Retinol for Beginners: Your Complete Guide

Welcome to the fast track to really, really good skin.

retinol beginners
Mark NolanGetty Images

I know you already know about retinol. I know you’ve seen it in drugstores, heard about it on TV, and listened to your best friend gush about it every time she "re-discovers" skincare. The retinol hype is real. But do you really know what retinol does? Do you really know why you’re supposed to use it, or why most dermatologists consider it pure magic? Do you even really know how to apply it?

I’m going to go ahead and guess your answers are a resounding, “Umm, kind of? Not really? No?” And hey, that’s fine. Because I’m here to break down everything you’ve ever wanted—and never knew you wanted—to know about retinol, so you can reap all of its smoothing, brightening, firming, and zit-killing benefits fast, without hardcore irritating your skin.

Before you read any further, look at this before-and-after retinol photo and you won't need any more convincing that this stuff is seriously next-level. The results speak for themselves. Now, it's time for you to get acquainted with retinol.

FACT #1: Retinol slows down your body's aging process.

"Up until your early 30s, your cells turn over every 28 days, creating a fresh layer of untouched, pristine skin,” says dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor at Yale University. “But after you hit your mid-30s, your cell regeneration slows down, turning over every 50, 60, or 70 days.” And that slower cell regeneration is what causes your face to look dry, dull, and wrinkled. So, you know, the very picture of aging.

Retinol, however, sinks into your skin and speeds up cell turnover, causing your body to churn out fresher, smoother skin again, says Dr. Gohara. It essentially tricks your body into thinking it’s younger than it is, effectively creating a real-life Benjamin Button scenario. Granted, you won’t see results overnight—it’ll take at least three months of consistent nightly use to notice some reduction in fine lines, dark spots, and acne.

Our recommendation: L'Oréal Paris’s Revitalift Night Serum with Pure Retinol, which contains ​pure retinol​ (the most potent form of retinol) to help visibly reduce lines and wrinkles (even the deep ones). It acts fast—an independent ​clinical study ​actually showed that the serum improved testers’ wrinkles and skin texture in as little as 12 weeks. It also contains moisture-retaining ingredients to help prevent redness and irritation.

FACT #2: Not all retinols are the same.

Technically, retinol is just one of the many different types of retinoids (the umbrella term for all vitamin-A derivatives, including retinol) that are on the market. A drugstore anti-aging formula, for example, could contain retinyl palmitate (the weakest of the retinoids), or it could contain retinol (the next strongest and most tolerable), retinaldehyde (even stronger), or adapalene (the strongest over-the-counter option that's also specifically formulated to treat acne). Or, you could ask your dermatologist to prescribe you even stronger retinoids, like tretinoin or tazarotene, which work faster and more effectively, but can also be extra irritating.

So, which retinoid to choose? Ideally, you’d have your derm walk you through the best option for your skin type. But since you’ll probably never make the appointment, Dr. Gohara suggests starting with the gentlest of retinoids, like retinyl palmitate (for sensitive or dry skin) or retinol (for all other skin types), moving up to a higher strength formula only after a year. Yes, year.

Regardless of which retinoid you choose, though, know that they’re all effective in the long run. Studies show that you’ll reap the same long-term anti-aging effects over time with a low-strength retinoid as you would with a moderate-strength retinoid, so don’t feel like using a “weak” retinol won’t do anything.

FACT #4: Retinoids don’t just help with wrinkles.

Sure, retinoids are the gold standard in wrinkle-preventing and line-smoothing treatments, but they’re also excellent at turning your face into a bright little marble. “Because retinoids stimulate cell turnover, which increases collagen and elastin production, they’ll also help plump up your skin, clear and shrink pores, and fade dark spots and redness,” says Dr. Ebede. MVP of skincare, am I right?

And we’re not just talking a little bit of improvement, either. Because retinoids work on a cellular level, not just a topical level like most skincare products do, they’re able to deeply resurface your skin, which can completely transform your complexion over time. I mean, just look at this Retin-A–using grandma who went viral for looking so young, or this acne-prone woman who broke the internet after completely clearing her breakouts with retinol. Retinoids really are the key to perfect-looking skin.

Are you now effectively pumped and ready to use a retinoid? Are you about to make a dermatologist’s appointment or run to the skincare aisle of the drugstore? Has your mind been blown? I’m choosing to believe that your answers this time are one big “YUP.”

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