Retinol: 101. The One Ingredient That Erases Wrinkles and Makes Brown Spots Disappear

Retinol: 101

The One Ingredient that Erases Wrinkles and Makes Brown Spots Disappear.

By Kendall Farr, Licensed Esthetician, Spada Skin Care

In the world of beauty, retinol is a kind of magic wand. This vitamin A-derived ingredient works by increasing collagen production and boosting the rate of skin cell turnover. It improves skin tone and texture giving it a glow. Retinol minimizes the appearance of enlarged pores. It’s proven to reverse the effects of photoaging, the damage that occurs from long term exposure to UVA and UVB rays. Retinol also helps clear many kinds of acne breakouts as the increase in cell turnover unclogs pores and fades hyperpigmentation—those dark spots that acne leaves behind. And increased collagen synthesis helps with acne scarring. Simply put, retinol is the gold standard in skin care because it works.

How Does It Work Exactly?

Retinol is a multitasker that’s also widely misunderstood. The name retinol is a kind of catch-all description for all vitamin A-derived retinoids found in skin care products. And this is where things can get confusing.

The potency of vitamin A found in a product determines how many oxidative cycles it needs to convert to retinoic acid in the skin. Prescription strength vitamin A, like Tretinoin for one, is pure retinoic acid so the skin doesn’t need to convert it to experience a benefit from it. But at prescription strength, vitamin A can also cause dryness and sensitivity.

Non-prescription vitamin A, formulated as retinol, is the ingredient typically found in over-the-counter skin care serums and creams. It needs only 2 cycles to convert into retinoic acid in the skin. It’s potent but the slower conversion can mean less or even none of the irritation, dryness, redness, and flaking known as the retinol uglies that can inflame the skin as it adjusts.

When you first start using a prescription retinoid or retinol some irritation is common. Stay with it. This is known as “retinization” as the retinol retrains your skin cells to turn over at a much faster rate—a period that can take several weeks.

How Do I Apply Retinol?

With retinol less is ideal. All you need is a pea sized drop spread around the face as directed. Some formulas can be used and well tolerated every other night like GM Collins Retinol Advanced + Night Cream. But build up your applications gradually. Your esthetician can guide your frequency of use based on your barrier tolerance.

Pro Tip: Don’t apply a moisturizer right after a retinol serum. This may dilute the potency. It’s best to let it absorb for about 20 minutes and then apply your moisture.

Can You Apply Retinol on Only One Area of the Face?

Applying retinol strategically to target a specific area—like crow’s feet or smile lines for example—won’t have the intended effect. Retinol travels underneath the skin. Even if it’s applied in one place it will migrate and stimulate your entire face.

Pro Tip: Always avoid using retinol on the thin and delicate skin around the eye area unless it is a product specifically formulated for the eyes.

What To Do on “Off” Nights

Retinol encourages sun damaged skin cells to rise to the surface for easy removal. On your no-retinol nights, using a gentle exfoliating acid once or twice a week will accelerate the removal process. Try GM Collin Intensive Exfoliant: an effective, non-irritating combination of pomegranate and glycolic acids. Your retinol will absorb more easily post exfoliation. Pairing retinol and exfoliants results in a smoother, more even-toned skin texture.

Use a Hydrating Serum Once a Week

Your skin needs a variety of ingredients. You don’t want to overstimulate the skin by staying in a constant state of ‘exfoliation’ and ‘cell turnover’ by using only retinol and exfoliating acids. Replenish your skin with a hydrating serum that contains skin-nourishing antioxidants, peptides, or plant derived stem cells to stimulate cell growth like GM Collin Phyto Stem Cell + Serum. Think of this as you would an exercise routine that rotates between weights and cardio. You want to give your skin a variety of stimulation and nutrients.

Boost Your Results with Chemical Peels

Once you’ve been on a retinol routine for 8 weeks, introduce your skin to a chemical peel. This is when your esthetician can recommend the best treatment peel—something gentle like lactic acid—to intensify your skin’s collagen-boosting activity and encourage faster results. Retinol and chemical peels support one another to achieve smoother, more even toned skin. This works best on a schedule of every other month.

Should I Use Retinol in the AM or PM?

While it’s true that retinol can cause sun sensitivity, the main reason you should only use it at night is that sunlight can deactivate it. Retinol should be used at night as a vital part of the repair that happens as we sleep.

Should Retinol and Vitamin C Be Used in the Same Routine?

Yes absolutely. As an AM/PM strategy but never layered together. For daytime, a serum that combines L-Ascorbic Acid and Ferulic Acid at a high 15 percentage like GM Collin Vital C15 provides strong anti-oxidant protection and inhibits melanin (brown spots) from forming in the first place. Retinol, by contrast, promotes the collagen building and cellular turnover that happens as we sleep. For restoring mature skin, these two ingredients—in tandem use—offer ramped-up repair.

Should I Use Retinol on Damp Skin?

As an experienced esthetician, I’ll always direct my clients to cycle through their skincare routine in a ‘state of slightly damp’. Applying each product in their routine to moistened skin promotes the deeper absorption of products. Except for retinol. Applying retinol to damp skin can be irritating. Wait for at least 10 minutes after gently cleansing the skin and patting it dry. Then apply retinol to the entire face.

Will Retinol Thin My Skin?

In a word no. But here is how retinol works on the skin—layer upon layer. Topical retinoids do thin out the top layer of the skin (known as your barrier). This is what creates the dewy, glowing look that comes with consistent use. This also explains why retinol makes the skin more sensitive to the sun. Overall, retinol will help thicken the skin by promoting active collagen production.

Retinol + Sun Protection Is Critical

Retinol does make your skin more sensitive to the sun. And those fresh new cells retinol stimulates are vulnerable to damaging light. Highly recommend: use a hydrating, mineral sun protection at an SPF of 30 or higher like GM Collin Mineral Veil SPF 50 for an effective level of protection.

Pro Tip: If you are planning a lot of time in the sun (an extended beach vacay or a cruise, for example) discontinue your retinol use 7 days before intense exposure. Then, start up your retinol use 1 week after you’ve been in the sun. If you are sunburned (please, don’t get a sunburn) then wait until it’s gone. Yes, this slows down your results, but it’s important to follow this guideline to prevent any skin irritation and inflammation.

How Long Before You See Results?

Retinol does not work overnight. Your skin gradually adjusts and then gradually improves with every day of consistent use. Plan on about 12 weeks of use before you see a significant change. Be patient. It’s worth it.

I Tried Prescription Retin A and Gave Up

If you have a prescription for retinoic acid and haven’t been able to use it successfully, consider putting it on hold for now. Opt for a non-prescription retinol that will provide all the skin refining benefits without irritation. Re-introduce retinol into your routine in a formulation that encapsulates the retinol so that it releases gradually into your skin like GM Collin Medical Gel Crème De Nuit which combines retinol with hydrating glycerin, ceramides, and wild mango butter for a soothing, hydrating delivery to the skin.

The expression “it’s a marathon and not a sprint” is an apt description for skincare in general but especially for retinol use. But with the right routine, consistency, and a bit of patience, skin transformation—at any age—is within reach.