Retinoids In Winter: What's The Deal?

Posted by Becky U. (BSD Esthetician) on 2nd Feb 2022

"Is it okay to use retinols during the winter??"

This is a question that dermatologists and estheticians get often (understandably so).  Although retinol, which is a derivative of Vitamin A, is considered to be the gold-standard of skin care ingredients, many people are hesitant to use it because they believe it to be too harsh, drying, or irritating for their skin, especially during the colder months.  While this can be true depending on skin type and method of application, there are ways to acclimate your skin to this stellar ingredient minimizing potential side effects and 'train' your skin to take full advantage of the anti-aging benefits of retinol! 

First, let's break down retinol, what it is and how it works.  

As mentioned earlier, retinol is a derivative of Vitamin A and has the power to help with a variety of skin concerns.  It boosts collagen production and speeds up cell turnover, meaning it helps shed your dead skin cells and reveal the ones that are brand-spankin' new! When this skin does this, it helps improve the appearance of lines and wrinkles as well as hyperpigmentation (a.k.a. dark spots). It's also great for unclogging blocked pores and helping achieve clearer skin.  

Vitamin A derivatives are called retinoids, and they come in a few different forms.  These include, Retin-A (tretinoin), retinol, retinal, and retinoic acid.  The difference between them really just comes down to potency, depending on how quickly they are converted to retinoic acid and used in the skin.  

Retinol is one of the gentler options available and a great choice for those who are just starting to dip their toe into the retinoids pool.  It is available in different percentages and has to be converted twice before becoming usable retinoic acid.  It may take a little longer to work, but is less likely to cause irritation.  This form is also a great option for those with sensitive skin. It's recommended to start "low and slow," meaning a low-percentage product applied 1-2 nights a week.  As your skin acclimates to the ingredient, you can increase the frequency to 2-3 nights/week, so on and so forth.  The goal is to gradually work your way up to applying it every night.

Retinal only needs to undergo one conversion before becoming retinoic acid, so it works faster than retinol does; 11 times faster to be exact.  However, this also increases the chances of experiencing irritation, redness, dryness and/or peeling.  It should be reserved for mature skin and/or those whose skin is not sensitive/sensitized, and slowly be integrated into any skin routine.  Especially, when just starting out. 

Retin-A, a.k.a. Tretinoin, does not need to be converted, as it is already a synthetic form of retinoic acid.  It starts to work immediately and tends to cause irritation, so it's understandable that it requires a prescription. It is most suitable for more mature skin types wanting to quickly address lines, wrinkles, and/or hyperpigmentation, or for those experiencing severe acne who are wanting to clear their skin as fast as possible.  As mentioned, this product needs to be prescribed and should not be used otherwise.

"Why and how is winter a good time to use retinoids?"

The fall season brings about shorter days and earlier nights, so naturally the UV index "falls" as well, and it reaches its lowest point during the winter.  This means that you are less likely to get a sunburn or experience pigmentation than you would during the spring and summer which makes our colder months the perfect time for retinoids.  You must still wear sunscreen!  This is important for all of us to do daily to protect our skin, especially if retinoids are part of your skin routine, as it will cause you to be more photosensitive.

Our skin does tend to get drier during the winter, and retinol has the potential to cause dryness as well.  You can avoid that by using a lower percentage product when the temperatures drop.  It's also a good idea to incorporate some sort of Hyaluronic Acid serum to your skincare regime before applying your moisturizer during the day, since retinoids should only be applied at night.  This will not only help with hydration but also improves the quality of the skin barrier.  

Retinoids should be applied at night, not only because there is no sun, but also because that is when our body goes through its rest and repair cycle, when the ingredient will be utilized most efficientlyConsistency is key.  It is okay to start slow at 1-2 night per week, but be consistent!  Stopping and starting with retinoids here and there won't do much.  You also want to make sure that no matter how long you have been using them, you only need to apply a pea-sized amount, and always on completely dry skin.

So there you have it!  Whether you're a retinol rookie or a seasoned user, retinoids don't have to be scary or intimidating.  Getting started or upping your game in the winter is a great idea, since you'll be out of the sun, we have shorter days, and the exfoliating action will optimize penetration of your hydrating serums and moisturizers.  If you're looking to get the most out of your skincare, retinoids are definitely worth giving a shot!

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