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Retinoids are probably the best anti-ageing and acne-fighting ingredients on the market that actually create lasting, effective change in the skin.
However, before you start grabbing the nearest retinol cream and layering it on, there’s a fair bit you should understand first as getting retinol wrong can cause damage to the skin and a lot of irritation that can take a while to repair.
Retinol Terminology: The Retinoid Family
The title of this article is ‘Retinol for Men’ which is actually a bit misleading and I’ll use retinoid and retinol interchangeably. It’s also how Google understands it and how a lot of people are searching for it. Retinol is just one of, and arguably the most known/synonymous, ingredient name for a family of similarly functioning ingredients called Retinoids.
Retinoids are variants of Vitamin A and all function similarly. Many brands and writers use Retinol as a catch-all for Retinoids, and I do too, it’s like saying Sellotape as a catch-all for sticky back plastic or Transit Van for all white vans.
The goal of any Retinoid is to deliver, one way or another, Retinoic Acid into the skin, either directly or through the conversion of ingredients by the skin.
Retinoic Acid is the ‘active’ that, when used correctly, aids fine-lines/wrinkle and spot/blemish skin concerns. How it does that is explained as we go.
Retinol for men: Is it OK for men to use retinol?
Yes, in fact Retinoids are one of the best skincare ingredient families men can use. I swear by it and so does Mr. Manface.
As long as you’ve not got very problematic skin which would require you to speak to your GP/dermatologist first, read this guide and try it out. Start low, and build up over time. Itching and burning is never a good thing so reduce or discontinue use if this occurs. The percentage guide below will help you.
Cosmetic, Prescription and Oral Retinoids: What’s the difference?
We are only talking about topical retinoids found in skincare really and retinol for men as an over-the-counter cosmetic treatment. But before we do, I wanted to give the headline differences between cosmetic and prescription retinoids because the skincare industry thrives on blurring the lines between beauty and pharmacology.
Prescription and orally taken retinoids are only given by your GP or dermatologist. The difference between topical cosmetic vs. topical prescription retinoids is ‘activeness’. Prescription retinoids are usually active, containing the very active Retinoic Acid, the compound that does all the hard work.
Cosmetic, over the counter (OTC) products containing retinoids, contain pre-formed Retinoic Acid, meaning your skin converts the ingredients into Retinoic Acid which is known to cause far fewer side effects and irritation – but is also less effective. Therefore, a prescription product containing 0.1% retinoic acid is hugely more powerful than a product containing 0.1% retinol or similar. In fact 0.1% retinoic acid is one of the highest levels used in prescriptions.
Commonly used oral/tablet retinoids for treating eczema and acne are tablets such as Isotretinoin and Alitretinoin. These oral retinoids can deliver Retinoic Acid deeper into the skin. Because they are flooding the body on their journey to the skin, they are known to have more side effects and are often given in more serious cases where the benefits outweigh the side effects – the list of side effects for Isotretinoin is here.
What men’s skin concerns do retinoids treat?
Retinol for men when formulated in skincare works really well to fight against spots and blemishes and wrinkles caused by sun ageing.
Skin cells that go from birth to death over 28 days, smoothly and cleanly provide the basis for great, ‘normal’ skin – this is the ultimate goal of our skin cells and any skincare we use should help reduce any inhibitions to this basic skin function. Retinoids are a huge benefit to this in most cases.
1. Eczema and Psoriasis: Only ever with professional guidance
Retinoids can be used on eczema and psoriasis but do not attempt to use them without guidance from your doctor or dermatologist, there’s too many variables in conditions and severity to do it blindly.
And even though retinoids in cosmetics are weaker than in prescriptions, when used on eczema and psoriasis without proper guidance, they can make these conditions worse and drastically increase surface dryness, especially in the immediate term.
2. How do retinoids help men with spots and blemishes?
One of the primary mechanisms that causes spots and blemishes is when dead skin cells don’t fall off properly.
These clinging, dead skin cells block pores, trapping in spot-causing p.Acnes bacteria that usually pleasantly and symbiotically live on the surface of our skin and can even protect us from other more harmful pathogens (source). This blockage and trapped bacteria create the visible infection, redness and pustules we see as spots and blemishes – see my spots and blemish guide here for more information.
