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What is Retinol?: 5 Uses for Anti-Aging's Secret Ingredient

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By Martina Gonzalez

Retinol has been extensively used in skincare since the 1970s, and continues to be one of the most popular—and most effective—ways to treat stubborn wrinkles, age spots, acne, and a horde of other unpleasant skin conditions. Also known as Vitamin A, retinol comes in many different compounds, strengths, and formulas. Despite its firm place in drugstores and pharmacies, there’s still a lot of confusion about how retinol really works. Read on to learn how to get the best out of a retinol, and which type of retinol is best for you.

But first, let’s get some retinol facts straight:

  • Retinol is the whole Vitamin A molecule.
  • It can be further broken down into smaller components, like tretinoin (Retin-A).
  • Essentially, retinol promotes skin peeling and the unclogging of pores to reveal fresh, new skin.
  • High strength retinols (above 1.0%) must be prescribed by a dermatologist, thanks to the likelihood of peeling, skin irritation, and burning.
  • Lower strength retinols can be purchased over the counter.
  • Retinols won’t make your skin any more sun-sensitive, but the ingredient itself does attract the sun. Only use it before bed, and thoroughly wash your face before stepping outside.

Now that we’ve covered the retinol basics, here are 5 popular uses for retinol:

1. Acne medication Retin-A is perhaps the best known form of retinol. Retinoic acid, or tretinoin, is applied topically to the skin once every 2 or 3 days. Retin-A promotes rapid shedding of the skin to unclog pores and reveal new skin. Though effective on moderate and severe acne, Retin-A is highly irritating and many patients can’t put up with the sometimes embarrassing peeling process. Retin-A is ideal for comedogenic acne, or acne characterized by blackheads, whiteheads, and pustules.

2. Retin-A can also be used on wrinkles. That’s right, the same stuff that’s so popular for acne is also effective on photoaging. Talk to your dermatologist about Retin-A if you have visible sun damage of fine lines around your eyes, mouth, and forehead. The damaged skin will peel off in a couple of weeks, resulting in a visible improvement in aged skin.

3. Non-prescription retinols can really help wrinkles, too. While tretinoin is best for fighting acne, regular retinol works just fine for wrinkle treatment. Try a high-grade product, like Obagi Skin Health OSSENTIAL Radical Night Repair Plus. With a 1.0% retinol content, you’ll get all the benefits of a prescription retinol without the cost.

4. Retinol can be taken orally. Vitamin A deficiency in the United States is rare, but can result in dry eyes, poor growth, and vision problems. It’s most common in children living in developing countries without access to proper nutrition. If you're worried about your Vitamin A intake, try to increase your consumption of sweet potatoes, carrots, and dark leafy greens.

5. Recent studies have shown retinol may help prevent skin cancer. When used in conjunction with sunscreen, the Mayo Clinic says that topical and oral retinol can help aid the fight against skin cancer by reducing incurred damage on the skin. As a result, some sunscreen companies have adopted 2-in-1 products that combine sunscreen and retinol for superior sun protection and anti-aging.

Retinol is just one of the many options available for anti-aging. New Image Specialists’ national network of board-certified plastic surgeons and skincare specialists offer top-tier skin treatments, such as IPL Photofacials, Botox, Microdermabrasion, and more. Contact our representatives now to schedule a personal consultation with a provider in your area.

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