Skin Care Ingredient Focus: Retinol

Written by Lauren Rimoin, MD, Board Certified Dermatologist on December 13, 2022 No Comments

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Retinol has long been touted as the ultimate skin care ingredient. It’s a beneficial part of an anti-aging skin care routine and can also treat acne and skin pigmentation. Learn more about retinol, a versatile and effective over the counter skin care ingredient.

What is Retinol?

Retinol is just one of several types of retinoids. These vitamin A derivatives help promote skin cell turnover as well as the production of collagen. Topical retinoids include retinoic acid, retinyl esters, retinaldehyde and retinol.

The most common retinoid is retinoic acid (aka Retin-A or tretinoin). It is only available in prescription form. Retinol is a slightly different, milder version and is widely available over the counter.

Retinol is converted to retinoic acid after it comes into contact with the skin. It’s not as strong as retinoic acid, but this also makes it less irritating and suitable for daily use, even for those with sensitive skin.

How Retinol Benefits The Skin

Although retinol isn’t as strong as prescription-based retinoids, it’s still a highly effective skincare ingredient. Since it’s been around a long time, it’s been widely studied. Formulas with as little as .01 percent active ingredient have been proven effective.

Retinol works by stimulating skin cell turnover and collagen production. Once absorbed by the skin, it penetrates into the skin’s deeper layers to neutralize free radicals and prevent skin damage. Benefits include the following:

Smooths Skin

Retinol tackles fine lines, wrinkles and acne scars by slowing the break-down of collagen and promoting collagen production. It also has an exfoliating effect which can help skin appear more evenly textured.

Evens Skin Tone

By promoting skin cell turnover, topical retinol treats skin pigmentation and discoloration for a more evenly toned appearance.

Prevents Breakouts

An increase in skin cell turnover helps prevent breakouts, which are often caused by dead skin cells clogging pores. Retinol that’s applied along with moisturizer can also help minimize oil production.

Minimizes Pores

Large pores appear even larger when clogged. Retinol clears pores to minimize their appearance and helps prevent post-acne scarring by building up collagen.

Over-the-Counter vs Prescription Retinol 

Over the counter retinol is available in strengths from .01 to 1 percent active ingredient. For a stronger retinoid, you’ll need a prescription. However, unless you’re treating severe acne or more deeply set wrinkles, you may not need one.

Retinol is the strongest and most effective of all over the counter retinoids. It may be weaker than prescription-strength formulas, but that can be a good thing. Topical retinol is far less irritating than retinoic acid, and that makes it suitable for all skin types.

Whether you have a prescription or choose an OTC formula, it may take some time to find the percentage of active ingredient that works best for your skin. Most people start with a concentration of .25 percent retinol, then gradually shift to a stronger or milder formula, and either increase or decrease frequency of use. The perfect combination for you is one that benefits your skin without causing dryness or irritation.

Common Skin Care Products That Contain Retinol

Retinol is found in several different skincare products, including the following:

  • Oils
  • Serums
  • Creams
  • Moisturizers
  • Cosmetics

The best product will depend upon the specific issue each person is trying to address. If you have dry skin or want to treat a sensitive area, such as under the eyes, retinol creams and moisturizers might be your best bet. Those with oily, thicker skin, might better tolerate a higher dose serum.

How And When To Use Retinol

If you’re new to using retinoids, or if you have sensitive skin, choose a mild-strength product and slowly introduce it to your skin care regimen. Most people begin by using a new product once every other day. If your skin is not reacting poorly, increase the frequency of use after 2-4 weeks.

If you’re concerned about your skin getting too dry, try applying a layer of moisturizer before and after you apply your retinol to reduce redness, dryness or flaking. Retinol will still absorb into the deeper layers of your skin as it’s meant to.

The best time of day to use topical retinol is overnight, because retinol makes skin more sensitive to UV light. Retinol creams and moisturizers are commonly labeled for overnight use.

The Downsides of Retinol

Over the counter retinol products are not as powerful as prescription-strength retinoids. Because of this, it may take longer to see improvements to your skin. Most dermatologists recommend at least 12 weeks of consistent use before expecting to see results.

All retinoids, retinol included, are known for potentially causing redness, dryness, scaling or peeling, and general skin irritation. Retinoids also make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so be sure to use sunscreen daily.

Remember, using more of any product doesn’t necessarily make it more effective, but will cause your skin to become irritated. So, use retinols with caution and as directed. If your skin reacts poorly, either find a lower strength product, or use it less frequently.

Avoid using retinoids if you’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant. Some studies have linked retinoid use to birth defects.


Lauren Rimoin, MD

Lauren Rimoin, MD is a Board-Certified Dermatologist and Board-Certified, Fellowship Trained Mohs surgeon at Westlake Dermatology. She earned her medical degree at University of California, Los Angeles where she was elected to the prestigious honors society Alpha Omega Alpha. She trained at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia for her Dermatology residency, as well as her fellowship in Mohs Micrographic Surgery and Cutaneous Oncology. Dr. Rimoin is a member of American Academy of Dermatology, the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, the American College of Mohs Surgery, the Texas Medical Association, and the American Medical Association.

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