Physical Health, Tips & Techniques, Wellness / Self-Care

Why Retinol is the key to clean, clear Skin

And everything else you need to know about the miracle skincare ingredient.

words by: Adam Hurly
Oct 5, 2021

Ask any dermatologist and they’ll tell you, if you haven’t incorporated retinol into your skincare regimen, you should highly consider it. It’s lauded as the not-so-secret ingredient for fighting signs of aging, eye bags, as well as acne, on top of a host of other benefits.


Here are the types of people that retinol helps drastically: anyone who experiences excessive sun exposure and thus has aggressively photo-aged or rough, splotchy skin; anyone who gets the occasional (or many) pimples; anyone whose skin is showing fine lines or forehead wrinkles; anyone with overly oily skin, or visibly large pores; anyone whose skin reflects their vices (like smoking, drinking, exhaustion, processed foods, and the likes). So, in essence… anyone and everyone can benefit from retinol.


Something every dermatologist will also say is that retinol can both treat and prevent the above concerns—and that there’s a form of retinol out there for everyone. Whether you’re sensitive and need a gentle OTC option or can handle prescription-strength in its highest grade, retinol has you covered.


At risk of this sounding like an infomercial, we’ll let you read more about this “miracle-working” skincare ingredient, to learn how retinol improves complexion and can yield impressive age-reversing results in as little as three months.


What is Retinol?

Retinol is a synthetic derivative of Vitamin A, which itself is a superhero skin ingredient. Vitamin A helps expedite healing and regeneration in the dermis and epidermis (the two topmost layers of skin), and can shrink the appearance of pores while helping mitigate breakouts and regulating sebum production.


Retinol, as a derivative, does all of these things, including fighting free radicals and pollutants that otherwise age skin and reduce production of collagen. In other words, retinol promotes firmness, smoothness, plumpness, clarity, and all other things good in the skin. They are championed by dermatologists as being the best solution for wrinkles, fine lines, dark spots, and blemishes, for their ability to reverse these signs of “photoaging” in the skin.


Different types of Retinol/Retinoids

You can get retinol in different forms and concentrations. In fact, the technical word for the category is retinoid, whereas retinol is one of those three types (however, the word retinol has more or less taken over as the category, too.) The higher the concentration a retinoid, the more potent it is on the skin. High grades (like prescription formulas) can be good for some people who have highly tolerant skin, whereas more sensitive skin types might prefer over-the-counter versions, or even herbal alternatives. 


There are four main types of over-the-counter retinoids, and two prescription grades.


Over-the-counter Retinoids, in order of strength:

Retinyl palmitate, Retinaldehyde, Retinol, Adapalene


VERSO’s night cream, RoC’s eye cream, and Murad’s serum are three of our favorite OTC retinol-powered products.


Prescription Retinoids, in order of strength:

Tretinoin, Tazarotene


Apostrophe is one brand that connects you with dermatologists through the internet to receive prescription-grade tretinoin.


Some oral options exist, but retinol is best administered topically, directly onto the area of skin it is targeting.


Retinol side effects

It may take your skin a couple of weeks to adjust to retinol, which is why some doctors advise starting with a low-grade, OTC version. You can experience slight redness, dryness, and peeling, as well as extra sensitivity to the sun. (It’s good to have a daily SPF moisturizer on hand.) However, because the sun can also neutralize retinol’s effectiveness, it’s best to use retinol in the evening, as part of your overnight regimen. This doubly makes sense when you consider that the body regenerates itself overnight, so you can magnify the retinol’s powers to resurface healthier cells and to help skin heal and restore. 


Speak with your doctor if symptoms persist beyond 3-4 weeks, or switch to a lower grade of retinol. 


The best Retinol alternative

If your skin is especially sensitive, or if you’d rather try a natural approach to anti-aging, then you can consider bakuchiol, the best alternative. It’s an extract from the Psoralea corylifolia plant, and is commonly used in therapeutic Eastern medicine practices. Its growing popularity as a retinol ingredient—for its ability to render the same benefits, with far fewer side effects—is making it more common among everyday skincare brands.


We suggest trying Herbivore Botanicals Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum, $54


When to Expect Results from Retinol

Because few products deliver overnight miracles, you need to plan a long game with retinol. If your skin turns itself over completely every month (roughly…), then you need a few full cycles for the surface of your skin to turn a new face. That’s why dermatologists and brands say to wait 90 days before you see truly drastic, uplifting results. However, in order to preserve these benefits, you also need to keep incorporating retinol into your regimen—though it’s probably OK to alternate every-other-night at this point, past the 90 day mark.


Now that you know retinol is an ingredient to look out for in skincare products, check out 5 other clean and natural ingredients to keep an eye out for.


Photo via Grooming Lounge