In the post, “What does a good skincare routine look like?” I go over just how easy it is to make a difference in the way your natural skin looks and feels. But today, I want to talk about a single category of ingredients that is pretty amazing at improving texture issues: Retinoids.
What are Retinoids?
There are many different types of retinoids in the retinoid family but the term ‘retinoid’ is really the umbrella term. Retinoids are Vitamin A derivatives which helps with anti-aging, evening out your skin’s pigment, improving acne, and makes the texture of your skin better.
The thing that makes retinoids so special is that there are long-term benefits when you use it consistently over time, because they boost collagen and speed up cell turn over — which means youthful-looking dewy skin!
The Different Types of Retinoids:
We could get into some nitty gritty details when we start talking about the different types, but I think it’s better to try and keep things as simple as possible versus moving into a chemistry lesson.
So, the thing to understand is, in general, you have retinoids that are available in different forms. Which essentially means that the conversion process on your skin is different.
The more conversions that have to happen to get that retinoid to the form of ‘retinoic acid’, the less strong the retinoid is going to be — in normal human-talk that means it will take longer for you to see results BUT you will less likely have irritation.
Retinols have to go through two conversions to transform into retinoic acid. Meaning that not everything converts, so you’re ultimately ending up with something that is less strong.
Then on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got some retinoids that are already in the form of retinoic acid (like Tretinoin). Back to that human-talk: the stronger the retinoid the faster it works, but you may experience a bit of skin irritation.
If we were to list out the basic retinoids from least strength to most strength then we’d have: retinol -> retinaldyhyde (retinal for short) -> retinoic acid (like tretinoin & adapalene)
In addition to the different types, there are also percentages. Which follow the same rule: higher percentage means faster results, but potentially more irritating.
There’s a little caveat with percentages though, because after you’ve successfully used a retinoic acid for a year the percentage no longer makes that big of a difference.
So, the skinny of it is that retinoic acid is going to give you the best results and the percentage can speed up the process during the one year cycle but CONSISTENCY is most important.
Who can benefit from using retinoids?
However, there’s really no age (above pre-teen) that wouldn’t benefit from retinoids. If you’re a teenager suffering from acne, you can use it. If you’re older looking to reverse some of the effects of sun damage and fine lines, you can use it. But the best time to start a retinoid is mid 20’s to help with anti-aging.
Now, that’s not to say that if you’re older that it’s too late, because you’ll still see benefits (as long as you can stick it out past the skin’s “adjustment” phase).
As I’ve already mentioned retinoids help heal/prevent acne, reduces the appearance of fine lines & wrinkles, in addition to improving any hyperpigmentation. Further, the collagen that is generated in the deeper layer of the skin helps create a much more youthful appearance to your skin.
With all the amazing benefits you may be wondering if a retinoid will help with pore size. The thing is, pore size is genetic so that can’t really be changed per se. If your pores are being stretched by excess oil production then a retinoid can definitely help with the appearance of large pores.
However, there is a slight chance, with some individuals, that the pore size might seem larger once they are cleaned up and that top dead layer of skin is gone. So that is something to be aware of.
How long does it take to see results?
In other words, you don’t need flaky dry skin to get a result with a retinoid. It’s a common misconception that retinoids exfoliate your skin, but it actually impacts the much deeper layers of the skin. So, flakiness isn’t exfoliation it’s just your skin adjusting and experiencing a bit of irritation.
The thing is, retinoids take time to work.
Another common misconception is the idea that stronger is better, but that’s not the case with retinoids. You really want to start slowly and help your skin adjust to the product instead of blasting your face full power — which is just going to aggravate your skin.
Of course, many times there is also a period where your skin will purge, which means that things can sometimes get worse before they get better, particularly for the individuals who are fighting acne. This essentially happens because the retinoid is speeding up your skin’s turn over process which also speeds up the “pimple cycle” that was going to take place over the course of months in a much shorter period of time —but you will typically start to clear in 1-3 months, and continue to see improvements up to (and sometimes past) the 12 month mark.
If you’re looking for anti-aging benefits this also takes time. Sometimes you can see results as quickly as 3 months, but most of the time you’ll start to notice your skin improving more around the 6-12 month mark.
Between irritation and/or breakouts, these are what causes people to stop before the skin has had a chance to adjust and then start to truthfully show the benefits that a retinoid has to offer. The bottom line is you need to commit to at least 3-6months, and truthfully, up to a year to reap the benefits. As I said earlier, it’s really all about consistency.
How to incorporate a retinoid into your routine?
After washing your skin, while your face is still a little damp, apply a dime-sized amount of the retinoid. Then apply your moisturizer on top of that.
Start using the retinoid once a week. Then over the period of 2-4 weeks, try to increase the frequency to every third night. At the 6-8 week mark try every other night, working towards the goal of applying every night by the time you are at the 9-12 week mark.
While you are in the “adjustment” phase, you’ll most likely need to avoid exfoliation (whether that be manual or chemical). But just pay attention to your own skin’s needs. If you’re not really experiencing irritation, then it’s fine to gently exfoliate. If you’re going to use a chemical exfoliant like an AHA (lactic acid or glycolic) or BHA (aka salicylic acid), just do it on a different day from the retinoid application.
If you’re trying to use exfoliation to help with the dryness, opt for something that is going to provide better hydration to your skin for the time-being (such as hyaluronic acid or you might try clear Aloe Vera Gel) instead of going down the slippery slope of over-exfoliation.
