While few basic skincare ingredients have become household names, one is constantly part of the conversation: retinol. We’ve all heard of it, but after discussions both in and outside the office, it’s clear that many of us still aren't exactly sure about what it is—or how it works. Some of us are under the impression that retinol is an anti-aging skin care ingredient, while others have heard it described as an acne treatment. The one thing we are sure of? We're all interested but uninformed.
To get educated (and, of course, live our best wrinkle-free lives), we spoke to two top dermatologists and a celebrity esthetician for the full rundown on retinol. They helped answer everything we ever wanted to know about using retinol in our skincare routines, including why, how, and when to use it, whichproducts to get, and precautions to follow.
Keep scrolling for the answers to every retinol question you’ve ever asked and for expert advice on how to add this powerful anti-aging serum to your skincare routine.
Type of ingredient:Antioxidant
Main benefits:Increases cell turnover, boosts collagen production, and regulates oil production.
Who should use it:In general, anyone looking to reduce the signs of skin aging. Retinol is not recommended for women who are pregnant, planning to be, or nursing.Those with eczema or rosacea that's flaring should not use retinol.
How often can you use it:Start with twice a week to prevent irritation. Because sunlight deactivates retinol, apply it at night, followed by a moisturizer.
Works well with:Hydrating cleansers, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, and ceramides.
Don’t use with:Heavy scrubs, astringents, toners, alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, benzoyl peroxide, and vitamin C, as doing so may irritate the skin.
Meet the Expert
- Maryann Mikhail, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist, a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, and the owner of Waverly DermSpa in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
- Rachel Nazarian, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist, fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, and Assistant Clinical Professor at Mount Sinai Hospital.
- Renée Rouleauis an esthetician and the founder and creator of her eponymous skincare line.
What Is Retinol?
Retinol is a type of retinoid, a derivative of vitamin A, used for anti-aging and found in many skin care products. Though many people are under the impression that retinol is an exfoliant, it’s an antioxidant.Mikhail says that for the actual ingredient (retinol) towork on skin, it has to go through two steps. “It's converted to retinaldehyde, and then to the active form retinoic acid,” she explains. However, if you're using a retinol ester, it will have to go through three steps to become active because it must be converted to retinol first.“Once retinoids are convertedto the active form, retinoic acid, they get incorporated into cells in and under your skin to influence how they behave. Pure retinoic acid is available by prescription (tretinoin), while you can get retinol esters, retinol, andretinaldehydeover the counter,” says Mikhail. “The closer you are to retinoic acid, the better it works, but also the more drying and irritating.” In other words, retinaldehyde is strongest, then retinol, then retinol ester.
“Using a well-formulated and stable product with retinol will visibly reduce the appearance of sun damage, brown spots, lines, wrinkles, and large pores. It can stimulate the metabolism of skin cells and encourage collagen production,” explains Rouleau. “Its magic is in its ability to resurface the skin’s texture for a smoother, more even-toned look.”
What's The Difference Between Retinol, Retin-A, and Retinoid?
Nazarian says that bothRetin-Aand retinol are in the class of medications known asretinoids. “Both can help with promoting faster skin cell turnover, and both are proven options for helping reverse signs of skin aging,” she says. “But over-the-counter retinol requires conversion in the skin to the active form, while Retin-A is a prescription product that is more potent and slightly more effective at diminishingwrinklesand fighting acne. You will need to speak to a dermatologist about getting a prescription.”
“Retin-A restores the organization of cells through cellular turnover in the epidermis, so they are less likely to fall into the pores and block them—resulting in fewer clogged pores and small breakouts,” says Rouleau. “It also improves the look of wrinkles by retexturing and smoothing the skin’s surface and reducing pore size.”
Benefits of Using Retinol
Retinol has many benefits; in fact, Mikhail says, “I often tell patients that if they do nothing else, they should useretinol and sunscreen.”
Reduces signs of aging:Because retinol enhances skin cell turnover, you may notice a more youthful quality to your skin.
Improves the texture of your skin:By boosting collagen production, your skin will have more turgidly, structure, and strength. Plus, the cells on the surface of your skin will be replaced more quickly, helping smooth your skin and reduce the dull, dry look of dead skin.
Evens skin tone:Retinol can not only smooth the texture of your skin but the tone as well. “With continued use, retinol works to fade hyperpigmentation (brown spots and patches) and give the look of smoother skin in a gentler, non-drying way than a prescription form,” explains Rouleau.
