Everything You Need to Know About Using Retinol and Retin-A

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Finding the correct retinol treatment for your skin can often be a laborious, hit-or-miss pursuit. Unlike the simplicity of finding an eye cream or lip balm, the difference in various retinol concentrations can either turn your complexion into a glowing triumph or an over-peeling, ruddy mess.

That’s not to mention the overflow of options, since retinol gained huge popularity after the pandemic has left many with intense bouts of mask-ne. Hundreds of retinol varieties on the market today typically tout claims of having fountain-of-youth qualities—but if a formulation isn’t for you, it simply won’t work. To help with your search for the perfect retinol, W consulted Dr. Marnie Nussbaum, a renowned New York City-based, FAAD board-certified dermatologist While working out of her Upper East Side office, she also serves as a clinical instructor at Weill Cornell, consulting with the Melanoma Research Alliance and a respected member of three other esteemed dermatological boards. Her opinion is based on science and medical expertise—a far more weighted kind of truth than whatever tips the self-proclaimed skin gurus are doling out on TikTok. If you’re considering incorporating retinol into your skincare routine, here’s everything you need to know, courtesy of Dr. Nussbaum.

What are the main differences between retinol and Retin-A? 

All retinoids, including retinol and Retin-A, are vitamin A derivatives that are technically antioxidants. Retin-A is the brand name for the acne medication tretinoin, and it’s a synthetic form of vitamin A that’s only available through a prescription. Retin-A is stronger than retinol as it takes fewer steps to convert to retinoic acid, the active molecule; but stronger isn’t always better. Strength can be tricky, since not all formulations are based on just the retinol concentration. Some formulators reference the percentage of a retinoid “complex” (a total blend containing other ingredients, not just retinol concentration). Others contain various ingredients within the vehicle that can destabilize the retinol, thereby making it less effective. Furthermore, water, light, and air can all destabilize retinol—therefore packaging and delivery is extremely important in finding the right strength.

Why should someone use retinol and not the dermatologist-prescribed Retin-A? 

Retinol is a long-term solution to increase cell turnover and collagen production that can be used with more frequency than Retin-A. Retinol is the more practical choice if your goal is addressing the signs of anti-aging. The main concern with over the counter retinol is that the ingredient degrades over time from exposure to environmental factors when it’s in a serum or cream form. 

Are you only supposed to use retinol at night? 

I recommend using it at night because sunlight can destabilize the retinol molecule making it less effective. Your skin regenerates while you sleep, making nighttime the best time to ramp up. Plus, skin permeability is higher in the evening after a freshly washed face vs. in the morning, so key ingredients may absorb faster and deeper at night than at other times.

Is it okay to start using a retinol regimen in the summer? 

Yes! It’s a myth that it makes you more sensitive to the sun. In fact, retinol can actually be destabilized by the sun. The reason people may experience irritation during the summer months is primarily due to sun exposure. The skin is then red and inflamed—and adding any retinol or other skin actives can make you even more irritated. You can absolutely use retinol all year long, with the caveat that if you have a sunburn or  any rash or infection, you should probably lay off your retinol until it’s healed. I recommend using retinol at night so that it repairs the skin, and then during the day, you need to protect your skin with a broadband SPF 30 or higher every two hours. Oftentimes, my patients get lazy in the summer and skimp on their daily skincare routine, which is why I so often recommend something trustworthy that is effective. I like Opulus Beauty Labs’ Ramp-up Night Cream Regimens because you can keep up with rejuvenation without the extra work. 

If you are using retinol (whether day or night) will sunscreen and a hat still protect you adequately during the summer months? 

Absolutely. The skin should always be protected during the day and restored at night. Since retinol is reparative, you should apply at night. During the day, you should be wearing a strong physical (mineral) sunscreen to prevent UV damage. If starting in the summer months, it is vital to start slow, with a low-strength retinol and only a few times a week. It will start to treat the rough texture, fine lines, dark spots, uneven pigment, and laxity. However, if you don’t protect the skin during the day with sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses, you are not doing your new retinol routine any favors.

There are many different formulations and strengths depending on somebody’s skin type but what is the correct concentration, generally speaking? 

There isn’t one correct concentration. New retinol users should start with a low concentration and gradually work up to stronger concentrations over time. I always recommend starting at a low potency and low frequency because your skin has to gradually build up tolerance to retinol, a process called retinization. Work your way up to increased frequency first, and then increase the concentration. Again, something like Opulus’s Ramp-up Regimen is a great option for those looking to incorporate retinol into their skincare ritual; it takes the guesswork out of this constant trial and error with easy-to-follow cadences that up the frequency of retinol while interspersing the RHR overnight masks within each regimen to restore the skin. There are three monthly regimens at different retinol percentage levels so you can increase month over month.

One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t always know the true percentage of retinol in various products because it is impacted by packaging, oxidation, delivery, and exposure to sunlight along with the other ingredients that are combined in the vehicle, which may degrade the retinol molecule (not all .05 or .1 percent doses are created equal). 

What are the common myths associated with retinol? 

One of the most common myths I hear is that it causes sunburn or photosensitivity. The retinol itself does not make you photosensitive. If you are experiencing burning effects, slow down your retinol ramp-up and increase your “off” nights. Just use moisturizers on these “off” nights. Another big one I hear is “I’m sensitive and I cannot use retinol.” That is likely not true. Many times, patients want to start out using a strong formulation to get results faster. However, we know that with retinol, patience and diligence are key to reaping the best results. Skipping to the strongest formulation will lead to immediate irritation and inflammation. Everyone can use retinol except if you're pregnant or breastfeeding. You just have to start with a lower potency and a lower frequency.

Based on the promises and expectations and obvious results retinol yields, should you be using it for the rest of your life? Do you go on and off of it? 

Starting young is great, and continuing on as you age is even better. When you start at an early age, it gets you into the lifelong habit of using retinol which is key given that it is the one ingredient known to help minimize fine lines and wrinkles, boost collagen, and increase skin elasticity. I have one patient who is 70 and looks amazing, and she always says that the reason she appears so young is because she started retinol in her 20s and has used it ever since. Retinol is safe to use at all ages and should be incorporated into one’s skincare routine. The only time you should stop using retinol is when you are trying to conceive, during pregnancy, and when breastfeeding. If you do stop for a prolonged period of time, you’ll want to begin at a lower concentration and gradually ramp back up.

Everyone is adamant about incorporating vitamin C into their skin regimen—how does vitamin C play into retinol use? Do you use it underneath retinol, after retinol application, or at the opposite time of day?

Vitamin C and retinol are two ingredients that everyone should incorporate into their routine, but when combined or layered onto one another it can possibly make each other less effective depending on the formulations and percentages. I usually recommend vitamin C in the morning to protect against the environment and retinol at night to repair the skin. Opulus Beauty Labs Retinol Opoule formulations contain vitamin C in their outer coat, separated from the retinol in its inner core, which prevents oxidation and stabilizes the formula until the moment it’s thermally blended and activated. Therefore, you can have your retinol with your antioxidants in a one-step nighttime routine, all while getting peak potency from all your skin actives and enjoying a warm nighttime ritual rather than the dreaded ten-step routine.

What moisturizers do you need to use when on a retinol skincare program? Does it matter whether it’s oil-free?

Moisturizers are vital to repairing the skin barrier and keeping the skin supple. Whether oil free or not, it does not matter, as it typically depends on your skin type. Look for a moisturizer that contains ceramides to counter dryness often associated with retinol. Sodium hyaluronate is another powerful hydrating complex to look for in a moisturizer.

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