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Retinol: What is it and how can it save your skin?

By Emily Horston


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It’s never too early to take care of your skin, and your twenties are the perfect time to start using anti aging products. Which anti-agers to choose and how to use them can be very confusing, so I have been doing some research lately for myself, as well as to share with you. I’m going to post about each one separately over the next month or so. I hope you will follow along and find some useful information.

First up is the #1 gold standard of anti aging ingredients: Retinoids/Retinol.

What is Retinol?

What is Retinol
Retinol by Avene

Basically, Retinol is the retinoid ingredient in most over the counter skin care products. It is milder than prescription strength retinoids. So what exactly is the difference?

A retinoid is a vitamin A derivative which contains retinoic acid. We all know Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant, right? Well, a retinoid is one of the only substances that is small enough to penetrate the outer layers of the skin and reach the layers where the collagen and elastin reside. It is the #1 skin anti aging product recommended by dermatologists and is backed up by years of proven research.

Retinoids have been used since the early 1970’s. They were first used to treat acne under the brand name Retin-A. Doctors soon noticed that patients on Retin-A had clearer, softer, brighter and less wrinkled skin. Retinoids help re-texturize the skin, speed up cell turnover and boost collagen and elastin. They can help correct sun spots, dullness, crepiness, wrinkles and sagging skin. Research has proven that those who use retinoids have younger looking skin than those that do not.

Prescription retinoids are much stronger and produce the fastest and best results, but can be very harsh on the skin, causing dryness, flaking and redness, which is why many people stop using them. Many doctors recommend starting with a retinol first and then moving up to a prescription cream as needed. When you’re ready to make the move to a prescription retinoid, talk to your doctor about which one will work best for you.

There are 3 main Prescription Strength Retinoids:

Tretinoin, the first with the most known brand name being Retin-A. Other brands of tretinoin are Renova, Avita, Atralin Renova. There is also a generic tretinoin.

Tazarotene (Tazorac) Tazorac acts similar to other retinoids, meaning it penetrates the skin and encourages collagen production, giving the skin improved structure and reducing the appearance of fine lines. Tazorac also encourages skin exfoliation, which can reduce the amount of dead skin cells on the face, giving you a more rejuvenated appearance.

Adapalene (Differin) is a new retinoid that has become widely used as a alternative to tretinoin for acne treatment since it is gentler on skin.


Retinol Strength
Dr. Brandt

Many people can not tolerate prescription retinoids. Enter retinols. It’s the retinoid found in over the counter skincare. Because retinol is gradually converted into retinoic acid (the active ingredient in prescription creams) it is gentler on the skin. Retinol works wonderfully for most of us. It has the benefits of prescription retinoids, although to a lesser degree, but without the harsh side effects.

There are many good retinols available today, from drugstore to high end brands and everyone can benefit from a good retinol regime. Unless you have a skin problems such as acne or psoriasis, retinol may we the best option in your 20’s and early 30’s. Save the prescription creams for later. Some popular retinol treatments to try:


Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Regenerating Anti-Aging Face Cream
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Regenerating Anti-Aging Face Cream

Neutrogena’s retinol treatments are one of the best drugstore options and a great choice if you are just starting out with retinols. They get excellent reviews. My mom has been using these for years and she has beautiful skin. Her first retinol cream was the Healthy Skin Anti Wrinkle and even though she uses other products, she always has these on hand.

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LaRoche Posay

Redermic R by La Roche Posay
Redermic R by La Roche Posay

Redermic R by La Roche Posay is an award winning retinol treatment. It contains 0.01% pure retinol. Redermic R is one of the most highly praised retinol treatments on the market.

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SkinCeuticals Retinol
SkinCeuticals Retinol

SkinCeuticals Retinol products have some of the highest concentrations of retinol available in over the counter products. Retinol 1.0% contains 1% pure retinol. It should be used on pre-conditioned skin since it is much stronger than most over the counter products.

This is an excellent moving-up retinol for those have have been using a lower dose retinol for some time. There is also 0.5 formulation available. Follow the directions carefully and the results will be excellent. Always stop using something if your have.

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Avene Retrinal 0.1 Intensive Cream
Avene Retrinal 0.1 Intensive Cream

Avene Retrinal+ 0.1 Intensive Cream’s formulation is supported by 3 patents. Retinaldehyde, a direct precursor to Retinoic Acid, and RelastideTM, a pro-elastin peptide, and Pre-Tocopheryl, a photostable precursor to vitamin E for maximum efficacy. This moderately priced cream is a customer favorite and a good one to try.

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RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum
RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum

RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum is another drugstore favorite. RoC has been a leader in researching retinol products and also making them affordable. This soft gel-like formula goes on smoothly, evens out your skin tone and leaves your skin glowing and refreshed.

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Dr. Brandt

Glow by Dr. Brandt Revitalizing Retinol Eye Cream
Glow by Dr. Brandt Revitalizing Retinol Eye Cream

Glow by Dr. Brandt Revitalizing Retinol Eye Cream is formulated with time released retinol. It diffuses light to soften lines and wrinkles. It helps improve circulation to the undereye area and binds water to the skin to prevent moisture loss.

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Tips for using retinoids/retinol

Tips for using retinol

Start slowly if you’ve never used a retinoid. Use twice weekly for a few weeks, then increase to three times a week. See how your skin reacts and you can move up to daily usage if you are not experiencing any flaking or redness.

It’s best to apply retinoids at night. Renoids degrade when exposed to direct sunlight. If you are using them during the day make sure to get one that is made for daytime use. Apply a pea sized amount to your face, then apply another pea sized amount to your neck and decolletage. That’s all your need. With retinoids more isn’t better. Many retinol products, such as serums are not moisturizing enough, so use your favorite moisturizer after your serum.

Give the product time to work. Over the counter products generally take 3 to 6 months for you to notice a difference in the smoothing of wrinkles, although you should notice a brighter looking complexion in a few days. Prescription retinoids work faster so you should notice results within 6 to 8 weeks.

Results plateau within six months to a year so you might add another retinol product to your regime, or if using a lower dose prescription retinoid, move up to a higher formulation. If your skin is looking good and you’re happy with the results, stay where you’re at for a few years.

Benzoyl peroxide can deactivate tretinion (the main prescription retinoid). Some doctors claim that AHA’s can also made retinoids less effective when used at the same time (layered), while other doctors say layering is perfectly fine. If you are using a low dose retinol, layering may not cause any irritation, however it could if you are using a stronger product. An alternative treatment would be to use the hydroxy product in the morning and the retinol at bedtime, or you could use them on alternate days.

Packaging is also important in choosing a retinol product as sun exposure will make them less effective. Look for a airtight pump/tube or a dark colored container as both light and air can create a problems.

Wear a sunscreen of at least 30 spf. Again some doctors say that retinols do not make you more sensitive to the sun, but from my personal experience, they do. Also, if you are using a retinol and tanning or burning your skin, you are defeating their purpose.

Stop using a product if you are having excessive redness, itching or flaking and consult your doctor. It may not be the right retinol product for you. You may need a lower formulation or a different one.


After reading this guide we hope you won’t have any problems in picking the right retinol for you.

About Emily Horston

Emily lives and breathes fashion. Her love for styling shines through in her lively articles about everything fashion and beauty-related. And her writing is not just informative but also full of her personal passion for the latest trends and timeless style advice. Learn more about The Atelier Blog's Editorial Process.

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