Retinoids help regulate this ‘skin cycle’ process by promoting the shedding/sloughing process, also called desquamation, whilst acting as a calming anti-inflammatory* for irritated and infected skin (source)
By preventing these blockages from occurring in the first place, you reduce further spots, whilst also allowing the skin to calm down and prevent further blockage of existing spots – you’re breaking the cycle of damage and giving your body chance to correct the damage.
When skincare and your body working together is unable to repair this damage, is when you should visit your GP or dermatologist. From them, stronger versions of retinoids and other treatments such as antibiotics can be used to help your body get a handle on these infections.
Once your skin function is normalised and the thicker crust of surface skin is reduced, other ingredients in your skincare regime can get to work such as anti-inflammatory niacinamide, water-bonding hyaluronic acid and anti-bacterial tea-tree oil (always blended to max 5% – never use neat tea-tree on your face!) which are all worth looking at.
*If you start with a high percentage of retinol without starting low and working up, you can and most likely will cause inflammation and irritation, so keep reading.
3. Retinol for Men’s Anti-Ageing: Does Retinol Make You Look Younger?
Yes, through prolonged use.
Ageing in the skin is known as photo-ageing, in most people, it’s almost entirely caused by the daily effects of the sun. UVA and UVB rays pound the skin every day and UVA rays in particular damage the skin’s ability to produce collagen and elastin, the skin’s squishy support structure that keeps us looking firm and youthful.
So when it comes to the anti-ageing effects of retinoids, they’re one of the very few ingredients in skincare that actually do reverse wrinkles, when used long term. Rather than just masking their visibility, retinoids actually reduce wrinkle depth (source). They work on three aspects of skin that we associate with looking older:
3a. Retinoids Build Collagen
Retinoids stimulate the production of fibroblasts that become collagen (source). Over a six-month period of use, expect to see a marked difference in your lines and wrinkles, some fine wrinkles may almost entirely disappear – it’s all very relative to your age and depth of wrinkles.
From a skincare strength of retinoid versus a prescription Retinoic Acid (the pure acid form) you won’t see as big of a difference, but it should be noticeable at most ages.
To ensure your collagen production isn’t further hampered by the sun/UV rays, wear a minimum of SPF 50 whenever you can see outside without an artificial light source (cloudy, rainy, sunny, whatever).
3b. Retinoids Smooth Men’s Skin
Retinoids massively increase good skin function by promoting the even shedding/sloughing of dead skin cells. It’s the dead skin cells sitting in wrinkles that can make them look far more dramatic than they really are.
Having excess surface dead skin cells also prevents light from reflecting evenly on the surface of the skin, making you look ashy and dry.
Retinoids help shed this crust, reducing the appearance of wrinkles it causes, leaving you brighter and fresher.
3c. Retinoids Reduce Dark Marks
By increasing the sloughing/shedding of dead skin cells, retinoids help reduce dark marks in the skin, otherwise known as hyperpigmentation or age-spots.
Whilst it’s almost impossible to stop/switch off areas of dark marks completely, as a result of your skin protection mechanisms, you can greatly increase the speed at which these increased melanin-infused cells drop off the skin.
Retinoids boost the sloughing of dead skin that would otherwise sit on the surface, with the melanin getting darker and darker the longer it stays in these cells. This can brighten age-spots and hyperpigmentation, that we often associate with getting older.
Retinoids for Dark Marks on Darker Skin Tones
The darker your skin tone, the lesser the effects of cosmetic retinoids will be. Particularly if you have a black or typically south-Asian skin tone.
You may wish to try cosmetic retinoids first, but then see a dermatologist if you feel there’s been no difference after 6-12 months or if you’re just not happy. It may require the direct use of topical retinoic acid (tretinoin etc.) but be aware the side effects of sun-sensitivity and irritation are greatly increased and the benefits might be outweighed by the risks.
Do not try and buy ‘whitening’ products online such as hydroquinones and ‘bleaching creams’ etc. you don’t know what you’re really buying with crazy ingredients in them like arsenic, lead and mercury.
You can end up causing significantly more harm to yourself than good – I’ve witnessed the effects up close during my retail career, and it’s not pretty.
