Prior to the pandemic, my nighttime skincare routine was pretty basic. Cleanse, moisturize, and attempt to sleep in the supine position—a.k.a. not face-planted into the pillow. That was until Covid anxiety gave me a serious case of the frownies. I’m talking fine lines, wrinkles, crepiness, and complexion dullness. That the pandemic just happened to pair up with me entering my 40s certainly didn’t help the cause. When time marches across your face, it doesn’t walk with a light step. In fact, I’d say it pretty much did an Irish jig. Today, I’m diving deep into the most effective anti-aging secret I know, (well 7 secrets to be exact): the best retinol creams for beginners.
Feature image by Kristen Kilpatrick.
With my forehead giving me a peek of my future face and the bags under my eyes packed for what seemed to be a long staycation, I decided to ramp up my personal skincare approach and practice an ounce of prevention, powder room-style.
Now, my nighttime routine goes a little something like this:
In two years, I’ve gone from knowing virtually nothing about skincare to considering myself a skincare and product freak, due in part to this podcast. (Trust me, it’s binge-worthy—Lauryn Evarts Bosstick gets down and dirty with all the beauty tips and tricks you never knew you needed.)
But in the end, after all the new steps, I’d say the single most impactful addition to my routine is retinol. Incorporating this magic into the mix 2-3 times a week managed to smooth out some of my uninvited creases and crinkles and seriously improve my overall coloring. And just in time for me to come out of the Zoom room and back into the socializing light.
Eager to learn more, I hit up two experts in the world of skincare to help novices (like I admittedly still am) for the scoop on what retinol actually is, why we should be making it an (almost) daily practice, and some go-to options for beginners. The two experts in question? Director of Laser & Cosmetic Dermatology at UT Dell and Ascension Texas, Tyler Hollmig, M.D., and Austin-based esthetician, Rachel Spillman. They give us the retinol-infused scoop below—plus, keep scrolling for their recs for best retinol creams for beginners.
What exactly is retinol?
Dr. Hollmig explains that retinol is a type of retinoid, a class of medicines that are essentially forms, or “derivatives,” of vitamin A. There are numerous types of retinoids that can be helpful for the skin. Retinoids are all related to each other, but they have different strengths and different purposes.
He continues, noting that isotretinoin (Accutane), for example, can be incredibly helpful in pill form for severe acne, and there are other types of these “systemic” retinoids (oral meds) that are helpful for skin diseases like psoriasis and other inflammatory skin disorders, along with prevention of skin cancers.
“Other retinoids are used topically but require a prescription,” notes the M.D., “like tretinoin (Retin-A), which is often used for acne and is helpful for mitigating skin aging as well. Adapalene (Differin) recently transitioned from a prescription topical med for acne and skin aging to over the counter.”
Retinol is a milder, OTC form of these vitamin A derivatives and serves as an active ingredient in many skincare products. It may offer some of the benefits of its fellow retinoids but with potentially fewer side effects.
A key point: Many skincare companies market the idea that all retinoids are alike (and therefore imply that their retinol cream will have the same effects as, say, tretinoin), but this is not just the same Moira Rose wearing a different wig—the specific type of retinoid actually matters quite a bit.
What are the benefits of retinol?
“There are numerous potential benefits of using a retinol,” says Dr. Hollmig. “At the same time, I always caution patients to start slow with these and to be sure they know exactly what they are using. Because of the very light regulation on cosmetic products, many skincare products are almost like snakeoil pushed by what I refer to as the cosmetic-industrial complex.”
But back to the benefits—and you can bet there are plenty. According to Dr. Hollmig, the potential benefits include:
- Improve acne—specifically “comedonal” acne, which is blackheads and whiteheads.
- Reduce excess secretion from oil glands (sebum production), which can play a role in acne as well.
- Help mitigate skin aging. Retinoids may reduce skin aging by changing how skin cells function at a molecular level.
