Is Retinol Right For You?

Retinol is known as a “holy grail” ingredient and one of the best products to use to improve the look of fine lines and wrinkles. It’s proven to help the signs of aging, improve skin texture, treat acne, reduce pigmentation, and prevents collagen breakdown, but it’s also one of those ingredients people don’t quite understand. So, what is retinol and should you use retinol in your skincare routine? Watch the video or continue reading for more!

There are different forms of retinoids:

  • Retinol is a non-prescription retinoid and skin enzymes need to convert it into a version the body recognizes, called retinoic acid. Studies have shown that retinol can be just as effective as retinoic acid, but requires more time for visible results (it’s also less irritating and more gentle on the skin).  
  • Prescription level retinoids, like Retin-A, contain retinoic acid and therefore skip the conversion process and get to work immediately. This means you see quicker results, but it also means you may see the most irritation and dryness after use. 
  • Retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate are common derivatives of retinol and are the most gentle, but also weaker and less effective. 

You need to use retinol consistently to see results

Since the body requires time to process retinol into the active form of retinoic acid, it’s important to use retinol consistently to see results (3-6 months). 

A little goes a long way. Only use a pea-sized amount of retinol. Consistency and time are the most important factors when it comes to retinol. You don't need a lot to get results, but using too much can lead to more irritation. 

Protect your skin when you use retinol

Cellular turnover increases when you use retinol, which is one of its many benefits! As a result this “new skin” is more sensitive to the sun. Retinol also oxidizes in the sun, which makes it inactive, so always wear sunscreen while using it.

Moisturizing well, when using retinol, is also very important. If you're new to retinol or have very sensitive skin, you may want to start applying the product using the "sandwich" method; layer moisturizer, then retinol, and then another layer of moisturizer. At the very least, apply moisturizer over top of any retinol product. 


Clean Beauty School Sunscreen

Can I use exfoliating products with retinol?

Avoid using physical scrubs and acids (AHAs & BHAs) frequently when using retinol. You can use acids on alternating nights, but go-easy, since over-exfoliating can weaken the skin’s protective barrier, causing sensitivity and irritation. Retinol can already make skin more sensitive until it adapts to the retinoic acid, so it’s recommended to stay away from exfoliating products for the first fews weeks when using retinol. Once your skin has adjusted, you can consider introducing exfoliating products 1-2x per week (alternating with your retinol use).

Consonant Maximum Glycolic Meta Serum

Here’s a sample night skincare routine to follow: 

Does using retinol cause your skin to “purge”

Retinol is one of the few skincare ingredients that may cause more breakouts before clearing them up. Increased cellular turnover brings breakouts under the skin to its surface. You may experience more small red pimples or whiteheads, especially where you are prone to breakout. Thankfully though, retinol should not cause cystic pimples to appear.

Can I use retinol use while pregnant and breastfeeding?

You should absolutely avoid prescription oral retinoids, like Isotretinoin (aka Accutane) when pregnant and breastfeeding. Medical professionals also recommend you avoid prescription retinoids (like Retin-A) and any over the counter retinol products, while pregnant.

As for breastfeeding, many experts agree that retinol likely dose not pose a risk to the baby. As Dr. Thomas Hale, author of Medications and Mothers’ Milk states, “the transfer of  [drugs] through the placenta are entirely different from the transfer of drugs into human milk. The milk compartment is actually tighter and less penetrable than the placenta.”

That said, I will NOT recommend any retinol use to my clients who are breastfeeding, but leave it as a personal decision. I personally felt confident in my decision to use a a BHT free retinol 1-2x per week for a short time while breastfeeding my 10 month old because of everything I have read. I also really appreciate this mom’s take on the use of retinol and breastfeeding. When in doubt, consult your doctor and do your own research!

You can also consider a botanical retinol option, which are not vitamin A derived, but achieve similar results. 

Three Ships Dream Cream Bio-Retinol


Why are people scared of retinol? 

Most clean beauty advocates stay away from retinol because of studies conducted using retinyl palmitate and an increase in skin cancer. This study used mice, which naturally have thinner skin and were in direct UV light for 4 hours per day, 5 days per week, for 40 weeks. These results were contested by the medical community.

I would also argue that if you're going to have that amount of UV exposure (which few of us in the northern hemisphere ever will), then you may want to avoid using retinol in general! Just like alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, or citrus essential oils for that matter, it's not recommended to use retinol in the sun. Using retinol at night and wearing sunscreen consistently, will mitigate this risk. 

Also, if you're not going to wear sunscreen, regardless of how much sun you get, I would advise you not to use retinol or any exfoliating products. 

Horror stories of disrupted skin barrier, peeling, redness, and flaking are also a cause for concern. If using a prescription retinoid, there can be a period of 3-4 weeks where skin undergoes a process called "retinization". Strengthening the barrier function with moisturizing products before starting retinoids and continuing to use hand in hand can prevent a lot of these symptoms. 

Using retinol sparingly (pea sized amount) and less often can also help prevent any adverse side effects. Just like any products, less is often more. 

Many skin creams that advertise retinol or weaker retinoids, include only small amounts of the active ingredient. Look for products that list the percentage of retinol so that you can track how the product performs on your skin and move up to a higher percentage when your skin is ready.

Beginners should start at a concentration between 0.25% and 0.5% 1-2x per week and work up from there. 


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