Retinol is known as the “holy grail” ingredient for great skin. It’s proven to help soften fine lines, improve skin texture, treat acne, reduce pigmentation, and prevents collagen breakdown. Retinol is also one of those ingredients people don’t quite understand. Here’s what you need to know about retinol:

There are different types of retinoids

Retinol refers to a specific version of retinoids, which are chemical compounds derived from vitamin A, and used as topical treatments.

  • Retinol is a non-prescription retinoid and requires skin enzymes to convert it into a version that 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). You also want to use a ‘clean’ retinol (read on for more about this). 
  • Prescription level retinoids, like Retin-A, contain retinoic acid and therefore skip the conversion process getting to work on your skin immediately. This means you see quicker results. That said, Retin-A also causes 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 consistently use retinol 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 (1-3 months). Experts agree though, retinol can be just as effective as Retin-A when it’s in the optimal concentration of about 1-2%. Note: Many skin creams that advertise retinol or weaker retinoids, include only small amounts of the active ingredient. If you want to see visible results, you need to use a product where retinol is the primary active ingredient.

Protect your skin when using 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, so wearing it during the day makes it inactive. Always wear sunscreen daily when retinol is a part of your skincare regime. It’s also important to moisturize well to offset any irritation and dryness that may occur.

Don’t use retinol every night

It’s important to go easy when starting to use retinol. Start by using it on clean, dry skin 1-2 nights per week, and move up to every other night. Your skin will eventually adapt to the retinoic acid, and you may be able to use retinol more frequently. Some redness and flaking is normal, but if your skin burns and becomes very irritated apply a thin layer of moisturizer before applying the retinol and reduce the frequency of use.

Don’t use other exfoliating products with retinol

Avoid using physical scrubs and acids (AHAs & BHAs) frequently when using retinol. Some experts say that you can use acids on alternating nights with retinol, but it’s important not to overdo it. Over-exfoliating your skin can weaken the skin’s protective barrier, causing sensitivity and irritation. Retinol can already make the skin more sensitive, until it adapts to the retinoic acid, so it’s recommended to stay away from other exfoliating products for the first fews weeks using retinol. Once your skin has adjusted, you can consider introducing other exfoliating products 1x per week (alternating with your retinol use).

Retinol may 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.

Retinol use while pregnant and breastfeeding

It’s recommended  that you absolutely avoid prescription oral retinoids, like Isotretinoin (aka Accutane) when pregnant and breastfeeding. It’s also recommended to avoid topical retinoids, because you can never be too safe when it comes to babies. That said, many experts agree that topical retinoids likely do not pose a risk while breastfeeding. 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 retinoid use to breastfeeding moms, but leave it as a personal decision. I feel confident in my decision to use a clean 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!

Not all retinol is created equal

Most clean beauty advocates stay away from retinol because it’s often stabilized with ingredients like BHT and endocrine disrupting parabens that are flagged on the dirty dozen list. Many formulas can also be irritating and users can easily “over-do” it by applying retinol too often and not moisturizing well enough.

Clean Retinol 

Until recently, I didn’t recommend retinol to my clients. Most retinol products on the market were too irritating and there wasn’t a good ‘clean’ version available. Until now. That’s why I was so excited to find MARA Algae Retinol Face Oil!  It’s a welcome addition to the clean beauty market because it combines an effective concentration of clean retinol that is BHT and paraben free, combined with nourishing oils to prevent significant irritation. Use with a nourishing moisturizer or oil like the MARA Universal Face Oil to keep skin well moisturized and limit irritation.