If your skin needs any kind of fix, retinol can likely provide it. Acne, dullness, dark spots, fine lines, wrinkles, enlarged pores, excessive oil, uneven texture—you name it, and the vitamin A derivative will probably help. It’s not instant, and is a world of different grades of retinol out there, but it is truly a clear-complexion miracle, and more guys need to be using it.
Retinol is a little intimidating to start, as there is a slightly higher degree of difficulty than friendlier skincare ingredients like hyaluronic acid. There are two big reasons why. First, it makes your skin much more sensitive to sunlight, so it’s not smart to put it on before going outside. (It’s best used overnight for this reason.) Secondly, it can be irritating before your skin gets used to it. “When you first start a retinol, you may notice some redness, dryness and irritation, particularly around the eyes and mouth,” says board-certified dermatologist Carly Roman, of Modern Dermatology in Seattle. “If you start slowly—using it every 2-3 nights—and follow with a moisturizer, you can limit these side effects. These changes will improve over the first 1-2 weeks of use. But what better time to have slightly red or irritated skin than when you are posting up at home?”
Dr. Roman has a good point: Let’s say you were spending a ton of time indoors and not really seeing anyone you don’t live with for the foreseeable future. You know, totally hypothetically! It would be a great time to add retinol to your regimen, right?
If you’re interested, know that retinol comes in all kinds of confusingly-named formulations. You’ll also see Retin-a, retinoid, retinolic acid, and tretinoin, which are all variations on the same compound and work essentially the same way. But the main thing to keep in mind is that retinol can either come in prescription-strength tubes prescribed by your dermatologist (that’s tretinoin), or in less-powerful formulations in everyday skincare products. Roman explains that the prescription tretinoin is already an active molecule, whereas your skin has to convert the over-the-counter products into the active molecule once applied—the prescription option is a step ahead. But the OTC stuff still works great and is much more affordable unless your health insurance will cover the typical three-digit price tag of a prescription tube.
Whichever you grab, you’ll want to apply it at night to clean, dry skin, before a moisturizer. In the morning, you must cleanse your skin and hydrate with an SPF-packed moisturizer in order to safely protect the sensitive skin from the sun. And if you want retinol to truly work in your favor, you need to commit to it indefinitely. It’s the same as a hair-retention plan for balding men: Once you start, you don’t want to stop. Retinol takes 90 days or more for its effects to be seen. They will be noticeable. You’ll look younger, with firmer, clear skin. But that’s not the finish line—you’ve got to keep using it to keep its effects.
If you’re interested in the high-grade stuff right now, consider a remote visit with a dermatologist. Many of them seem to be offering consultations over video chat during coronavirus lockdown. But over-the-counter retinol products still work wonders—they can be a great way to ease yourself into it. Dr. Roman suggests the following to her patients who don’t otherwise opt for a prescription-strength dose: “If you are new to retinols, you want to look for a lower percentage to start. (For example, starting with SkinMedica 0.25 Retinol and over time switch to the 0.5 and then 1.0.) This steady increase over time allows your skin to tolerate it better.”
Roman has other words of advice for retinol users. The first is to scale back on your regular exfoliation products—both physical scrubs and chemical buffers like hydroxy acids. “Retinols increase skin turnover and therefore act as a gentle exfoliant,” she says. “Because of this, you will want to limit or decrease the use of other exfoliants or acids. It is okay to also use alpha or beta hydroxy acids as long as you decrease the frequency for at least the first two weeks—increase as tolerated by your skin.”
Like we said, a learning curve. But if you commit, you'll emerge from quarantine looking healthier and clearer—and still desperately in need of a haircut.
3 of our favorite over-the-counter retinol products
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Originally Appeared on GQ