Retinol 101: What Is Retinol? — The Comprehensive Guide

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When it looks like skin aging signs such as wrinkles and fine lines has taken away the firmness and glow on your face, then consider retinol as your first line of defense.

Retinol has been a godsend in the beauty industry. Infact this wonderful ingredient has been used for decades to tackle the issue of acne, skin aging signs and maintain healthy and glowing skin.


So, have you been popping the question, “What is retinol”? Then welcome to this comprehensive guide, because you’re about to know more about retinol,– the one powerful ingredient for acne, anti-aging and radiant skin.

Keep reading to know more about retinol

What is Retinol?

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative and an anti-aging molecule that accelerates skin-renewal, reduces wrinkles, fine lines, and age spots, for firmer, smoother and more evenly-toned skin.

Retinol belongs to the family of Retinoids which is an umbrella term for all vitamin A derivative ingredients.

How Does Retinol Works?

Retinol is a collagen boosting machine. When applied on the skin, it stimulates collagen production, which plumps out skin, reduces fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol also encourages cellular turnover and also encourages new cells growth which in turn treats acne, unclog pores (allowing your pores to breath) and improves overall skin texture, with a youthful glow.

Skin Benefits Of Retinol.

Fights acne (pimples).

Due to its skin renewal potentials, retinol encourages cell regeneration and turnover which generates healthy cells and also has exfoliating effect that stops pores from clogging and pimples, blackheads and cysts from forming.

Mildly exfoliate & unclog skin pores.

Retinol exhibits skin exfoliating effects by prompting surface skin cells to turn over quickly while encouraging new cell growth. This helps pores be less susceptible to getting clogged.

Boosts collagen production.

At some time in our life, the rate of collagen production in our skin depletes leading to saggy skin. Retinol stimulate collagen production and increase cell turnover which helps your skin produce collagen rendering it firmer and plumper.

Diminishes wrinkles & fine lines.

Due to the promotion of cell turnover and regeneration, the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines diminishes. Infact retinol smoothens the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines because as the collagen production and cell turnover Increases due to retinol effect, the skin becomes smoother, firmer and plumper.

Firms and smoothens the skin.

Because vitamin A plays a big role in cell and tissue growth, that’s exactly why retinol (vitamin A derivative) stimulates fibroblasts—the cells responsible for developing tissue that keeps skin firm and healthy—in the deep layers of your skin.

Evens and brightens out the skin.

Retinol helps brighten the skin tone and Improve radiance in two ways: first, by encouraging cell turnover and regeneration which helps you shed pigmented, damaged and rough surface cells, making room for healthier cells. Secondly, retinol (retinoids) may block an enzyme needed for melanin (pigment) production, further helping to deliver an even-toned, glowing complexion.

Promotes blood circulation in the skin.

Not only does retinol reduce fine lines and wrinkles by increasing the production of collagen. They also stimulate the production of new blood vessels in the skin, which improves skin color and additionally fade age spots and softening rough patches of skin.

Retinol Side Effects.

Retinol benefits the skin in so many ways, but it also comes with its downsides.

Retinol is a powerful ingredient, that being said, it may cause some irritations at first, this is your skin responding to retinol and trying to build tolerance. Flakiness, dryness and even some breakouts can occur when retinol is first added to a routine, this process is called “retinization“. Typically, it just takes a little time for the skin to adjust. When the skin must have adjusted and built tolerance to retinol you’ll experience little to no side effects.

Therefore, Dermatologists advice you should start retinol treatment gradually by starting from the lowest percent, then build your way up.

“Begin slowly by adding it into a nightly routine one to two times per week for the first week and increasing it gradually from there, depending on how the skin reacts, If there is visible redness or peeling, use it once per week for a month then increase to twice per week and monitor the skin for irritation before increasing use.” Says von dem Hagen a licensed esthetician and international educator for Glo Skin Beauty,

How To Choose Retinol Products.

There are thousands of retinol products out there in the market, perhaps our guide will aid you choose correctly.

1. Check product label.

First of all you want to know the percentage of retinol present in the product.

It’s interesting to let you know that the ingredients in skin care products are listed in descending order. This means that ingredients with the largest amounts are listed first. If an ingredient is listed at the end, there isn’t much of it present.

Not all products are formulated equally,  when reading the product label we advice you should ensure retinol is listed amongst the active ingredients list, or amongst the top ingredients. This qualifies the effectiveness and potency of a retinol serum (and creams).

2. Look at the product packaging.

Retinol products comes in a metal tubes, tinted or dark (non-transparent) glass bottles or containers, this is to protect the product from direct sunlight. This is simply because retinol degrades when expose to heat, sunlight and air, which renders it ineffective. We recommend you should not purchase any retinol product which comes in a transparent bottle or poorly sealed.

3. Know the difference between Retinol and other Retinoids.

Retinol sounds similarly to some retinoids which are totally different from retinol. For example: retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl propionate, and retinyl linoleate.

The retinoids meantioned above are derivative of retinol, but it doesn’t offer the same anti-aging benefits as retinol.

