What Is Retinol Serum and How Does It Work?
Dry skin, oily skin and a combination of both, are incredibly common skin concerns. As we age, dark circles, fine lines and sunspots are also added to the list. Retinol is an ingredient that is often found in a variety of natural skincare products to help combat these issues.
Retinol serum works to help keep pores clear for people with an oily complexion, while also deeply moisturizing the skin. It can also be used as part of your nighttime age-defying skin care routine to help even skin tone.
If you have questions about retinol serum, like what exactly it is and how it works, you’re not alone. We’re answering some of the most popular questions about retinol serum and talking about what ingredients you should look for when choosing the right one for you.
What Is Retinol Serum?
Retinol serum is a lightweight moisturizer designed to deliver water and retinol deep into your skin where it can do the most work boosting your skin's appearance. As with most serums it should be followed with an emollient moisturizer to “seal in” the nutrients and help your skin retain the moisture.
Partly because of the deep hydration benefits, retinol serum is usually used specifically to improve naturally aged skin by lessening the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. In addition to hydrating skin, retinol is also a topical skin care agent that’s categorized as a “cell regulator.”
This means retinol can directly affect collagen metabolism and influence collagen production. Collagen plays an important role in the firmness and elasticity of your skin, so this is another reason retinol serum is used in age-defying skin strategies.
But retinol serum is not just for age-defying skin care regimens. As a retinoid, retinol is also used as topical acne therapy as well as combating hyperpigmentation (dark spots), calming oil production, and reducing surface bacteria. Retinol serum also promotes softer skin by helping increase cell turnover.
In summary retinol serum is a lightweight moisturizer used to hydrate, rejuvenate and smooth your complexion.
How Does Retinol Serum Work?
The key to understanding how retinol serums work is to understand that retinol is a form of vitamin A. All retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A, but retinol is the gentlest form and is commercially available without a prescription.
A good retinol serum is an important part of skin care because our bodies don’t naturally create vitamin A on their own. According to the Mayo Clinic, “vitamin A is used in topical creams to reduce fine wrinkles, splotches and roughness and treat acne.”
Using a high quality retinol serum at any age, delivers a boost of vitamin A to help your skin function properly. Vitamin A on its own works in the body to boost cell function and ensure your skin remains hydrated and elastic. The other ingredients in your retinol serum should work towards the same goals.
To sum up: retinol serums work by deeply penetrating the skin to deliver moisture, vitamin A, and other nutrients that diminish signs of aging and promote a clear complexion.
Natural Ingredients for a Better Retinol Serum
As we mentioned above, you want to choose a retinol serum with quality ingredients that support your skin care goals. This means they should help support the vitamin A as it works to hydrate the skin, improve elasticity, and help control oil production.
Too many synthetic ingredients can have the opposite effect. Harsh chemicals can dry out your skin causing a dull and rough appearance. Heavy mineral oils derived from petroleum can clog pores and cause breakouts.
To get the most out of your retinol serum, look for natural ingredients instead. Natural ingredients are safer, gentler, more nourishing for your skin— and better for the environment too. These are some of the natural ingredients we really love because they enhance the benefits of vitamin A to create the best retinol serum.
Aloe vera is most commonly used as a first aid around the house or soothing sunburns, but it can also be used to improve the complexion of the skin. Aloe vera is particularly useful at cleansing the skin because of its antibiotic and astringent properties. This means that a retinol serum can help rid your face of bacteria while also tightening your pores to prevent additional bacteria from penetrating your skin.
Additionally, research suggests topical applications of aloe vera can be helpful to use alongside some prescribed topical acne medications. When aloe vera gel was used with medications containing tretinoin (a retinoid), the results were better for those using aloe and tretinoin rather than the prescription alone.
Wheat germ oil is known for its incredible moisturizing properties. It’s pulled from what is considered the “heart” of wheat — the very center of the wheat berry. It’s rich in nutrients including protein, B vitamins, omega-3 and iron.
Each of the nutrients plays a different role, but together they work wonders for soothing your irritated skin. For example, omega-3s help with your skin’s healing process and fight scarring. Iron, on the other hand, works to combat aging of the skin.
Wheat germ is also rich in vitamin A, like retinol, and works to help heal dry and cracked skin. The vitamin E found in wheat germ is especially helpful in reducing skin damage and maintaining an even skin tone. All of this adds to the age-defying properties we all want in a retinol serum.
Jojoba oil is closest to your skin's natural oils, allowing it to easily absorb into the skin without the heavy, greasy feeling synthetic moisturizers can leave behind. Not only is jojoba oil highly moisturizing and lightweight, it’s also great for acne prone skin.
If you’re using a retinol serum to combat oily skin, pore-clogging mineral oil just doesn’t make sense. Jojoba oil is actually recommended for people with oily skin. It can help skin prone to breakouts because it helps dissolve the soft sebum your skin naturally produces before it hardens enough to clog pores.
Vitamin E is a natural antioxidant that has been used in skincare products for decades to protect skin from free radicals and condition skin. The anti-inflammatory properties of Vitamin E can also help soothe irritated skin and help protect skin from the effects of photoaging. Including vitamin E in a retinol serum boosts the overall rejuvenating and smoothing effects.
Are There Any Side Effects to Using Retinol Serum?
Retinol on its own can cause dryness, irritation and sometimes mild skin peeling. Using a quality retinol serum can reduce the chances of this happening, but overuse or sensitive skin are always factors to consider.
If you have sensitive skin or typically very dry skin, always follow up retinol serum with an additional moisturizer to “seal in” the nutrients and also combat extra dryness. If the irritation is severe, gets worse, or is painful, stop use and consult your doctor right away.
We always recommend doing a small skin patch test when trying any new products to make sure you’re not allergic. Doing a skin patch test before using retinol serum can also give you a good idea of what to expect in terms of any extra dryness.
Retinoids can also cause skin reactions from sun sensitivity. We recommend using retinol serum as part of your nighttime skin care routine to avoid irritation. However, using sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher, may reduce or eliminate sun sensitivity. Talk to your doctor first if you’re considering trying out this method.
How Can I Use Retinol Serum?
Using retinol serum is very easy to do as part of your regular skin care routine. Serums should always be applied after toner and before moisturizer. We recommend using retinol serum daily as part of your nighttime skin care routine to avoid sun sensitivity. If you choose to use retinol serum in the morning do not skip an SPF sunscreen.
Some beauty bloggers suggest using retinol serum twice daily (morning and night). It may work for some, but it really depends on the individual. In general, retinol serum once a day is a great addition to your daily skin care routine. You can always start with one application per day and experiment to see how your skin reacts to two daily applications.
For normal to oily skin, we recommend applying a dime-sized amount of retinol serum all over your face and neck after washing and toning. Retinol serum is meant to help you achieve an even skin tone so you want to apply it evenly as well.
If you usually have very dry skin, or your skin feels extra dry, but you need acne or discoloration help, you can also use retinol serum as a spot treatment. To use retinol serum as a spot treatment, add a few drops to a cotton swab and dab on the problem areas you wish to target.
Allow your skin to absorb the retinol serum for a few minutes after applying. Finish with a nourishing natural oil like jojoba oil to lock in the moisture.
For more information about using serums for skin care, check out our post about the benefits of hyaluronic acid serum— it goes great with retinol serum! We also have a ton of amazing DIY skin care recipes and video tutorials.
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