If we had to choose a list of the most transformative skincare ingredients, retinol would be at the top of the list.
Retinol is a vitamin A derivative found in many skincare formulas, ranging from moisturizers to masks. The reason why? It’s a powerhouse ingredient used by people of all ages, because it helps with concerns like aging and acne. Ask any skincare enthusiast about retinol and chances are that it’s already a part of their regimen.
That said, retinol application can be tricky. It’s typically a very potent ingredient, and because of that, it’s often misunderstood and misused. Many believe that retinol can’t be mixed with other active ingredients because of its high potency, while others may steer clear because they’ve heard of the potentially irritating effects.
To set the record straight, we spoke with a few dermatologists to learn the truth about retinol.
Myth 1: Retinol Exfoliates the Skin.
The truth is retinol and exfoliation are similar, but retinol does not exfoliate the skin. “Retinols help regulate skin cell turnover, which helps to prevent a buildup of dead skin cells,” Dr. Marisa Garshick, a board-certified dermatologist tells InStyle. “Unlike traditional exfoliants, though, retinoids are not breaking the bonds that are holding the dead skin cells together.” So, while the results are similar in that they can reduce dead skin surface cells, retinol functions differently than an exfoliator.
Board-certified dermatologist and founder of SLMD Skin care, Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper), explains that retinol works by binding to the receptors within your skin cells, which tells the cells to speed up their renewal process. “When we apply retinol, we are increasing that rate of cell turnover and waking up to younger skin,” she says. “This helps with acne because shedding those dead cells means they don’t clog your pores. And it helps with lines and wrinkles because it’s keeping your skin more youthful.”
Studies have also shown that retinol increases collagen production (which is a protein that gives skin its firmness) and promotes the creation of elastin (which makes skin stretchy and resilient).
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Myth 2: You Can’t Mix Retinol With Vitamin C.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that supports collagen production, fades hyperpigmentation, and decreases dullness, says Dr. Lee. There’s been conflicting evidence about whether vitamin C and retinol could be mixed in the past. Dr. Garshick explains that historically, it was recommended to avoid mixing retinol with vitamin C because the retinol could cause the vitamin C to become less effective. “That said, newer formulations of vitamin C are considered more stable so there may not be as much of an issue with mixing retinol and vitamin C in terms of efficacy,” she says. Studies show that using the two together has decreased signs of aging.
However, the biggest concern with mixing the two is less about efficacy and more about irritation. So, technically speaking, you can mix the two, however, some skin types may find both of these ingredients irritating or cause sensitivity, which is why it’s suggested to rotate. If you want to play it safe, Dr. Lee recommends using vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night, or alternate them in the evening, if you know you’re someone with a sensitive skin type and want to avoid potential irritation.
Myth 3: Retinol Causes Sun Sensitivity.
According to Dr. Hadley King, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist, the reason many people believe this myth is true is that retinol is often instructed to apply only at night. “This is because retinoids are often degraded by sunlight, which makes them less effective, not because they cause sun sensitivity,” she says.
At the beginning of starting retinol, though, you may experience some extra sensitivity to the sun, but only because it’s a strong ingredient, and this doesn’t necessarily happen to everyone. “However, after a few months of retinol use, the skin’s response to UV radiation returns to normal,” says Dr. Hadley. That said, you should always apply an SPF daily, rain or shine, no matter what.
Myth 4: Retinol Thins the Skin.
The reason people may believe retinol thins the skin is that some people experience peeling when they first start using retinoids, and the skin may appear thinner as dead skin cells on the outermost layer of skin are removed. However, the opposite is true. “Retinoids stimulate collagen production, and they actually help make the skin thicker, which is great because the skin often thins with age and sun damage,” says Dr. King.
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Myth 5: You Can’t Use Retinol in the Under-Eye Area
“Yes, the skin around the eyes is the most delicate skin on the face, but that doesn’t mean we can’t apply retinol there,” says Dr. Lee. For concerns like crow’s feet or aging near this area, there are retinol formulations specifically for the eye, like the SLMD Skincare Night Light Retinol Eye Cream ($49, slmdskincare.com). The key is looking for a product that contains nourishing ingredients as well and starting it slowly. “If you experience a lot of irritation, dial it back and try applying every other night. And always wear sunscreen,” says Dr. Lee.
Myth 6: All Retinol Is Created the Same and Used for the Same Purposes.
Retinol is an umbrella term, which consists of retinoids, Retin-A, adapalene, and so on. While they all function similarly and can give similar results, there are important nuances. To get the lowdown, Dr. Lee explains the difference between retinoids (when you need a prescription) and retinol (over-the-counter options). “Retinoid is a blanket term used for a special class of vitamin A derivatives,” says Dr. Lee. “It includes retinol, which is sold over-the-counter in serums and creams, to address milder skin conditions including acne, hyperpigmentation, and fine lines. Because it’s the least strong of the bunch, it takes longer to do its job, but it’s still very effective and causes less initial irritation.”
Then, there’s a more potent version of retinol, which Dr. Garshick says is typically prescribed for severe acne and scarring. For example, tretinoin, also known as Retin-A, is available only through a doctor’s prescription and is prescribed for moderate acne as well as more pronounced hyperpigmentation and other signs of aging, explains Dr. Lee. She also mentions that because it’s stronger, you’re more likely to experience more redness and flaking when you first start using it, but with quicker results.
Another prescription retinoid is isotretinoin, which is the oral medication that’s most commonly known as Accutane. “This drug is extremely effective for treating severe acne, but it has side effects, so you’ve got to sign a contract and be closely monitored by your doctor while you’re taking it,” says Dr. Lee. To know which option is best for you, consult with your dermatologist before incorporating retinol into your routine.
Myth 7: Getting Irritated Is a Guaranteed Side Effect.
You may hear time and time again that starting retinol can (and likely will) cause irritation, flaking, dryness, and more. Like all things with skincare, though, everyone’s skin and reactions to ingredients are different. Some may experience irritation, while others don’t. It’s all about paying attention to your skin and doing what it needs. “As a rule, listen to your skin,” says Dr. Lee. “If you’re experiencing irritation, try using your retinol every other night, or add in some hyaluronic acid to help soothe your skin.”