I may be biased but I truly believe that retinol is the holy grail of all skincare products. For me, the fountain of youth (besides botox) exists in the form of vitamin A. Let me back up a little and tell you why I think everyone needs a retinol serum in their life. Whether you use an over-the-counter serum or prescription cream, the benefits are multi-faceted. Do you have acne scars, textured skin, fine lines, enlarged pores, or sun damage? Retinol can fix that! One caveat, finding the best retinol serums for your skin takes time, and patience.

I honestly don’t know of any other potent skincare ingredient that can do it all. I was first introduced to retinol in my mid-20s when I was trying to combat acne while improving texture and preventing fine lines. In recent years, I’ve started experimenting with professional chemical peels paired with a prescription retinoid to really get into the nitty-gritty of the dermis. And for the first time in my life, I feel really good in my skin. Although it took a while to find the best retinol serum, it was worth the wait.

To find out more, I quizzed Dr. Elizabeth Geddes-Bruce who tells me the magic of retinol lies in is its ability to speed up skin cell turnover and keep collagen from breaking down while functioning as an antioxidant. Intrigued? Same. Read on to learn more about this game-changing ingredient and discover the best retinol serums to incorporate into your skincare routine.

What is retinol and what does it do? 

Retinol is a form of vitamin A and the other most common topical vitamin A derivatives are retinoic acid (also known as the prescription retinoid “tretinoin” or the branded version “Retin-A”), retinyl palmitate, tazarotene, and adapalene.

Retinol vs. Retinoid?

A retinoid refers to all forms of vitamin A. Retinol is a gentler type of retinoid found in over-the-counter preparations. 

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Over-The-Counter vs. Prescription-Strength

Dr. Geddes-Bruce shared that retinoic acid (also known as the prescription tretinoin) is the only formulation proven to decrease fine lines and wrinkles because retinol can be converted to (very) small amounts of retinoic acid in the skin. She adds: “We suspect you can see improvement in fine lines and wrinkles as well, although to a lesser extent. Retinyl palmitate is the weakest form with poor skin penetration.”

If you’re thinking of upgrading your over-the-counter retinol for a prescription, Dr. Geddes-Bruce says she only gives a prescription retinoid to patients who express interest or to treat active acne and reversal of acne scarring. She suggests beginning with an over-the-counter product containing retinol first, especially if you are just starting on your skincare journey. Starting with over-the-counter retinol will have the least amount of irritation or side effects. Once you are regularly using and tolerating the best retinol serum for your skin you can graduate up to a prescription version. 

Incorporating retinol into your routine

If you are a retinol newbie or have extremely sensitive/dry skin, Dr. Geddes-Bruce suggests starting with the lowest amount—for retinol, this is usually less than 1%. “Make sure you’ve been using it for at least one month before escalating to the next level,” she advises. “The goal is always to try and use a retinoid nightly; however, this is difficult for the majority of people. I think three nights a week, at a minimum, is a great goal.”

Once you find the best retinol serum for you, a pea-sized amount is recommended. Apply it to the entire face by placing that pea-sized amount on the back of your non-dominant hand and using the finger pads of your other hand to dab small amounts to the main areas of the face (forehead, cheeks, and chin). Make sure to rub it in and seal it with a moisturizer. Dr. Geddes-Bruce warns that your skin can often appear irritated, pink, tight, dry, or flakey during the adjustment period which can take two to four weeks.

Ahead, Dr. Bruce shares the best over-the-counter retinol serums:

Dr. Geddes-Bruce Prescription-Only Retinol Serums:

  1. Arazlo (tazarotene): “I am OBSESSED with this prescription retinoid. It’s the strongest class of retinoids (tazarotene) but so lovely to use with only minimal irritation. After years of trying, this is the first retinoid I’ve been able to use consistently. And as a dermatologist I’ve tried a lot.”
  2. Retin-A (tretinoin) – “An oldie but goodie and may work the best-ie for fine lines and wrinkles. Can be irritating so start slow and work your way up.
  3. Aklief (trifarotene) – “The new kid on the prescription block with decent tolerability and good data for off-face use (such as for back-ne).”
  4. Differin (adapalene) – “Formerly prescription only, now available over the counter. Studied mostly in use for acne, this retinoid also helps keep skin refreshed and collagen tight.”

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