Protect Your Investment: Retinol

There are a lot of buzzworthy ingredients out there that are considered an investment in your skin’s long term health…including retinol. What is retinol? What are the side effects of retinol? Does retinol help with acne? And most importantly, should you wear retinol and sunscreen? Read on for all the answers…

Walk into any dermatologist’s office, and chances are they’ll recommend two products over everything else you could possibly put on your skin: retinol and sunscreen.

Since the sun is one of the greatest contributors to aging and skin cancer, it makes sense that SPF is a no-brainer. As for retinoids, dermatologists consider them the gold standard anti-aging ingredient for any skincare regimen. Countless studies demonstrate their ability to not only slow the signs of aging, but to also reverse them. In fact, you’ll have a hard time finding any other anti-aging ingredient that has as much scientific backing.

If only it were as simple as applying retinol and then going on your merry way. This ingredient, as wonderful as it is, comes with a few ground rules — especially when it comes to sun exposure. Today we’re discussing what retinoids are, how they work, the correct way to use them and why SPF is a non-negotiable when they’re part of your routine.

The lowdown on topical retinoids

The topic of retinoids can get pretty complicated. What you need to know today is that retinoids are vitamin A derivatives and that both retinol and retinoic acid fall underneath the retinoid umbrella.

Retinol is what you find in over-the-counter formulations. When applied to the skin, retinol undergoes a chemical transformation that turns it into retinoic acid, which is the active ingredient that does all the anti-aging magic. Doctors can prescribe straight retinoic acid, which has already undergone that chemical transformation and is therefore much more potent.

“While retinoids can help increase cell turnover, their true benefit is much more complex. They actually work at the cellular level to increase collagen production, decrease collagen breakdown, and help improve general tone and texture,” explains Rosalyn George, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Wilmington Dermatology Center.

With consistent use, people see a more even complexion, fewer fine lines and wrinkles, and even clearer skin since retinoids also help with acne.  

When and how to use retinol in your skincare regimen

Even over-the-counter retinols can be pretty potent, which is why it’s important to slowly introduce this ingredient into your regimen.

“Retinol should be applied every other night and very gradually be increased as your skin builds a tolerance for it. It may take up to eight to 12 weeks for the benefits to truly become visible,” notes Jeannel Astarita, aesthetician and founder of the NYC-based skincare studio Just Ageless.

She says that when you first begin using retinol, you may experience redness, sensitivity and peeling which is a direct result of cell turnover. This is expected and normal. If you experience a lot of sensitivity, reduce your dosage and then work up from there. Over time, your skin will become accustomed to the ingredient and won’t react as strongly.

As Astarita mentioned, you can slowly increase quantities or potencies as your skin adapts. Upping your dosage every three to four weeks is a good pace.

Why retinol and sunscreen should always go together

If you’re putting both time and money towards topical retinoids, you’ll want to protect that investment. The two ways to do so are to 1) apply them in the evening and to 2) wear lots of sunscreen during the day.

“Nighttime use tends to be best, primarily because there is often a period of irritation associated with retinol use. Applying it as part of your nighttime routine gives your face a chance to recover while you sleep,” says Astarita. “More importantly, it helps you avoid sun exposure immediately after application. Sun exposure breaks down the retinoid structure and greatly reduces its effectiveness.”

Even if you apply retinol at night, it’s absolutely critical to apply sunscreen in the morning. Not only does wearing sunscreen help maintain the efficacy of your topical retinoids, but it also provides much-needed protection from the sun.

“The way retinol works is by accelerating the formation of new skin cells to replace the old, damaged skin. This new skin can be more sensitive and is more prone to sunburn, so it’s extremely important to add facial sunscreen to your morning routine if it’s not already part of it,” says Astarita.

Furthermore, it’s always important to wear an SPF wardrobe – which means wearing multiple SPF products together at once – so that you can ensure everything, including frequently missed spots, is completely and adequately protected. Just remember that SPF 30 plus SPF 40 doesn’t equal SPF 70!

One of our favorite “outfits” is the following (and one that would go nicely if you’re using retinol)


Layer 1: Superscreen Daily Moisturizer SPF 40, a super hydrating daily moisturizer that preps and protects skin from everything under the sun and then some (like blue light from your phones and environmental pollution).


Layer 2: Either Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40 (it’s completely invisible and also acts as a makeup-gripping primer) or 100% Mineral Matte Screen SPF 40 (it also acts as a primer but comes in one translucent tint that can even out your skin tone).


Layer 3: CC Cream SPF 35 is a color-correcting cream with a bit more coverage…it creates a flawless finish with another layer of SPF in the mix.


Layer 4: Set the entire look (and keep your makeup perfectly in place) with 100% Mineral Setting Powder SPF 45 or Defense Refresh Setting Mist SPF 50.

Final thoughts:

“Retinol can be an integral part of any great skincare routine, and we are fortunate to have so many vehicles to choose from, such as gels, creams, serums and more,” George says. “There are even new, time-released options that can make it easy for almost anyone to tolerate a retinoid.” So, as retinoids continue to grow in popularity, don’t forget to protect your investment by applying a broad-spectrum SPF daily.

+What is your favorite retinol product and what sunscreen do you use with it? Let us know in the comments!