How To Use Retinol, According to the Experts.

Ah retinol, the ingredient everyone says we should be using, but no one actually likes to use. Women have been using this topical wrinkle fighter since the 1940’s, when the first clinical study was published on retinol. Yet like many popular cosmetic ingredients, the FDA has yet to regulate its use (they only regulate retinoic acid (like Retin-A) and prescription products). Therefore, it’s up to consumers to know what to look for in a quality retinol product and talk to their dermatologist about how to incorporate it into their skincare routine

Luckily for us, on this episode of Breaking Beauty, hosts Carlene Higgins and Jill Dunn sit down (virtually) with P&G’s principal scientist, Dr. Frauke Neuser, to talk about the skincare ingredient we love to hate, (but maybe we should start loving more). Dr. Neuser details how to use retinol, how to avoid irritation when using retinol, and how much retinol a product needs to be effective.

how to use retinol

What is Retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that encourages your skin cells to turn over faster than they normally would—ramping up collagen production and rebalancing your skin on a deeper level than most topical skincare products (I.e. acids). Retinol acts on fine lines, texture, and scarring. It’s also the number one ingredient recommended by dermatologists. 

So Why Don’t We Love It?

Primarily, irritation. Redness, flakiness, stinging, and drying are all reasons why, in a study of over 6,000 women in North America, only 50% of women who had actually tried retinol used it for more than a month. And of those 50%, only two out of ten women kept using retinol after several months. 

The good news? Irritation is literally a side-effect of retinol, and can be avoided with a little trial and error. 

How To Avoid Irritation When Using Retinol

  • Look for a smaller concentration (or percentage) of retinol in product; 
  • Try a different form of retinol (I.e. retinol-palmitate, which is an ester of the retinoid acid, and due to it’s larger molecule size, barely penetrates—I.e. is more gentle); 
  • Try a slow-release product; 
  • Try to use a moisturizing product instead of a serum (or layer a gentle moisturizer on-top);
  • Experiment with using it less frequently, or; 
  • Try a different formulation that is more suitable for your skin type. 

How Much Retinol Do You Need To Be Effective? 

Dr. Neuser noted that it depends. There are a variety of factors (formulation, stability, and absorption) that make a retinol product efficacious but generally you can follow the European standard for an effective dose which is a product containing .2-.3% retinol. 

Does Packaging Matter?

Yes, packaging can affect stability of retinol. Ideally, your retinol product would be in an air-tight container. How to know if the product is oxidizing? Observe whether the product is changing color over time. Changes in color, especially if a product is turning yellow, is a sign that the product is starting to degrade.

Does It Make Skin More Sensitive to the Sun?

According to the research, fundamentally, retinol does not photosensitize the skin the same way that acids (I.e. BHAs and AHAs) do. However, since you’re presumably using retinol to get rid of sun-damage or prevent wrinkles (primarily caused by the sun), daily sunscreen use is recommended when using a topical retinol.

does retinol make skin sensitive to the sun?

Should You Take a Break from Retinol?

According to the dermatologists P&G scientists asked, it’s not necessary. It’s a product they recommend using “from cradle to grave” whether you’re 20 or 80. However, other skin experts, such as Renee Rouleau, only recommend retinol for aging skin. Rouleau is a celebrity aesthetician with a client roster that includes Madeline Petsch, Lili Reinhart, and Demi Lavato. She has a slightly different approach to retinol as she notes it’s meant primarily for aging skin that is concerned with wrinkles. 

  • So what does she recommend for clients in their twenties that may be struggling more with skin tone and acne? Rouleau recommends using an exfoliating acid serum three nights a week followed by a hydrating serum three nights a week.
  • For clients with aging skin? She recommends  alternating with a retinol serum for two nights, an acid serum for one night, followed by another two nights of retinol serum, and then one night of a hydrating serum.
  • For daytime? A Vitamin C serum across the board. 

A Celebrity Aesthetician’s Skincare Routine 

On a recent episode of Breaking Beauty, Rouleau posited that while you can get by with a two step routine (cleanser and sunscreen containing moisturizer for day, and; cleanser and moisturizer at night), an ideal routine contains the following four elements: 

  • A sulfate-free, frothy (not bubbly), cleanser;
  • A water-based toner (which helps serums penetrate deeper);
  • A anti-oxidant serum (to combat oxidative stress);
  • A moisturizer (water-based or oil-based depending on skin type).

A Note on Moisturizers  

If you have dehydrated, combination or oily skin, Rouleau recommends opting for a water-based moisturizer since you already oil in your skin. For dry skin, she recommends something with oil in it like a rich cream or face oil. For sensitive skin, she recommends something with calming and anti-inflammatory ingredients like green tea, chamomile, etc. 

Guide to Finding Your Skin Type 

  • Dehydrated: tight skin that lacks ‘cushion’, but is still breaking out and therefore still has oil. 
  • Dry: flaky, constant tightness, no oil whatsoever and no breakouts.
  • Normal/combo: pores larger in T zone than other areas, skin can be tight but not flaky.
  • Oily: enlarged pores all over and shiny/greasy throughout the day. 
  • Sensitive: easily irritated, pinkness, redness. 
Stinging, irritated skin?

You might be doing too much. The skin’s moisture barrier can become damaged due to overuse of acids, harsh products, genetics, roseacea, or over-exfoliating. When this happens, small invisible cracks appear in the skin allowing moisture to escape easier and irritants to penetrate deeper (i.e. if you start to get a stinging sensation when you usually wouldn’t feel anything). The solution? Take a break from sensitizing products such as acids and exfoliants while your skin heals. 

What does healthy skin look like to Rouleau?

Rouleau notes that healthy skin does not mean wrinkle-free skin. Rather, it’s skin that has an even tone and small pore size.  

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