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Which Strength of Retinol Do You Need?
Retinol is a proven anti-aging powerhouse for skin. Everyone can benefit from using it, but which strength is best for you? Paula's Choice Skincare provides all the information you need to decide which of our retinol products is best for you and how each strength can reveal the beautiful, younger-looking skin you want to see! This guide will also help you understand when and how to use any retinol product.
How Much Retinol is Best?
Simply put, how much retinol your skin needs depends on your skin type, skin concerns, and your skin’s tolerance for this unique ingredient. The latter—your tolerance—is something you can find out only by experimenting with different strengths and application methods, and seeing how your skin responds.
In this article, we discuss not only what the different strengths of retinol can do, but also how much retinol is included in each Paula’s Choice product. We describe what results you can expect, whether you opt for a low-, moderate-, or high-strength retinol product, or if you should alternate products with different strengths, which works great for lots of people.
Keep in mind that no matter what strength retinol product you use, skincare is never as simple as any one ingredient, no matter how good that ingredient may be! For example, just as one food (spinach, for example) isn’t enough to keep your body healthy, a single skincare ingredient can’t do it all either. Instead, your skincare routine should contain a range of beneficial ingredients, including antioxidants, skin-restoring ingredients, and skin-signaling ingredients. Paula’s Choice takes this approach with all of our products—including those with retinol!
Lower-Strength Retinol Products
Despite retinol’s reputation as an anti-aging workhorse, not everyone’s skin can tolerate it in higher concentrations. But, lots of people see incredible benefits using products with lower concentrations of retinol, especially if applied daily.
What Results You Can Expect: Don’t think that low levels of retinol won’t be beneficial—because they are! Published research has shown that concentrations of 0.01% retinol and up are indeed effective for improving multiple signs of aging and minimizing pore size, along with improving the overall health of skin. And, because Paula’s Choice retinol products are loaded with other beneficial ingredients as well, such as antioxidants, peptides, and superior hydrating ingredients, they provide even more amazing benefits!
Research also shows that low amounts of retinol, when paired with other antioxidants, help defend the skin against environmental damage when worn under a broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day. (Don’t forget to apply an SPF 30 product or greater every day.)
Following are Paula’s Choice products that have lower strengths of retinol. Depending on your skin type and/or concern, you might alternate the following with our high-strength retinol products:
- SKIN BALANCING Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum with Retinol—Silky, weightless, matte-finish serum best for combination to oily skin types. It contains several antioxidants (vitamins C and E, green tea, willow leaf, grape seed, and others) as well as 0.03% retinol.
- SKIN RECOVERY Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum with Retinol—Formulated especially for dry, temperamental skin, this moisturizing serum is loaded with skin-defending antioxidants, nourishing plant oils, calming ingredients, and 0.01% retinol. Those with dry, temperamental skin should always begin with lower strengths of retinol to see how their skin responds before moving to higher concentrations.
- RESIST Barrier Repair Moisturizer with Retinol—Light, skin-softening nighttime moisturizer with a lotion texture, this combines 0.01% retinol with peptides, ceramides, and antioxidants, making it perfect for normal to dry skin types (also for those with combination skin who have a bit more dryness as well). Note: This formula is identical to our PC4MEN Nighttime Repair; we know most men don’t like to use “women’s products,” so we packaged it especially for guys so they can have great skincare, too.
- RESIST Intensive Repair Cream with Retinol—A super-rich version of our original RESIST Barrier Repair nighttime moisturizer, this anti-aging rich emollient moisturizer for dry to very dry skin contains 0.01% retinol and a mix of multiple peptides, ceramides, niacinamide, and more.
Moderate-Strength Retinol Products: The Next Step
If you’re dealing with stubborn concerns like uneven skin tone, noticeable loss of firmness, deep wrinkles, and/or stubborn bumps and flaws, you may want to consider adding a higher-strength retinol product to your routine. This can be your nightly step, or something you apply only 2–3 evenings per week. As previously stated, the frequency of use depends on how your skin responds to retinol.
