Any skincare expert will tell you, anti-aging and retinol are inextricably linked. So why is the potent anti-wrinkle ingredient still so mystifying? Some women wax on about how it's the best thing that ever happened to them, others complain it makes them red and dry.
Because it's never too early (or too late!) to stave off the signs of aging, we looked to the experts to decode retinol—or is it retinoids?— in the simplest of terms.
The Benefits of Retinol
Retinol, which is another name for Vitamin A, is a powerful ingredient for addressing a number of skin concerns. "It can help to fight acne, stimulate collagen production, and has anti-inflammatory properties," says Dr. Michele J. Farber of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City.
The Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids
"Retinols and retinoids are both vitamin A derivatives," explains Dr. Farber. "They have both been formulated to be applied to your skin in topical form, but retinoids are stronger than retinols. While over-the-counter retinol creams do have many of the same benefits, they often work more slowly."
In Your 20s:
"Starting a healthy skincare regimen when you're young will help you to age gracefully and keep your skin in the best shape possible," says Dr. Farber. "Women should start off using retinol creams during their twenties as this is the time when sun damage starts to become apparent."
However, you want to be wary of not using anything that's too strong. "To avoid acne flares, a light formulation, not a heavy cream is the way to go," says dermatologist Dr. Patricia Wexler.
If redness or irritation occurs, re-evaluate the concentration, frequency, and formulation. SPF is always necessary when using a retinol.
"Your goal would be using retinol to get smoother, more evenly pigmented skin, with less post inflammatory pigmentation," says Wexler. "It's also to reverse both visible and invisible photo damage, as well as prevent future signs of damage like wrinkles, lines, spots, loss of tone, elasticity and more."
In Your 30s and 40s:
"To increase one's regimen, it's helpful to start with retinoid creams if tolerated in the 30s," explains Farber. "You can at lower strengths with retinols and work your way up to help your skin adjust. As your tolerance builds, discuss with your dermatologist whether a prescription strength retinol is appropriate."
Dr. Francesca Fusco, MD at Wexler Dermatology, recommends starting with an over the counter retinol, like Patricia Wexler MD Intensive Deep Wrinkle Treatment, applied in the evening on the face and neck. And don't forget—the eyes have it too. "Use a retinol-based eye cream to treat and prevent crows feet," instructs Dr. Fusco.
In Your 50s+:
"Continuing to use retinoids is key for anti-aging," says Dr. Farber. "But you may need to use these products fewer nights per week because as you age, the skin does not produce the same amount of natural moisturizing factors. Retinoids can be more drying if overused."
And depending on the photo damage, retinol can be used in tandem with other actives in your regimen, like peptides, vitamin E, and antioxidants. "Niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin may be added in the presence of dry skin, which is common in this age group," says Dr. Wexler.
She also recommends using retinol near the eyes with a formula specific to that area as the skin is extremely thin and sensitive.
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