retinol guide

History of Retinoids

As a follow-up to Vitamin A studies in the 1960s, the dermatologic scientific community focused on Vitamin A’s effect on epithelial cell integrity. The “retinoid project” led to the development of Retin-A (a brand name for tretinoin). Once it was proven that topical retinoids improve signs of photoaging by modifying cellular differentiation programs, the development, effectiveness, and impact of tretinoin was widely studied and became available for topical use in the 1980s. Since then, thousands of products have some form of retinol in them to treat acne, aging, and hyperpigmentation. If you’re currently using a retinol product or would like to begin using one, bookmark this retinol skincare guide to ensure that you use it correctly.

How Does Retinol Work?

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Retinol is a vitamin A compound, the first antioxidant to be widely used in non-prescription wrinkle creams. Antioxidants are substances that neutralize free radicals — unstable oxygen molecules that break down skin cells and cause wrinkles.” Vitamin A-based retinoids return the cell turnover process to normal—a process that slows with age—facilitating the appearance of smooth, clear, radiant, even-toned skin. 

Retinols have become commonplace in today’s skincare market, making these products available both by prescription and over the counter. If you’re using a product that claims to help with acne, aging, fine lines, or hyperpigmentation, check the label for one of these following retinoid ingredients: Retinol, vitamin A, retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate, all-trans retinoic acid, tretinoin.

Retinol Skincare Guide: Combining Retinol with Other Products

While various retinol derivatives have been developed to counteract retinol irritation, the best way to achieve the benefits of using retinol is to use it correctly in combination with other products that are ideal for your skin condition and avoid irritation. Excessive redness, inflammation, and dryness after the introductory phase is a hint that something isn’t right.

Retinol + Vitamin C

Multiple studies show that repeated topical application of both retinol and vitamin C can reverse, at least in part, skin changes induced by chronological and photoaging. Vitamin C, a potent antioxidant, protects skin from sun damage, when used in combination with retinol and sunscreen, gives skin an extra layer of protection and repairing power. In some cases, the use of these products together can cause redness or irritation. You can certainly try them together, but if you experience excessive redness or discomfort, stop using the Vitamin C immediately and ask your skincare professional. 

Retinol + Hyaluronic Acid

A hyaluronic hydro booster can provide hydrating and soothing relief from the excessive dryness that some people experience when using retinols. If you experience excessive dryness while using retinols, a hyaluronic hydro product can reduce the harsh, drying effects while allowing the retinol do to do its job. If you continue to experience significant dryness, check with your skincare professional.

Using Retinols with Caution

Retinol is not an exfoliant, but mixing retinol with exfoliants can result in dehydrated skin and harm the protective layer. Be aware of chemical exfoliant ingredients; not all of them have a gritty, easy-to-identify texture. Many chemical exfoliants are acids and can strip or damage your skin. 

If you’ve just started using retinols and experience prolonged dryness or redness that outlasts the initial tolerance building phase, check your products for these chemical or natural exfoliation ingredients:

  • glycolic acid & lactic acids (AHAs, alpha-hydroxy acids)
  • salicylic acid (BHA, beta-hydroxy acid)
  • papain
  • bromelain
  • sugar
  • oats
  • apple or apple cider vinegar
  • coffee
  • milk
  • citrus
  • baking soda

If you find these ingredients in your products, reach out to the skincare expert who recommended retinol and ask them if you should discontinue using the exfoliators or using them less frequently. Too many exfoliants + retinol can damage your skin. 

Retinol + Glycolic Acid

Studies show that a retinol/glycolic acid combination offers significant improvement in the appearance of photoaged skin compared with retinol alone. According to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, there is increased efficacy of glycolic acid used with retinol. Does this study mean that you should run out and add a glycolic acid to your daily skincare routine? Not so fast! Certain skin types can only tolerate glycolic acids on a weekly or monthly basis. Talk to a licensed facial treatment specialist to find out if you’re a candidate for this potent anti-aging combination.

Retinol + Benzoyl Peroxide 

Mixing retinols with a benzoyl peroxide product is a big no-no. Although these are often prescribed together for the treatment of severe acne, only use them separately (one at night and one in the morning) and as directed by a physician or skincare professional. 

If you absolutely love a product and don’t want to give it up while using retinol, the best advice is to stagger the application. Use a retinol at night and use the other products in the morning. In all cases, consult a professional to ensure you’re getting the maximum benefits from your products. If you’re preparing for waxing or laser procedures, definitely take a break from retinol prior to getting those treatments. Retinoids are not safe to use during pregnancy; discontinue use if you’re trying to become pregnant or are currently pregnant.