What Results You Can Expect: Moderate levels of retinol (0.04% to 0.1%) often work more effectively than lower strengths, so you’ll see results more quickly. It should come as no surprise that moderate-strength retinol products also perform better when combined with other beneficial ingredients, as discussed above.
Published research has demonstrated that retinol concentrations of 0.04% and up improve visible signs of environmental assault and the appearance of thinning skin. A 2009 study showed that over the course of 8 weeks, 0.1% retinol had impressive results in truly improving multiple signs of aging.
Paula’s Choice offers a variety of retinol formulas in the moderate-strength range, for both face and body:
- RESIST Intensive Wrinkle-Repair Retinol Serum—This super-charged PM serum combines 0.1% retinol with vitamins C and E plus soothing plant extracts. This is an all-skin-types formula. Consider alternating it with our retinol-free RESIST Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum during your morning routine!
- RESIST Retinol Skin-Smoothing Body Treatment—A targeted body product that blends buttery emollients, antioxidants, and 0.1% retinol, this creates an unbelievably even skin tone and silky soft skin, and diminishes flaws and bumps on the chest, neck, and arms.
Higher-Strength Retinol Products Can Deliver Professional Results!
For some, moderate levels of retinol may not provide the hoped-for results, especially if skincare concerns are more advanced. If that’s the case, it might be time to consider moving to a product with a higher concentration of retinol. High-strength retinol products contain 0.5% to 1% retinol.
What Results You Can Expect: Higher-strength retinol products provide dramatic, rapid results in addressing concerns that might not have responded to lower-strength formulas:
- CLINICAL 1% Retinol Treatment—A powerhouse amount of 1% retinol, combined with vitamin C, peptides, antioxidants, and plant-based soothing agents, this sheer lotion formula tackles your toughest signs of aging and environmental assault concerns. This formula is suitable for all skin types, especially normal to dry.
- RESIST 1% Retinol Booster—This versatile 1% retinol fluid has a light-as-water feel, but is a powerhouse for your skin! This booster can provide the same amazing results as our CLINICAL 1% Retinol Treatment, but its texture makes it great for someone with normal to oily or congested skin. Because you can layer it with any moisturizer or serum you’re using, it’s also ultimately suitable for any skin type.
Can You Use AHAs or BHAs with Retinol?
Contrary to what you may have read, the benefits of retinol in addressing multiple signs of aging are visibly boosted when used with an AHA (glycolic acid) or BHA (salicylic acid) exfoliant. A study demonstrated this by pairing 0.1% retinol with 8% glycolic acid.
If you’d like to read the details about why retinol works so beautifully with AHAs, BHAs, and vitamin C, check out our article, 5 Retinol Myths Busted!
Note: When using moderate- to high-strength retinol products, pay attention to how your skin responds when pairing it with your AHA or BHA exfoliant. If you see a reaction you don’t want, reduce the frequency of use until you find the right balance for your skin.
Not All Retinol Products Are Created Equal
The secret to buying retinol products, of any strength, is to buy only those that are packaged to keep the ingredients stable (i.e., no jars or clear bottles) and that combine retinol with other skin-beneficial ingredients. These products, as with any product, also should NOT contain any irritating ingredients.
Of the dozens of retinol-containing serums and moisturizers on the market, you would be shocked to learn how many also contain fragrance and/or large amounts of denatured alcohol or problematic, skin-aggravating plant extracts. Such ingredients not only increase the risk of a negative reaction on skin, but also may worsen your skincare concerns.
Choose the Right Retinol Product for Your Needs
Now that you have a better understanding of how to find the strength of retinol that’s right for your skin concerns, there isn’t anything stopping you from getting the results you’ve always wanted! Remember, no matter which strength you choose, it’s critical to look for a formula that combines retinol with a range of anti-aging ingredients in opaque, non-jar packaging. And, please, don’t forget to protect your skin from UV damage with a sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater, every day, even if the sun isn’t shining.
References for this information:
Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, March 2015, pages 271-280
Dermatology, May 2014, pages 314-325
Dermatoendocrinology, July 2012, issue 3, pages 308-319
Archives of Dermatology, May 2007, pages 606-612
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About the Experts
Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:
The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!