It's the only ingredient the FDA has approved to treat both acne AND aging.. It's magic, but there's some caveats
  1. It works by increasing cell turnover
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    The reason Retinol is effective is that it changes the way your cells behave - gross skin gets sloughed off and fresh skin comes out. That's why it helps with acne (dead skin builds up in pores, attracts bacteria, white blood cells come to fight the bacteria and die and there you have a zit!) even though most people think of it as an anti-aging ingredient, dermatologists always prescribe it for moderate/mild acne. That's also why it makes your skin more sensitive to the sun (see #3 below)
  2. It's Vitamin A
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    Lest you worry Retinol is some kind of horrible petroleum byproduct, it's actually a potent form of Vit A that's been optimized for topical absorption. That's also why there's so many formulas ranging from prescription Retin A to the beloved Luna Riley Night oil and every cosmetic label in between. However, the delivery method has a big impact on efficacy and also your reaction to it so it pays to play around with brands and formulas until you find one you like and will use.
  3. It's sensitive to the sun
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    Yes it also makes you sensitive to the sun (use SPF!) but the compound itself it sensitive to the sun which is what spurred the whole use at nighttime instruction. The scientists who originally developed it for topical use noticed that when they left their Petri dishes in sunlight weird things happened to the cell, keeping it in darkness ensured the desired reaction. People think this means they should keep their face out of the sun (they should!) but also keep your expensive product too!
  4. If it works it will suck for a bit - keep using it
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    Remember when I said that it sloughs off your skin? Well the first month or two is hell. All those pimples hiding in your skin and waiting until you have a big date/presentation come out all at once. Your skin gets dry and flaky at the same time (how is that fair?) This is where most people quit. If you quit all of this will be for naught. Stick it out and you will be rewarded with smooth, creamy-dreamy skin - only plagued by the occasional hormonal zit.
  5. Moisturizer & SPF
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    Treat your new skin well and it will reward you. I am particularly found of anything with hyaluronic acid which is something our bodies produce naturally and which instantly quenches and plumps skin. Seriously, it's like magic. It usually comes in a very light cream (part of why it soaks in so nicely? I don't know!) that feels amazing on your skin. You can now find it in brands ranging from Neutrogena and Garnier to Glossier (my fave) and all the way up to Perricone MD (heaven but so pricey!)
  6. It works better as a prophylactic
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    Like all birth control, it's a bazillion times easier to stop a problem before it starts then to try and fix it after you've already got it. I was told by a very gorgeous dermatologist with the most exceptional skin to start using retinol when I was 19. She was southern. She said "Baby, use it now and those wrinkles will never form. Thank me when you're in your 30s." This is me thanking her.