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When it comes to anti-aging creams, those containing retinol (a derivative of vitamin A) are among dermatologists’ over-the-counter favorites. Retinol—also called Retin-A or Renova—is the gold standard of anti-aging treatment, but many consumers don’t know these very important facts about retinoids, which can all affect how well it works—if at all. Before you embark on a retinol regimen, be aware of these pitfalls, which can turn your miracle cream into little more than hope in a jar.

1. Retinol breaks down with exposure to light and air.
Both light and air cause retinol to break down. Retinol is so extremely sensitive to light that researchers once found that retinol was not effective—later they discovered the retinol in question had simply been exposed to too much light before testing. Other studies, such as this 2004 study in the Journal of Raman Spectroscopy, have shown retinol also becomes unstable in the presence of too much oxygen.

After a month of use, your retinol cream will be less potent than when it was first opened. You can stall the degradation process by looking for retinols that are packaged in dark, light-protective containers or formulations that contain other antioxidants, which can keep the retinol stable longer. Both Neutrogena Healthy Skin and RoC Retinol are examples of creams that are packaged properly. Choosing a product that comes in an airtight pump is also an excellent choice.

2. Retinol works best when used separately from acidic products.
Retinol needs a neutral pH to work, so it doesn’t always play nicely with products containing salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or vitamin C. If you use other products containing these ingredients, dermatologists advise using them separately. I personally use my vitamin C products in the morning and my retinol creams at night to avoid interactions.

3. Unless the concentration is listed, your retinol probably is not all that potent.
In my estimation, drugstore retinol creams tend to have a concentration of about 0.025%, which is enough to see some results in about six weeks, but not enough to completely erase wrinkles or brown spots anytime in the near future. One exception is the new Neutrogena Retinol SX, which contains a slow time-release form of retinol that has been proven in Neutrogena’s in-house studies to be more effective than the ordinary form of retinol.
Some companies like Skinceuticals and Advanced Skin Technology make over-the-counter retinol formulations in 0.5% and 1.0% and 0.3%, 0.6%, and 0.9%, respectively. These systems allow for gradual increases in retinol potency as your skin gets accustomed to higher concentrations.

4.  Retinol may make your skin worse before it makes it better.
Depending on your skin’s sensitivity, retinol can initially make your skin range from mildly dry and irritated to full-on inflamed and lobster-esque. The best course of action is to start with a low concentration of retinol every other night, and to gradually work up to nightly use. As your skin builds tolerance (generally over the course of six to eight weeks), you can work up to the next increment of concentration. Of course, even with this stepwise approach, it is important to note that retinol will always make your skin more sensitive to the sun. UV exposure is the number one known cause of premature aging, so it’s vital that you use a daily broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 during the day in conjunction with any retinol product, even if you are only applying the latter at night. 

5. Retinol works best when applied at night.
Not only does nighttime application ensure less exposure to UV light, but the body's temperature is highest at night, allowing for the best absorption of product into the skin. Sleeping on a silk pillowcase helps prevent the product from transferring onto the fabric and minimizes any tugging on the skin.

Bottom Line
Retinol is the gold standard of anti-aging, but if yours isn’t working properly, perhaps you could benefit from better packaging, using less acidic products simultaneously, nighttime application, or a more potent formulation. As always, speak to your dermatologist for the most personalized results.

Read more from Nicki at Future Derm, and to ask her a question about your skincare concerns, visit her Facebook page

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