Retinol Products: How Retinoids Work, Why They Are Skin Care Wonders, & Great Products to Try

Retinol Skin Care Products 

Retinol is a big step in my skin care routine, and I wanted to learn more about how retinol products work, so did some research into them. There are a lot of great options out there for affordable, over-the-counter retinol products, but I also recommend talking to a dermatologist about what kind of retinol is right for you. 

My three favorite retinol products: Sunday Riley's Luna Night Oil and A+ Retinol Serum, and Obagi's Retinol 1.0% (pictured with the Obagi Nu Derm Blend FX)

Retinol FAQ

What Is Retinol?

Retinol, a member of the retinoid class of chemicals, is a type of fat-soluble vitamin A, largely used to treat acne, stimulate cellular turnover, fade pigmentation and scarring, and soften wrinkles. It is often used in skin care products to boost the amount of collagen the body makes, resulting in plumping of the skin and reduction of fine lines and wrinkles. 

In other words, retinol is concentrated source of vitamin A that’s applied directly to the skin in order to reduce acne breakouts and scarring, improve natural collagen production, and reverse some signs of aging.

Retinol vs Retinoid

A note about nomenclature: retinoid and retinol are often used interchangeably, but they actually refer to different things. “Retinoid” refers to the vitamin A derivatives used in anti-aging skin care whereas “retinol” is a specific type of retinoid. Retinol refers to over-the-counter retinoid products that are generally weaker in strength than their prescription-based counterparts (IE: Retin-A, or tretinoin). 

This article from Real Simple Magazine does a pretty good job distinguishing the two if you’re looking for more info on what a retinoid is versus a retinol.

For ease of understanding, since I’m talking about the over-the-counter retinoid products, I will simply refer to them as retinols. 

What Does Retinol Do?

Instead of asking what retinol is used for, it may be a quicker explanation to say what it isn’t used for, since retinol has been considered a kind of cure-all for skin issues. Many people use it to reduce fine lines and wrinkles. Beyond helping with wrinkling, retinol can improve skin tone and skin color by reducing discoloration, including acne scarring. Beyond reducing the appearance of acne scars, retinol can be used to treat moderate to severe acne. Retinols help to unclog pores and can even prevent dead skin cells from clogging pores and causing acne, according to WebMD.

Cats & Coffee Skincare FAQ posts

How Does Retinol Work?

Retinol promotes skin cell turnover, paving the way for new cell growth. In the process, retinols reduce the breakdown of collagen and thicken the deeper layers of skin where wrinkles begin to form, according to WebMD.

Does Retinol Help With Acne?

As mentioned above, retinols can both help reduce and prevent acne. Retinol helps clear clogged pores, which reduces the production of acne. Relatedly, this reduces the change of getting acne scars. If you want more information on retinol (or prescription strength retinoids) for acne, I recommend checking out this brief article.

Do Retinols Cause Irritation?

Retinols may cause some skin irritation when you first start them. Besides redness, you may even notice some worsening of acne or peeling of the skin. This is a pretty common occurrence, and the risk of it can be reduced by introducing retinols into your routine slowly. 

In my experience, I’ve not had an issue with retinol irritation from over-the-counter retinols; only when I had a prescription-strength Retin-A cream did I have an issue with this. Even then, the side effects were temporary and went away after a couple weeks of regular use. 

Be Sure to Use Sunscreen with Retinols

Retinols can cause skin sensitivity to sunlight. For this reason, you should use retinol creams at night, instead of in the morning, regardless of the season. So, if you choose to incorporate retinols into your routine, make sure you’re using a good sunscreen in the mornings, as well.

Check out some of my favorite daily sunscreens here if you need recommendations!

How to Use Retinols in Your Skin Care Routine

Curious about incorporating over-the-counter retinols into your skin care routine? It’s a pretty easy product to add to your nightly routine. After washing your face and applying eye cream, simply apply a pea-sized amount of whatever retinol cream product you choose to dry skin. Follow it up with a moisturizer and, in the morning, some sunscreen before you go out.

My Favorite Retinols 

I started using Retin-A in college, in part as acne medication, but largely as an anti-aging measure. Around college, I started taking my anti-aging skincare more seriously. This change was largely because of the potential for sun damage while living in Florida. As much as retinoids have helped my acne overall, the acne benefits are secondary. The fact that they stimulate cellular turnover and reduce discoloration and scarring are my favorite benefits, since you can’t really get that from other products. 

Retinol-Alternative for Sensitive Skin

If you don’t want to use an actual retinol, or your skin is particularly sensitive to retinol, I recommend checking out Herbivore Botanical’s Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum. I’ve had great results with that, particularly with acne scarring. 

Super Affordable Retinols

Beauty Pie has a whole line of retinols, aptly named “Super Retinol.” With a Beauty Pie membership (starting at $10/month), the retinol serums are under $15, and the bottles last a while. Read more about Beauty Pie and their Super Retinol Ceramide-Boost serum here.

Clinically-Backed Over-the-Counter Retinol

Obagi is a powerhouse skin care brand. Though their products tend to be pricier, Obagi’s products are well worth the money, in my experience. I love that the brand is so scientifically driven and clinically minded. I’ve used the Obagi Retinol 1.0% for some time now and find the product works well for me, particularly when I mix it with their Nu-Derm Blend for extra brightening. I’m intrigued by this Obagi Retinol Retexturizing Cream available online from Sephora, though; I have to add that to my list of things to try!

Strong Yet Gentle Retinol

Lastly, I love the Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinol Serum. I’ve been using this product for a number of months and find it works well and has not caused irritation in my otherwise sensitive skin. This is a pricier option at $85 for 1 oz, but it is a stronger blend and includes plant-based retinol-alternatives, as well as regular retinol. This product pairs well with Sunday Riley’s Juno Antioxidant Superfood Face Oil.  

Retinol Facial Oil Option

Another Sunday Riley recommendation here: the Luna Retinol Sleeping Night Oil is rather lovely. This is a lightweight oil that combines retinol with blue tansy, chamomile, and chia seed oil to promote plumpness in the skin, while also reducing fine lines and wrinkles. This oil is a bit pricy – $105 for 1.18 oz – but, as with most facial oils, a little goes a long way so the 1.18 oz bottle would last you quite some time. Alternatively, a 0.5 oz bottle is available for $55.

Popular Beauty Posts from Cats & Coffee

Pin this post to save it for later!

Are you curious about retinols? It can be tough to figure out the difference between retinol products, so I did some research into commonly asked questions about this skincare product. Read up on retinol FAQ and learn about my favorite retinol products for different concerns and budgets here!