How Does Retinol Work? Facts, Side Effects, and More


Retinol is one of the best-known skin care ingredients on the market. An over-the-counter (OTC) version of retinoids, retinols are vitamin A derivatives primarily used to treat anti-aging concerns as well as acne.

That said, retinols are not the same products as prescription retinoids, which are more potent. However, retinol is still the strongest OTC version available as compared to other OTC retinoids such as retinaldehyde and retinyl palmate. Retinol has many potential skin care benefits, but there are side effects to consider, too.

Curious about whether retinol could be a beneficial addition to your skin care routine? Learn more about this key ingredient below.

Retinol is a type of retinoid, which is made from vitamin A. Rather than removing dead skin cells as many other anti-aging and acne products do, the small molecules that make up retinol go deep beneath the epidermis (outer layer of skin) to your dermis.

Once in this middle layer of skin, retinol helps neutralize free radicals to boost the production of elastin and collagen. This creates a “plumping” effect that reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and enlarged pores. At the same time, retinol has an exfoliating effect on the skin’s surface that can further improve texture and tone.

Retinol can also help treat severe acne, as well as related scarring. It helps keep your pores unclogged by creating comedolytic agents to help prevent the formation of comedones or blemishes. For severe acne, your dermatologist may prescribe an antibiotic in conjunction with your retinol treatment. Keep in mind that it may take up to six weeks to see improvements in your breakouts.

Finally, retinol has also been proven to balance your skin hydration levels. Mild exfoliating effects help to remove dead skin cells that may lead to moisture loss. This may even benefit oily skin by controlling excess production of sebum in your pores.

Retinol is primarily used to treat the following skin conditions:

  • acne
  • fine lines
  • wrinkles
  • age (sun) spots, freckles, and other signs of sun damage, sometimes called photoaging
  • uneven skin texture
  • melasma and other types of hyperpigmentation
  • large pores caused by acne, oily skin, or collagen loss

To achieve the best results from your retinol-containing skin care product, you must use it every day. It may take several weeks until you see significant improvements.

While retinoids—including retinol—are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this doesn’t mean they are free from side effects. People who use retinols commonly experience dry and irritated skin, especially after using a new product. Other side effects may include redness, itchiness, and peeling skin.

These side effects are temporary and will likely improve within a few weeks as your skin gets used to the product. However, if you continue to experience skin irritation, you may consider finding an alternative with reduced strength.

Applying retinol 30 minutes after washing your face may also reduce skin irritation. Another possible solution is to decrease the application to every other day and gradually build up your skin’s tolerance to retinol before moving to daily use.

Your risk for side effects may also be greater if you use more than one retinol-containing product at the same time. Read product labels carefully — especially if you’re using a combination of anti-aging and acne products, which are more likely to contain retinol.

Due to the risk of sun sensitivity, retinols are best applied at night.

Sunburn is one of the greatest risks of using retinol. Some of the drying and irritating effects may also be worsened by sun exposure. Ironically, sun exposure could put you at risk for some of the exact effects you’re using retinol for, such as age spots and wrinkles. To reduce such risks, wear sunscreen every day and avoid direct sun exposure as much as possible.

Retinols aren’t recommended for pregnant women. They may increase the risk for birth defects and miscarriage. Talk to your doctor about retinol if you think you’re pregnant or are planning on getting pregnant at some point in the near future. They might recommend taking oral contraceptives while you’re using retinol.

Using retinols may aggravate eczema. Avoid using if you have an active eczema rash.

Some concerns have also been raised about retinol’s possible long-term carcinogenic effects based on rodent studies. However, more human studies are needed to confirm these risks. Discuss any concerns you may have with your doctor before use.

OTC retinols are available without a prescription but you might consider talking to a dermatologist before using. They can help you assess your overall skin condition and recommend the right products based on your individual needs.

Alternatively, if you’re not seeing results from common beauty or drug store products, your dermatologist may recommend a prescription retinoid instead. Prescription retinoids include:

  • tazarotene (Tazorac) for wrinkles
  • tretinoin (Retin-A) for wrinkles
  • adapalene (Differen) for acne
  • isotretinoin (Accutane) for severe acne

While prescription formulas are indeed stronger, this also means they carry a higher risk for side effects. Follow your doctor’s instructions and wear sunscreen every day.

If you still don’t see the desired results after trying a prescription retinoid for several weeks, your dermatologist might recommend other options such as:

Retinoids are known for having positive effects on both aging and acne-prone skin. Retinol is the most accessible form of retinoids, as well as the best choice for sensitive skin. Still, you also may not see full results for up to 12 months of regular use.

If you don’t see significant improvements in skin tone, texture, or smoothness after a few months of using retinol, consider seeing your dermatologist.

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