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How do retinol creams work, anyway?

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Retinols are pretty much the gold standard in improving some of our most annoying skin complaints.

These Vitamin-A based skin solvers are THE BEST anti-aging ingredient on the market. Unlike other solutions that simply mask the symptoms of skin aging, retinol actually fixes the cause by preventing and repairing skin damage.

That means retinol-treated skin doesn’t just look younger—it actually IS younger, at a cellular level. Paired with a good moisturizer, they’ll do more heavy lifting than the rest of your skincare drawer combined (that’s why they’re one of our top Anti-Aging Strategies to Start Right Now!).

Read on for our brief breakdown of how retinoid products actually work and a choose-your-own-adventure guide to selecting one for yourself. If you’re not interested in the how and why skip straight to the bottom for our recommendations. 

Okay, but what IS it?

The retinoid family of molecules is made up of Vitamin A derivatives. Retinol is an ingredient in the retinoid family.

A retinol cream, like the kind you’d find in over-the-counter anti-aging products at Sephora or Ulta, contains a low to medium strength retinoid.

Stronger formulation retinoid products, like tretinoin, are used to treat fine lines and wrinkles as well as acne and scarring and are available by prescription (while you’re at it, go ahead and ask these Three Key Questions for Your Dermatologist).

And how does it actually work?

Retinoids work to improve skin on several levels.

The short answer is that retinoid products work by causing skin cells to turn over and die. This increase in skin cell turnover helps our pores stay clear, which is why retinol is such a great acne-fighting ingredient. It can even help with acne scarring.

But skin that more readily turns over also looks better in terms of toneand texture, a couple of the physical markers we associate with aging. 

Retinoids also increases collagen production, which in turn helps our skin look plump and young. This decreases wrinkles by thickening the skin from the inside out.

It’s basically a miracle ingredient. But, like most miracle cures, it’s not without its side effects.

It’s important to point out that retinol, unlike most of the ingredients we recommend, receives a 9 rating from the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

When it comes to the retinoid family, safety is a question of how you take it —either orally or applied to your skin— and how much you take. The data show that oral medications like Accutane, also known as isotretinoin, can cause birth defects and other serious health consequences.

However, we can’t say the same thing about topical retinols that we apply to our skin. Topical products are way less potent than oral formulations, and over-the-counter versions are less potent than prescription formulations. Like a lot of things, it's a question of a little being helpful, and too much being harmful.

So, while retinoids have been used safely for decades, it’s still recommended you don’t take them while pregnant or trying to become pregnant, just to be safe.

Retinoids often cause redness and irritation early on, especially if applied right after washing your face. Any irritation generally goes away as your skin adjusts. This article contains some really useful pointers on using prescription retinol correctly.

Retinol products can also cause sun sensitivity, so they should be applied at night, and combined with an SPF-rated moisturizer or foundation.

So which one should I try? 

If you skipped to this section, here’s the bottom line: retinoid products are derived from Vitamin A, and applying them to our skin causes skin cells to turn over more quickly. This helps improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and skin’s tone and texture, and also unclogs pores, improving acne.

If you choose only one ingredient to maintain healthy skin and turn back the clock on aging, make it retinoids. They’re THE gold standard.

Retinoids are available over the counter and by prescription at a range of price points.

woman with short hair against orange background

For an entry-level drugstore option, Neutrogena’s line of retinol-infused products offers a great solution at relatively affordable price point. Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream and Triple Age Repair Night Moisturizer are both under $30.

For a concentrated “clean” beauty option available over-the-counter, First Aid Beauty’s FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum .25% Pure Concentrate contains both a concentrated form of Vitamin A as well as peptides, amino acids which also work to smooth skin.

For a high-end an over-the-counter option, we like Dr. Murad’s line of retinol products. The line covers just about any specific issue you could possibly want to address, but the Anti-Aging Retinol Face Cream is a good place to start.

For serious anti-aging power, ask your dermatologist about Obagi tretinoin products. The .05% cream is a powerful addition to your anti-aging routine, but it’s only available by prescription.

For acne treatment, Differin gel, an FDA-approved formulation that was previously only available by prescription as Adapalene, is our favorite option. And at around $10 for a half ounce, it’s hard to beat the price.

While you're at it, snag a Sundaily gummy subscription, too—the active ingredient in The Base Layer, Polypodium leucotomos extract, perfectly complements your topical beauty routine.

The Back Up is also a powerful way to strengthening your skin at the cellular level, helping fight free radical damage, minimizing fine lines and wrinkles, discoloration, all while promoting healthy skin.

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