The Retinol Rulebook: Derms Share Their Top Tips for Using the Ingredient

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The Retinol Rulebook: Derms Share Their Top Tips for Using the Ingredient featured image
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If you haven’t heard, there’s one pretty big skin-care tip experts have been shouting from the rooftops during this time spent at home: If you’re not using retinol in your routine, now is the perfect time to start.

“With the shelter-in-place and slowing down or complete shutdown of many states, we now have a little extra time to focus on establishing good skin-care habits, so this is a great opportunity to try a retinol or prescription retinoid,” says Campbell, CA dermatologist Amelia K. Hausauer, MD, who’s been spending her days conducting telemedicine appointments to help patients create individualized skin-care routines. “Retinols and prescription tretinoin are always a central part of these plans.”

Still not convinced? Santa Monica, CA dermatologist Ava Shamban, MD offers a couple of very solid selling points: “Retinoids are the A-list of all vitamin-A derivatives. They’ve been the gold standard for more than two decades in reducing wrinkles, refining pores, softening texture, dimming discoloration and fighting acne. They essentially work to trick the skin into thinking and acting like its younger self.” Here’s what to know before you start:

Rule 1: There are different kinds.
There’s a lot of skin-care science with this specific ingredient “family,” but the most important one to understand is the difference between retinols and the prescription versions (with tretinoin, aka Retin-A, being the most common in the latter category). “These are in the family of topicals called retinoids—the vitamin-A derivatives that help enhance skin turnover to treat acne, regulate pigmentation and smooth fine lines by enhancing collagen production, which sadly declines starting after age 22,” explains Dr. Hausauer. “Retinols are over-the-counter and need to be converted to tretinoin or retinoic acid, so they end up being 20 times weaker than the prescription version. The biggest downside with all these products is that they can cause irritation, redness and peeling, so retinols are often a good way to dip your toe in and try out the products knowing that, if you tolerate them well, there are always stronger, more impactful options that can be used.”

Rule 2: Be prepared to flake a bit. 
Which leads to Rule #2: “Retinol transition can be outright treacherous with dermal downtime, but worth every flake in the end,” stresses Dr. Shamban, who adds that, if you start today, come June, you’ll see fully “filtered” results in the form of visible improvements and glowing skin. And, since we aren’t going out as much at the moment, if your skin gets a little irritated or flaky, it is—surprise—less on display.

Rule 3: Do NOT skip the sunscreen.
Since all retinoids make you more sun-sensitive, it’s vital to make sure you’re being diligent about protecting your skin with SPF each and every morning—no exceptions. “This applies even if you’re indoors and sheltering-in-place, since a good amount of ultraviolet light goes right through windows,” Dr. Hausauer says. 

Rule 4: Start slow.
Dr. Shamban has every patient start the application process by using a pea-size amount and applying twice weekly. “Building up to three times a week and then nightly over four weeks, with another two-to-four weeks of nightly usage will yield real results,” she says. Dr. Hausauer likes “dotting” the formula at the forehead, cheeks, nose and chin and then spreading as a thin film over the entire face. Both doctors also recommend doing the same for the neck and chest.

Rule 5: Consider product play. 
Pro tip: “Applying to dry skin makes retinoids less irritating and following immediately with a moisturizer can also help combat side effects,” Dr. Hausauer says. And, while it’s not recommended to mix a whole bunch of actives when starting retinol, Dr. Shamban likes using a calming moisturizer or serum to hydrate and soothe skin at night, and coupling that with a hydrating spray during the day and—you guessed it—sunscreen.

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