How to: Transform Your Skin With Retinol and Retinoids

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In the world of anti-aging skincare, there are few solutions as transformative as retinol. Though the skincare ingredient has generated enough buzz to become a household name, there’s some confusion as to what these serums are and how they work. While both retinol and retinoids serve similar functions, the terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably—retinoids and retinol aren’t exactly different, but they’re not exactly the same, either.

Here, we’ll explain the differences between retinol and retinoids, when and why you should choose one over the over, and the correct ways to infuse these powerful serums into your skincare regimen. From there, you’ll be able to make an informed decision with a Portrait provider to discover the perfect product to help you achieve your skin goals.

Retinol: Skincare’s Most-Talked-About Ingredient

Retinol is the industry’s go-to for targeting wrinkles and other signs of aging. It’s both effective and accessible—no prescription is needed.

What is retinol?

Retinol is an often misused catchall term: What most people refer to as a retinol is actually retinoids, an umbrella term for vitamin A derivatives from natural and synthetic origins. The most common type of retinoid is retinol—the serums we know and love for their antioxidant elements and anti-aging abilities. Though retinoids and retinol are very similar, over-the-counter retinol functions contain a lesser concentration of the active ingredient retinoic acid. Retinols can be listed on skincare ingredient lists as:

  • Retinyl palmitate
  • Retinyl linoleate
  • Retinaldehyde
  • Propionic acid
  • Retinyl acetate

Why should I use retinol?

There are countless benefits to implementing retinol in your skincare routine, no matter your skin type. At the top of the list, it speeds up cellular turnover, producing fresh, new skin cells to replace old ones—leaving your skin glowing, smooth, healthy, and more youthful-looking. Though retinol as an ingredient doesn’t have the ability to brighten or hydrate your complexion, it can increase the efficacy of other skincare products formulated to provide those benefits. Please note, it may take longer to see noticeable results from retinol skincare products because of their lower strength of retinoid.  

How do I use retinol?

We recommend starting slow and gradually incorporating a retinol product into your routine to avoid irritation. Begin with a pea-sized amount and after application, give your skin a few days to show any signs of a reaction. If there’s no adverse reaction, use it once a week and slowly work your way up per the product or your provider’s instructions.

Where should I apply retinol?

Retinol is most commonly applied to areas that show the most dramatic signs of aging: face, neck, and decolletage. But, it can be beneficial for any skin that demonstrates signs of aging—especially hands and arms. Some all-over body lotions even contain retinol to improve tone or texture. We recommend contacting a Portrait provider to give you a personalized recommendation on where you’ll see the maximum benefit from retinol.

What time of day should I apply retinol?

Retinol can increase your skin’s sensitivity to sun, leading to a higher chance of skin irritation. To avoid any adverse reactions, it is best to apply retinol products at night. However, you can use retinol during the day if you also apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher.

At what age should I start using retinol?

Ideally, it’s a good idea to start in your mid-twenties to thirties, when your collagen production slows down and you may start to see signs of aging. But, you don’t have to wait until wrinkles appear to begin using retinol, it’s an excellent preventative and corrective solution.

Can retinol be used with my current skincare routine?

Many retinol products are formulated with other good-for-you ingredients, such as vitamin C and hyaluronic acid to soothe sensitive skin, boost benefits, and more. In fact, retinol has been proven to increase the efficacy of other skincare ingredients—making way for transformational results. Be sure to always follow up retinol application with your favorite moisturizer to hydrate and lock in your glow.

When using retinol, it is advised to discontinue use of harsher products such as astringents, alcohol-based toners, and intensive chemical exfoliators. These products can increase sensitivity, over-exfoliate, and dry out your skin, leading to peeling and other unwanted side effects. You should also avoid products that contain benzoyl peroxide as it can oxidize retinol and render it ineffective.

Does retinol treat acne?

