The Lazy 20-Something's Guide to Retinol

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On the brink of turning a quarter of a century old, I've taken it upon myself to tackle two very adult things. The first is taxes—bless my Uncle, the CPA—and the other is retinol, the powerful, and equally confusing, anti-aging wonder. Both of these have mystified me for quite some time and I have no qualms admitting they need to be broken down in the simplest of terms.

I won't bore you with what I've learned about the IRS. However, on behalf of lazy 20-somethings everywhere, I will impart the cut-and-dry retinol wisdom I've gathered from two of our go-to skincare experts. Because, whether the fine lines have begun to form or not, do we not all want to look like J.Lo when we're 46? Here's what you need to do:

Learn what it is before you put it on your face

Basically, retinol is a type of Vitamin A that is found in over-the-counter, non-prescriptive creams and serums that stimulates the metabolism of skin cells and encourages collagen production.

"Using a well-formulated and stable product with retinol will visibly reduce the appearance of sun damage, brown spots, lines, wrinkles and large pores," explains celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau, who tends to the glow of 23-year-old Demi Lovato. "Its magic is in its ability to resurface the skins' texture for a smoother, more even-toned look."

Start thinking about retinol...but definitely wait till your late 20s

All derms will agree that the earlier you start addressing signs of aging, the better off you'll be.

"As you enter your 20s, early signs of sun-damage and aging show on the skin," says Rachel Nazarian, M.D., at Schweiger Dermatology Group. "The skin starts to lose elasticity and the free radical damage of pollution, aging, and sun damage trigger the degradation of skin that desperately needs repair."

If skin is far-gone in later decades, undoing the damage becomes that much harder and more complicated. But you don't want to start too early and that's why Rouleau suggests beginning to add retinol to your regimen in your late 20s.

If you have sensitive skin, be *extra* careful

You have to proceed with caution at any age, but particularly during your 20s. Highly-concentrated products can have their fair share of side effects...

"Many anti-aging products have potent active ingredients, like retinol and peptides, that can increase the metabolism of skin cells," says Rouleau. "However, these ingredients can also be too active for breakout-prone complexions."

If you get regular breakouts, or have oily or combination skin, it's possible that retinol could irritate your face and cause more blemishes because you are stimulating already-active skin. In that case, it may make sense to wait until you hit 30 so it's less abrasive.

Don't get a prescription retinol

Yes, you can get prescription retinol, but don't. That's for later in life. Over-the-counter products work well and are formulated to be gentler. "Because skin cell turnover is just beginning to slow down in the late 20s, they don't need super strong formulas at this point," says Rouleau.

Start out slow and use it sparingly

Nazarian warns that over-drying and the irritation of skin are the most common issues when it comes to retinol. "Make sure to start slow, use only a small amount, and space out applications if your skin appears red or flakey," she advises.

Rouleau's rule of thumb is two nights on, two nights off.

Be extra responsible about SPF

"Retinol increases sensitivity to ultraviolet light, which increases the susceptibility for burning, so it's incredibly important to always apply liberal amounts of sunscreen each morning ," says Nazarian.

If you don't, the UV exposure will cause the signs of aging you're working so hard to reverse! And retinol aside, you should always be applying a minimum of broad spectrum SPF 30 daily.

Follow this lazy-girl-proof regimen

After washing your face before bed—a 100% non-negotiable step for great skin, duh—apply the suggested amount of your retinol-based product (remember less is more), wait a few minutes, then apply a generous amount of moisturizer over it. And don't do this every night. Follow Rouleau's two nights on, two nights off rule. And don't be afraid to space it out more if your skin is sensitive. The only thing you should be doing every single day is applying SPF.

Retinol creams

(Image credit: Design by Katja Cho)

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1. RoC Retinol Correxion Sensitive Night Cream, $13.77; (opens in new tab).

2. Renée Rouleau Advanced Resurfacing Serum, $83.50; (opens in new tab).

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Lauren is the former beauty editor at Marie Claire. She love to while away the hours at coffee shops, hunt for vintage clothes, and bask in the rough-and-tumble beauty of NYC. She firmly believes that solitude can be a luxury if you’ve got the right soundtrack—that being the Rolling Stones, of course.