Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Retinol

Byrdie / Hallie Gould

While few basic skincare ingredients have actually become household names, one is constantly part of the conversation: retinol. We’ve all heard of it, but after discussions both in and outside the office, it’s clear that many of us still aren’t exactly sure about what it is—or how it works. Some of us are under the impression that retinol is an anti-aging skincare ingredient, while others of us have heard it described as an acne treatment. The one thing we are sure of? We are all interested, but uninformed.

In an effort to get educated (and, of course, live our wrinkle-free best lives), we spoke to two top dermatologists and a celebrity esthetician for the full rundown on retinol. They helped answer everything we ever wanted to know about using retinol in our skincare routines, including why, how, and when to use it, which products to get, and precautions to follow.

Keep scrolling for the answers to every retinol question you’ve ever asked, and for expert advice on how to add this powerful anti-aging serum to your skincare routine.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid, which is a derivative of vitamin A, used for anti-aging and found in many skincare products. Though many people are under the impression that retinol is an exfoliant, it’s actually an antioxidant. Mikhail says that for the actual ingredient (retinol) to work on skin, it has to go through two steps. “It’s converted to retinaldehyde, and then to the active form retinoic acid,” she explains. However, if you’re using a retinol ester, it will have to go through three steps to become active because it has to be converted to retinol first. “Once retinoids are converted to the active form, retinoic acid, they get incorporated into cells in and under your skin to influence how they behave. Pure retinoic acid is available by prescription (tretinoin), while you can get retinol esters, retinol, and retinaldehyde over the counter,” says Mikhail. “The closer you are to retinoic acid, the better it works, but also the more drying and irritating.” In other words, retinaldehyde is strongest, then retinol, then retinol ester.

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