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Everything You Need to Know About Retinol and Its Skin-Care Benefits

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Photo: PhotoAlto/Milena Boniek/Getty Images

Trendy skin-care ingredients come and go (snail venom, anyone?) but when it comes to tried-and-true, effective options, the same one constantly tops the list—retinol. With the ability to do everything from stimulating collagen to fighting blemishes, this multitasker is a worthy addition to pretty much anyone's skin-care routine. Ahead, answers to six common questions about this important ingredient, straight from derms. 

What is it, exactly?

Let's start with the basics. "Retinoids are a class of chemicals that are all related to vitamin A," explains Neal Schultz, M.D., NYC dermatologist, host of DermTV.com, and creator of BeautyRx by Dr. Schultz. This includes both retinol—the OTC form—and prescription-strength versions, many of which, like the commonly prescribed Retin-A, are retinoic acid. To simplify matters, it's easiest to think of them all in the same category, essentially delivering the same type of benefits (though there are some important differences—more on those in a minute).

What does it do?

A whole laundry list of good-for-your skin stuff including stimulating collagen (translation: fewer wrinkles), speeding cell turnover (translation: less discoloration and smoother skin), and keeping pores clear (translation: bye-bye breakouts). While the level of efficacy depends on the product you're using and whether it's prescription or OTC, you'll reap all of these benefits to some degree, even if the product is marketed as only addressing one of these issues, say, anti-aging or anti-acne. (Related: Why It's Never Too Early to Start Protecting the Collagen In Your Skin

What's the difference between the kind I can buy and what a dermatologist will give me?

While it all goes back to vitamin A, "OTC and prescription-strength versions differ in their potency, ability to be absorbed into the skin, irritation potential, and efficacy," says Dr. Schultz. Retinol, which you'll find in over-the-counter serums and creams, interacts with enzymes when applied on the skin, and is ultimately converted into retinoic acid. Prescription-only Retin-A is already retinoic acid, meaning this conversion isn't required. The upshot? Prescription versions are stronger and more effective—but they're also more likely to cause irritation. To that point...

Won't it irritate my skin?

In a word, probably, at least initially. "If you're not careful, retinoids can cause redness, peeling, burning, or itching," points out Debra Jaliman, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist. Still, there are lots of things you can do to help mitigate these side effects. It'll take some time for your skin to acclimate to the powerful ingredient, so take it slow. (You wouldn't run a marathon without training for it, right?) Translation: Don't jump right to a prescription-strength version. Start with a product that contains less-intense retinol, like RoC Retinol Correxion Max Daily Hydration Crème ($29; cvs.com). There are also other forms, such as retinaldehyde and retinyl palmitate, available in OTC products, which are even gentler—a great starting point. (Try Avène RetrinAL 0.1 Intensive Cream, $70; aveneusa.com). Either way, "start slowly, using it every other night for two weeks, then gradually build up to nightly use," suggests Dr. Jaliman. (And FYI, no matter what kind of retinoid you're using, a pea-size amount is plenty for your entire face.)

Super sensitive? Mixing the retinoid with a dollop of a plain moisturizer (such as Cetaphil Daily Hydrating Lotion, $12; target.com) can also help cut down on any irritation, adds Dr. Jaliman. Keep in mind that despite all these efforts, your complexion may still look a little worse before things get better, but any unsightly side effects won't last forever. Once you're in a good groove with a store-bought product, talk with your dermatologist about bumping it up to a prescription version (Retin-A, Renova, Refissa), as even within these options there are lots of choices.

How long will it take to work?

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this is a months, not weeks, situation. It'll take at least a few months to start seeing results, though the longer you use a retinoid, the more results you'll see. This is why many derms suggest starting a retinoid in your 20s as a preventive anti-aging measure. But if you're older than that and have never used a retinoid, it's not too late! As the saying goes, better late than never, since everyone can reap the benefits of this powerful anti-ager. (Related: 10 Healthy Skin Habits to Establish In Your 20s

Can anyone use it?

Pretty much, yes. The only time you should skip any kind of retinoid is if you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant, cautions Dr. Schultz. (But don't stress, there are plenty of other pregnancy-safe anti-aging ingredients you can use; discuss this with your derm and your ob-gyn.) There may be some people with extra sensitive skin who won't be able to tolerate it. But most people should be able to handle at least retinol, if not the stronger prescription stuff. Also worth noting: Contrary to popular belief, retinoids don't make you more susceptible to sunburn, but it's best to use one at night because sunlight can render the ingredient inactive. (Though that's not an excuse to skip your daily sunscreen.)

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