By now, you’ve likely heard how amazing retinoids are for the skin — and with good reason!
They’ve been proven in study after study to encourage cellular turnover, , , , fade pigmentation, and give the skin an overall youthful glow. Their existence to the skin care industry is what the Queen is to the world: royalty.
But with so many benefits, it’s easy to let word of mouth travel further than the science.
Here are 13 myths about retinoids that we’ll clear up for you so you know exactly what you’re getting into with this holy grail ingredient.
1. Myth: All retinoids are the same
Retinoids are a huge family of compounds derived from vitamin A. There are actually several forms from over-the-counter to prescription strength in topical and oral medication form. Let’s understand the differences!
Over-the-counter (OTC) retinoids are most often found in serums, eye creams, and night moisturizers.
|Available||Retinoid type||What it does|
|OTC||retinol||has fewer side effects than retinoic acid (prescription strength), it converts on the cellular level of the skin, thus taking several months to a year for visible results|
|OTC||retinoid esters (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate)||weakest in the retinoid family, but a good starting point for beginners or sensitive skin types|
|OTC||Adapalene (better known as Differin)||slows the process of excessive growth in the lining of pores and desensitizes the skin to inflammation making it an ideal treatment for acne|
|prescription only||retinoic acid (retin-A, or tretinoin)||works significantly faster than retinol since no conversion in the skin needs to take place|
|prescription only||Isotretinoin better known as Accutane||oral medication that’s prescribed for severe forms of acne and requires close supervision by a doctor|
Should I get a cream or gel? Cream forms are ideal for people that need a bit more hydration since they’re creamy and emollient. Gels, on the other hand, are preferred for oilier skin types. Since they’re also thinner than a cream, they penetrate faster making it more effective and stronger. But this can also mean more side effects.
This is really trial and error, depending on the individual and per your doctor’s advice.
2. Myth: Retinoids thin the skin
This is commonly believed because one of the side effects when first starting the use of a retinoid is skin peeling.
Many assume their skin is thinning, but quite the opposite is true. Since retinoids stimulate collagen production, it actually helps to thicken the skin. This is beneficial because one of the natural signs of getting older is thinning of the skin.
3. Myth: Young people can’t use retinoids
The original intent of retinoids was actually used to treat acne and prescribed to many young people.
It wasn’t until , when a study published the skin benefits — like softening fine lines and lightening hyperpigmentation — that retinoids got remarketed as “anti-aging.”
But there is no age restriction on the use of retinoids. Instead, it’s about what skin conditions are being treated. After sunscreen, it’s one of the best preventive anti-aging ingredients around.
4. Myth: Retinoids will make me more sensitive to the sun
Many people worry that the use of retinoids will make their skin more sensitive in the sun. Hold on to your seats — this is untrue.
Retinoids break down in the sun, making it unstable and less effective. This is why they’re sold in metal tubes or opaque containers and are recommended for use at night.
But retinoids have been studied extensively and have shown with most certainty that they don’t increase the risk of sunburn. However, that isn’t permission to go out in the sun without proper sun protection! It would be pretty counterproductive since much of extrinsic aging is due to photo damage.
5. Myth: You’ll see results in 4 to 6 weeks
Don’t we wish this was true? For over-the-counter retinol, it can take up to six months and with tretinoin up to three months for full results to be visible.
6: Myth: If you have peeling or redness, you should stop using the retinoid
With retinoids, it’s often a “worse-before-better” type of situation. Typical side effects include dryness, tightness, peeling, and redness — especially when first starting out.
These side effects usually subside after two to four weeks until the skin acclimates. Your skin will thank you later!
7. Myth: It must be used daily to see results
Often, daily use is the goal, but you’ll still reap the benefits by using it a few times a week, too. How fast the results happen also depend on the strength and type of retinoid.
8: Myth: The more you apply the better the results
Using too much of the product can often cause undesirable effects like peeling and dryness. The recommended amount is about a pea-sized drop for the entire face.
9. Myth: You should avoid applying retinoids around the eye area
Most people assume the delicate eye area is too sensitive for retinoid use. However, this is the area where wrinkles usually show up first and can benefit the most from the collagen-stimulating effects of retinoids.
If you’re sensitive around your eyes, you can always layer on an eye cream first followed by your retinoid.
10. Myth: Stronger percentages of retinoids will give you better or faster results
As far as strengths go, many think it’s best to just jump right into the strongest formula, believing it’s better or will provide a faster result. This usually isn’t the case and doing so can even have annoying side effects.
For retinoids, building a tolerance will create better results.
Think of it as if you took up running. You wouldn’t start with a marathon, would you? From over-the-counter to prescription strength, there are several delivery methods. What works well for one person may not another.
When getting a prescription from your doctor, they’ll help you decide the best percentage strength, formula, and frequency for your skin type and conditions.
11. Myth: Retinoids exfoliate the skin
This is a widely believed misconception. Since retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A, they’re actually considered antioxidants.
In addition, they’re a “cell communicating” ingredient. This means their job is to “talk” to skin cells and encourage healthier, younger cells making their way to the surface of the skin.
It’s easy to assume the skin is exfoliating itself since some of the side effects are peeling and flakiness. However, those side effects are actually a result of irritation and dryness until the skin acclimates, as retinoids don’t have the ability to clear or dissolve dead skin cells on their own.
12. Myth: Sensitive skin can’t tolerate retinoids
The reputation of retinoids is that they’re a “harsh” ingredient. Sure, they can be a little aggressive, but people with sensitive skin can still happily use them with just a little modification.
It’s best to start off cautiously with once or twice a week application. It’s often recommended that you either layer it on top of your moisturizer or mix together with your moisturizer.
13. Myth: Only prescription-strength retinoids provide results
There are many OTC retinoids that provide some really great results.
Maybe you’ve seen Differin (Adapalene) at your local drugstore which was only prescribed by doctors but is now being sold over-the-counter. Adapalene works slightly differently than retinol/retinoic acid. It slows the process of hyperkeratinization, or excessive growth in the lining of pores, and desensitizes the skin to inflammation.
Studies indicate that Adapalene has less irritating side effects than other retinoids which is why it’s so great for acne. If you’re dealing with acne and aging at the same time (which is common), Differin may be a great option for you.
So, should you start using retinoids?
If you’re interested in treating or taking preventive measures for wrinkles, fine lines, pigmentation, scarring, and more, then your late 20s or early 30s is a great age to start with an over-the-counter retinol or even prescription-strength tretinoin.
It’s around this timeline when the body starts to produce less collagen, less rapidly than our earlier years. Of course it also depends on your lifestyle and how much sun damage you have accumulated in those years!
Dana Murray is a licensed aesthetician from Southern California with a passion for skin care science. She’s worked in skin education, from helping others with their skin to developing products for beauty brands. Her experience extends over 15 years and an estimated 10,000 facials. She’s been using her knowledge to blog about skin and bust skin myths on her Instagram since 2016.