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What is retinol?

Published on April 15, 2024 at 13:38

Promoted by the media and on social media feeds as the true fountain of youth, retinol sells dreams. However, despite its popularity, there is still much to learn about retinol! You've probably already heard of Accutane. It's a retinol derivative. First used in prescription acne medication, retinol has now conquered the world of cosmetics with its promise to fight aging. Retinol is a member of the retinoid family and is derived from vitamin A. With different potencies and properties, here are a few examples:

  • Retinoic acid (or tretinoin) is the active form of retinol, which is contained in prescription anti-acne products. It is more powerful but also more aggressive on the skin. Isotretinoin, the main ingredient in Accutane, is an oral form used to treat acne.
  • Retinaldehyde is more chemically stable than retinol and considered more effective, as it can be more easily converted to retinoic acid.
  • Finally, retinol is the precursor of retinoic acid, which is active when converted into the body. Retinol is the key ingredient in many anti-aging cosmetics

How does retinol work?

Retinol accelerates the renewal of epidermal cells (the skin's surface layer) and acts as an exfoliant, ridding the face of dead cells. The result? Pores are less clogged and less visible, and acne scars become a thing of the past. It also regulates melanocytes (which produce the melanin pigments responsible for skin tone), helping to reduce pigmentation and age spots for a more even complexion. It increases the production of collagen and elastin, molecules that the body synthesizes less after age 25-30. Skin is firmer and smoother, and tired faces regain their radiance. Wrinkles are less visible, and the much sought-after "baby-skin" effect is restored. Vitamin A has antioxidant properties, which retinol has inherited! It protects against pollutants and free radicals. 

In sum, retinol is a preventive and corrective agent for many signs of aging, with benefits that have been studied and proven.

Who should use retinol?

The mid-twenties or early thirties is a good time to start if you want to prevent the first signs of ageing, such as "crow's feet," but the effects may be less visible than on mature skin. Retinol is less beneficial for acne than its cousin, retinoic acid because it is milder. People worried about acne should consult their healthcare professional for a suitable prescription.

But retinol is not for everyone! Beware of side effects, such as irritation, redness and burning. Skin that is "reactive" to allergens and sensitive should be very careful. People suffering from eczema, rosacea or psoriasis should avoid it. Those who smoke or vape should also be cautious, as their skin is drier. To start on the road to better skin, don't hesitate to ask your pharmacist for help in quitting smoking. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should not use retinol.

How to use retinol

There are several product strengths. Look for those with 0.3% to 1% retinol. Note that some people will want to start with something lower to minimize irritation. Encapsulated retinol products are preferable, as they release more slowly and cause less irritation.

A pea-sized amount is enough for your face. And don’t forget your neck! Using more will not make it more effective; it will actually cause more side effects.

Start applying a retinol product only two times a week and gradually increase the number of days every two weeks or as tolerated. There is no ideal set of instructions, as everyone reacts differently to retinol. If irritation occurs, reduce the frequency of application.

Apply at bedtime, after cleansing your face, as the sun can make retinol less effective. Then, apply a fragrance-free moisturizer, preferably with ceramides. Retinol also makes the skin more sensitive to UV rays, so wear sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) daily.

The first effects may take up to 4 weeks, but a significant difference can take up to 3 months

What else can be used instead of retinol?

If irritation, burning or dryness becomes unbearable, stop using the retinol product and consult your healthcare professional.

For those who cannot tolerate retinol, there are a few alternatives:

  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Vitamin C can also be used in conjunction with retinol. It makes your complexion more radiant and reduces pigmentation spots and scars.
  • Bakuchiol is a natural alternative because it's a plant extract that provides the same benefits as retinol—but with less irritation!
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