Clears acne:Retinol decreases the function of overactive oil glands and unclogs pores.Mikhail says this clears skin, makes pores look smaller, and prevents breakouts.Plus, it may boost the potency of active ingredients in other acne-fighting medications, so if you use it in conjunction with other cleansers, you might see amplified results.
Boosts collagen production:This helps reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and skin laxity. “At the same time, it prevents the loss of the collagen and elastin we already have by slowing the enzyme that breaks them down,” says Mikhail.
Reverses the effects of sun damage:The antioxidants in retinol can help repair sun-damaged skin, such as lightening dark spots.
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Side Effects of Retinol
“The side effects of retinol are that it can cause dryness, peeling, and irritation,” says Mikhail, who adds that women who are pregnant, planning, or breastfeeding should not use retinol. “Retinoids can only be damaging to skin if you have a super-sensitive underlying skin condition like eczema or rosacea and can flare and enhance inflammation,” says Nazarian. “Still, patients with sensitive conditions like rosacea may still be able to use a retinoid, but they need to gradually introduce it into their skincare regimen, perhaps only one time weekly, and prep their skin with a topical moisturizer before applying the retinoid."
“It can make your skin more sensitive to other products, procedures, and sunlight,” notes Mikhail. “Don't use harsh scrubs, astringents, toners, alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, benzoyl peroxide, and vitamin C at the same as your retinol [because the]combinationscan dry out and irritate your skin.”
Mikhail says that you’ll need to stop applying retinol for at least a week before things like getting a facial, laser treatment, chemical peel, waxing, or intense sun exposure because it increases your sensitivity. And, if you must go in the sun, there are some important sun-exposure precautions. “If you would like to use a retinoid in the summertime, it’s imperative that you wear a high-SPF, broad-spectrum sunscreen daily,” suggests Nazarian. “Along with sunscreen, because your risk for burning is so high, I would avoid peak hours of sun and wear a broad-brim hat when outdoors.”
How to Use Retinol
It can take weeks to months to see results from retinol, depending upon your skin concern, so be patient.Our experts shared lots of advice on how to best use retinol.
Incorporating Retinol Into Your Skincare Routine
Mikhail says it’s best to start with a very simple retinol routine. “In the morning, use a gentle cleanser, and then a moisturizer and a sunscreen,” she advises. “At night, wash with a gentle cleanser, and then apply the retinol, followed by moisturizer.”
Our experts all say it’s essential to give your skin a chance to adjust to retinol. Begin with applying it just once or twice a week on non-consecutive nights. “Gradually increase how often, but not how much, you are using based on how your skin responds. If any redness or irritation is noted the next day, you should skip that night’s application,” says Rouleau. She says to then work up to using the retinol for two nights on, one night off, alternating with an exfoliating acid serum and a nourishing treatment serum.“Since retinol is pushing up skin cells to the surface at a faster rate, retinol can cause micro-peeling (invisible peeling) in most skin types, so it’s important not to use it every night.”
Rouleau continues, “Because it takes two days for the cells to regenerate to the surface and cause the skin to get flaky, using an exfoliating serum on [the third night] is perfect for removing the surface dead cells that appear. Also, retinol may work even better when used back on the skin on [fourth night], because now it can penetrate deeper into the skin because of the acid exfoliation the night before.” She says that a hydrating serum is added to the mix once a week to give the skin a break and calm the skin with ingredients that nourish and repair the skin barrier.“It’s also important to do it this way simply because the skin performs its best when it has a variety of high-performance ingredients instead of the same oneingredientnight in and night out,” explains Rouleau.
Though our experts recommend starting by using the retinol just once or twice a week on non-consecutive nights to prevent irritation, Mikhail says, “If your skin tolerates it well, you can slowly work yourway up to using it every night.” And, she has some advice if your skin isn’t taking well to retinol alone. “If you find your skin is sensitive, peeling, or irritated, don't lose hope. You can try the sandwich technique—first apply a hyaluronic acid serum, then the retinol over it, and then a moisturizer with ceramides on top.”
Mikhail says that once your skin has adjusted to the retinol, you can add an antioxidant likevitamin Cin the morning under sunscreen. But, it’s important to heed her sage advice: “Always start [with] one product at a time to see how your skin reacts before adding another.”
For the actual retinol application, Mikhail shares additional guidance: “Tale a pea-sized amount and dab onto five points—the forehead, nose, each cheek, and chin. Gently rub it in to evenly distribute it over the face. Use a second pea-sized amount for theneck and neckline.”
