Lobster-red skin, stinging sunburns, and flaky complexions have long been the stuff of retinol-use lore. So, it’s no wonder that some of us stay away from the stuff, thinking it's too harsh. Dermatologists swear by retinol, counting it as a must-have for just about everyone (second only to SPF), even those with sensitive skin. And, research over the past 30 years has shown that retinol can tackle a ton of dermatological concerns, including acne, wrinkles, and rough or discolored skin. Not bad for a single active ingredient.
“I don’t know a single dermatologist who doesn’t use a retinol product on their skin,” says Heather Rogers, MD, a Seattle-based dermatologist and clinical assistant dermatology professor at the University of Washington. “We’ve all read the studies and we all use it.” Before we dive in, you should know that there are three levels of retinoids: pure retinoic acid, which is the strongest and prescription-only; retinol, which is sold over the counter and is weaker and less irritating than the pure stuff; and retinol derivatives, which are also sold over the counter and are more gentle than retinol.
It's true; you might not completely avoid irritation if you use the stuff. But, you can minimize it by being strategic. For someone completely new to the world of retinol, Dr. Rogers suggests using a derivative twice a week to avoid stressing out the skin. If yours still reacts adversely, she recommends moisturizing beforehand. Once you're comfortable with biweekly applications, you can increase the frequency until you're comfortable with everyday use.
For some, the next step would be transitioning to a prescription concentration of retinoic acid. But, no matter what stage you're in, don’t expect overnight results. While some research shows improved skin in as little as a month, Dr. Rogers says you should commit to a retinoid product for at least three months before judging whether or not it works for you.
Read on for the non-prescription strategies to soothe your particular skin woes.