Is Retinol All It's Hyped Up to Be? Why Some People Aren't Convinced.

Updated: Apr 29

If you follow any skincare-focused accounts, blogs, or newsletters, it’s almost guaranteed you’ve seen the mention of retinol. Retinol is being called an anti-aging miracle ingredient, praised again and again for its ability to transform skin’s tone, texture, and pigment. Sounds amazing, right? Not so fast.

Though retinol may be having a moment, it’s not for everyone. We’re here to provide some retinol insight so you can make an informed decision about if it’s the right ingredient for your skincare arsenal.

Girl looking puzzled at sign with "retinol" written on it
Retinol can be confusing. Make it easy with a Med-Tech Facial at Kalvera Skin Therapy.

What is retinol?

Retinol, retinoid, retin-A, retinal. The names of these products can be overwhelming (and confusing). The common denominator? All these formulas are derivatives of Vitamin A and are most well known for their use to fight the war on wrinkles. For the sake of this article, I am going to refer to various Vitamin A-based formulas as their most common product usage derivative, retinol. However, here is a brief outline of the various Vitamin A formulas you might see.

  • Retonic Acid: The active form of Vitamin A that breaks down in your skin. Retonic Acid will be found in prescription retinoids while over-the-counter retinoids are gradually converted to retinoic acid through a reaction that occurs within the skin.

  • Retinoid: An umbrella term for the most potent class of Vitamin A and labeled as a classified pharmaceutical, meaning you need a prescription (think: Tretinoin). This is the most potent formula and the most irritating.

  • Retin-A: This is a brand name for Tretinoin and is a retinoid.

  • Retinal: Retinal is less potent than Retinoid but more potent than Retinol. It is the closest thing to Retinod, without needing a prescription. This means it can be more effective than retinol, but that extra punch may cause irritation to sensitive skin.

  • Retinol: Retinol is less potent than both retinoids and retinal. It’s classified as a cosmeceutical, meaning you can purchase retinol over-the-counter. Due to less potency, it may take longer to see results but will also be less irritating.

Before purchasing a Vitamin A-based product, check the ingredients list and it should clearly state which form of Vitamin A is being used.

How does retinol work?

Contrary to popular belief, retinol does not exfoliate your skin. Rather, it changes the speed at which our cells turnover, making way for new skin cell growth. The small molecules that makeup retinol penetrate the middle of your skin to help boost the production of collagen and elastin. This leaves your skin looking plump, which in turn decreases the look of wrinkles, lines, and enlarged pores. Because of increased cell turnover, retinol can also help with stubborn acne by preventing the buildup of dead cells which would otherwise lead to clogged pores.

How can retinol affect your skin?

Until recently, it was actually quite hard to get a hold of retinol as it required a prescription or a consultation with a doctor. Today, retinol derivatives are a-plenty and can now be found in many over-the-counter products, making them much easier to get from the shelf to your face. Most of the time, these products are marketed to promise glowing, youthful skin, yet lack the proper warnings that should accompany such a potent ingredient.

The lesser talked about side of retinol? The side effects. Redness, dryness, flaking, burning, scaly bumps, itching, inflammation, and sensitivity to the sun are all things that can happen when you first start using retinol. In addition, retinol should never be combined with Vitamin C, AHAs, or BHAs as that can further exacerbate skin irritations. There’s a lot of pressure in the beauty industry to try “the next best thing”, causing a lot of consumers to rush to make a purchase without taking inventory of their current skincare ingredients (and how they should be used with others). In a world full of choice and marketing pressure, skincare routines can become quite chaotic.

The side effects. Redness, dryness, flaking, burning, scaly bumps, itching, inflammation, and sensitivity to the sun are all things that can happen when you first start using retinol.

Is retinol right for me?

Retinol isn’t like trying out a new eyeshadow. It’s an active ingredient that requires a long-term commitment in order to reap the benefits (and potentially some less-than-pleasant side effects). Deciding if you want to use retinol is a personal decision and one that should be made with your skin type in mind. Don’t rush into adding retinol to your routine without taking into consideration its side effects and limitations. If the pros outweigh the cons, it may be right for you. But if you have sensitive skin, rosacea, enjoy bathing in the sun, or use a lot of active ingredients that don’t play well with retinol (or you don’t want to worry about keeping track of your product's ingredients), you might be better off finding an alternative to retinol (see below for some suggestions!). As with any new, active ingredient, always book a consultation with a licensed skin specialist to see if it is the right fit for your skin.

Be sure to steer clear of any Vitamin A derivatives if pregnant or breastfeeding.

What’s the best way to use retinol?

Retinol on top of unhealthy skin can result in disaster. Before you start a retinol routine, it is important that you have a healthy skin barrier. Book a session with a Kalvera Skin Therapist (who can perform a Skin Scan consultation to determine the shape your skin is in. It's important to remember that Vitamin A is one piece of your skincare puzzle. Just like our bodies, your skin needs an array of vitamins to stay healthy.

To help with retinol-caused irritation, you can apply moisturizer prior to retinol as sort of a buffering technique. We also recommend easing into retinol use; try starting with 1-2 days a week

and a low dosage or less potent formula. Due to the risk of sun sensitivity, it is highly encouraged to apply retinol at night. And, ALWAYS wear sunscreen (which you should be doing anyway!). Be sure to steer clear of any Vitamin A derivatives if pregnant or breastfeeding.

What are the best retinol alternatives?

Don’t worry, you can still treat wrinkles, acne, and hyperpigmentation without getting on the retinol train. At Kalvera Skin Therapy, we offer Med-Tech Facials that provide the same benefits of retinol, without the nasty side effects. Similar to retinol, our Med-Tech Facials have the ability to reduce fine lines, shrink pores, even out skin tone and texture, and treat acne. They work by providing gentle exfoliation and extraction (yes, even gentle enough for the most sensitive skin!) and customized infusions to address your skin's specific needs. What’s even better? Our Med-Tech Facials get you results faster than applying retinol. Retinol can take 6-12 months of consistent use to see results. With a Med-Tech Facial, you will see improvement in your skin's health after the first treatment (though we recommend them monthly to keep up with skin health and results)! For those of you looking for a gentler, more natural product alternative to retinol, we are currently loving Bakuchiol. Bakuchiol is a derivative of the babchi plant and has been around for decades, dating back to use in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. It’s a gentle, vegan alternative that has been proven to work just as efficiently as retinol, without irritation. If retinol is not right for you, you’ve got options!

Chart showing the comparisons of a med-tech facial to retinol, with a med-tech facial allowing more effective results and less restrictions.
A Kalvera Med-Tech Facial provides the same (and more!) benefits as retinol, without the irritating, limiting side effects.

Though there may be positive effects to using Vitamin A formulas, it’s not for everyone. If you are unable to use retinol or prefer a natural, gentler solution, give our Med-Tech Facial a try! As always, don’t be afraid to schedule a consultation with your Kalvera Skin Therapist to determine the best course of action for your skin.

By Angela H.

🗣️ Looking for a retinol alternative? Book your Med-Tech Facial here!