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How Retinol Can Change Your Skin

At this point, you’ve no doubt heard the hype around retinol. Like the garden gnome from Amélie, the trusted skincare ingredient has a tendency to show up everywhere—from prescription acne creams to over-the-counter wrinkle reducers. But it’s not always clear when you should use retinol, or what it can do to improve skin. We tapped Dr. Jennifer Linder, a dermatologist and Mohs skin cancer surgeon, for the 4-1-1 on this multiuse skincare ingredient.

What is it?

Retinol is simply another name for vitamin A. It’s a type of retinoid, the family of chemical compounds related to vitamin A. Other retinoids include: retinoic acid (also known as tretinoin), retinyl palmitate, and retinaldehyde, all of which can be found in skincare products. Tretinoin is the active ingredient in Retin-A, the prescription acne cream, while adapalene—another retinoid—is the active ingredient in Differin Gel. In addition to being a trusted treatment for acne, retinol is famous for its antiaging properties, cropping up in a range of antiwrinkle and skin-brightening products of every stripe.

What does it do?

When retinol and other retinoids come into contact with skin, enzymes in the body convert the retinol into retinoic acid, the active form of the vitamin, according to Dr. Linder. This is the special sauce that goes to work on skin cells in a variety of helpful ways. Namely, retinoic acid works to increase cell turnover, stimulate collagen and elastin production, fade hyperpigmentation, and help skin stay hydrated and glowing without irritation. Thanks to all this healthy turnover, retinol can treat and prevent everything from stubborn cystic acne and eczema to sun-induced wrinkles and dark spots.

What skin types is it suitable for?

Some retinoids are harsher than others. Pure retinoic acid applied directly to the skin, for example, can cause irritation. If you've got sensitive skin, retinol is a milder—yet equally effective—alternative. “By using pure retinol you reduce the instances of irritation while still getting the benefits of retinoic acid,” explains Dr. Linder. Finding a formula that straddles the gentle vs. effective divide is key: StriVectin’s line of products, for example, is designed to minimize irritation with a supergentle form of retinol combined with a skin-soothing dose of vitamin B3, the star ingredient in StriVectin™-AR Advanced Retinol Eye Treatment and StriVectin™-AR Advanced Retinol Night Treatment.

Can one retinol product do double-duty against acne and wrinkles?

“Regardless of the reason for using a retinoid, all of the benefits will be apparent,” says Linder. You may reap some of the wrinkle-fighting benefits from a product designed to treat acne, and vice-versa. But take note: You may not see equal improvement on both counts. “These medications are often only marketed and approved to treat certain conditions, so the use for other conditions would be considered ‘off label,’” says Dr. Linder. (But it’s sure nice to know that regular use of a retinoid acne cream—like the aforementioned Differin—could help stave off a premature wrinkle or two.)

Are there any side effects?

Retinoids have come a long, long way, and there are plenty of options out there that won’t upset your skin. However, any retinol product will make skin more sensitive to UV exposure. When you’re treating skin with retinol, always follow with sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. And make sure that any retinol products you apply during the day are suitable for daytime use. Kill two birds with one stone by reaching for StriVectin’s Advanced Retinol Day Treatment SPF 30—you’ll get the sun protection you need, plus the antiaging benefits you want.

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