In 2013, Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu became fast friends working as cosmetic chemists at L’Oréal. In 2016, they left their corporate posts to launch one of our favorite Instagram accounts, Chemist Confessions, with the goal of being fully transparent about skin-care products, ingredient labels and cutting-edge research. One ingredient they agree needs further explaining? Retinol. “It’s the gold standard anti-ager and can thwart everything from wrinkles to acne, but many of our followers are still intimidated by it, so we’re hoping to help educate.”
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FIND THE RIGHT FORMULA
Within the retinoid family—derivatives of vitamin A touted for their ability to boost cell turnover—retinol is the most common, and mildest, version of the ingredient used in skin care. “Tretinoin—brand names include Retin-A and Renova, among others— is the strongest, Rx-only form, and a dermatologist favorite for reducing signs of aging and acne,” says Fu, noting typical pain points with regular use include redness, irritation and skin shedding (varying degrees of this are standard with use of all retinoids).
Acne-prone skin types can find relief with adapalene (0.1 percent), which is comparable to tretinoin, but proven to be less irritating. “It treats acne deep in the pores and recently became available over the counter,” Lu says.
EASE INTO IT
“Retinol can break down when exposed to light, heat and air, so we prefer products in opaque, airless pumps or aluminum tubing,” says Fu. The strength of the formula matters, too: All skin types can use retinoids, but finding the sweet spot for your skin is essential.
“Retinol can be highly irritating for the uninitiated,” Lu says. “It’s tempting to use the strongest one, but that can compromise your skin barrier. For those with sensitive or dry skin, we recommend starting with 0.1–0.3 percent two or three times a week and acclimating to higher concentrations or frequency. (The percentage of retinol can be found in either the product name or ingredient list.) And regardless of potency, Fu suggests using retinoids at night, as they increase skin’s UV sensitivity—always wear SPF during the day, too.
Another way to introduce retinol into your routine? Try buffering, which involves mixing retinol with a hydrating moisturizer to dilute it and act as a buffer from irritation.
LEARN HOW TO LAYER
It’s best to avoid layering retinol with other strong actives like alphahydroxy acids (AHAs), which Fu says “can put your cell turnover on steroids.” Each ingredient also requires a unique optimal pH of the skin: “AHAs work their magic under 3.5, while retinol is best at 5 and above, so separating the use of these ingredients is favorable.”
As demand for gentler retinoid formulas grows, one ingredient capturing attention is bakuchiol, a plant-derived antioxidant used in Chinese medicine that Fu says has been found to target similar pathways as retinol in the skin. One study showed products with 1 percent bakuchiol had acne-fighting benefits; another, Fu notes, “compared 0.5 percent bakuchiol to 0.5 percent retinol, and the plant alternative performed similarly in terms of wrinkle and hyperpigmentation reduction, and smoothing skin texture.”
Trouble finding the right product for your specific concerns? Fu and Lu rank these top of their list.
BEST FOR FINE LINES
SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3 ($67)
“With fine lines being one of the first signs of aging, 0.3 percent is a good level to start targeting them.”
BEST FOR SENSITIVE SKIN
Ole Henriksen Transform PLUS Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum ($58)
“It contains bakuchiol, a gentle, plant-based alternative to retinol.”
BEST FOR ACNE
Differin Gel ($29)
“Although it’s over- the-counter adapalene 0.1 percent, we suggest checking with your doctor before using it.”
BEST FOR WRINKLES
SkinMedica Retinol Complex 0.5 ($78)
“The 0.5 is potent, but you can also try the 1.0 version if your skin is tough as nails.”
BEST FOR THE EYE AREA
RoC Retinol Correxion Eye Cream ($18)
“Clinical testing shows it provides both crow’s-feet and dark circle benefits.”
—Medically reviewed by La Jolla, CA plastic surgeon Robert Singer, MD and Montclair, NJ dermatologist Jeanine Downie, MD