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4 Things You Need to Know before Using Retinol

What's the difference between retinol and retinoid — and should you be using them in your skincare routine? These vitamin A derivatives are favored by dermatologists for their ability to address both blemish-prone skin and minimize the signs of aging. Here's everything you need to know.


2 minute read

Retinol is one of the most popular skincare ingredients, but perhaps one of the least understood. Its many benefits almost sound too good to be true: soooo...retinol treats blemishes, but it also fights fine lines?

There’s even common confusion about what to call this superstar — is it retinol, retinoid...vitamin A? To clear things up, we’ve consulted board-certified dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) for a primer on everything you need to know before you start using retinol in your routine.


Retinol vs. retinoid

Retinol belongs to a class of dermatological ingredients called retinoids. It's the over-the-counter version of a retinoid, while tretinoin is its prescription cousin. Derived from vitamin A, retinoids are some of the most well-researched, clinically proven well-aging ingredients. Their many benefits include:

  • Speeding up cell turnover
  • Increasing collagen production
  • Stimulating blood flow
  • Evening out skin tone
  • Controlling inflammation
  • Reducing fine lines and wrinkles

When should you start using retinol?

While there’s no hard and fast rule, dermatologists typically suggest incorporating retinol into your skincare routine in your mid-twenties, particularly if you have acne-prone skin or hyperpigmentation. It’s interesting to note that retinoids were originally developed to treat acne, with their anti-aging benefits discovered later.

If you’re already in your 30s (or beyond!), don’t fret: it’s never too late to begin using retinoids. In fact, retinol and other vitamin A derivatives are extremely beneficial as we age, since our skin cycle slows — and retinoids give it a jump start.

How to incorporate retinol into your routine

Dr. Lee suggests introducing retinol slowly, as its effects can be strong. While some redness, flaking and irritation is common, this should subside after a few weeks. Some patients benefit from applying the product every other night — Dr. Lee emphasizes that you should only use retinoids at night, because of their photosensitizing properties. And make sure you’re applying (and reapplying) sunscreen daily, (try SLMD Dual Defender SPF 30) even if you’re mostly indoors.

If you’re experiencing a lot of irritation from your retinoid product, try “sandwiching” it between layers of moisturizer, or choose a product formulated with skin-nourishing ingredients. This will help soothe skin and protect it from the drying effects of retinol and other vitamin A acids.

What’s the best retinol to use?

Look for a retinol that’s labeled “safe for all skin types.” These products typically contain gentler formulas that incorporate skin-soothing ingredients to guard against potential irritation.

SLMD Retinol Resurfacing Serum includes both retinol and vitamin A derivatives, plus hyaluronic acid, allantoin and provitamin B5 to hydrate, moisturize and soothe skin.

    If you plan to use the “sandwich” application technique, try SLMD Hyaluronic Acid Serum — a skin-quenching blend of hyaluronic acid (which holds many times its weight in water) and squalane, a moisturizer remarkably similar to skin’s own natural oils.

    It's worth noting that when it comes to retinol, more isn't better: don't double up on products, as you're only increasing your risk of irritation without adding much (if any) benefit.

    Dr Sandra Lee

    Dr. Lee's Last Word

    Retinol slows down the breakdown of collagen, while simultaneously encouraging rapid cell turnover in our skin. Retinol works in incredible ways to help skin cells regenerate overnight, so you wake up with fresh, new skin. This regeneration works a lot like exfoliating in the sense that it helps to turnover old cells to lighten imperfections, hyperpigmentation, and even dark spots and wrinkles.


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