Retinol, Retin-a, Retin-What? Three months ago, I had nothing but questions (and hormonal acne) when my dermatologist recommended trying Differin. Up until that moment, I admittedly knew nothing about the magic that is retinol. When you’re 22-years-old, knowing how to use retinol products doesn’t come up in the beauty convo like sunscreen or your basic moisturizer. Now, a bit wiser and having survived the retinol scaries, I can confirm it’s a wild ride worth taking; flaking, redness and everything else included.
Backing up a sec, hormonal acne had been the bane of my existence since high school. No overly-drying benzoyl peroxide cream or antibiotic pill made it go away. I grew repeatedly frustrated with my skincare routine, buying expensive products with the hope that I would end up looking like the celeb endorsing it. Retinoids weren’t presented as a viable solution until I went to an actual expert, my current dermatologist, Dr. Kathy Meyer of Affiliated Dermatology.
In the simplest terms, retinoic acid is a derivative of Vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin that helps facilitate a handful of important bodily functions, including skin health. The aging process and/or outside factors cause your body to produce it at a slower rate, hence the need for products that replenish what’s been taken away. It’s the core ingredient for a host of well-known prescription and OTC formulas, including Tretinoin, Retin-A, tazarotene, adapalene (like Differin), and retinol. Anything labeled a retinoid is typically a prescription pill or cream, while retinol products are usually over-the-counter. Adapalene is one of the few retinoids you can buy at the drugstore without an actual prescription.
“They all do the same thing but they have different chemical structures, so they are chemically unrelated to each other but are all part of the same family, like cousins,” Dr. Meyer told me. Generally speaking, the biggest benefit of any retinoid product is faster cell turnover and exfoliation for smoother, healthier, and blemish-free skin. But for acne in younger patients specifically, Dr. Meyer prefers treating the skin with adapalene before graduating to a retinol product because it offers a deeper level of exfoliation at a faster rate.
Think of retinol as more of a day-to-day maintenance product, while adapalene is what eliminates the problem before you start recovering. This isn’t to say you need to be a certain age to use Differin ($10.96); it’s just particularly effective if you’re an early twenty-something with mild or severe acne. (A dermatologist-prescribed acne pill doesn’t hurt either. In fact, it may speed up the process even more. In addition to Differin, I was also prescribed Spironolactone, which helps block acne-causing hormones.)
“[Differin] is less drying than Tretinoin and for acne, we want to clean out the pores and get rid of the dead skin and oil that’s clogging it,” said Dr. Meyer. “The product goes into the pores and then starts to exfoliate from within. That’s how you get a clean pore to get rid of blackheads and whiteheads.” From there, retinol will brighten and exfoliate skin that’s beyond the oily and acne-prone years (aka your early to mid-twenties).
Once you do start using retinol, it’s imperative that you start slow, applying it once a week until you are able to tolerate every day or every other day. This might take about three months to get adjusted to. During my first few weeks of using Differin, I shed like a snake with excessive redness, particularly around my cheek, mouth, and eye area. In addition to hormonal acne around my cheeks and jawline, I started breaking out on my forehead, too. According to Dr. Meyer, this is the purging process when the skin is turning over its cells quicker than it is used to and purging out all the left-over gunk in your pores.
While chaos ensued on my face, I also experimented with a lot of products and eventually started using Drunk Elephant exclusively. One, it complimented my Differin gel and two, the entire range is free of artificial fragrance and other irritants that could’ve disrupted the purging process. After 3 grueling months, my skin *FINALLY* started clearing up, which made me feel confident enough to stop caking my pimple-covered cheeks in makeup.
Eventually, I started weaning myself off Differin and experimented with OTC retinol products that would keep my healthy new complexion in check. Unsurprisingly, the winner was Drunk Elephant’s A-Passioni Retinol Cream ($74), a 1% retinol formula my skin was able to tolerate after patiently enduring months of the .1% Differin formula. It’s also important to up your sunscreen application since retinoids make the skin more photo-sensitive. If it’s not protected from UV rays, you risk reversing all the progress your skin just made.
So whether you’re in the middle of a retinol freak-out or scared to start in the first place, let my harrowing journey motivate you to stick it out. Patience is a virtue and the before-and-after shots will blow your mind.
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