Forms and Strengths of Retinol
“Most retinoids are not photo-stable or sunlight-stable, meaning they should be kept in an opaque, well-sealed container and used only at night,” explains Rouleau. Retinol comes in cream, gel, serum, spray, andlotion forms. “In general, gels and sprays are more drying, while lotions, serums, and cream forms are more hydrating,” explains Mikhail. “If you have oily skin at baseline, you might start with a gel or spray. For combination skin, a lotion or serum might be best. If you're dry, choose a cream.” She says these are general guidelines that can vary according to the season and climate as well.“You might need a cream in the cold and something lighter in warm, humid weather,” Mikhail explains.
In addition to the various forms, Retinol also comes in varying strengths. Generally, if the concentration isn’t specifically labeled, it probably means it's less than 0.25 percent. As per Mikhail’s advice, if you’re just starting with retinol, you should pick a product with a concentration of 0.25 percent or less. “You can work your way up the ladder as tolerated. Once you've gotten used to over-the-counter options, you can request a prescription-strength retinoid from your dermatologist.”
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Retinol is a powerful tool against aging skin and acne, but it's not for everyone. If you're prone to allergies or have sensitive skin, you might want to try skincare products with alternative anti-aging or skin-clearing ingredients.Does retinol help with acne and wrinkles? ›
Retinol is a powerful tool against aging skin and acne, but it's not for everyone. If you're prone to allergies or have sensitive skin, you might want to try skincare products with alternative anti-aging or skin-clearing ingredients.Can A dermatologist prescribe retinol for wrinkles? ›
Retinol and Retin-A are types of retinoids. Most products specifically labeled 'retinoid' require a prescription from a dermatologist.Does retinol completely remove wrinkles? ›
Retinoids not only reverse the signs of natural aging, but they can also repair sun damage on the skin. Retinoids have been shown to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, smooth the skin and even the tone. Retinol, retinyl palmitate and retinoic acid are all types of retinoids.How long does it take for retinol to work on wrinkles? ›
A review of retinoids indicates that most individuals see a significant decrease in wrinkles after about three months of use. 3 Over time, retinol help boosts collagen and thicken the deeper layer of skin where wrinkles begin to form, so long-term consistency will be worth the results.How do you get rid of wrinkles and acne? ›
The most effective way to combat both breakouts and wrinkles is to use a gentle, leave-on exfoliant containing BHA (also called salicylic acid). BHA exfoliates the surface of the skin and penetrates the pores where blockages occur (such as blackheads) without any irritation.How long does it take for retinol to clear acne? ›
Remember that in order to start seeing the benefits of retinol, you need to use it regularly and over a period of time. Try not to get discouraged if you don't see quick improvements — it can take up to 2 to 3 months to see the results.What is better than retinol for wrinkles? ›
Also known as retinoic acid, tretinoin is about 20 times more potent than retinol. It's stronger because retinoic acid is a form of vitamin A that acts directly on the skin to boost cell renewal, turnover, and DNA damage repair.Which is better for face wrinkles retinol or hyaluronic acid? ›
If you're looking for an ingredient that can help to improve the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone, retinol may be the better option. However, if you're looking for something that will keep your skin hydrated and plump, hyaluronic acid may be a better choice.Is retinol good for skin over 70? ›
Because retinoids help your skin make more collagen, they soften wrinkles and fine lines. They also stimulate new blood vessels, which can give your skin a rosy color. Retinoids also help fade age spots and smooth rough patches. Tretinoin (Retin-A) is a popular prescription choice for aging skin.
Those with stubborn skin concerns, like deep wrinkles and pronounced uneven skin tone may want to consider a high percentage retinol cream, serum or treatment. But what percentage of retinol is effective? Look for formulations with a percentage between 0.3% and 1%, with retinol 1% being the strongest option.Can retinol lift your face? ›
Then, retinol goes to work, neutralizing free radicals that can damage your skin cells while boosting the production of collagen and elastin or the proteins that give your skin a nice, firm lift.Do you put moisturizer on before or after retinol? ›
According to the Cleveland Clinic, if your retinol is irritating your skin, you should apply a thin layer of moisturizer before applying it to give your skin a little barrier. If your retinol is not irritating your skin, then depending on the formula, you can apply it before your moisturizer.Do dermatologists recommend retinol? ›
Retinol is a popular skin care ingredient known for its anti-aging benefits — and it's dermatologist-approved.Which is better for wrinkles retinol or collagen? ›
Yes, because both collagen and retinol have anti-aging properties. However, retinol is a more potent anti-aging product, so it's better for those with deep-set wrinkles. Collagen is better for those with fewer and finer wrinkles. You can also use either collagen or retinol for the bags under your eyes.What kills wrinkles on face? ›
Retinol, antioxidants and some peptides may result in slight to modest improvements in wrinkles. Products that contain alpha hydroxy acids — such as glycolic acid and lactic acid — may help remove the top layer of dead skin and stimulate new skin growth.What acne cream is good for wrinkles? ›
Tretinoin is a prescription-strength topical cream or gel. It's used mainly to treat acne, sun-damaged skin, and fine wrinkles.Why is my face breaking out as I get older? ›
What causes acne? Especially for women, acne might be triggered by hormonal changes. As we get older, our estrogen levels often decline. At the same time, male hormones, like testosterone and dihydrotestosterone, which we all have, increase.Is retinol or vitamin C better for acne scars? ›
Use retinol serums if you want to get rid of your acne scars and improve your skin texture. On the other hand, vitamin C serums are perfect if you want to enhance your skin tone, improve your collagen production, and boost your overall skin health.Which is better salicylic acid or retinol for acne? ›
Retinol and salicylic acid are both big names in skincare right now. Retinol is known for smoothing skin and targeting blemishes, while salicylic acid is primarily used as an exfoliator that unclogs pores. Used together, these two ingredients work together for smooth, clear, glowing skin.