Topical retinol targets acne by dissolving dead skin cells and removing dirt and oil from pores. After this exfoliation, acne-specific medications can penetrate and treat more effectively. Ask your Portrait provider which topical retinol product will work best for your unique needs.

What retinol concentration is best?

The answer truly depends on your skin type and needs—as retinol products tend to come in 0.25%, 0.3%, 0.5%, or 1% concentrations, a concentration that is effective for one may be harmful for another. Using a product with a retinol concentration too high for your skin type can lead to irritation and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). We recommend starting with the lowest concentration and gradually working your way up to avoid negative side effects.

What are the side effects of retinol?

Retinol may cause skin irritation, redness, or flaking. If you notice any of these reactions, opt for less-frequent application, a lower concentration, or applying after moisturizer as a buffer.

Who should not use retinol?

Most clients can tolerate the mildest forms of retinol, but those with sensitive skin, allergies, or skin concerns, such as rosacea, may not be good candidates for retinol. 

To err on the side of caution, many healthcare providers advise against using retinol products during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Consult with a provider to find out if retinol is safe for you.

Why would my provider recommend retinol?

Your provider may recommend retinol over prescription-strength retinoids for a number of reasons—namely price, accessibility, and skin toleration. Since you don’t need a prescription for a retinol product, it might be challenging to decide which one is the right for you. Your provider is happy to recommend an over-the-counter retinol that is compatible with your budget and skin concerns. Book an appointment today for a skin consultation and personalized recommendations.

Retinoid: A Skincare Transformation by Prescription

As mentioned, retinoid treatments span a wider variety of products and efficacies than retinol. In most cases, retinoids are formulated with stronger concentrations that are only available by prescription. You’ll likely see faster results when using retinoids, but there is also a higher chance of skin irritation.

What are retinoids?

Retinoids are a class of compounds derived from vitamin A that are used to treat several skin concerns, including stretch marks, acne, dark spots, and wrinkles. While you do need a prescription for most retinoids, your Portrait provider can analyze your skin and offer a personalized recommendation. A few medical-grade forms of retinoids they may recommend:

Retinoic acid

Retinoic acid is the active ingredient in retinoids.

Adapalene (Differin®)

Differin® 0.1% was formerly only available as a prescription but can now be purchased over the counter as an acne treatment.

Tretinoin (Retin-A)

Tretinoin is a prescription retinoid used to treat acne and other skin conditions.

Isotretinoin (Accutane®)

Accutane is an oral medicine used to treat severe cystic acne. Accutane can have serious and unpleasant side effects, including congenital disabilities if taken or used while pregnant.

Retinoid Esters (Retinyl Palmitate, Retinyl Acetate, and Retinyl Linoleate)

Retinoid esters are the least irritating form of retinoids and are the primary ingredients in over-the-counter retinol products.

Why should I use retinoids?

Retinoids, like retinol, increase the rate in which your skin turns over its cells and reveals healthy, youthful-looking skin. However, the severity of your skin concerns is typically the deciding factor that determines concentration and formula. Our Portrait providers are happy to help you find your perfect solution.

How do I use retinoids?

As retinoids are often more concentrated forms of retinol, starting with a low concentration and slowly working your way up is the best approach to minimize adverse reactions. Begin with the lowest concentration, and apply a pea-sized amount to your entire face. Wait a few days to see if a reaction occurs. If nothing negative happens, you can start using retinoids weekly and can work your way up per your provider’s recommendations.

Where should I apply retinoids?

You can apply a topical retinoid to your face, neck, decolletage, and hands. We recommend avoiding using retinoids on irritated, sensitive, or very thin areas of skin, such as directly under your eyes. Consult with your provider for personalized application instructions.

What time of day should I apply retinol?

Like retinol, retinoids can make your skin sensitive to the sun’s UV rays and lead to redness and irritation. To avoid adverse reactions, it is best to apply retinol products at night or during the day before a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher.

