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The Real-Deal Miracle Skincare Ingredient I Wasn’t Using (Until Now)

By Wendy Rodewald-Sulz / April 27, 2012

Photo by: Mat Szwajkos for Beauty Blitz

Figuring out what, exactly, to put on your skin every day is ridiculously hard - even for someone like me, who writes about beauty for a living. Do I choose chemical or physical sunscreen? Salicylic acid, or benzoyl peroxide for breakouts? Do I need a library of vitamins and antioxidants to fend off free radicals I can’t even see? And do I really need to use toner? 

To make sense of it all, I’ve been doing a sort of comparative study in my memory for the past year or so. Which skincare staples do derms mention most? Well, for starters, sunscreen (any kind), but you knew that already. The other ingredient that gets MD love most often by my calculations is vitamin A, in the form of retinoids (prescription creams like Retin-A, Tazorac and Renova) and retinol (found in over-the-counter products). Since its skincare debut in the ‘70s, vitamin A has pretty much been established as the miracle ingredient. Yet, as an article (recommended reading!) in the April issue of Vogue argues, it’s been overshadowed in the beauty market in recent years. 

I decided to ask Dr. Debra Jaliman, dermatologist and author of the new Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist (who also works as an expert with Neutrogena) to give a primer on retinol and retinoids in case, like me, you’ve been in the dark. 

What's so great about retinol? Should basically everyone be using it?

Dr. Jaliman: “Retinol reverses signs of sun damage. It evens skin color and improves skin texture. It also minimizes fine lines and deeper wrinkles. The skin will be smoother, more glowing and more even. The only people who don't do well with retinol are those with rosacea and eczema.”

Serum, moisturizer or night cream - how do you choose a retinol product? And can you use a retinol in tandem with other skincare products?

“If you have more oily skin, choose a serum. If you are dry, a night cream. Pick the product according to your skin type. You can use it with other products. Make certain you use your SPF in the AM.”

If over-the-counter retinol is good for improving skin's texture, is a prescription retinoid like Retin-A better? How do you know when it's time to "upgrade," so to speak?

“I don't find prescription Retin-A any more effective. In fact, retinol is converted into a retinoid in the skin. Retin-A is a retinoid. You can upgrade by using retinol more often, from every other night to every night, or increase the concentration.”

True story: I started using a prescription retinoid and it made my face red, flaky and inflamed. Not fun! If someone has an adverse reaction, what steps should they take to get their skin back to normal?

“If you get red then you must stop the product immediately. Then use mild products. Mild cleanser to wash, moisturizer. Then start again every other night and dilute with moisturizing cream. Then if your skin tolerates it gradually increase to every night.”

We're now seeing retinol show up as an ingredient in products meant to be used for daytime. But wait - haven't we always been told that vitamin A derivatives should only be used at night? What's the current thinking behind this?

“I've always had patients use retinols at night with sunscreen in the morning. Now there are new formulations that have sunscreen in them. The new Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Moisturizer SPF 30 has accelerated retinol SA which is an activated form of retinol and also a broad spectrum sunscreen.”


I probably don’t need to tell you that I’ve started using vitamin A as part of my own regimen (Retin-A, specifically; I got over that red, scaly phase by reducing the frequency and waiting 15 minutes to apply the treatment after washing my face and moisturizing.) In six weeks, I’ve definitely noticed softer skin with quicker cell turnover. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.