Melatonin is no longer just for sleep; kale has expanded its reach beyond salad; adaptogens have become mainstream. Each of these ingredients has become a skincare trend as of late. While there is legitimate science to support the skincare benefits of each of the aforementioned ingredients, the dermatological community has yet to hear about a more promising anti-aging ingredient than retinol.
Of course, retinol is far from new. In fact, the skincare superhero was first used in the 1940s to treat acne (though it wasn’t until a few decades later that it was used to treat wrinkles). The fact that the vitamin A derivative is still a prime pick for modern, cutting-edge formulas speaks to the fact that it truly is the gold standard for treating a bevy of skin issues.
[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by those who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.]
The truth is, most of us can benefit from the vitamin A derivative. The ingredient works to increase cell turnover and collagen production (two processes that decline as we age). Exactly when we should start using it, though, depends on a few different factors.
The first consideration is what skin concern(s) you’re trying to treat with retinol. “Technically, retinol can be used in your teens for the treatment of acne,” notes Florida based dermatologist, Dr. Jennifer Trent.
To reap its anti-aging effects, you can wait a little bit longer — though probably not by much. “Usually I have my patients start retinol in their mid twenties, when the signs of aging first appear,” says Dr. Trent. “These [preliminary] signs of aging include fine lines and wrinkles, brown sun spots, and enlarged pores.” Retinol can fade these signs, which can often be attributed to sun damage.
Of course, the most SPF-conscious among us still experiences skin aging. Even if you never develop a sun spot in your life, wrinkles are an inevitable byproduct of what dermatologists refer to as “chronological aging.” Retinol can actually delay the visible effects of chronological aging by triggering collagen production and increasing cell turnover. Again, it’s best to start using retinol as soon as you notice the initial signs of aging. And when you do: “Be patient,” Dr. Trent says. “It takes months to see the effects of retinol.” (Learn more about the typical timeline for retinol results here.)
Though the ideal age to incorporate retinol is whenever you begin to notice skin aging, it’s still effective even if you’re a decade (or more) behind. So, it’s never too late to glean significant results from retinol. However, whether you’re starting your retinol journey at 25 or 75, be sure to start slowly. “It is important to start with a low percentage of retinol and work your way up,” Dr. Trent warns. Otherwise, you risk redness, flakiness, and irritation.
[Editor’s note: As always, talk to your doctor before starting or stopping any new treatment.]
In the same vein, Dr. Trent advises spacing out any potential skin irritants, including glycolic acid and vitamin C, when you begin incorporating retinol. “Make sure your skin can tolerate [the retinol] daily before adding [these other products back in].” This is because retinol is notoriously sensitizing when you first start using it; adding any more irritation from other products could exacerbate and/or prolong unpleasantries such as redness, peeling, and dryness. (Read what happened when one editor started her retinol routine in tandem with a chemical peel.)
Another trick if your skin is particularly sensitive: “Use a moisturizer [directly] before or after the use of retinol to help ameliorate the dryness,” advises Dr. Trent. (Read more about the “retinol sandwich” technique.) Lastly, Dr. Trent says to pay extra-close attention to sun exposure when you start using retinol, as the ingredient can make your skin more susceptible to UV damage. But we didn’t need to tell you to wear sunscreen, right?