The anti-ager you need in your arsenal.

Beautician Applies Facial Cream to Young Woman
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In terms of youth-enhancing skincare products, retinol always tops the list. But even though most women have heard or read about it, they still aren't sure exactly what retinol does—nonetheless, if they should actually begin incorporating it into their routine. To breakdown the basics, we had dermatologist Elizabeth Tanzi M.D. answer all the biggest retinol questions you may have before trying it for the first time.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A. Vitamin A is crucial for your complexion, because it's an antioxidant that promotes healthy skin cell turnover, protects against free radicals, and overall slows down the aging process.

What does retinol do?

The reason retinol is such a powerful treatment for skin is because it addresses multiple complexion concerns at once. "It's anti-aging because it helps stimulate a bit of collagen to thicken the skin and helps with skin cell turnover," explains Dr. Tanzi. This leads to increased levels of elasticity, improves the appearance of fine lines, and evens out discoloration from sun damage. At the same time, it also works wonders for acne, because it helps loosen up blackheads and reduces the oil level in skin. Another perk: It can make your pores appear smaller since it sloughs away any excess skin while ridding them of grime or dirt.

How should I pick the right formula?

It's best to ease into retinol by trying out an over the counter product first (drugstore brand RoC offers great introductory options). Since the formulations available at mass retailers are milder than prescription-level treatments, it's a good way to test the water and see how skin reacts. "Once you go through a jar, move to the medical-grade level and then move up to prescription if your skin can handle it," advises Dr. Tanzi. If you want a retinol to target specific skin concerns (like acne), schedule a consultation with your dermatologist, so they can advise the grade and type that's right for you.

How often should I use it?

Start off by using it twice a week at night. After a few weeks of use (given your skin is responding well to it), begin upping usage. For optimum anti-aging results, try to build your tolerance to the point where you can apply it nightly.

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Are there any side effects?

When you first begin using it, it's normal to experience retinol side effects including a little redness and drying. If you still seem dry and flaky after repeated use, start using it alongside your moisturizer. "I tell patients to mix equal parts retinol and moisturizer," explains Dr. Tanzi. "Or apply a thick layer of moisturizer first, then the retinol." Also keep in mind that retinol can become unstable when exposed to sunlight, so it's important to use it at night—or with SPF—to avoid irritation.

What are the alternatives?

For anyone whose skin is still irritated after a few weeks, it's safer to discontinue using retinol all together. "It may be doing more harm than good," says Dr. Tanzi. Instead, try using a retinol alternative such as a product with peptides. A peptide-based formula still encourages cell turnover and collagen production, but is gentle enough for more sensitive skin.