Dr. Hollmig dives into this further, noting that retinoids “stimulate collagen production and inhibit the breakdown of collagen that already exists, and they thicken skin by increasing cellular proliferation. These processes can help reduce fine lines and even skin tone.”
What are the most crucial steps in any skincare routine?
“The most important skincare product to start with is sunscreen,” Dr. Hollmig emphasizes. “This helps reduce skin cancer and skin aging by reducing extrinsic aging from UV light. As certain wavelengths of light that age the skin penetrate window glass and can even be emitted from cell phones and computer screens, a great broad-spectrum UV blocker is critical, even for kids.”
The second most important skincare product? Dr. Hollmig recommends looking for an active ingredient that targets your specific skin concerns. “For patients trying to even skin tone, for example, using something with vitamin C or another lightening active may be helpful.”
When should someone start using a retinol cream specifically?
“Retinol products are most helpful for patients who are either experiencing some mild, superficial acne, or are trying to reduce development of fine lines,” says Dr. Hollmig. He also observes that many of his patients notice dull skin, larger pores, and early fine lines around their late 20s or mid-30s. “This is largely due to a natural reduction in the amount of collagen produced by the skin along with other aging factors.”
Solution? “Using a topical retinol to start depositing collagen in the bank, can be a really helpful preventative strategy for reducing skin aging.”
At what step should we add retinol to our skincare routine?
Dr. Hollmig cautions that retinol isn’t for everyone, and to watch out for its known side effect of drying the skin. “Patients with really dry and sensitive skin may not be able to tolerate these. Most of my patients, however, can tolerate a light retinol, especially when combined with a good moisturizer.”
Believe what you’ve heard about using retinol as a nighttime-only product. “I advise patients to apply moisturizer on top. Certain regions are more sensitive to skin irritation, like the corners of the nose, for example, so some of my patients will apply vaseline or Aquaphor as a spot treatment to protect these areas before applying retinol elsewhere on the face,” Dr. Hollmig notes.
When it comes to retinol, what are some dos and don’ts we should be looking out for?
“The main risk with using retinol is causing skin irritation and dryness,” cautions Dr. Hollmig. “If this is a new active ingredient for a patient, I would start slowly—using it every 2 or 3 nights for a couple of months before gradually increasing to daily use.”
Dr. Hollmig elaborates, likening an effective retinol routine to running a marathon. “You have to build up endurance over time. Additionally, I recommend only introducing one active at a time. If retinol is combined with other ingredients that may irritate the skin, like hydroxy acids for example, the combined effect may cause skin irritation and peeling.”
The good news? “We are living in the golden age of skincare. “There are so many incredible products out there, and there is no longer a one-size-fits-all approach. Taking a personalized approach to skincare is the way to go, and patients shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to their dermatologist for help,” Dr. Hollmig advises.
What are your favorite retinol creams for beginners?
While retinol is widely known, retinal is still gaining traction in the skincare world. Spillman shares her thoughts as to why: “Retinal is hard to keep stabilized in product containers and is probably more expensive for companies to buy. I call retinal ‘the gentle cousin to retinol.’ It has the same benefits as retinol but with little to no irritation,” the esthetician notes.
As for use, Spillman says that “Most beginners can start using retinal products every day versus spacing a retinoid product 1-3 times per week. Retinal, also known as retinaldehyde, is still vitamin A but doesn’t cause heavy irritation and peeling like anything under the retinoid umbrella of products like heavy irritation and peeling like anything under the Retinoid umbrella of products like Tretinoin, Adapalene, Tazarotene, and retinol.”
Personally, Spillman carries most of the above list in her shop and has tried all of them on her rosacea skin. “I personally only use retinol 2x a week and retinal 4x per week, but I don’t use both at the same time. It’s important to add that when someone starts with either of these, they shouldn’t be using any other exfoliating products in their routine. They should also stop using these products altogether 2-4 days before and after a facial appointment.”