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Is Retinol Right For Your Skin? 5 Things To Consider Before Using

By: Dr Poonam Jatana, MD Dermatology
August 24, 2021

Retinol is one of the most exciting ingredients on the skincare market for mature skin. This potent ingredient is clinically proven to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, improve rough texture, and diminish dark spots. However, retinol can be harsh and drying. 

So is retinol right for your skin? Is it safe for your particular skin concern? To help you answer those questions and decide if this ingredient is right for you, we've done some investigating to see who will benefit from its use and what steps you should take to ensure that you can reap its benefits without irritation or redness.

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative and has been used in cosmetics and skincare products since the 1980s. Retinol is an effective ingredient to help improve the appearance of aging, sun-damaged, acne-prone skin. This article explores how retinol works, what you can expect during your first few weeks of use, how it differs from other topical anti-aging ingredients, how to use it properly, including what to do if your skin becomes irritated.

What are the benefits of retinol? Can I use retinol if I have acne or sensitive skin? What are the potential side effects? The truth is that there's a lot of myths and misconceptions about retinol. That's why we're here to answer all of your questions about this powerful anti-aging ingredient.

Before you buy retinol and what's the difference between 0.3 and 0.01 percent? Let's first go over what Retinol is…

1. Retinol at its best

Hailed by some as a “miracle” anti-aging ingredient, retinol penetrates deep into the layers of the skin and promotes the production of collagen and elastin, both of which work to plump the skin.

Retinol has been proven to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, even causing what some have termed “reverse aging”. It can also be effective against acne and the visible signs of sun damage or scarring.

2. Potential irritation

Despite these great benefits, retinol comes with more side effects than your average active skincare ingredient. Many users will experience irritated and drying skin when first introducing retinol into their routines. For some, these side effects never go away.

There are worse effects that a few may experience, such as skin peeling and the aggravation of dry skin, and eczema. If your skin reacts poorly to retinol, it is best to avoid it altogether and use different, gentler anti-aging ingredients.

3. Sun sensitivity

Another crucially important effect of retinol is sun sensitivity. Retinol products increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun and increase the likelihood of sunburn. Overexposure to the sun is one of the leading causes of skin cancer, therefore caution is required when using a retinol product.

When using retinol as part of your skincare routine, it is imperative that you apply it only at night and follow with a strong SPF the next day.

4. Skin purging

On top of the irritated skin that retinol can bring on, it is also a known cause of the dreaded “skin purging” feared by skincare aficionados everywhere. Skin purging happens when using a strong active ingredient on your skin for the first time. 

The exfoliating abilities of the new product push to the surface any impurities and dead skin cells that were lurking beneath. This takes the form of a slightly prolonged breakout in which your skin clears out everything it was holding onto. Once these have cleared, breakouts are generally far less frequent than before.

For this reason, it is recommended not to start using this product in the weeks before any important event such as a wedding or anytime you want to be looking your best.

5. How to use it safely

So now you know everything to consider before using retinol, how do you actually use it safely?
First, do a patch test before use. This is important when using any new ingredient, but especially so when using something as strong as retinol.

Second, start with the lowest concentration of retinol you can. Use up the bottle before moving on to a slightly higher concentration (only if needed) so as to acclimatize your skin to the ingredient. For beginners, The Ordinary sells retinol in gradually increasing concentrations, from 0.2% to 0.5% up to 1%.

Third, do not use retinol every night. Especially when first starting, once or twice a week is good enough. Make sure you never exceed the recommended amount instructed by the manufacturer. If significant irritation occurs, stop using the product.
And finally, always follow up retinol use with SPF the next day.

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