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Pimples? Wrinkles and fine lines? Dark spots and discoloration? Retinol is one of several natural retinoids in the vitamin A family—and something of a skincare superstar for these and other skin issues. But what is retinol, and what does it do? Read on to learn more.
What is retinol?
Scientists first extracted retinol from the larger family of more potent retinoids in 1947, and it’s been a hit for its acne-fighting qualities ever since. Decades ago, they noticed that retinol also had an anti-aging effect on the skin and could lessen fine lines and wrinkles (and add a fresh glow) because of the fast cell turnover kick-started by retinol (Buchanan, 2016).
Retinol and vitamin A
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient necessary for healthy eyes, skin, immune system function, and more. In simple terms, you can think of vitamin A as falling into one of two buckets: carotenoids and retinoids (Buchanan, 2016):
- Carotenoids are pigments that give bright orange, yellow, and red colors to various vegetables and other foods, along with antioxidants that help protect cells from damage by free radicals.
- Retinoids, the massive family of compounds manufactured from vitamin A, are available in various forms to help treat a host of skin conditions. New product formulations are continuously developing, and retinol is one type of retinoid skincare ingredient.
Is retinol available without a prescription?
Buying retinoids can be confusing. While often referred to in the same breath, “retinoic acid” (tretinoin; see Important Safety Information) and “retinol” are closely related but different retinoids. Retinoic acid acts directly on skin cells and is very strong, while retinol needs to go through a chemical conversion on the skin before turning into its active form (Zasada, 2019).
You can buy skincare products containing retinol online and in drugstores without a prescription. Retinoic acid, though, is much stronger and more likely to cause side effects. You can only get it with a prescription from a dermatologist or other healthcare professional.
What does retinol do?
When you put retinol on your skin—whether in the form of a serum, cream, or other topical formulation—it speeds up the average turnover rate of dead skin cells. This ability is the key to its effectiveness. It pulls this off by soaking through cell membranes in the skin and, once inside the cells, locking on to receptors that dictate what genes are activated (Zasada, 2019).
The genes tell cells what roles to play (cell differentiation). They also dictate how quickly cells should multiply and grow (cell proliferation) and when to die (cell death). The overall result: retinol counters fine lines and wrinkles and the appearance of aging. It reinforces the protective action of the skin’s outer layer (the epidermis) and promotes the growth of keratinocytes that make up skin, nails, and hair (Zasada, 2019).
Retinol also helps keep skin firm and plumped by protecting collagen—that all-important structural protein in skin and other connective tissues—from breaking down. This collagen production contributes to its anti-aging properties (Zasada, 2019).
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For acne, topical retinol works by helping to keep skin pores unblocked. It has anti-inflammatory effects and works to keep your skin clear—cutting down on blockages that can lead to blackheads and pimples. Retinol also regulates the amount of oily sebum produced by the skin’s sebaceous glands (Leyden, 2017; Zasada, 2019).
Uses and benefits of retinol
Retinol can do several things to promote healthy skin. People use it to (Leyden, 2017; Zasada, 2019):
- Manage acne and keep pores and skin clear: Retinol helps tackle clogged pores, blackheads, breakouts, and more by making the cells that clog pores less sticky and also reducing the size of pores.
- Refine and enhance skin texture and tone: This gives skin a smoother, more even appearance. The overall result? Retinol brightens the skin.
- Diminish wrinkles and fine lines: Retinol not only increases cell turnover of the surface of the skin but stimulates collagen and skin elasticity.
- Decrease hyperpigmentation: Hyperpigmentation is the appearance of dark spots when excess amounts of pigment (melanin) get concentrated in one spot. These are sometimes called age spots. Retinol can help even things out by speeding up the turnover of the problem skin.
Effects of retinol
Studies show that retinoids can be effective in acne treatment, diminishing fine lines and wrinkles, and improving skin tone. But when it comes to retinol, know that while effective, it does not work as well as prescription retinoids like tretinoin (brand name Retin-A) and adapalene. Also, picking the right strength and formulation can affect how well it works. Choosing a product can take some effort because there’s a dizzying number of retinol options available.
