7 retinoid myths debunked

Are you falling for these retinoid myths or can you tell fact from fiction?

“You can’t use retinoids during the day! Are you crazy?! You’re gonna get wrinkles!”

“Of course you can use them during the day. Just pile on your sunscreen.”

“You don’t need to exfoliate if you use retinoids. They do that for you.”

“Since when do retinoids exfoliate skin? Nonsense!”

“I’d never use retinoids. They thin skin, you know.”

“I thought retinoids made skin thicker?…”

Argh. Retinoids are the gold standards of anti-aging. They kick wrinkles in the buttfade your dark spots away and even rid you of acne! You can’t do without them. But doing with them ain’t easy either. With so many myths and misconceptions around retinoids, it’s hard to know what to believe and how to use them right so you can minimise wrinkles without the irritation.

Fret not. I’ve done the research and debunked the craziest, most common retinoid myths for you. Let’s debunk them!

Myth #1. Retinoic Acid, Retinol, Retinaldehyde, And Other “Retin” Ingredients Are All The Same Thing

Ingredients that have “retin” in the name have one thing in common: they’re all forms of Vitamin A (also known as retinoids). This means they all have the same anti-aging, anti-acne, and lightening properties – BUT not the same potency.

Retinoid acid is the pure form of vitamin A. It’s the most powerful (and most irritating). That’s why you’ll find it only in prescription products, like Retin A. All other OTC forms of retinoids (think retinol, retinaldehyde or retinyl palmitate) must be converted to retinoid acid to work their magic. The more steps this conversion takes, the weaker vitamin A is:

Retinyl palmitate > Retinol > Retinaldehyde > Retinoic acid

In other words, the further away a form is from retionoic acid, the less effective but more gentler it is. That’s why retinyl palmitate is recommended only to super sensitive skin that can’t tolerate any other form of vitamin A. It’ll take longer to see results but your skin won’t be irritated all the time.

Related: What’s The Best Form Of Vitamin A For YOU?

Struggling to put together a skincare routine that minimises wrinkles, prevents premature aging, and gives your complexion a youthful glow? Download your FREE “Best Anti-Aging Skincare Routine” to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):

Myth #2. You Can’t Use Retinoids During The Day

I’m the first to recommend you use retinoids at night, but it’s not for the reason you think. Rumour has it, retinoids make skin more prone to sun damage – but that’s just a myth. Dana Sachs, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Michigan Medical School, explains:

“This misconception came about because in some early studies, people described putting on a retinoid, walking into the sun, and immediately burning. But that redness is likely related to heat exposure. Clinical studies have shown pretty definitively that retinoids do not lower the MED — or minimal erythemal dos — of human skin, which is the amount of UV light you can take before the skin burns.” Phew!

So why shouldn’t you use retinoids during the day? Sunlight degrades retinoids, making them less effective. This is also why retinoids should always come in opaque bottles. UV rays can get through glass bottles, making retinol ineffective by the time you take them home and use them.

peter thomas roth retinol infusion pm night serum 01

Myth #3. Retinoids Exfoliate Skin

Retinol exfoliate skin without exfoliating skin. Let me explain. Exfoliation is a process that removes dead cells from the surface of your skin. Manual exfoliation, like scrubs, manually dislodge dead cells and remove them from your face. Chemical exfoliation, like glycolic or salicylic acid, dissolve the “glue” that holds skin cells together, so they can slough off on their own.

Retinoids don’t do any of these, so they don’t exfoliate skin. So, how did this myth originate? Your skin exfoliates itself on its own, but as you get older, it takes more and more time to do so. Retinoids speed up cellular turnover, the skin’s natural exfoliation process, so that skin exfoliates itself faster. But that’s not exfoliating skin.

Another red herring? The redness and flaking retinoids cause when you first start using them. The flakiness can easily be mistake for exfoliation. But it’s not. It’s irritation. Dr Dana Sachs, M.D says: “There’s often peeling and redness, but that’s a side effect of the irritation, not a true and even exfoliation like the one you get from an ingredient like glycolic acid.” If you’re experiencing it, cut back to two or three times a week and moisturise well afterwards.

Related: Physical VS Chemical Exfoliation: Which One Is Better?

medik8 retinol 6 TR 01

Myth #4. Retinoids Thin The Skin

If retinoids exfoliated skin, this myth may have some truth in it. After all, exfoliation does remove the superficial (dead) layers of skin, so that things it. But you know now retinoids don’t exfoliate skin.

In fact, the opposite is true. Retinoids make skin THICKER and firmer over time. How is this possible? Studies show that retinoids boost collagen production. Collagen is the protein that keeps skin firm. The more collagen your skin has, the thicker it gets – and the smaller your wrinkles become.