Derivatives of retinol are in general weaker and less effective than retinol. So, If your goal is to smooth fine lines and wrinkles, you’d probably be better off choosing something with plain retinol.

4. Choose a reputable brand.

Reputability also qualifies a quality product. Skincare products from reputable brands goes through vigorous testing, to ensure its quality and trustability.

5. Start with the lowest percentage.

Retinol comes in multiple strengths, the most common are; 2.5%, 2%, 1%, 0.5%, .0.3% and 0.25%. If your product doesn’t specify the percentage of retinol on the label, it usually means the concentration is weaker than 0.25%, which may not give you the full benefits of retinol. Studies suggest you need to use at least 0.25% retinol.

If you’re new to retinol, we advice you should start with lower percentage/concentration, (0.5% – 0.3%) before moving up to 1%, 2% or 2.5%(strongest). This is to build up your skin’s tolerance towards retinol to avoid severe irritations. The higher the concentration, the stronger the skin will respond with visible shedding, dryness and redness. If an increase in percentage triggered more shedding and redness, you can stick back to previous percentage.

However, another thing to consider is your skin type. If you have thick or oily skin, try a higher-strength retinol serum, If you have thin or dry skin, start with the lower-strength option.

However if you still choose to use retinol during the day, then don’t forget to apply a sunscreen. Retinol may increases your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. To avoid irritations such as burning, redness and discoloration, we advice you should protect your face with sunscreen after applying retinol during the day.

Whether you applied retinol or not, always ensure to apply sunscreen (SPF) during the day (no matter what), to protect your skin from sun rays.

Also ensure to use retinol in conjunction with a moisturizer, this is because, as a new user, while using retinol products, you may experience a mild micro peeling associated with slight redness, this is normal, this is your skin building tolerance to retinol. These signs should clear after some weeks. By then your skin’s tolerance to retinol products is built. Applying a moisturizer after applying retinol helps supply moisture to the skin (addressing skin dryness associated with retinol) and also calming the skin of irritations.

Although, retinol products tend to also contain moisturizers or emollients to reduce the possibility of irritation (shedding and redness).

But, we still advise you should apply a moisturizer after applying retinol serum. This is to keep your skin moisturized and hydrated which will reduce the possible occurrence of shedding, dryness and redness. See The best oil-free facial moisturizers.

How To Apply Retinol Product.

While applying retinol you should use little amount (pea-size).

Trust us, alittle goes a long way. Using too much amount won’t give a faster result, rather it may cause more skin redness, dryness and peeling.

To break it down, apply your retinol this way:
  • Step 1: Wash your face with a clean water.
  • Step 2: Wait a few minutes until your skin is completely dry.
  • Step 3: Take a pea-size amount of your retinol product, starting at your chin, apply with your fingertips in upward and outward motions till fully absorbed.
  • Step 4: Finish with your moisturizer.

If you’re new to retinol, start by applying twice a week (at night). Pay attention to your skin, if no severe irritations occured such as peeling, redness and dryness, you can move to applying 3 times weekly. Then gradually keep moving your way up till your skin builds full tolerance to retinol. Then you can use every night.

Retinol Precautions.

1. Always start from the lowest percent then work your way up to the highest. This is to allow your skin gradually build tolerance to retinol.

2. If your skin is new to retinol, start by applying twice a week, while you pay close attention to your skin, if no severe irritations occurred, then, you move up to three times weekly. Keep moving gradually till your skin can stand using retinol every night. Don’t forget to follow up with a moisture-rich moisturizer.

3. Always apply a pea size. Applying too much amount won’t make it work faster rather increase severity of irritations.

4. While using retinol and (other retinoids) wear sunscreen, preferably with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher, and protective clothing.

5. You may want to limit retinol or retinoids usage at night time only. Retinol may increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. Therefore, we recommend you should use retinol and (other retinoids) at night only.

6. Avoid retinol and other retinoids treatment if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding (nursing mum).

As a precaution retinol or retinoids must not be used during pregnancy, breastfeeding and by women planning to have a baby. Including oral retinoids, as there may be a possible risk of serious birth defects, liver toxicit and disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Benzoyl peroxide is generally considered safe for pregnant women Including breastfeeding mothers for treating acne. That being said, Benzoyl peroxide is a good alternative to retinol for treating acne while pregnant or nursing.

Retinol Products To Consider.

Retinol comes in serums (which are most popularly used) and comes in facial creams too.


Possible Questions & Answers.

Q: Can pregnant women use Retinol?

A: The answer is No. If you’re pregnant or a nursing mother, avoid using retinol products.

According to Dr. Robinson. She said;

“Retinol, retin-A, retinoic acid, and tazaratene. All are derived from vitamin A, and while the vitamin can work wonders on your skin, excessive amounts can interfere with fetal development and lead to birth defects.”

As a precaution, we advice retinol products must not be used during pregnancy and by women planning to have a baby. Including oral retinoids too.

Q: Can Retinol help lighten Hyperpigmentation?

A: Retinol can be applied topically to lighten the skin and reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation. This over-the-counter (OTC) retinoid can help minimize the appearance of hyperpigmentation in under six months when applied correctly and consistently.

Q: Does Retinol thin the skin?

