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SPY Guide: How to Use Retinoids & Retinol

* Retinoids first came out in 1970s as acne treatment, but now known for anti-aging benefits
* There are several types of retinoids – some prescription and others over-the-counter
* Find out which type is best for you and how to use it to reap the full benefits

If there were an overarching skincare miracle, we’d probably all be using it already. But ask a dermatologist, and they’ll likely tell you that retinoids are the closest thing you’ll find.

Retinoids are a group of chemical compounds derived from vitamin A that have been a tried-and-true skincare staple since first introduced in the early 70s. There’s a ton of clinical research to back up their efficacy, which is why they’re so widely used for a wide range of skin issues from fine lines, to acne, to psoriasis.

Retinoids work by encouraging surface skin cells to turn over quickly, thus revealing a fresh layer of skin underneath. You can think of retinoids as an expedited exfoliator–but with some added bonuses. Because of this “shedding” process, however, retinoid products can be irritating to the skin, and they make you very sensitive to the sun, so using a sunscreen with a high SPF is absolutely essential (see our pick below).

Benefits of retinoids: Some types of non-cystic acne, treating white heads, blackheads, and enlarged pores, fading sun spots, reducing wrinkles and fine lines, fading discoloration, smoothing texture

Who shouldn’t use retinoids: Those who aren’t serious about suncare (retinoids need to be used with sunscreen), those with infections or cystic acne

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Side effects: redness, irritation, dry skin, peeling, sensitivity to sunlight, can temporarily worsen skin’s condition before it improves

Because there are a few different types of retinoids, we thought we’d explain the differences between each, ranked below from strongest to the most mild forms. But first, take a look at how to use and apply them correctly. This will make sure you get the most benefits from it and the least about irritation.

How to Use:

  • The first rule of thumb is to start gradually. If you’re using a prescription retinoid, use as instructed by your derm. If you’re using an over-the-counter form, begin applying it before bed 2-3 time a week. As your skin adjusts, you can slowly increase to each night.
  • Avoid applying retinoid products during the day, as this can make your skin super prone to sunburn.
  • With that being said, it’s imperative to wear a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher each day
  • Make sure your skin is completely dry before applying. Unlike moisturizers, applying to wet or damp skin will prevent it from absorbing and dilute the potency
  • Most retinoids only require a pea-size amount, so use sparingly (especially around sensitive or dry areas like the nose and mouth)
  • Apply using dabbing motions and press gently into the skin
  • Let it absorb for at least 20 minutes and then apply a moisturizer or facial oil to prevent dryness and flaking

1. Synthetic, Prescription-Strength Retinoids

The strongest forms of retinoids (Isotretinoin, Tazarotene, and Tretinoin, Retin-A, Renova) require a prescription from your dermatologist or physician. Tretinoin (brand name Retin-A and Renova) is the most commonly prescribed type of synthetic retinoids. It comes in three different strengths (0.025%, 0.05%, 0.1%) and is generally well-tolerated if the level of strength is gradually increased. These RX options are prescribed to treat acne, fine lines, enlarged pores, and dull skin tone. When you first start using a prescription reitnoid, you’ll go through a transitional phase during which you may experience redness and flaking–your skin may even look worse during this phase, but this is only temporary.

Pros: The most effective of retinoids, faster results, different strength levels available for gradual use

Cons: Less stable (exposure to sun could cause loss of potency), intensified side effects, requires a prescription


2. Adapalene

If you’re not quite ready to suffer through the transitional phase that comes with using stronger RX retinoids, consider trying Differin. Differin contains Adapalene — the strongest retinoid form that’s available without a prescription. Marketed as an acne treatment, this product was recently made available in the drugstore for over-the-counter use. It will treat acne, but because it contains a strong retinoid, it’ll work for anti-aging purposes as well.

Side effects: slight peeling, burning, sensitivity to sun

Pros: Highly effective, formerly prescription-only formula, less irritating than Tretinoin, inexpensive, non-prescription

Cons: mild irritation, gel formula may be drying for those without acne and oily skin, only one strength available over-the-counter

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3. Retinal/Retinaldehyde

Though rare to find, products with retinaldehyde are also highly effective at combating the signs of aging. Though less irritating than the synthetic retinoids, they still may cause the same side effects for those with sensitive skin. If you choose to adopt a retinal product into your skincare regimen, experts suggest to look for products with a concentration of  0.05% – 0.1%.

Pros: More effective than traditional retinol products, less irritation, stronger antibacterial properties

Cons: Difficult to find, more expensive


4. Retinol

The most common OTC form of the retinoid family, retinol is great anti-ager, that poses less of a risk of irritation and has a more stable shelf life than stronger forms. Because it is more mild than its counterparts, results come with continued use. Retinol is best for preventing the signs of aging and works well for those dealing with clogged pores, white heads and black heads, fading sunspots, and brightening skin tone. Some products that contain retinol disclose the concentration (i.e. 0.1, etc.) while others do not.

Pros: Mild, less side effects, gradual results, easy to find, inexpensive

Cons: must use continuously to see results, not ideal for those with cystic acne, some retinol products disclose the dose of retinol, while others do not.


5. Retinyl palmitate

The most gentle and weakest type of retinoid, Retinyl palmitate is the ester of retinol combined with the palmitic acid (a fatty acid in palm oil). It’s great for those looking to prevent the signs of aging or who want to gradually reduce the look of enlarged pores or brighten dull tone over a prolonged period of time. Some tinted moisturizers and BB creams are infused with it, but it’s not generally found in a stand-alone serums or treatment because it’s simply not that strong. While it won’t have the same skin-smoothing benefits as the types above, it does act as an effective antioxidant.

Pros: Gentle, well-tolerated, great for those beginning a retinoid regimen, younger skin

Cons: Mild, not as effective

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