Retinol has been around for the last 30-odd years and it continues to be infused into skincare products even to this day, so you can be sure it’s not just a fad. A dermatologist favourite, it’s frequently recommended to help treat skin concerns like enlarged pores, sun damage, marks and scars from acne,  improve skin texture and even out skin tone.

But for every person who swears by retinol for clear skin, there’s someone who has had a bad experience with inflamed, peeling, red and sore skin. This is usually because they have been using it wrongly or haven’t followed dermatologist’s instructions. We addressed some frequently asked questions, so you can get your best skin from using retinol.

#1: Retinoids vs Retinol vs Retinol derivatives. What do I need to know?
The above-mentioned terms are frequently thrown about by skincare brands and doctors, so it’s inevitable to wonder what the difference is between all of them. We got you.

Let’s start at the beginning. Retinoids are a vitamin A derivative, found in prescription formulas like Differin, as well as acne prescriptions like Roccutane and Retin-A. A potent ingredient, it converts to retinoic acid on contact with the skin and works to promote skin cell turnover, slow the breakdown of collagen and help prevent wrinkles.

So what is retinol? Also, a vitamin A derivative, but less potent that retinoids and can be found in over-the-counter skincare. This also converts to retinoic acid when it is applied to the skin, but at a slower pace making it more suited to people who are new to using this ingredient. Though less potent, it has the same benefits as retinoids.  

Lastly, ingredients like retinyl acetate and retinyl palmitate are classified under retinol derivatives. These are basically gentler and weaker versions of retinol, making them less likely to cause irritation to skin.

#2: When can I start using retinol?
Widely regarded as the gold standard for anti-ageing, retinol works best when incorporated into skincare regimens at the start or before the slowdown of collagen production i.e early 30s. Once absorbed into the skin, retinol accelerates collagen production to smooth wrinkles, improve skin texture and reduce the appearance of age spots. However, starting the use of retinol as early as 26 years old can help maintain collagen production even before it starts to slow down due to age.

#3: I have sensitive skin. Can I still use it?
The truth is, everyone’s skin reacts differently to skincare products and retinol is no exception. Your experience can range from slight discomfort to stinging or flaking when using retinol products. But you can build up your skin’s tolerance to retinol. The key is to start with a low concentration of retinol, using it one to two times a week and gradually build tolerance before moving on to a prescription formula.

#4: Should I hide from the sun if I’m using retinol?
It is widely thought that retinol “thins” the skin, making it more sensitive to sun. While it is true that retinol is a compound that is highly unstable, i.e., it breaks down and loses its efficacy once it is exposed to water or air, it doesn’t affect skin’s sensitivity to the sun. You should always look for retinol products that are housed in opaque bottles to protect the integrity of its ingredients. And since some people might experience stinging and flaking skin when they start using retinol, that could be the other reason why skin might seem more sensitised than usual. That said, regardless of how well your skin is able to tolerate retinol, it is always crucial to wear sunscreen every day.

#5: The more concentrated, the better… right?
As previously mentioned, everyone’s skin reacts to retinol in different ways. This means that there is no ideal concentration of retinol that works for everyone. To find what is best for you, experiment with various products and vary the frequency of usage according to your skin’s tolerance for it. In addition, many products also contain other ingredients like antioxidants, peptides and other nourishing ingredients to complement effects of retinol on skin for an all-round anti-ageing effect.

#6: When should I use it?
Retinol products are best used at night after cleansing the skin. Apply a thin layer and wait about 20 minutes before you apply your moisturiser. Using a moisturiser immediately after you use retinol can dilute the effects.  

Since retinol works to boost skin cell turnover, it’s also best incorporate a chemical exfoliating toner like an AHA toner, before you apply your retinol. This will help clear the dead skin, allowing the retinol to be better absorbed. (Note: This is as long as you are using retinol one to four times a week. Retinol and exfoliating toners should not be used every day.)

Here are some retinol-packed products to add to your skincare routine. 

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Words: Joyce Cheo, Smita DeSouza; image: Unsplash.