See your dermatologist for dark marks that you feel skincare retinoids aren’t improving, but for overall ‘lightening’ of your skin, retinoids aren’t going to do much other than reduce ashiness and improving texture. Skin ‘lightening’ is also something I would professionally never recommend.
Types of Retinoid
Below are some of the main/key types of retinoid with a little about each. Outside of retinoic acid/tretinoin, their percentages, usages and formulations within cosmetic skincare aren’t particularly standardised.
Retinoic Acid: Tretinoin
This is the pure form of retinoid and is usually only available on prescription as the side effects need to be monitored and should be weighed up against their benefit.
Retinoic Acid is what your skin converts the ‘cosmetic’ versions of Retinoid into, which have much less potent and with fewer side effects than direct use of Retinoic Acid.
Granactive Retinoid (Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate)
A relatively new retinoid available in cosmetic skincare, particularly in those from The Ordinary as a single ingredient but also found in Clinique’s Wrinkle Repair Correcting Serum formulation. Very potent and doesn’t need to be converted into retinoic acid by the skin so consider starting at lower percentages than you would normally (consult the percentage/usage guide below).
Retinal and Retinyl Retinoate
Requiring one-step conversion to become retinoic acid/Vitamin A, these are the most common forms of Retinoid you’ll buy in a cosmetic skincare products and the percentage guide below refers largely to these.
Retinol, Retinaldehyde and Retinol esters
These take two-three steps to convert to retinoic acid and their efficacy is often driven by the ingredients they’re partnered with to work in the case of retinol esters (source). These can be in high concentrations but are very useful in formulations when you want them low.
Percentage Guide & Tips: How to start using retinol for men in your skincare routine
You can’t just dive head-first into high-strength retinoids; you’ll burn and irritate your skin. You’ll then think they don’t work for you/are allergic and likely never use them again, missing out on a potentially great treatment for your skin.
Modern skincare is allowed to be much stronger than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. This is great because it means you can get really effective skincare products yourself, but also means you can do a lot more damage more easily.
In the guide below this I’ve given some examples of ones I’d recommend, but when searching for yourself, look for a brand who carries multiple strengths and gives clear information as to which is beginner, intermediate and advanced like Paula’s Choice or Medik8 do.
1. Start with the lowest percentage and increase over time
Remember that cosmetic retinol percentages are different to prescriptions because the active ingredient isn’t the same. If when you apply and after a few days you feel a slight tingling after application or a tiny bit of drier skin, don’t worry – but if it really burns and/or you get persistent redness you’re either starting far too strong or your skin is not tolerant to retinoids and sadly you may need to avoid.
If you’re a pregnant woman reading this, do not use retinoids at all!
So for cosmetic/skincare retinol for men, as a general rule of thumb, because different versions of retinoids work differently at different strengths, use the following:
1a. Starter Retinoid Percentage: 0.01% – 0.03%
That’s zero point zero one! 1% of 1%. This is a great strength to get your skin used to retinoids and start your skin processes working as they should. Start using it at night once every 2/3 days, then after 1/2 weeks, every 2 days, then at week 3, try every night.
See how it goes. If on your second/third application you’re feeling a little tingly/irritated/red, dial it back to every 3/4 days if needed and hopefully, it will calm down.
Let your skin be your guide on this but unless you’re not burning or bright red with irritation, it can be worth persevering a few nights. Burning/itching is never a good sign so don’t ‘persevere’ through it; maybe just wait a few more days between applications, and if then there’s no burning/irritation, stick to that time delay for a few weeks.
Are you going to see huge differences with this strength, particularly for wrinkles? No. But, this gets your skin used to the retinoids.
After using a low-strength retinoid for 6-8 weeks, you’ll have likely had one full skin cycle – the new cells when you started should now have sloughed off. By this point, you should be using your retinoid every night.
Providing you haven’t reacted or experienced irritation since at most the first few days/week, you should be good to go.
1b. Intermediate Retinoid Percentage: 0.04% to 0.3%
Things are ramping up now, you’ve been using retinoids for 6-8 weeks prior and your skin should be looking brighter and smoother.
This increased percentage of retinoid used over another 6-8 weeks should start to result in some real differences, particularly with spot/blemish concerns alongside the rest of your skincare.
Finer wrinkles/lines should feel a little more reduced because the surface crust of dead skin cells is dissipating.
