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All About Retinol

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The Violet Files

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Your what, when, where, how and why guide to the iconic skin-boosting ingredient.

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Retinol’s complexion-perfecting abilities have made it one of skin care’s most name-checked ingredients. But it also seems to be one of the most misunderstood. When should we start a relationship with retinol? Who can use it and, just as importantly, who can’t? What’s the difference between the myriad retinol options? As it continues to pop up on product ingredient labels everywhere, dispelling the confusion feels that much more urgent. With that in mind we tapped two top New York dermatologists to share their retinol insights and find out if it is indeed the skin care secret sauce our collective regimens need.


Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A and, perhaps, the most popular example of a retinoid, the overarching term for this powerhouse class of A-ingredients. (Many of them, in fact, start with the letter R.) How does it hit all its skincare marks? By increasing cell turnover. “Our skin, much like a snake, sheds every 28 days and retinol is something that helps it go through that shedding process a little faster,” explains dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross. “It refreshes the skin’s surface more quickly, which brightens it, helps pores look better, and improves texture.” The difference between an over-the-counter retinol and a prescription-strength retinoic acid (aka tretinoin, adapalene, and tazarotene found under the brand names Retin-A, Differin, and Tazorac, respectively) is a question of potency and penetration: the latter causes cell turnover to happen more rapidly and it also goes deeper. “It’s going to get into the entire lining of the pore, from the opening at the surface down to the connection with the oil gland, and that’s why they are often prescribed for acne because the problem begins with a blockage deep in the pore,” Dr. Gross explains. If you’re dealing with severe acne, prescription retinoids may be your best bet. For other skin care concerns like fine lines and texture, retinol can have a significant impact; it just may take a little longer for some people to see results.


Often referred to as retinization, redness, peeling, and dry patches can occur when starting on retinoids, particularly in the nasolabial folds and marionette lines, which are devoid of oil glands and, therefore, not as resistant to irritation, says dermatologist Dr. Macrene Alexiades. The most important thing—no matter whether your retinoid is store-bought or doctor-prescribed—is to ease it into your routine. “Many forms of retinol are extremely well tolerated as long as people comply with usage recommendations,” says Dr. Alexiades. She suggests starting with a pea-sized amount at bedtime every night if you can tolerate it, or if you have more sensitive skin, every other night or once a week. She also encourages her retinoid patients to embrace her short contact method: Apply retinoid to clean skin for five minutes and then rinse off. Once you’ve acclimated, gradually increase to 10, 15, and eventually up to 30 minutes, at which point it’s fully absorbed and you can leave it on overnight. “The slow increasing of the dose gives your skin time to adjust,” adds Dr. Alexiades. Dr. Gross, on the other hand, admits that he’s been steering many of his clients away from prescription retinoids entirely because of their potential to exacerbate redness for those who are prone to it. “Redness is a huge concern with my patients and it doesn’t take much to make inflammation look worse,” says Dr. Gross. “I’ve found that you can use [over-the-counter] retinol more frequently and more easily. At the end of the day, I think you’re better off using a retinol on a daily basis versus a [prescription] retinoid just a few times a week.”


It’s 2023 and there’s a whole world of impactful ingredients available, but retinol still remains a tried-and-true skin care stalwart. It is, says Dr. Gross, an ideal starting point for a twenty-something looking to up their skin care game and graduate to products that are more results-oriented. “It’s a great way to rejuvenate skin at the surface which is where a younger clientele is seeing a lot of their issues,” says Dr. Gross. “And it’s one of those ingredients that, even after three days of usage you start to see a change in radiance, which is a huge selling point.” His retinol M.O. for twenty-somethings and beyond is to find a product where it’s cocktailed with an antioxidant (like ferulic acid, which is what the retinol in his line is formulated with). “Free radicals are part of the inflammatory process so there’s a synergy between an antioxidant, a free-radical scavenger, and retinol,” says Dr. Gross. “It’s a combo that’s more gentle and protective of the skin.”


You may have heard some recent buzz about bakuchi oil and other plant-derived ingredients with retinoid-esque properties. While it doesn’t have retinol’s many clinical studies behind it, bakuchi oil does show promise as a natural alternative. For her own eponymous line, Dr. Alexiades formulates frequently with resveratrol (a plant-derived antioxidant) and has actually come to prefer these plant-derived compounds to retinol because of their lower risk for irritation.


Buzzy ingredients, like retinol, are also the source of myths, confusion, and speculation. Here, our experts also answer some of the most common questions about adding retinol to your skin care regimen.

But will retinols thin my skin?
Yes and no. “Retinol does peel and therefore thin the stratum corneum, which is the skin’s outermost layer. However, over time, it actually increases the thickness of the skin,” says Dr. Alexiades. “You have a thinning of the outermost layer but an overall thickening of the remaining layers.” That’s what gives skin that much-desired, post-retinol glow.

Can I use them in the summer?
You can, but you have to be that much more vigilant about sun protection, especially if you’re using a prescription retinoid. While there is no evidence that vitamin A derivatives cause phototoxicity when they’re exposed to the sun, there is evidence that they can increase photosensitivity, meaning skin can burn or irritate more easily. “No studies have looked at how much more SPF is required due to the increased vulnerability of the skin with retinoid use, but it is probably wise to increase your SPF use while using a retinoid in the spring, summer, and fall months,” Dr. Alexiades advises. Dr. Gross likes to say that pink is the new red: If you’re wearing sunblock and still turning pink, it’s time to increase your SPF.

What if I'm pregnant?
Among the popular prescription retinoids, tazarotene is the only one categorized as an X, meaning it’s completely contraindicated during pregnancy. Though tretinoin and adapalene are category C (and haven’t been proven safe or unsafe), dermatologists will tell you to steer clear of any and all retinoids, including OTC retinols while pregnant and nursing.

Does retinol play nicely with my other skin care products?
That comes down to the individual. Many derms advise against combining retinols with alpha hydroxy acids and vitamin C, but some people’s skin (especially if it’s naturally oilier) can tolerate more active ingredient combinations. Dr. Gross employs a bit of trial and error. “There are definitely benefits to [layering actives]. Just watch out for reactions,” he says. “If you’re getting irritated then stop everything and add products back one at a time.”