A: The answer is No. However retinol thickens the skin by boosting collagen production which plumps the skin. Thereby slowing down aging signs. This is beneficial because one of the natural signs of getting older is thinning of the skin.

Q: Can young people use Retinol?

A: Yes. There is no age restrictions in using retinol, you don’t need to start seeing skin aging signs before using anti-aging products (retinol or retinoids).

Dermatologists advice you should start using anti-aging products such as retinol creams and serums as early as age 21, this will perfectly control and prevent skin aging signs before the age of 30 upwards.

Q: How long does it take before seeing visible result while using Retinol?

A: It all depends on what you’re using it for. If you’re using retinol to treat acne. It will take probably 11-12 weeks (approximately 3 months) to see results.

However, if you’re using retinol for anti-aging purpose such as reduction of wrinkles, fine lines, and improvement of skin texture, it can take up to six months for full result to be visible. It all depends on your skin type it may not take that long before seeing results.

Q: If i should use retinol at night only, do I still need to use sunscreen during the day?

A: Yes. You should always use SPF (sunscreen) during the day, whether you use retinol or not. Infact, applying sunscreen is a starting point towards fighting skin aging signs.

By applying sunscreen you’re protecting or shielding your skin from environmental hazards, and the dangerous UV rays of the sun. See the best non-comedogenic broad spectrum sunscreens worth your money.

Q: Should i apply more Retinol for better results?

A: Using too much of retinol serum or cream can often cause undesirable effects like peeling, redness and dryness. The recommended amount is about a pea-sized drop for the entire face. Like we stated earlier, alittle goes along way.

Q: Should i avoid using Retinol around the eye area?

A: There has been a lot of speculations that you shouldn’t apply retinol or any other vitamin A derivative around the eye because of the sensitivity of the eye area towards retinoids.

However the eye area is the place where wrinkles shows up first and can benefit the most from collagen-stimulating effect of retinol or retinoids. While applying your retinol product, you should concentrate around the eye area. If you’re sensitive around your eyes, you can always layer on a moisturizer or an eye cream first followed by your retinol.

Q: Does stronger percentage of Retinol give faster result?

A: For retinol and (other retinoids), building tolerance will create better results. If you are new to retinol, we advice you should start from the lower strength, probably 0.5% – 0.3%. Gradually you can work your way up to 1% – 2%, if you still feel you need a higher percentage and your skin can take it, you can move to 2.5%.

However, your skin type matters too.  if you have a thicker or oily skin, we advice you should start with higher percentage probably 1%, after building tolerance you can move up to 2% – 2.5%.

Q: Does Retinol or Retinoids exfoliate the skin?

A: Well, alot of people believes that retinol (and other retinoids) exfoliates the skin. But the truth is, retinoids are “cell communicating ingredients“. Which means as soon as retinoids gets into the skin, it “talks” to the skin cells by encouraging healthier younger cells to make their way up to the skin surface.

During this process the skin starts to peel and flake. It’s easy to assume that the skin is exfoliating itself, however those side effects is as a result of irritations until the skin builds up tolerance, as retinoids don’t have the ability to clear or dissolve dead skin cells on their own.

Q: I have a sensitive skin can i use Retinol?

A: Retinol can be alittle aggressive, but people with sensitive skin can still use retinol with proper guide and modifications.

That’s why we recommend you should start off slowly. Start by applying once or twice weekly, then apply a moisturizer afterwards . You can as well mix both retinol and your moisturizer before applying. Don’t forget to always apply a pea size amount as a beginner.

Q: Can i layer Retinol and vitamin C together for better result?

A: It all depends on the form of vitamin C you want to use. For example: layering L-acorbic form of vitamin C together with retinol can cause severe irritation and sensitivity.

Vitamin C comes in different forms. L-acorbic is the most unstable form of vitamin C, which can also cause mild irritations on sensitive skin.

If you want to pair vitamin C together with your retinol serum, we recommend you should use a more mild, stable and yet potent form of vitamin C, such as

  • Ascorbyle Palmitate.
  • Ascorbic Glucosamine.
  • Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate.
  • Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate.
  • Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate (most mild & stable form of vitamin C)

Most skincare companies prefer using Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate form of vitamin C, because of its mildness and stability. It converts to ascorbic acid when it’s absorbed into the skin. This form of vitamin C is also potent just like L-acorbic acid.
If your vitamin C serum contains Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate form of vitamin C, then you can layer or pair together with your retinol product (Make sure you apply a moisturizer afterwards).

However, If you must use retinol and L-ascorbic acid at the same time, separate them by 30 minutes intervals. Apply your vitamin C (L-acorbic acid) first, since it has the lower pH of the two. Then, wait half an hour before you apply your retinol. Then finish off with a moisturizer, to keep your skin hydrated.
This way, you can also enjoy the benefits of the two.

You can still alter retinol and L-acorbic vitamin C serum between your AM and PM routines. By applying vitamin C serum in the morning (AM), then apply Retinol serum at night (PM). Then finish off with a moisturizer. See the best vitamin C serums for skin brightening.

ALSO READ: What Are Dermaroller Benefits? & Why Should You Use It?

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