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Retinols are the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth (or at least something you can purchase in a bottle). But you can’t simply start slathering on a retinol (we wish) and hope for the best.

Retinols are potent and require a more delicate process of finding the right product formulation for your skin. We’re here to help and in this article we’ll cover…

  • what retinol is and how it can help skin
  • things to look out for when using it (especially if you’re a newbie)
  • different forms of retinol
  • how to use it
  • five great product picks for different skin types

Touted as a real skin superhero by experts, retinol continues to make an appearance on every list of skin care essentials. Retinol is part of the wider retinoid group, all of which are derivatives of vitamin A.

It carries fewer side effects than retinoic acid (the heavy stuff you’d get prescribed for at the derm) and is here to play the long game toward giving you results.

Whether you’re dealing with acne, aging, dullness, or dark spots, retinols are here to save the day. Sound amazing, right?

Yet, despite increased attention and discussion, confusion around this incredible ingredient continues to reign; especially since there’s so much to take into consideration.

While it may be fairly new to your radar, vitamin A for skin has been around for a while. “Originally prescribed to treat acne in the 80s, its vast anti-aging benefits were quickly discovered,” reveals Melissa Wood, medical director at Skin Emporium.

When it comes to the individual variations of vitamin A (such as retinyl-acetate, retinyl-palmitate, retinol, and retinaldehyde), results and research conclusions may vary. However the overall class of vitamin A is graded much more favorably for skin health than other, perhaps more hyped, products.

Retinol is coveted for its positive effects against fighting signs of aging (we’re looking at you, fine lines and wrinkles), but its powers don’t end there. From “treating pigmentation, stimulating collagen, and helping to clear acne, there isn’t much retinol can’t do,” Wood adds.

Scientific research has garnered some pretty impressive results to corroborate these claims:

  • Fine lines. One study found the appearance of fine wrinkles was notably diminished after 12 weeks of retinol use.
  • Collagen boost. Another study revealed it can aid in stimulating collagen production.
  • Skin smoothing. Add to the fact that retinol is shown to encourage cell turnover, help even skin tone and reduce pore size, and you’re going to want to incorporate retinol into your daily regimen.

Eye, be careful!

As one of the places lines and wrinkles tend to be most prominent, you’ll want to apply retinol near the eyes. And it is safe to do so, just as long as you’re careful not to get it in them.

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Because retinol can cause skin peeling, some fear this equates to thinning. And as your body slows down, skin thinning is a valid concern. Good news though! Retinol, in fact, increases the thickness of the skin, thanks to its role in encouraging cell turnover. So instead of avoiding retinol, embrace it.

The retinoid group comprises a variety of acids, all of which vary in strength. Retinol esters are the weakest, followed by retinol — the variety most commonly used in skin care products.

At the other end of the scale sits retinoic acid and isotretinoin (behind the acne-buster Accutane); both high in strength and only available via prescription for those with more severe skin concerns. A trip to the derm can help you find out which type is best for your skin health.

So why does retinol tend to be the ‘noid of choice? “Retinol products are favored as not only is it found in a lot of over-the-counter (OTC) products and easy to get, but it works faster due to how it converts in the skin quickly,” explains Louise Walsh, registered dermatology and cosmetic nurse.

The same study that found benefits for skin tone also found that retinol is better tolerated than its heavier duty counterparts like retinoic acid. If you get easily deterred by irritation and redness, courting retinol on a timeline that rivals Mr. Darcy’s personal growth might be your best bet.

Numerous benefits aside, there are some risks to consider. Due to its potency, retinol can prove a bit of a shock — especially “if usage isn’t built up gradually, or you use too strong of a percentage before your skin can tolerate it,” states Walsh.

In this instance, side effects can include stinging, soreness, redness, flaking and peeling. “It’s not pretty and scares a lot of people off of using active ingredients,” she adds.

However, these should only last a couple of weeks or so, and are treatable. Use a rich moisturizer to quell any dryness and peeling.

Retinol is A-OK for all skin tones, but those with dark skin have to take a few more precautions. “Due to a higher risk of hyperpigmentation, you have to follow directions carefully, sunscreen must be worn daily and, as always, take a gradual approach to avoid the potential side effects,” states Walsh.

The same applies if you have sensitive skin — although avoid using a retinol entirely if “you’re allergic to vitamin A, or have chronic rosacea or eczema,” she notes.

Low concentration or not, using it daily is not recommended, and definitely not twice a day.

“We recommend starting off using it 2 to 3 times per week,” shares Wood. If side effects continue to occur, stop using retinol altogether and seek advice from a dermatologist or skin specialist about the best plan of action.

