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Is Retinol right for your skincare routine?

Here's everything you need to know about this popular ingredient.

Over the past few years, retinol (and its alternatives) has increased in popularity and has even become a staple feature in nighttime skincare routines everywhere. Even those who haven't jumped headfirst into using it are curious about the highly-regarded ingredient.

But what exactly is this ingredient so often seen in creams and serums alongside buzzwords like "age-defying," "anti-wrinkle" or "reparative"? Is retinol safe? When should it be used and why?

Look no further to find answers on whether it's time to incorporate retinol into your skin care regimen. We sat down with skin care industry experts to get all the details on this popular product.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a synthetic derivative of vitamin A, the group of fat-soluble vitamins common in carrots, eggs and sweet potatoes.

According to Dr Tina Alster of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery, when retinol is applied topically, it converts to retinoic acid by specialized enzymes found in the skin. Retinoic acid can also be applied topically, but is much harsher than a retinol cream or serum, as it does not convert naturally over time.

What does retinol do?

"Retinol is a gold-standard ingredient in skin care because it alters the behaviour of aged cells, so they act in a more youthful manner. It smooths and refines skin's texture, enhances skin radiance and treats ageing," Amanda Von Dem Hagen, a licensed esthetician and regional education specialist for Skinbetter Science, told us.

When retinol is incorporated into age-preventive skincare routines, it helps accelerate skin renewal, enhance collagen production and reduce the appearance of ageing, uneven texture and age spots.

Retinol benefits

Applying vitamin A topically in the form of retinol can include the following benefits:

  • Prevent wrinkles due to their minimizing effect, as well as smooth out existing fine lines and wrinkles.

  • Brighten dull skin by exfoliating at a cellular level, which results in the brighter and smoother new skin.

  • Regulate oily skin and minimize breakouts.

  • Fade dark age spots, sun spots and hyperpigmentation and even out complexion over time.

Retinol side effects

Since retinol is such a powerful ingredient, it can cause the skin to redden or peel if it's incorporated into a skin care regimen too quickly or used too often. Flakiness, dryness and even some breakouts can occur when retinol is first added to a routine. Typically, though, it just takes a little time for the skin to adjust.

"Begin slowly by adding it into a nightly routine one to two times per week for the first week and increasing it gradually from there, depending on how the skin reacts," Von Dem Hagen said. "If there is visible redness or peeling, use it once per week for a month, then increase to twice per week and monitor the skin for irritation before increasing use."

Von Dem Hagen said those using a retinol cream or serum to allow it to absorb in the skin for 20 to 30 minutes before applying another product on top. It is also imperative to use sunscreen daily to protect the skin while using retinol, as it can become more sensitive to the sun.

Alster said she always advises her patients who are considering pregnancy or are pregnant or nursing, to consult their obstetrician before beginning or continuing their retinol treatment. Other retinoids, such as prescriptions like Isotretinoin that's taken orally to treat acne, have shown harmful side effects for pregnant women, including miscarriage.

When should you begin using retinol?

Von Dem Hagen highly recommended incorporating a retinol product into a skincare routine at age 30 three to four times a week. By your 40s, every other night is beneficial and in your 50s, 60s and beyond, incorporate a retinol product five to seven times per week.

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