The Active Ingredient is Not Powerful Enough
The strength of non-prescription, over-the-counter retinoids (referred to as retinols) is generally insufficient to treat acne.
Ingredients that can serve as more gentle alternatives to retinol include bakuchiol, peptides, azelaic acid and more. Below, check out top-recommended products and then learn a bit more about how these alternative ingredients work.Which over the counter retinol is the strongest? ›
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment
This over-the-counter retinol contains an ingredient called adapalene. It's the strongest retinol you can get without a prescription and it's ideal for treating all forms of acne, including blackheads, whiteheads, and cystic acne, says Dr. Marcus.
Tazarotene. The strongest of topical retinoids is tazarotene (also known as Tazorac), a retinoid that binds to both the beta and gamma retinoic acid receptors in the skin.Can you use both hyaluronic acid and retinol together? ›
Yes, you can use hyaluronic acid and retinol together to achieve maximum skincare benefits and younger-looking skin.What's better vitamin C or retinol? ›
While vitamin C is most notable for helping to brighten and improve hyperpigmentation, retinol is typically considered best-in-class for wrinkles and fine lines. And if you really want to give your skin a one-two punch to get noticeably healthier, you can certainly try incorporating both into your routine.Which acid is best for wrinkles? ›
Lactic acid: "Gentle and effective, lactic acid will benefit those with sensitive skin. It exfoliates and softens lines and wrinkles in a much less irritating way than other acids."Should 60 year old use retinol? ›
The good news is that it is never too late to start incorporating retinol into your skin care routine. People in the 60s and beyond have begun using retinol and still experienced results.Is it too late to start using retinol at 60? ›
If you've surpassed your 20s and are concerned that you've missed your window for reaping the benefits of retinol, don't worry—it's never too late to start. Dr. Arthur says she's had patients who reported noticeable results after starting retinol in their 60s and 70s.How do you rejuvenate 70 year old skin? ›
- Bathe to relieve dry skin. ...
- Use a humidifier when the air feels dry. ...
- Wear gloves while doing housework and gardening. ...
- Protect your skin from the sun. ...
- Go fragrance free.
Don't Mix: Retinol with vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, and AHA/BHA acids. AHA and BHA acids are exfoliating, which can dry out the skin and cause further irritation if your skincare routine already includes retinol.How do you get rid of wrinkles on your face fast? ›
- prescription topical vitamin A retinoids.
- prescription topical antioxidants and collagen.
- OTC wrinkle creams.
- laser skin resurfacing.
- light source and radiofrequency treatments.
- chemical peel.
- dermabrasion or microdermabrasion.
Your skin should look more luminous, smoother, and clearer. Some of your wrinkles will seem to disappear completely while others will appear significantly softer. You'll probably also notice a positive impact on more persistent skin concerns, like breakouts and dark marks.What are the disadvantages of retinol on face? ›
- Dry skin.
- Flaking and peeling of the skin.
- Increased sensitivity to the sun.
- Skin cancer.
