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Beauty Buzzwords: Retinol

If ever there were a skin care ingredient that inspired collective joy amongst dermatologists, it would be retinol (or, rather, retinoids — but more on that below). A derivative of the vitamin A molecule, retinoids affect gene expression, boosting collagen production and increasing skin’s hyaluronic acid content while positively impacting — and perhaps even preventing — photoaging, smoothing skin texture and fading hyperpigmentation.

So which is it: retinol or retinoids? The term “retinoids” encompasses this family of vitamin A derivatives — it’s the catchall. Under the retinoid umbrella you’ll encounter the strongest of the bunch, retinoic acid, which is found in prescription formulas (think: Retin-A and Differin) and, not surprisingly, offers the most skin-repairing benefits. Over-the-counter (OTC) formulas rely on retinol, a gentler derivative of vitamin A that, when applied to skin, actually converts into retinoic acid, but takes more time to show results.

You’ll also come across pre-retinols (retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleat and retinyl palmitate) in OTC skin care products, but these tend to be extremely gentle and therefore less effective. In fact, if your off-the-shelf formula contains pre-retinols rather than retinol, you should put it right back on the shelf: Retinol is the only truly effective form you can grab at the drugstore. Some dermatologists argue that using pre-retinols to ready sensitive skin for eventual retinol exposure can be helpful — just don’t expect these pre-retinols to deliver the same benefits as retinol.

The Benefits

Retinoids really do it all on the anti-aging spectrum: They encourage skin cell turnover, effectively decrease fine lines, help thicken the skin barrier, plump skin, and reverse signs of sun and environmental damage. But guess what? They also cut down on excess oil that can clog pores, making them a popular choice amongst acne sufferers. You may have read that retinoids exfoliate skin, but that’s a myth; the peeling and ruddiness often associated with topical retinoid use can be attributed to skin irritation (known as retinoid dermatitis), plain and simple. However, just because your skin starts to flake or redden doesn’t mean you should ditch the tube. In fact, dermatologists suggest toughing it out because your skin cells will eventually “adapt” to your chosen retinoid. If your skin reaches a level of irritation you can’t stand, dermatologists suggest cutting down usage to once a week.

The Best Bets

Ready to dive into the retinoid game? Prescription creams offer stronger, more effective formulas, but OTC products boasting retinol also can give you results. If you suffer from skin sensitivity and worry about irritation, you’re in luck: Sophisticated delivery systems (think: slow-release formulas) purport to help cut down on skin irritation while still delivering a higher concentration of retinol. Often, OTC retinol formulas will also contain calming ingredients to ease any side effects.

As great as retinoic acid is, it won’t transform your skin overnight. As with most skin care, you’ll need to give it time to work its magic — 12 weeks at minimum, even more for OTC formulas boasting retinol. You’ll also want to wear your retinoid formula while you sleep; vitamin A is photosensitive and can degrade in direct sunlight, making it less effective or rendering it ineffective altogether. Finally, remember how we said that skin cells learn to tolerate retinoids over time? That means that not only your skin will become less irritated by them (if it even was to begin with), but also that you’ll also outgrow the positive benefits of that particular strength, typically around the one-year mark. What to do then? Graduate to a stronger formula.

Photo: Tom Merton

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