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How do I Choose the Best Retinol Complex?

Jennifer Voight
Jennifer Voight

When choosing a retinol complex, it’s most important to understand skin types and how that will affect which product to choose. Retinol products come in varying concentrations, from over-the-counter products with less active ingredients to prescription-strength products available through a dermatologist. Understanding the ingredient list and active ingredients contained in a retinol complex can make the decision easier. Even the best retinol complex will not work for long if it is not packaged in a way that minimizes product breakdown due to oxidation.

Retinol is an active form of vitamin A that may be applied topically to improve skin tone and minimize signs of aging. Before it can be used by the skin, it must transform into retinaldehyde or retinal, then into retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is only available by prescription. Since retinol must undergo two steps before it becomes active retinoic acid, it is less effective than retinoic acid, but still can noticeably minimize wrinkles by stimulating collagen production and increasing skin cell turnover. A retinol complex can be a cost-effective alternative to prescription retinoic acid, especially if the consumer does not wish to visit a dermatologist or cannot tolerate the skin irritation retinoic acid can cause.

Retinol cream.
Retinol cream.

When choosing a retinol complex, it’s important to know how much retinol the product contains. Many products choose not to list the exact percentage of active ingredient, but a quick look at the ingredients list can give a clue. If retinol appears within the first several ingredients, it probably has enough retinol to make a difference in skin appearance. It’s best to start with a lower percentage of active ingredient, since retinol can cause skin irritation. If that product works well and does not irritate the skin, then a stronger product may be tried.

A diagram of younger and older skin showing the decrease in collagen in older skin. Retinol can help boost collagen production.
A diagram of younger and older skin showing the decrease in collagen in older skin. Retinol can help boost collagen production.

Some retinol complex ingredients are comedogenic and may not be suitable for acne-prone skin. Some cosmetics will claim to be non-comedogenic or oil-free, yet still contain some of these pore-clogging ingredients. An Internet search on lists of comedogenic ingredients to avoid can be helpful to consider when choosing a retinol complex.

Retinol is an unstable ingredient that can break down quickly if exposed to oxygen. It’s best to avoid retinol product in jars since exposure to air and contamination from hands can inactivate the product well before it’s completely used. Pumps are usually a better choice because they dispense the product without exposing it to air or other contaminants.

In order to effectively reduce wrinkles, a product must contain a large percentage of retinol.
In order to effectively reduce wrinkles, a product must contain a large percentage of retinol.

As with many skin care products, there is a risk of skin irritation, redness, and dryness when using retinol products. If any adverse reactions are experienced, switching to a product with less retinol may help. If the reaction continues, product use should be discontinued and the skin evaluated by a dermatologist.

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Discussion Comments

stoneMason

I have tried several different types of retinol products but I have not found one that does not irritate skin. Even though I use a very small amount, my skin always becomes red and itchy after several days of use. Initially, I thought that it was the other ingredients in the cream causing an allergic reaction. But after trying different products, I know it's the retinol. My skin just does not like it.

donasmrs

@SteamLouis-- Not necessarily.

It's true that most retinol products have a retinol concentration of 0.01%. This is the smallest concentration of retinol and everyone, regardless of what they're using the product for, start out at this concentration. But as your skin adjusts, your doctor may have you increase the concentration over time so that the retinol is more effective.

Retinol complex for acne prone skin is also very different than other types of retinol products. For example, I'm sure that your retinol product is oil free, whereas over-the-counter creams usually are not. And the other additives in OTC creams may worsen acne. So you should stick with the retinol complex prescribed by your dermatologist.

SteamLouis

I checked the concentration of retinol in my acne treatment gel and the concentration of retinol in my mom's anti-aging cream and they're the same. Does this mean that I could use one of these over-the-counter creams for acne?

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    • Retinol cream.
      By: picsfive
      Retinol cream.
    • A diagram of younger and older skin showing the decrease in collagen in older skin. Retinol can help boost collagen production.
      By: Alila
      A diagram of younger and older skin showing the decrease in collagen in older skin. Retinol can help boost collagen production.
    • In order to effectively reduce wrinkles, a product must contain a large percentage of retinol.
      By: Jan S.
      In order to effectively reduce wrinkles, a product must contain a large percentage of retinol.