So what can we do to prevent jowls? Prescribe a topical Retinol cream to stimulate your collagen production to give support and structure back into your skin.How long does it take for retinol to tighten skin? ›
However, it takes three to six months of regular use before improvements in wrinkles are apparent—and the best results take six to 12 months. Because retinoids can cause skin dryness and irritation, doctors often recommend using them only every other day at first and then gradually working up to nightly applications.What is the sandwich method of retinol? ›
A Retinol sandwich is just Retinol layered between two moisturiser treatments. Apply moisturiser on damp, cleaned skin to do this. Next, apply your Retinol product as indicated on the packaging, avoiding sensitive areas such as the eyes and mouth corners.What happens if you put moisturizer after retinol? ›
The best product you can use in conjunction with retinol, according to Dr. Zeichner, is a moisturizer, which can help hydrate skin and reduce the risk of irritation from retinol. “Some people even prefer to mix their retinol with a moisturizing cream to dilute it out,” he says.What is the best serum for 60 year old? ›
- Blu Atlas Vitamin C Serum.
- Clarins Double Serum Complete Age Control Concentrate.
- L'Oreal Paris RevitaLift Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum.
- Kiehls Powerful-Strength Line-Reducing Concentrate.
- Skinceuticals C E Ferulic Serum.
- The Ordinary Supersize Hyaluronic Acid.
Because prescription retinoid creams are prescribed, this really is a decision that should be made by your doctor or dermatologist. But generally speaking, prescription retinoids are a proven and effective treatment for wrinkles, pigmentation, pores and acne, as well as improving skin clarity and luminosity.
1. SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0 Maximum Strength Refining Night Cream. Formulated with the highest concentration of 1.0% pure retinol and botanical extracts, this cream is enhanced with the latest stabilization and delivery technologies to preserve retinol potency and ensure maximum efficacy and stability.Can I leave retinol on my face overnight? ›
Since you don't have to wash the retinol off after you put it on, you can let it absorb into your skin overnight while you're sleeping. Develop a regular skincare routine at night so you don't forget to apply retinol.Do I need to exfoliate if I use retinol? ›
Although retinoids are not exfoliants, they can when paired with exfoliants lead to irritated skin and a damaged skin barrier. As retinoids have in parts similar effects to exfoliants, it might be that you don't need to use both in your routine – listen to your skin here.Can you use the ordinary retinol around eyes? ›
Darlings, using under eye retinol is a great way to brighten the look of your skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. If you're wondering, "Can you use retinol under eyes?", the answer is YES!Who should not use retinol? ›
Retinol might not be a fit for those with overly sensitive or hypersensitive skin, those who have food intolerances or high allergic reactions, and young skin, she says. “Caution is necessary when using any vitamin A derivatives and should only be used after advice from your derm or skin care specialist,” Joss says.How often should you use retinol on your face? ›
Use retinol once or twice a week at first to see how your skin reacts, and gradually work up to every other day or three times a week. Another key tip for using retinol is to incorporate it into your nighttime skincare routine only, as it makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight.Should you use retinol every day for wrinkles? ›
Yes. In fact, retinoids work best if you use them daily. Specifically, try to use them at night because light and air deactivate some types. If you experience any side effects — like skin redness or dryness — then it's a good idea to back down to once every 2 or 3 nights.What is better for aging skin retinol or vitamin C? ›
While vitamin C is most notable for helping to brighten and improve hyperpigmentation, retinol is typically considered best-in-class for wrinkles and fine lines. And if you really want to give your skin a one-two punch to get noticeably healthier, you can certainly try incorporating both into your routine.Is salicylic acid better than retinol? ›
Retinol is well known for being the gold standard in terms of reducing the appearance of ageing, while salicylic acid is one of acne's greatest enemies.What's better retinol or hyaluronic acid? ›
If you're looking for an ingredient that can help to improve the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone, retinol may be the better option. However, if you're looking for something that will keep your skin hydrated and plump, hyaluronic acid may be a better choice.
The good news is that it is never too late to start incorporating retinol into your skin care routine. People in the 60s and beyond have begun using retinol and still experienced results.What is the bad side of retinol? ›
First-time retinol users have reported irritation, including redness, dryness, and peeling. If you use too high a strength or apply retinol more frequently than you should, you may experience further irritation, like itchiness and scaly patches.Do you put moisturizer over retinol? ›
According to the Cleveland Clinic, if your retinol is irritating your skin, you should apply a thin layer of moisturizer before applying it to give your skin a little barrier. If your retinol is not irritating your skin, then depending on the formula, you can apply it before your moisturizer.What not to mix with retinol? ›
Don't Mix: Retinol with vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, and AHA/BHA acids. AHA and BHA acids are exfoliating, which can dry out the skin and cause further irritation if your skincare routine already includes retinol.What happens when you stop using retinol? ›
You see, retinol impacts your skin's normal function, and when you stop it your skin has to re-learn how to regulate itself properly again. So typically when people stop using it they experience either bad acne or bad dryness for a few weeks afterwards.