Prepare yourself for some trial and error, and give retinol time to work. Because retinol is activated only after contact with your skin cells, you have to use it consistently over weeks or months to see an effect. Based on the clinical studies of retinoic acid, it can take weeks to months to start decreasing acne and fine lines, wrinkles, and other signs of aging. Since retinoic acid is about 20 times more potent than retinol, you can assume that it will take time to see effects, regardless of what form you use (Zasada, 2019).
Forms of retinol
When you’re buying OTC retinoids, you’ll see formulations containing retinol, “retinyl palmitate,” and “retinaldehyde.” These last two ingredients are even gentler and less potent than retinol alone because they need several chemical steps to get to their active states. For this reason, they can also take longer to work. Depending on your skin type (e.g., sensitive skin), you may opt for one of these gentler forms of retinol.
Retinol and retinol derivative blends exist in part because of the way these substances react to light and other ingredients. Retinol is a part of the vitamin A family, and vitamin A is a somewhat unstable molecule prone to changes in its structure and activity when exposed to light (Draelos, 2019).
So don’t be surprised to find products like retinol serums and eye creams sold in opaque (non-see-through) containers. Other retinol formulations include single-use capsules to help ensure they stay strong and potent. Fast-acting and time-release products are available, as are blends combined with salicylic acid to fight acne. Other products are mixed with sunscreen to protect against harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays (Draelos, 2019).
Is there a difference between Retin-A and tretinoin?
Side effects of retinol
Prescription retinoids increase the risk of fetal harm if used during pregnancy. It is unclear how risky retinol is and whether the dosage or timing matter since it is not as potent as retinoic acid. However, you shouldn’t use retinol if you’re pregnant to avoid any potential problems (Yoham, 2020).
The stronger the retinol cream, the more side effects you’re likely to have. Prescription retinoids have a higher rate of side effects than over-the-counter retinol. Common skin side effects include (Buchanan, 2016):
- Dry skin
How to use retinol
While you don’t need a prescription for most retinol products, you may want to connect with a skincare provider or dermatologist when starting. Most healthcare professionals suggest beginning with the lowest concentration of retinoids and then gradually increasing the active ingredient. Gels and creams often have retinol percentages ranging from 0.01% to 0.1% (Leyden, 2017).
The goal of starting slowly at a low dose is to get your body used to retinol and the redness and dryness it can produce. Over time, your skin’s tolerance to these effects will likely increase. Another way to accustom your skin to retinol is to start by putting it on just once a week and then gradually working up to using it every other night, and then nightly. It all depends on your skin sensitivity.
If your acne is severe or widespread, talk to your dermatologist about using a prescription-strength retinoid instead of retinol. Tretinoin can produce more effective results, but it’s more intense and does it faster—and isn’t available over the counter.
Because retinol brings newer and more delicate skin to the surface, you need to protect your skin from sunlight. Experts recommend applying retinoids at night after washing your face. You should also use a broad-spectrum SPF 30+ sunblock in the morning. To avoid sun damage, get in the habit of wearing a hat and seeking shade along with the sunblock regimen—every day of the year (Yoham, 2020; Guerra, 2021).
To keep your skin happy while using retinol formulations, opt for a skincare routine with a gentle skin cleanser and apply a moisturizer right after the retinol product.
- Buchanan, P. J., & Gilman, R. H. (2016). Retinoids: literature review and suggested algorithm for use prior to facial resurfacing procedures. Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery, 9(3), 139–144. doi: 10.4103/0974-2077.191653. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5064676/
- Draelos, Z. D. (2019). Cosmeceuticals: what’s real, what’s not. Dermatologic Clinics, 37(1), 107–115. doi: 10.1016/j.det.2018.07.001. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30466682/
- Guerra, K. C., Zafar, N., & Crane, J. S. (2021). Skin cancer prevention. [Updated Aug. 14, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct. 8, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519527/
- Leyden, J., Stein-Gold, L., & Weiss, J. (2017). Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatology and Therapy, 7(3), 293–304. doi: 10.1007/s13555-017-0185-2. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28585191/
- Yoham, A. L. & Casadesus, D. (2020). Tretinoin. [Updated Dec. 5, 2020]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct. 8, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557478/
- Zasada, M., & Budzisz, E. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology, 36(4), 392–397. doi: 10.5114/ada.2019.87443. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31616211/
Dr. Chimene Richa is a board-certified Ophthalmologist and Senior Medical Writer/Reviewer at Ro.