Retinol products do it all: They help increase cell turnover, even out skin tone, stimulate collagen production and more. But they can also be drying ― especially the prescription-grade kind, which is more powerful than anything you’ll find over the counter. It’s vital that you pair your retinol products with a strong moisturizer, but many will clog your pores and cause even more trouble. We asked dermatologists what to look for, and what to avoid.
First, some definitions: retinols, retinoids and retinoic acid
While “retinol” is often used as a blanket term to describe these skin-boosting vitamin A derivatives, when it comes to the prescription stuff we’re mostly talking about retinoids.
“Both retinoids and retinol are vitamin A derivatives that ultimately get converted into retinoic acid, the active form of the molecule,” Dr. Corey Hartman, medical director and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama, and clinical assistant professor at the Department of Dermatology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told HuffPost. He puts it simply: “Retinols are over-the-counter (OTC) or physician-dispensed. Retinoids are prescription.”
Dr. Papri Sarkar, a dermatologist in Brookline, Massachusetts, told HuffPost that retinols and retinoids both work by entering a cell and directing it to increase skin turnover and produce new collagen, which helps to give a plumper appearance to skin, decrease and prevent fine wrinkling and even out skin tone.
Hartman explained that retinols have a lower concentration of retinoic acid. This means they work more gradually, and are therefore less irritating than retinoids. The trade-off here is that while retinols are less irritating, results will take longer. Retinoids, on the other hand, have a higher concentration of retinoic acid. Since retinoic acid is the active form, retinoids can get to work on the skin faster. The results from a retinoid are more dramatic, but there’s a higher risk of experiencing dryness, redness, peeling and irritation as your skin adjusts to the product.
Dr. Annie Gonzalez, board-certified Miami dermatologist of Riverchase Dermatology, noted that starting with a retinol is a good way to introduce your skin to this type of product, and that you can eventually work up to a prescription retinoid.
Moisturizer to the rescue
When it comes to pairing a moisturizer with a prescription retinoid, Hartman recommends looking for bland moisturizers with ceramides, hyaluronic acid or humectants, but no other active ingredients. In other words, keep it simple.
In terms of application, you have a few options to choose from, depending on how dry or sensitive your skin is. If you can tolerate it, Sarkar instructs patients to use the retinoid and then apply a moisturizer over it after a few minutes or 30 minutes later. If your skin is sensitive, she recommends mixing your retinoid with moisturizer in a 1:1 ratio.
For people with more sensitive skin, Sarkar recommends the retinoid sandwich technique, in which you apply a layer of moisturizer, then your retinoid, then moisturizer on top of the retinoid. Lastly, if you have super sensitive skin, she recommends applying your retinoid and then washing it off after 30 minutes. Afterward, apply your moisturizer and an occlusive cream on top. (Occlusives ― think Vaseline ― form a protective layer on the surface of your skin to create a barrier that prevents moisture loss.)
“You can mix and match any of these,” Sarkar said. “I choose to mix in a 1:1 ratio, and on days that my skin feels like it might protest in the morning, I add an occlusive on top of the mixture. Right now my treatment of choice is the Belif True Cream mixed with retinoid and then occluded with healing ointment.”
Dermatologist-approved moisturizers to pair with prescription retinoids
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The favorite: CeraVe Moisturizing Cream
Vichy Minéral 89 Hyaluronic Acid Face Moisturizer
Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel-Cream
Similarly… Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel
SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2
Belif The True Cream Moisturizing Bomb
Belif The True Cream Aqua Bomb
Aveeno Sheer Hydration Lotion
Vanicream Moisturizing Lotion
La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Balm B5
Avène Revitalizing Nourishing Cream