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9 Things You Must Know About Retinol

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

Retinol is a confusing subject with misinformation thrown about by anyone and everyone. Let’s get into the facts you need to know to incorporate the right retinoid into your regimen to get the wonderful benefits we all hear about. Based on my scientific research of published peer reviewed articles, as well as my personal experience in the skincare industry I believe THIS is the only retinoid information you need to know.

1) Retinol is a weaker retinoid but is used as an umbrella term in the common language, to refer to all retinoids. Retinoids have a lot of differences between them, and retinol itself is not always the best thing to use for your skin.

Let’s start with some base information that I will simplify as much as possible: Retinoids are derivatives of Vitamin A. Vitamin A breaks down to retinoic acid. Our skin cells have receptors to retinoic acid and receive messages from retinoic acid.

The message retinoic acid gives our skin cells is exact instruction to repair skin cell damage, to rejuvenate skin cell function, and to reverse signs of aging.

Retinol is a retinoid, but it needs to go through a transformation process once put into the skin, to convert to retinoic acid. It is therefore weaker than the retinoid, tretinoin, that is retinoic acid in its purest form. Tretinoin is available for your use as a prescription drug.

2) Tretinoin is 20x stronger than retinol.

We’ve all heard of the fact that retinol is so important and a must-have for anti-aging, acne, and scarring, but the most significant studies (the twin studies where one twin using a retinoid looks 15 years younger than the other twin, the sunburn study where a sunburned skin of the subject using the retinoid repairs itself at an exponential rate compared to the skin not treated with a retinoid, the old folks home study where a retinoid was applied to one arm of elderly patients and not the other, and the arm with the retinoid was almost free of brown marks, wrinkles, and sagging) were all done with tretinoin. Retinol is taking the credit, since the name itself is what people know, for the remarkable results of tretinoin.

It is proven that retinol does have similar effects to tretinoin, but on a much less dramatic scale (20x less).

3) Companies and skin gurus push their retinol products for $$. Manufacturers of skincare are not licensed to sell tretinoin since it is classified as a prescription. They are allowed to sell retinol. Retinol is one of their only options for retinoids to sell, so you best-believe they will market their products as your best option for a retinoid. Their constant marketing is why the term “retinol” is so widely known. As previously stated, retinol is a weaker retinoid than tretinoin and has less dramatic anti-aging and anti-acne effects (the skin gurus themselves are most-likely using prescription tretinoin behind closed doors).

4) Gel based Tretinoin is non-comedogenic, cream based is not. Gel based tretinoin has only one ingredient rating as a 1/5 on the comedogenic scale. Cream based tretinoins that Starlight has ingredient analyzed have multiple ingredients rating on the comedogenic scale, scoring highly with 4/5 and 5/5 ratings. This means gel based tretinoin is the way to avoid clogged pores and breakouts.

5) Start “slow and low” to adjust to the “retinol uglies”. The “retinol uglies” is a term used to describe the adjustment period when your skin is getting used to a retinoid. Common retinol ugly symptoms include skin flaking, new breakouts, and skin sensitivity. Retinol uglies are the worst with tretinoin, but this retinoid is proven to do miracle work, so moving ahead with it is recommended. The best way is to start with the lowest percentage (0.01 or 0.025 and progress throughout the years). Retinol is a marathon, not a short-term race so “low and slow” is the way to go. This could mean beginning with 1x weekly at night for 3-4 weeks, before moving up to 2x weekly for the same duration, before progressing to 3x weekly). Eventually arriving at 5-7x per week is the end point.

Even with a low percentage tretinoin you are reaping the benefits of this skincare miracle ingredient, but throughout the years you can experiment with increasing the strength to look your very best. Retinol truly does it all: gives you the signs of youthful and beautiful skin (even tone, firmness, clarity, smoothness).

