Retinol is a form of vitamin A that is beneficial for skin. Vitamin A helps plump wrinkles, gets rid of dark spots, reduces oil production, improves collagen production, and stimulates cell turnover for a more youthful appearance. It can also be really helpful for getting rid of acne and breakouts. It’s a really excellent ingredient for anti-aging and acne.
Vitamin A can be applied to skin in several forms, including retinyl palmitate, retinol, retinoic acid, or one of several other proprietary forms of vitamin A developed by a particular skincare brand. The most pure form of vitamin A is retinoic acid, also known as tretinoin. This is available by prescription only and is the most potent form of vitamin A. All forms of vitamin A are transformed into retinoic acid once applied to the skin.
Retinyl palmitate → retinol → retinoic acid
Retinyl palmitate is the least potent and weakest version of vitamin A. When applied to the skin it is first converted to retinol, then to retinoic acid. Ingredient potency is lost with each transformation, thus why retinyl palmitate is the weakest vitamin A option. If you are looking for noticeable anti-aging results, you won’t get much with retinyl palmitate.
Retinol is the most common version of vitamin A you will find in over the counter options. Most serums, lotions, and creams contain retinol quantities anywhere from 0.025 to 1% of the total formula. Retinol is about 10x weaker than retinoic acid, so a 1% formulation of retinol is approximately equivalent to 0.1% prescription tretinoin cream. Most products don’t actually state the retinol concentration, so it can be difficult to determine how much you’re really getting. Just know that the higher it is on the ingredients list, the more you’re getting.
Retinoic acid, or tretinoin, is obviously the most potent way to get your vitamin A. As I mentioned, it’s available by prescription. Tretinoin generally comes with a period of intense flaking and extra sensitivity, which can make it difficult to use for sensitive-skinned ladies like myself. But if you can handle it, it’s very effective.
How does retinol work?
Retinol, and other vitamin A derivatives are the gold standard of anti-aging according to doctors and dermatologists. Retinol is a type of cell-communicating ingredient, meaning that it can help control how skin cells behave and tell them to behave differently.
When you apply vitamin A to your skin, a whole bunch of chemical reactions occur at the cellular level. But what is essentially happening is that the retinol, or other vitamin A derivative, tells the deeper layers of your skin to produce healthier skin cells at a faster rate than before. This is part of why there is often an adjustment period involving peeling, flaking, or acne purging (the other part is because it’s a potent ingredient and not everyone can handle it). The newly produced healthy skin cells underneath are basically pushing the outer layers skin off so they can get out. Then once the adjustment period is over, skin looks healthier, clearer, and smoother. This is because the acne, dark spots, and surface skin is gone, and the new skin cells have made it up to the surface.
What is a chemical exfoliant?
A chemical exfoliant is any AHA or BHA acid occurring at a low pH (3-4ish) in a concentration high enough to produce results. The lower the pH, the more “free acid” is available, and the more the product will cause a burning or tingling sensation. A pH of 3 is a bit on the low side, and anything over 4 is so high as to not be very effective. 3.5-4 is best. Unfortunately it is difficult to know what the pH is without actually testing a product. However, Beautypedia often states the pH of a chemical exfoliant product when they write their reviews. Some brands (like Cosrx) also state the pH in their product description. Just because an ingredients list states glycolic, lactic, or salicylic acid does not mean that exfoliation will occur.
AHAs are ingredients like glycolic or lactic acid (these are the most common) that are generally present anywhere from 4% up to 10% for daily use products. But you can also find concentrations of 20-50% for home chemical peel usage. Don’t use these unless you know what you’re doing. You can go higher, but should only do so at a dermatologist’s office. BHAs include salicylic acid and its derivatives, like betaine salicylate. BHAs are usually present in lower concentrations than AHAs, generally around 0.5% up to 2%. The limit for salicylic acid is 2% for topical application. But higher concentrations are available for chemical peel usage.
AHAs are water soluble acids that help to remove dead surface skin cells. The acid decreases cellular adhesion, which promotes exfoliation, and with regular use will result in smoother skin.
BHAs are oil soluble acids that help penetrate inside your pores and dissolve any clogs or blockages that may be present. They are fantastic for acne sufferers, or those with whiteheads and blackheads, since the acid can actually dissolve the problem.
AHAs and BHAs are very good complementary products, since they both exfoliate but work differently to produce smoother skin. Some products contain both types of acid, or you can layer individual products.
Retinol and chemical exfoliants work well together
So there’s this myth going around that has been perpetuated over and over again that you should never use chemical exfoliants and retinol in your skincare regimen at the same time because they both exfoliate and too much exfoliation is bad. It’s true that too much exfoliation is bad, but using retinol and chemical exfoliants at the same time can actually work really well since they aren’t doing the same thing. The retinol produces healthy skin cells from below, and the chemical exfoliants help to unclog your pores and remove the old skin cells off the top.
You should probably not use retinol and a chemical exfoliant at the same time though. Technically you can use both products at night if you want, there isn’t really anything stopping you other than the potential for very very irritated skin. I don’t recommend doing this, especially if your skin is sensitive.
Using Retinol and Chemical Exfoliants – What should I use and how?
Start out using retinol and chemical exfoliants very slowly so your skin can get used the products. Neither type of product should be used more than a couple times per week at first. If you just want to start using retinol early as a preventative measure, a couple times a week may be enough anyway. You should try to get used to one type of product before introducing another, as well. Spend at least a few weeks using your AHA or BHA before introducing retinol or vice versa.
Once your skin is accustomed to occasional usage of retinol and chemical exfoliants, you can increase your frequency until you reach a schedule that feels comfortable for you. You can alternate nights between retinol and your exfoliants. Or if you are quite sensitive, perhaps one night retinol, one night acid, one night rest would also be a good choice. If your skin is very accustomed to these products you could do acid exfoliant in the morning, retinol at night. But that is definitely more for advanced users that have been using both for a long time.
You should also make sure your retinol is in opaque or dark glass packaging. This protects the ingredients from sunlight, which degrades them and renders them inert (aka, useless). Then they don’t work anymore. If the product you choose does come in clear glass, store it in a cupboard away from sunlight.
So to sum up, start slowly and don’t use your retinol and AHA/BHA products at the same time. Find a regimen that works for you where you can be using retinol and chemical exfoliants together and gain the benefits of two very effective, complementary, anti-aging, anti-acne product types.
Recommended AHA and BHA Products I Have Tried
- Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid
- Cosrx AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid
- Dermatologic Cosmetic Laboratories G10 Radiance Peel
- B. Kamins Lactic-10
- Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Acid 10% Hydrating Gel
- Caudalie Glycolic Peel
- Reversa Anti-Wrinkle Cream SPF30
- Herbivore Botanicals – Organic Blue Tansy Resurfacing Mask
Recommended Retinol Products I have Tried
- SkinMedica 0.5 Retinol Complex
- Dr. Dennis Gross Ferulic Acid and Retinol Brightening Solution
- Dr. Dennis Gross Ferulic and Retinol Triple Correction Eye Serum
- Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil (I wasn’t able to use it, but if I wasn’t allergic to orange oil, I totally would)
Products That Look Promising But I Haven’t Tested (but Really Really Want To)
- Verso Super Facial Oil
- Pestle & Mortar Retinol Night Oil
- Perricone OVM Serum
- Skin Inc Pure Revival Peel (an exfoliator, but not actually an AHA or BHA)
- Kate Somerville Dermal Quench Liquid Lift + Retinol