While there’s no evidence retinol increases your chances of sunburn, the acid itself is sensitive to sunlight, so keep your product away from the windowsill; but it’s no reason to confine yourself to a dark room. However, you should still always wear a minimum SPF 30 when heading out.

While those really deep wrinkles might not appear until later on in life, retinol should be seen as a prevention, not just a cure. “Retinol is an exceptional preventative ingredient for people in their 20s to start introducing into their skin care routine,” Wood says.

And once you hit your 30s or above, it should be a bathroom cabinet staple. So what should you consider when choosing one?

This is a primary area of confusion. Surely the highest concentration you can find is best? Not necessarily, explains Walsh. “It depends on your skin type, condition, and your age.”

If you’re bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and barely have any signs of aging, a milder retinol is perfectly acceptable — and “you can get as low as 0.01 to 0.03 percent,” Walsh reveals.

A 0.25 to 0.3 percent concentration tends to be average for OTC products; but, if you’ve got mature skin that’s more damaged, you’ll likely need a higher formulation. If you’re uncertain, check with a derm before buying a product.

When it comes to retinol, patience is key: studies show it can take 3 months (and sometimes longer) for visible improvements to appear.

Hot tip: Although it’s most often utilized in facial products, retinol can technically be applied to most areas of the body — such as the hands and neck, where signs of aging easily appear. It’s also best applied at night, to dry, clean skin, about halfway through your routine.

Retinol comes in an array of forms, from serums and gels, to moisturizers and lotions. Gels and serums tend to be more concentrated, delivering that retinol hit to skin faster and more powerfully; but this also means they’re more likely to irritate.

Meanwhile, lotions and moisturizers are more of a slow-burner, but act as a bit of a buffer to ease potential side effects — and are the better route to take if you’re a newbie.

“It’s quite common for skin to feel dryer when you first start using retinol, so I’d recommend a formula that’s blended with hyaluronic acid or a richer night moisturizer,” Wood shares. “Ceramides and hyaluronic acid […] help reduce any skin sensitivity or initial side effects from retinol use, and reinforce the skin’s moisture barrier.”

Ultimately, it comes down to the extent of your skin concerns, how sensitive your skin is, and how quickly you want to see results.

From percentages to formulas, finding the retinol that’s most suited to your skin care needs can be easier said than done. So, taking into consideration a range of factors — including efficacy, potency, price, and reviews — we’ve rounded up a few of the best on the market to get you started.

Pricing guide

$ = under $20
$$ = $20–$30
$$$ = over $30

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Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Moisturizer

Price: $$

Not only does this offer a respectable dose of retinol, but being incorporated into a moisturizer means skin will enjoy a good dose of hydration. You get a decent amount of product in a jar, it’s fragrance-free, and users love that it doesn’t leave skin feeling greasy or sticky.

Buy Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Moisturizer.

First Aid Beauty Skin Lab Retinol Serum

Price: $$$

Specifically created with a gentle formula, this is ideal for skin that doesn’t like to be messed with. The 0.25 percent retinol concentration is fairly low yet effective enough to tackle fine lines, while aloe and oatmeal (among others) are on-hand to help soothe.

Buy First Aid Beauty Skin Lab Retinol Serum.

Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment

Price: $$$

Older skin needs a bit more assistance, and this lotion packs a 1 percent retinol punch to really work on deep wrinkles and dark spots. Users rave about how effective it is at tackling lines and love how soft skin is left feeling — but at this strength, remember to build up application.

Buy Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment.

RoC Retinol Corrextion Eye Cream

Price: $

A triple threat, this cream tackles fine lines, puffiness and dark circles. It’s noncomedogenic and hypoallergenic, so good for all skin types. Reviewers love how lightweight it feels and note that, even though the tube is fairly small, a little goes a long way.

Buy RoC Retinol Corrextion Eye Cream.

Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum

Price: $$$

Dr. Murad pioneered utilizing acids in skin care, so the brand knows its stuff. This serum ain’t cheap, but experts and consumers alike say it’s well worth the cost — with many experiencing visible improvements after just a few weeks. Plus, the formula contains hyaluronic acid to help keep skin remain plump and hydrated.

Buy Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum.

Whether you want to tackle signs of aging or help prevent them, retinol is a must-have in your skin care arsenal — effective in reducing everything from wrinkles and lines to uneven skin tone and spots.

It’s best to take things slow, building up to the hard hitters; and don’t be too concerned with the initial side effects (such as redness and flaking) that can occur as your skin adjusts.

Suitable for the majority of skin types and tones, retinol is certainly worthy of the acclaim it receives.

Chantelle Pattemore is a writer and editor based in London, UK. She focuses on lifestyle, health, beauty, food, and fitness.