Even if you personally can’t seem to get to retinoid use every night, that’s ok. You don’t have to use it everyday to see benefits – it’s more about long-term consistent use. The idea is to pay attention to your tolerance, and back off a bit if you’re seeing irritation.
Be careful about applying under your eyes, as that skin is thinner and more sensitive. That’s not to say that you can’t do it, but you do need to pay attention to aggravating that skin. Alternatively, you can opt for a retinoid that is made specifically for eyes.
If you tend to have very sensitive skin in general, try moisturizing first, then apply the retinoid, then moisturize again. You’ll also definitely want to remove your other active ingredients (like AHA) from your routine for the time being.
The general rule of thumb is to wait until the adjustment period is over, then you can eventually work chemical exfoliants back into your routine. You just wouldn’t want to use your chemical exfoliants on the same day that you’re using your retinoid to avoid irritation.
Retinoid Products to Try
Per usual, I highly recommend seeing a board certified dermatologist because they can get you the
“good stuff”. It’s particularly important to see a derm if you’re suffering from a major skin concern (like acne) because they can get you prescriptions, they have the technology, and the education to come up with a custom plan that will really help you vs. you struggling with trying to figure it all out on your own with trial and error.
So if possible, try to get a prescription retinoid.
Having said that there are decent retinoids available OTC for you to try. The thing is, most of the studies really only support you getting those amazing results I outlined before if you’re using a prescription retinoic acid (like tretinoin).
Additionally, you probably already know how I generally feel about brands found in drug or department stores (I don’t find them to be as effective as professional brands) but there are some products that seem to do a decent job. So, here is a list of potential OTC retinoid products for you to try:
Disclosure: The following list of products are affiliated links. However, as mentioned above I only recommend things that I would use or have used.
- Differin Gel 0.1% (particularly for acne)
- SkinMedica Retinol Complex 1.0
- Ageless Total Overnight Retinol Masque by Image Skincare
- CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol
- Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair
- Retrinal 0.1 Intensive Cream by Avène (This is a retinal)
- Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum by Peter Thomas Roth
- Resurfacing 1% Retinol Light by Truth Treatment Systems
- Avene Retrinal EYES (for eyes, obviously. LOL)
Which ingredients should you never mix with Retinoids?
So, let’s break it down.
The reasons that you’re typically told not to mix or apply ingredients together is for two reasons.
Reason number one: Together they will cause more irritation (aka that dry, red, flaky skin).
Reason number two: The cancel each other out; meaning, that they become less effective.
Vitamin C and Retinols (Retinoids)
However, a new study is actually showing quite the opposite of that. And, surprisingly, Paula’s Choice has done a pretty decent job at explaining how that myth originated in the first place.
So it’s looking good for the combination of those two ingredients. Yet, you’ll still find some derms who seem to be aware of this finding and are still keeping the stance of “do-not-combine”. This is because they say that it could increase irritation. The overall consensus seems to be: use vitamin C in the morning and your retinoid at night.
My thoughts: Pay attention to your own skin and how it’s reacting. Whenever you incorporate a new product into your routine, try to only bring one new thing in at a time. That way, if you do experience any irritation it will be easier to identify the cause. I’ve personally not experienced any irritation with using tretinoin 0.025% and my vitamin C products from Image Skincare.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) and Retinol (Retinoids)
And not to beat a dead horse here, but dry-red-flaky skin doesn’t mean “it’s working”.
So you can definitely keep your chemical exfoliants in your routine, just move them to a different day. (*Unless you are in the adjustment phase and experiencing irritation. Back off a bit, and add more hydration.)
Benzoyl Peroxide and Retinol (Retinoids)
Rather, you’ll find the derms explaining how benzoyl peroxide and retinoids actually cancel each other out rendering both products less effective. But the caveat is: that it truthfully depends on the products.
You’ll find professional products that actually combine retinoids and BP, and they work just fine. But if you’re unsure if your product combo is going to deactivate your active ingredients you can take a couple cautionary steps.
The first thing to try, would be to apply your retinoid, allow it to fully dry (some people are recommending a 30min minimum), and then you can apply your BP.
Alternatively, if you really wanted to be safe, you could apply your BP in the morning and your retinoid at night. All in all, just allow time between the application of these ingredients.
Salicylic Acid and Retinol (Retinoids)
This is another chemical exfoliant that seems to cause your skin to be unnecessarily upset when used with a retinoid. So, in order to avoid irritation all you need to do is allow enough time between the two. The safest bet is to use your SA in the morning and your retinoid at night. If that still seems to be causing too much irritation then try moving them to different days.
To Sum It ALL Up
There’s very few people who couldn’t use a retinoid or benefit from adding one into their routine.
While retinoic acid could be considered a “strong” ingredient it doesn’t have to result in extensively dry-red-flaky skin. You can ease into it, gradually increasing the frequency and the strength (aka percentage). The really important thing to be sure to understand about retinoids is that they take time to work.
You’ve got to stick it out past the adjustment phase, and additionally, maintain consistency in your application over the course of at least 6-12 months.
While you can find some OTC products, using a prescription is always going to deliver superior results (with the exception of Differin which is now available over-the-counter). But that’s not to say that you won’t see any benefit with their drugstore/department store counterparts.
There is plenty of information spread across the world-wide-web claiming an abundance of ingredients are not to be used when you’re using a retinoid. However, the truth of the matter seems to be that all you have to do is use those products at a different time or a different day.
Now I’d love to hear from you! What was the most important thing that you learned about retinoids? Are you going to give them a try? Tell me in the comments below.