At what age should I start using retinoids?

Similar to retinol, you can start retinoid treatments as early as your mid-twenties as a preventative measure.

Can retinoids be used with my current skincare routine?

Retinoids, unlike retinol, are typically focused on a single active ingredient: vitamin A. So although retinoids do have the power to boost the efficacy of other products, you’ll have to introduce ingredients like hyaluronic acid or vitamin C with standalone products. One product retinoid users should always use is a deeply hydrating moisturizer which is essential to combat dryness and soothe sensitivity.

Retinoids are essentially chemical exfoliators, so like retinol, providers recommend discontinuing use of astringents, alcohol-based toners, and other intensive chemical exfoliators to avoid increased sensitivity and other adverse reactions.

What concentration of retinoids is best?

It’s difficult to know right away which retinoid and concentration will produce optimal results with minimal-to-no reaction. As with retinol, avoiding irritation and PIH is dependent on which concentration is best suited to your skin type and severity. Share your concerns and goals with a Portrait provider for a customized recommendation. 

What are the side effects of retinoids?

The most common side effects of retinoids are abnormal skin peeling/flaking, visible redness, sensitivity to sun, and skin irritation.

Who should not use retinoids?

It’s likely best to avoid retinoid treatments if you’re allergic or have sensitive, inflamed skin. Like retinol, many healthcare providers may advise against retinoid use (oral or topical treatments) during pregnancy because of the correlation to congenital disabilities.  

Why would my provider recommend retinoids?

Your provider may recommend retinoids to help you tackle troubling skin concerns with clinical-strength efficacy. Though a prescription is needed, consult with your Portrait provider for a thorough skin evaluation and personalized recommendations.

Provider Picks: Retinol and Retinoids

Our team highly recommends the following products, but we encourage you to consult with your Portrait provider for customized recommendations:

Retinols and Retinoids by Price

$: Generic Adapalene

This low-cost, FDA-approved retinoid effectively restores skin texture and tone while fighting acne at the source. Generic, over-the-counter adapalene features a gentle-but-effective 0.1% concentration to deeply treat and heal acne without damaging skin.

$$: The Ordinary Retinol 0.1% in Squalane

This cult-favorite solution features a low-grade retinol concentration for reducing the appearance of fine lines, sun damage, and other signs of aging without irritation. Plus, it’s suspended in squalane, a plant-based oil, for intense hydrating and soothing benefits.

$$$: StriVectin® Super-C Retinol Brighten & Correct Vitamin C Serum

This splurge-worthy serum combines the complexion-perfecting power of retinol with the brightening benefits of vitamin C to smooth fine lines and texture, fight free radicals, and restore radiance to dull, uneven skin.

Retinols and Retinoids by Concern

Dry or sensitive skin: CeraVe® Skin Renewing Retinol Serum for Anti-Aging

This active-packed formula contains hydrating hyaluronic acid, soothing niacinamide, protective ceramides, and encapsulated retinol—a gentle, time-released technology to support your skin barrier long after application.

Acne: Retin-A 0.025%

This clinical-strength retinoid is available only by prescription as it contains tretinoin, one of the most powerful topical retinoids on the market. Retin-A stimulates cell turnover to release trapped bacteria and irritants that cause deep, painful pimples such as cystic acne. 

Wrinkles: Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Solution Treatment

This lightweight lotion combines a blend of soothing oat extract, nourishing licorice, and more plant-based antioxidants with hard-working retinol to visibly refine pore size, and diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

Hyperpigmentation: Origins Plantscription™ Retinol Night Moisture with Alpine Flower 

This radiance-boosting moisturizer accelerates skin’s natural cell turnover to reveal a more even-toned appearance. Plus, it contains Alpine Flower and Anogeissus to boost collagen production and hydration.

If you’re ready to transform your complexion with the help of retinol or retinoids, book an appointment with a Portrait provider for a personalized consultation and recommendation. 

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