When it comes to anti-aging skin care, retinoids are the gold standard. They're the active ingredient most proven to actually reverse wrinkles, fine lines, skin tone irregularities. They also help acne. You can read more about how retinoids work in skin care, an old post on this site, but the basics are still the same.
The problem is, retinoids make it hard to love them. They are confusing (they come in soooo many variations! Over the counter, prescription, many different chemical names, different strengths, etc.), they are irritating to your skin, and they come with so many different do's and don'ts... If you really want to get results, they're still the best ingredient to add to your anti-aging routine. To help simplify things a bit, I've come up with a list of my favorite retinoid tips!
1. Stronger is, well, stronger
Because there are so many different variations on retinoids, it only makes sense that they vary in how well they work. If your skin is particularly sensitive, it makes sense to avoid starting with a prescription product, and go for an over the counter product. While the results are better with a prescription, you won't get those results if you can't tolerate the product! Start with a weaker retinoid, your skin will be able to tolerate it better. After months of use, when your skin has acclimated, you can switch to a stronger retinoid.
Prescription strength formulations contain retinoic acid. Over the counter retinoids all must be converted in the skin to retinoic acid before they work. The ingredient retinol does this the most easily and has the most evidence that it works (and is gentler to the skin than retinoic acid), but it takes longer than retinoic acid to get the results that you want. Retinoids that need to undergo more steps to be converted to retinoic acid are typically called pro-retinols (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate). They don't have the same amount of evidence as retinoic acid and retinol, but they are more gentle and are thought to work the same way.
2. Use your retinoid at night
Retinols are easily inactivated by exposure to light. While you could use your product in the morning, many dermatologists have agreed that it makes sense to just apply right before bed and not worry about that factor.
3. But don't use it every night
Because it can be so irritating, when you first start using a retinoid you'll need to pay close attention to your skin. You should start using it every other night and increase or decrease your use as your skin can tolerate. It isn't unusual to be using it every 3rd night! Note that pretty much no matter what, you'll have some irritation. Your skin will adjust within a month or so. That irritation should be minor, and you should just keep going! But lots of redness, burning, flaking... those are reasons to space out your use.
4. Use a dedicated retinoid product
Because you'll be spacing out your use and adjusting it for how your skin is responding, I recommend using a retinoid treatment product that is separate from your usual night cream. Use it after you wash your face, and give it a minute or two to sink in. You can still use your hydrating night cream after it.
5. You only need a pea sized amount
Any more and you're just wasting product.
6. Always use a sunscreen if you're using a retinoid
I know I've said it in the past, and it is all over the place online, in books, it's mentioned constantly by doctors... but there is some evidence that retinoids, in fact, do not make your skin more sensitive to the sun. I know, it's shocking. We go on and on about how this is the case, but not everyone agrees. I had to mention it.
Having said that, you should be wearing a sunscreen every day regardless of your sunscreen use. And ignoring your sunscreen is just going to undo all that good you're doing for your skin by using the retinoid.
So, wear sunscreen every day. SPF 30 or higher is preferred, and make sure it covers the full UV spectrum (here are 9 full spectrum UV coverage sunscreens for face and body).
7. Pay attention to your other skin care products
Because they're irritating, you should be careful about what other irritating skin care ingredients you're pairing with your retinoids. In particular, products with benzoyl peroxide, and alpha or beta hydroxy acids such as salicylic acid. There's always debate about products inactivating each other, but dermatologists that I've discussed this with say that if you've applied a product and allowed it to sink in, this is basically a non-issue. Instead, make sure you're not over-irritating your face.
8. Consider long release retinoids
If you're still having irritation, consider switching to an extended release formulation. You'll get the same active ingredient, but spread out over hours instead of minutes. That's good for your skin as you'll get all the benefits, but less irritation.
9. Be careful waxing
Anyone who has ever waxed their eye brows after using retinoids can tell you that the results are sometimes not pretty. You'll get redness, irritation, and yes, you can even peel off some skin. It just isn't pretty. If you plan on waxing, stop your retinoid at least a week in advance in that area.
10. Exfoliate in the AM
A dermatologist friend of mine says that she tells all of her patients to expect to have some dry, peeling skin with retinoid use. She tells patients to light exfoliate them away in the morning, with a very gentle scrub, a washcloth or a Clarisonic. Then apply an intense moisturizer over top and give it time to sink in before you apply your makeup.
11. Be patient!
With retinoids, you'll need to wait a very long time to see results. Expect 6-8 weeks at a minimum for a prescription product, but for over the counter expect 4-6 months before you see your skin changing.
Finally, not a tip, but a reminder. Retinoids are associated with birth defects. So if you are pregnant, or are trying to get pregnant, it is recommended that you stop using them. They're safe for use during nursing.