If you get your skin care tips only from TikTok, you might be led to believe that an application of retinol is right up there with brushing your teeth in terms of daily nonnegotiables (which is certainly true for some). And that if your skin is flaking, red, and irritated, it means that the powerhouse product is working and you just have to push through. On the other side is the promised land of baby-smooth, ageless skin. But there might be more to the story.
While it is true that the vitamin A derivative’s infamous retinization process and its unpleasant side effects will cease for most after four weeks as the skin builds tolerance, as with anything in beauty, one size doesn’t fit all. For some, retinol (even in over-the-counter products) is just too strong.
The conversation around retinol has become increasingly sensationalized with each stitch, regram, and retweet. Here’s what we can all (hopefully) agree on: Retinol aids in cell turnover, boosts collagen production, and is responsible for many skin miracles including but not limited to minimizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, reducing hyperpigmentation, smoothing texture, and helping keep skin clear and free of blemishes. We know it’s not safe for use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. And caution should be used if you have sensitive skin.
That’s where the common ground usually ends. Five years ago, experts told BAZAAR.com that “even sensitive skin can be trained to tolerate vitamin A derivatives,” but opinions on the matter seem to be shifting. Retinol might not be the answer for those among us with reactive and/or sensitive skin (think eczema or rosacea)—of whom, there are many. “I wouldn’t say you have to fear retinol, but you definitely have to treat it with respect,” Rajani Katta, a dermatologist based in Bellaire, Texas, says. “Retinol is a powerful ingredient with powerful benefits, which is why it has to be used with care.”
Below, we speak with skin care experts and dermatologists to get the final word on whether or not retinol is right for you.
NICHOLA JOSS, FACIALIST
“Retinol is a great addition to your skin care routine,” Nichola Joss, who has worked with such clients as Duchess Meghan and Kate Moss, says. “But it is not essential for everyone.” For those who retinol does work for, Joss recommends using it as a nighttime skincare treatment to get the most effective results, starting on a very low percentage as advised by a professional, and seeking advice before increasing strength. “Make sure you use sunscreen to protect your skin in the daytime,” she notes. Retinol might not be a fit for those with overly sensitive or hypersensitive skin, those who have food intolerances or high allergic reactions, and young skin, she says. “Caution is necessary when using any vitamin A derivatives and should only be used after advice from your derm or skin care specialist,” Joss says.
PAUL JARROD FRANK, DERMATOLOGIST
“If you have rosacea, psoriasis, or are eczema prone, then retinols are not really for you,” Paul Jarrod Frank says. “If you have sensitive skin, start slowly and increase with tolerance.” For those with sensitive skin, he suggests starting with a gentler retinol that is 0.025 percent in concentration, using only a pea-sized amount for your full face every other or third night, and then increasing with tolerance. “Need is subjective,” he tells BAZAAR.com. “I don’t think anyone needs it, but there are people that can benefit from it”—like those with acne-prone skin or those concerned with signs of aging.
SHANI DARDEN, AESTHETICIAN
If ever an aesthetician was associated with retinol, it would likely be L.A.-based Shani Darden, creator of the cult favorite Retinol Reform, who calls the ingredient “the gold standard for anti-aging.” “Retinol is one of my absolute favorite ingredients,” she tells BAZAAR.com. “It’s the ultimate multitasker.” Darden, who has treated Kim Kardashian and Jessica Alba, says that while clients with light rosacea have responded well to her Retinol Reform, “not all skin types can tolerate a retinol.” Darden specifically points to those with extremely sensitive or rosacea-prone skin as those who might not be able to use a retinol. “But there are other treatments out there that you can substitute,” she says. “So, while I would love for everyone to use a retinol, it’s not realistic for everyone—and that’s okay.”
Patricia Wexler, Dermatologist
“Not everyone needs a retinol,” Patricia Wexler tells us. “There are many other therapeutic agents that increase collagen and elastin, increase hyaluronic acid, and are anti-inflammatory and decrease destruction of existing collagen.” Some Wexler points to include resveratrol, MMP inhibitors, vitamins E and C, and ferulic acid. If you are using a retinol, some of her favorites are skinbetter AlphaRet, SkinMedica Retinol Complex 0.25, and The Ordinary 0.2% in Squalane, which she says is “ideal for sensitive skin.”
SONYA DAKAR, FACIALIST
Beverly Hills–based Sonya Dakar, who counts Gwyneth Paltrow and Sofia Vergara among her clientele, has seen skin care evolve substantially over the last 30 years. “More and more companies are opening the gates for retinol,” she says. “Hallelujah! It’s absolutely important for everybody.” Dakar says that retinol is one of the most essential ingredients for slowing the process of aging in adults and helping erase acne scarring in teenagers, and that her product Retinu was created after meticulous research and development. “In general, retinol is an amazing, amazing ingredient for human beings.” She stands so firmly behind her product and says that it can be used seven days a week. “Jump in the water,” she says. “I’m behind you.”
Jeanine Downie, Dermatologist
“Everyone could benefit from retinols, but it does not work for some patients, as they have underlying eczema or psoriasis,” Jeanine Downie says. “Additionally, if you smoke, vape, or smoke weed, you could be drying out your skin significantly, and then putting a retinol on top of this would be too much and cause a greater level of irritation.”
DR. BARBARA STURM, SKINCARE EXPERT
“As a doctor, I believe everything that touches your skin should heal rather than inflame it,” German aesthetics doctor Barbara Sturm says. “So I do not recommend aggressive anti-aging ingredients like retinol, which stimulate pro-inflammatory cytokines, cause hypersensitivity to sun and environmental factors, are not nursing or pregnancy safe, and commonly cause redness, dryness, burning, peeling, and dermatitis.” Sturm, who has worked with Irina Shayk and Hailey Bieber, says that retinol is popular because it has an effect, “but I don’t believe the benefit is worth the cost.” She adds, “My advice is, if you choose to use retinol or retinoids, always do so under the care of a doctor versus at-home experimentation.”
Howard Murad, Dermatologist
“Retinol is both preventative and corrective, helping you minimize the signs of aging you can see and the ones you cannot see yet,” Howard Murad says. “So, as a derm, I would recommend it, but it all depends on your skin and preferences.” It’s an important conversation to have with your own dermatologist, he notes. “It’s a good idea to ask your dermatologist if retinol-based products are right for you and, if so, how often to use them.”
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