Spoiler alert: It’s retinol. And here’s why: This one ingredient boosts collagen, softens skin, evens texture, and fades dark spots. “The data is clear,” says Ranella Hirsch, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine. “People who regularly use retinoids simply age better than women who don’t.” Sold? Here are a few key things to know before getting started.
1. You don’t have to use it every night.
Start with twice weekly and follow up immediately with moisturizer. After a few weeks, step it up to three times a week.
2. But you do have to use it at night.
Like popping an Ambien, using retinoids should be a bedtime-only thing. “Retinoids are photolabile, meaning they break down in the presence of sunlight,” says Dana Sachs, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor.
3. A little irritation is OK.
“Redness and flaking are signs that the active form of retinol, a compound called retinoic acid, is working in the skin to make more collagen,” says Sachs. “Just give your skin a few days to recover between applications.” (If your skin burns or stings, switch to a sensitive-skin formula.)
4. It takes at least a few months to work.
Patience will be rewarded. “Even when it doesn’t look like the retinol is doing anything, it’s building collagen stores in the skin that will help as you get older,” says Sachs.
Do an at-home peel a few days before you start using retinol. “This will get rid of dead skin cells, allowing the retinol to penetrate faster and the fresh, new cells to benefit most from the ingredient,” says Jeannette Graf, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.