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How Do Retinol and Other Retinoids Work?


How Do Retinol and Other Retinoids Work? How Do Retinol and Other Retinoids Work? How Do Retinol and Other Retinoids Work?

Let’s face it: Sooner or later, you’re bound to have a few fine lines and wrinkles crop up on your face—it’s all a part of getting older. And if you’ve noticed this common sign of skin aging, you could be asking yourself what you can do about it. Well, you may want to consider starting an anti-aging skin care routine that includes retinol! Retinol—and retinoids in general—are popular skin care ingredients commonly found in anti-aging skin care product formulas (such as face moisturizers and eye creams). Before you make the decision to update your routine with such products, however, it’s not a bad idea to learn a little more. Here, get the lowdown on what retinol and other retinoids do and how you can incorporate these powerful ingredients into your routine.


While birthdays are super-fun, the effects of aging on your skin might not be as joyous. That’s where retinol comes in. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), retinol is a derivative of vitamin A that is often found in anti-aging skin care products.  


If you’re left asking “what is a retinoid” and questioning what sets a retinoid apart from retinol, let’s clear things up. Retinoid is actually an umbrella term for different vitamin A derivatives, including retinol. According to research published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), the retinoid family includes vitamin A and its natural and synthetic derivatives, including retinoic acid. In other words, retinol is just one type of retinoid, of which there are a multitude.

Other retinoids include both prescription and over-the-counter creams and medications, many of which are intended for the treatment of acne too, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Per the AAD, there are three types of prescription retinoids available: tretinoin, adapalene, and tazarotene. These retinoids are the core of topical anti-acne therapies. According to Harvard Medical School, tretinoin was the first retinoid to be discovered—and it’s still a popular option today!


According to the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, applying retinol topically impacts cellular and molecular properties of the epidermis and dermis. Per another study from the NCBI, this can be seen in the improvement of the appearance of fine wrinkles associated with natural aging. According to the AAD, retinol also works by unclogging pores, which can make your skin look brighter. Beyond that, the Mayo Clinic states that retinol also works as an antioxidant to help neutralize free radicals on the skin, which can break down skin cells and result in the appearance of wrinkles.

One important thing to keep in mind is that, according to the AAD, retinol can be drying. This means you’ll want to be mindful when you’re using products formulated with it. When applying retinol, remember the saying, “less is more!”


As for retinoids, the answer isn’t too different, as retinol is just one example of a retinoid. The AAD states that retinoids increase cell turnover to exfoliate clogged pores and reduce the appearance of fine lines—that’s why they’re able to be an effective treatment for acne and visible wrinkles. The AAD also notes that prescription-strength retinoids can help provide more voluminous-looking skin as you age.


If you’re interested in using skin care products formulated with retinol or other retinoids as part of your skin care routine, the AAD recommends starting slow until your skin builds up a tolerance, since, like we said, retinol can be drying to the skin. Keep in mind that while retinol is often found in over-the-counter skin care products, other types of retinoids may require a prescription from a dermatologist.

Generally, retinoids should be used as part of your nighttime skin care routine. This is because, per the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), retinoids may increase skin’s sensitivity. According to Harvard Medical School, since using retinol and other retinoids can cause skin dryness and irritation, doctors also often recommend starting out with only using the potent ingredients every other night. Then, once your skin gets used to this frequency and doesn’t become irritated, you can switch to applying your retinoid of choice every day. Regardless of frequency, after applying you should follow up with a moisturizer to help counteract those drying effects we discussed. 

As for your morning skin care routine, you should follow the FDA’s sunscreen guidelines and apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. This is a must since, as we mentioned, retinol and other retinoids can impact sun sensitivity. Do this as the last step in your routine before putting on any makeup. Additionally, you should take other sun protection measures recommended by the FDA, which include reapplying sunscreen every two hours, covering up exposed areas in long sleeves, pants, a broad-brimmed hat, and blocking sunglasses, seeking shade, and limiting the amount of time you spend in the sun, especially during the sun’s peak hours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

With all of that said, if you’re using a prescription retinoid, when your dermatologist hands you a prescription, he or she will also explain how to use it, so always follow your doctor’s recommendations and the instructions on the packaging.


For most retinoids, you’ll need to book an appointment with your dermatologist to get your hands on one. However, the same isn’t true for retinol. Over-the-counter retinol is becoming increasingly popular and—with that—more accessible. If you want to get started with an over-the-counter retinol option, here are a couple to consider:

L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Bright Reveal Dual Overnight Moisturizer: This night cream is formulated with glycolic acid, Pro-Retinol, and vitamin C to help brighten the appearance of your skin with continued use over time. Gently smooth it over cleansed skin before you hit the hay, and remember to apply broad-spectrum sunscreen in the morning as directed and take the other sun protection measures we outlined above as well.

L'Oréal Paris Revitalift Cicacream Face Moisturizer Pro Retinol & Centella Asiatica: Another contributing factor to the development of fine lines and wrinkles is the fact that our skin barrier naturally weakens as we age. This facial moisturizer contains retinol and centella asiatica, an herb used in traditional Chinese medicine, to strengthen and repair the skin barrier.


While retinol can play an important role in your skin care routine, it’s not the only thing you can do to maintain your complexion’s beautiful, youthful-looking appearance. Add these tips to your skin care routine in addition to using a retinol cream.

1. Wash with a facial cleanser twice a day

This is one of the best steps you can take for a pretty complexion. Washing your face at night is particularly important to help address the buildup of dirt, oil, and makeup that has piled up on skin’s surface during the day. Since your skin can get drier as you age, use a cream facial cleanser, like the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Radiant Smoothing Cream Cleanser.

2. Apply sunscreen every day

We can’t stress this point enough! We’ve already given you one good reason to wear sunscreen—retinoids can increase sun sensitivity—but there’s more. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, leaving skin unprotected can cause damage, which can lead to visible signs of aging down the road, like wrinkles and dark spots. The sun emits two kinds of rays—UVA and UVB—and UVA rays are the ones responsible for making your skin look older, while UVB rays cause burning. A broad-spectrum sunscreen can protect against both types! 

3. Exfoliate

Slough off dead skin cells from the surface of your skin by incorporating a gentle exfoliator into your routine once or twice a week. The reason why this step is so important is as follows: As you get older, your skin’s ability to shed old surface skin cells slows down, and this buildup can lead to a dull-looking complexion. To start exfoliating, try the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Bright Reveal Brightening Daily Scrub Cleanser, which is formulated with gentle micro-pearls and glycolic acid. Just remember that alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid can also increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun!

4. Pay attention to your eyes

Your eyes aren't just the window to your soul, they can also be a dead giveaway of aging skin. If you experience the appearance of dark circles, puffiness, or fine lines, adding an eye cream to your daily skin care routine could be a good idea. Try the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Anti-Wrinkle + Firming Eye Cream, which also contains Pro-Retinol!

Want more anti-aging skin care tips? Check out our article, The Best Skin Care Routine for Aging Skin.