Related: 8 Science-Backed Ways To Rebuild Lost Collagen

Myth #5. You Shouldn’t Use Retinoids Around Your Eyes

Not only you should. You MUST! It’s true the skin around the eyes is super delicate. But that’s why it get damaged more easily. If you want to keep those crow’s feet away, you do need retinoids’ help. Board-certified dermatologist  Jonathan Weiss, M.D says: “Studies have shown that people who apply retinoids right up to the eyes get the best results.” If your undereye area gets all flaked and irritated, then use a lower concentration of retinoids or cut back to once or twice a week.

medik8 crystal retinal 6

Myth #6. Retinoids Work Immediately

I wish! Retinoids are anti-ageing superstars but they take their sweet time to work. We’re talking months here. If you’ve been using retinol for a couple of weeks and see no improvement, it’s because it’s too early. You need to stick with them for at least 12 weeks to see noticeable results. If you’re using a lower dose, it’ll take longer.

Board-certified dermatologist Adam Friedman, MD, explains: “Given [that] retinol works by literally augmenting the biology of the skin, it takes real-time. Most studies use 12 weeks as a cutoff to seeing any significant changes—as do I.” 

Don’t get discouraged. And don’t be tempted to increase dose quickly. The higher dose, the higher the irritation. It’s best to start with a lower dose for six months to a year and upgrade slowly, then start with a higher dose, irritate your skin so bad, and then having to cut back and start the process all over again.

Myth #7. You Can’t Apply Retinoids To Wet Skin

Do you ever bother to read the instructions on the box? If you do, you’ll know they usually say you need to wait until your skin is completely dry before applying retinoids. I do. But if you’re the impatient type, you can go ahead and apply them on wet skin. Nothing bad will happen. 

Dr Sachs explains: “I know the instructions on the box often recommend waiting until your face is completely dry before applying a retinoid. But there’s no evidence in the scientific literature I’ve seen that shows damp or wet skin exacerbates sensitivity.” 

Myth #8: Once Skin Gets Used To Retinoids, They Stop Working

Let me guess. You’ve started using retinol and, after the initial irritation was over, your skin was smoother. Your wrinkles looked smaller. Your skin got better. And then… everything stopped. You’re still using retinol, but you don’t see much of an improvement anymore. It must have stopped working, right?

Nope. Myth has it, once your skin gets used to retinoids, they stop working and you don’t see results anymore. In reality, you stop seeing results when your skin has reached its ideal state. Once you hit that, retinoids maintain the status quo. But as you keep expecting better and better results, that’s not enough for you and you think they’re not working anymore.

When you hit this plateau, you can either rejoice in how good your skin is and keep the status quo. Or, if you want your skin to improve further, upgrade to a higher concentration of retinoids. You could always go prescription and use Tretinoin (the most powerful form of retinoids) if your dermatologist thinks you’re a good fit for it.

the ordinary granactive retinoid 5% in squalane 01

What Are The Best Retinoid Products?

  • MaeLove Moonlight Retinal Super Serum ($39.95): This retinaldehyde serum has a niacinamide + ceramide base to counteract the potential dryness and irritation from retinaldehyde. It also has fragrant oils that could irritate sensitive skin. But if your skin doesn’t react badly to them, it’s an effective and affordable option to consider. Available at MaeLove.
  • Medik8 r-Retinoate Ultimate Night Serum ($272.00): Yes, this is outrageously expensive – but truly one of the best retinoid serums you’ll ever come across. It contains two forms of Vitamin A (retinaldehyde and Retinyl Retinoate) to fight wrinkles and signs of aging. Plus, it’s moisturising. Available at Dermstore.
  • Murad Retinal ReSculpt Overnight Treatment ($105.00): This retinaldehyde serum is enriched with moisturising shea butter and soothing ingredients to treat the signs of aging while keeping skin soft and irritation-free. Available at Look FantasticSephoraSpaceNK and Ulta.
  • Paula’s Choice Resist Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum ($42.00): An anti-aging serum with 0.1% retinol. It also includes antioxidants, like Vitamin E, to prevent premature aging, and soothing ingredients to reduce irritations. Available at Paula’s Choice and Sephora.
  • Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster ($52.00): This high-strength 1% retinol booster has a moisturising base and plenty of skin-soothers to counteract the irritating effects of retinol. Use it on its own for maximum effect or dilute it with moisturiser if it’s too harsh for you. Available at Cult BeautyNet-A-PorterPaula’s Choice and SpaceNK.
  • Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM ($65.00): A micro encapsulated 1.5% retinol serum in an oily, moisturising base to fight wrinkles and fade away dark spots. Available at Beauty BayCult Beauty, and Peter Thomas Roth.

The Bottom Line

There you have it, the most common retinoids myths debunked. Now you know how to make the most of these anti-aging superstars without irritating your skin or using them the wrong way.