6) Tik Tok is lying to you: retinol sandwiches don’t make sense. The “retinol sandwich” technique is when you apply your moisturizer before your retinoid and then seal it in with another layer of moisturizer to decrease the retinol uglies. The function of a moisturizer is to create a strong barrier on your skin to keep water and healthy ingredients inside, and anything on-top of it, from penetrating through. This means your moisturizer would be keeping your retinoid out of your skin and away from the skin cells getting the instruction to renew themselves. This technique would be stopping your retinoid from working as intended, and from performing as it did in the miraculous studies. You would also be going through your moisturizer twice as fast, so economically this is bad advice. Stop listening to randoms on Tik Tok. Advice from professionals with proven results in their industry is the way to go!

What does make sense? Keep your nighttime retinoid routine simple. Double cleanse your skin to prepare it for the product. Next apply a pea-sized amount of your retinoid to your face, neck, chest, and any other area that is a priority to keep skin looking its best (I do my hands, knees, and elbows as well). Finish by sealing in the product with moisturizer, and even add face oil overtop if you are not prone to acne.

Leaving your other active serums to your daytime regimen makes sense, to avoid over sensitizing your skin and creating an ingredient combination your face disagrees with. The exception to this would be retinoid formulations pre-mixed with other active ingredients (examples of these ingredients are benzoyl peroxide and clindamycin). These premixed formulations have been shown to work well together in their customized amounts. As always make sure the retinoid you’re using is free of pore-clogging ingredients and parabens.

7) Adapalene is better if you have acne all over your face but beware of parabens! Adapalene is a retinoid that out-performs tretinoin when it comes to reducing the total count of active acne on subjects’ faces. Tretinoin however came close to matching these results, and was proven to be better in reducing scarring, improving skin texture, and anti-aging. This could mean that if your face is covered in acne, start with adapalene, but if your acne is moderate or you are concerned with aging, it makes sense to go with tretinoin to cover all your skincare bases.

In common adapalene prescriptions parabens and comedogenic ingredients have been found. Parabens are chemicals that are gaining increased awareness because of potential endocrine disrupting side-effects. Your endocrine system is your body’s hormone system, so using parabens may contribute to hormone imbalances, leading to more acne amongst many other problems.

Look how complicated skincare products and their ingredients can be! No wonder you may not be getting great skincare results and have been confused with what to use.

8) Taking Vitamin A supplements orally won’t supercharge your results. Vitamin A is not naturally produced by our bodies, so our bodies get it from food (and retinoids applied to the skin). Tik Tokers began suggesting taking Vitamin A orally to amp up retinoid effects, however once again Tik Tok was wrong (no surprises here). The studies on Vitamin A toxicity from excess amounts in the body are plentiful, and the amount an adult needs per day to stay below this level is quite low. People generally get enough Vitamin A from a basic healthy food diet, and applying retinoids to the skin puts retinoic acid right where it needs to be (with the skin cells that it supercharges). Retinoids applied to the skin are not believed to create Vitamin A toxicity whatsoever, so for beautiful skin sticking with topical retinoids is a smart choice. Vitamin A capsules orally are not necessary (unless recommended by your health care provider).

Studies show that topical retinoids don’t have an effect where it causes abnormalities in the body, but there are no tests done on this regarding pregnant or nursing women. Therefore, retinoids are to be avoided when pregnant or nursing.

9) You can use retinol all year round. Retinoids are known to create increased photosensitivity in the skin and the healthier skin it creates should never be exposed to excessive UV radiation. However, a well-known California dermatologist has shared that he keeps his professional surfing clients on tretinoin all year round, without missing a day. Tretinoin has been proven to have so many benefits that it is worth using and sacrificing basking in the sun for. If you are protecting your skin with a quality sunscreen daily (and reapplying when in direct sunlight) you could stay on your retinoid all year round. Additional sun protection like hats, sunglasses, and clothing should be added to amp up your UV protection.


Conclusion: My intention with this post is to give accurate information regarding retinoids and to encourage people to use this magical ingredient, to have their best skin. I believe that great skin throughout our lifetime increases our confidence, and therefore our power.

If you have a question about retinoids, please reach out to me. I am happy to share my advice and skincare knowledge.

Yours Truly, Kaye

Instagram DM: @kayestarlight


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