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Ingredient Decoder: Retinol

Photo: All Women Stalk

I started using retinol creams at the ripe old age of 21. It wasn’t because I had a lifetime’s worth of wrinkles to erase; I had just read a slew of magazine articles touting retinol as a miracle skin saver for all sorts of issues. A quick refresher: retinol is Vitamin A in its purest form, and dermatologists call it the topical gold standard for anti-aging, reversing sun damage, and refining skin.Since my brown spots and visible pores pushed me into the category of early adopters, I picked up a pricey cream with a portion of my textbook allowance.

That night, in the temporary privacy of an empty dorm bathroom, I slathered the cream all over my face. I didn’t see any results the next morning, so I repeated the slathering process. Ditto with that night. A day later, I suddenly woke up to red, flaky skin that made me look like the victim of a bad chemical peel. Luckily, this story ends happily—I learned how to use retinol cream the right way, and you can too.

Here are my essential retinol tips:

  •  If you’re new to retinol, or if it’s been a while since you last used the product, start off by using it every other day, in the mornings or evenings. Gradually increase the frequency as your skin adjusts.
  • Check the ingredient list. The further down you see retinol listed, the smaller the percentage there is. Who wants to pay for a bunch of fillers?
  • Air and light are retinol’s worst enemies since they cause it lose potency. Look for a package that’s opaque and as airtight as possible. Tubes and pump dispensers are better bets than jars. I like RoC Deep Wrinkle Serum, Philosophy Help Me, and Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream.
  • Use retinol as a spot treatment by dabbing it on sun spots and fine lines.
  • Retinol can dry out skin, so always layer it under a moisturizer like Philosophy Hope in a Jar or Jurlique Purely Age-Defying Night Lotion.
  •  When you’re using retinol products, never go outside without wearing SPF 30 or higher.

Follow these guidelines, and your skin will thank you!


When it comes to wrinkles, prevention is key. Find out which anti-aging products you should be using in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond.

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