Dark marks/hyperpigmentation probably won’t look much different by this point, but as mentioned, your overall skin should be looking brighter and smoother which may make the marks appear overall less noticeable.
1c. Advanced Retinoid Percentage: 0.4% to 3%
Do not start here, don’t, I’ve done it myself and regretted it. Men should be starting here after a minimum of using retinol for 16-24 weeks prior. This is where you can stay as long as you want providing your skin isn’t feeling too dry/irritated.
This will be giving your skin the highest cosmetic/skincare blast of retinoic acid possible, kicking your collagen production into gear; promoting good skin cell turnover/function to reduce spots and reducing overall skin inflammation. As a man, there’s no real reason to stop using it if your skin is responding well/not irritated.
If you do decide to discontinue using retinoids for any reason, if it’s longer than 3-4 weeks, start at an intermediate level and work back up just to be safe. If you discontinue longer than 6-12 weeks, consider starting from the beginning again but ramp it up a little faster. I’m probably being a bit OTT on starting from the beginning but I’d rather you be safe than sorry. Listen to your skin though, it will itch/burn/go very flakey if it’s not happy – you’ll know about it.
2. Always Use Minimum SPF 50 UVA/UVB Sun Protection
This is no joke. If you use Retinoids, you have to use sun protection. Retinoids make men’s skin very sensitive to sunlight which can cause more damage than it repairs particularly if your goal is anti-ageing. So to prevent this, wear a minimum of SPF 50 whenever you can see outside without an artificial light source.
You need enough to coat your index and middle finger as seen below. That’s what you need to cover your whole face. Apply it five-minutes after your last skincare product has been applied.
The sun protection must be broad-spectrum, meaning it protects you from UVA and UVB – it will say this on the bottle. If it doesn’t say it, it’s probably not broad spectrum, in which case find one that is. I love any SPF from Heliocare but my current is this from Thank You Farmer as it’s great for combination skin.
Ideally, reapply your sun protection every two hours. Whilst I do know people who do this, and their skin looks incredible for it, reapplying after lunchtime works for me. If you do go to the gym and sweat or shower, obviously reapply.
3. Only use retinoids at night
Firstly it works much better at night as between 10pm and 2am is when men’s skin repair cycle is most active and your skincare ingredients are the most beneficial.
Botox and Retinoids
I’m not really a fan of injectable fillers but I am a proponent of Botox if done properly by a nurse or dermatologist – I’d always give auntie’s friend Sally who does Botox and filler parties a miss.
Men can absolutely can use Botox and Retinoids and in fact, they work very well together. By having your aesthetician/dermatologist temporarily paralyze the muscle that exaggerates/exacerbates the wrinkle through erosion and movement, Botox allows the skin some respite whilst the retinoids can get to work, causing the production of fibroblasts that create collagen and seeing the wrinkle start to fill out.
If you then ensure you’re adding SPF 50 sun protection into the mix, this is a really great regime to help tackle lines and wrinkles and one I would recommend.
Laser Treatments and Retinoids
If you wanted to have laser resurfacing treatments, you’d 100% need to speak with your aesthetician, dermatologist or skin professional about whether they’d recommend you continue or discontinue using retinoids. Using retinoids alongside laser treatments may lead to greater side effects and unwanted/exaggerated irritation which may ultimately be counter productive. Whenever you go for a treatment like this, it’s best to take your skincare with you and let them make a judgement call.
Retinol for Men: The Conclusion
Retinoids are not to be used lightly, following the instructions and tips in this guide are a great foundation for creating real change in your skin, particularly targeting spots/blemishes and fine lines/wrinkles.
Remember, irritation that hurts or burns is never good, there’s no persevering through it, either use the retinoid less often or lower the percentage. If after that, it’s still not working, then maybe retinoids aren’t for you, but there are alternatives such as Niacinamide, Salicylic Acid (BHA) and Glycolic Acid (AHA) depending on what you’re trying to treat – I’ll be covering these down the line and will link back when I do.
Finally, sunscreen! You should be wearing it every day at a minimum of SPF 50 UVA/UVB (broad spectrum) anyway. The sensitivity to the sun retinoids create, without an SPF, will undo and further set back what you’re trying to achieve. Apply every morning; reapply at lunch regardless and always after exercice. Good luck!
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