reaction.

While some begin using retinol as a form of acne prevention at a young age, Dr. Zeichner suggests that using retinol for anti-aging purposes isn’t totally necessary until “about 30, as that us when skin cell turnover starts to slow down naturally.”

Because it is a strong, potentially irritating ingredient, we recommend easing into it by starting with use once a week at night and then ramping up to two to three times per week when your skin has adjusted.

One huge note would be that retinol, in any of the forms mentioned, is not safe for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Dr. Zeichner notes that the primary concern here are birth defects, such as improper development of the nervous system. Instead, seek out products with gentler acids, such as AHAs, to get similar results with no irritation to the skin or the health of your baby.

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