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  • Writer's pictureAnjana Rajbhandary

How does retinol work?

Retinol for skin

Retinol is one of the most well-known skincare ingredients on the market. It’s a vitamin A derivative and a go-to skincare ingredient when it comes to diminishing fine lines and wrinkles, as well as acne. It’s important to understand the varieties of retinol, how to use it and what type is best for your skin.

If you’re curious and want to learn more about this powerful ingredient and how it works on skin, look no further.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative and an antioxidant that promotes collagen, fades dark spots, brightens dull skin and treats acne. Retinol is available over-the-counter (OTC) and is the less concentrated version of a retinoid.

Retinoids are a more potent form of vitamin A that are mainly available by prescription and may cause more skin irritation in comparison to retinol. Many refer to retinol and retinoids as the same thing, but they aren’t — the OTC version of a prescription retinoid is retinol.

What’s the difference between retinoids, retinol and Retin-A?

Retin-A and retinol are different forms of retinoids. Retin-A is the brand name for tretinoin, a prescription retinoid. Retinol needs to convert to retinoic acid on the skin to work, whereas prescription-strength Retin-A is already a retinoic acid, so it works faster. The highest strength retinol product is still a lower strength than the weakest prescription retinoid.

Consult a dermatologist to see which retinoid best fits your needs. Some popular prescription retinoids are tazarotene (Tazorac), adapalene (Differin) and isotretinoin (Accutane).

How retinol works

Most skincare ingredients work by removing the dead skin from the epidermis (outer layer of the skin), but retinol goes deep into the dermis (middle layer of your skin) to do its work.

In the dermis, retinol helps neutralize free radicals while increasing the production of collagen and elastin. The increase in collagen and elastin plumps the skin and reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and pores.

Retinol also has an exfoliating effect on the epidermis and removes dead skin, resulting in improved texture, tone and reduction of age spots and hyperpigmentation. For those with oily skin, mild exfoliation can lead to control of excess sebum production.

Retinol can help treat acne and acne scars. Retinol forms comedolytic agents to prevent and reduce the formation of papules such as blackheads, whiteheads and blemishes. For those with severe cystic acne, your dermatologist might also prescribe isotretinoin, a prescription-only retinoid. It decreases the size and formation of bacteria of sebaceous glands on the skin to reduce the formation of acne.

Benefits of retinol

Retinol is the gold standard when it comes to skincare. It’s used to help the skin by reducing:

  • Fine lines

  • Wrinkles

  • Photoaging such as sunspots, freckles and other signs of sun damage

  • Hyperpigmentation such as melasma

  • Loss of collagen

  • Large pores

  • Acne

Side effects of retinol

The Food and Drug Administration has approved retinoids for use but be cautious of some of the potential side effects. If you have dry or sensitive skin, using too much retinol may cause irritation. People with skin conditions like eczema and rosacea are generally advised against using retinol. Topical retinoids also make your skin more sensitive to the sun.

On rare occasions, the use of strong prescription retinoids has been linked to swelling, hives and difficulty breathing. If you’re taking supplements containing vitamin A, consult your doctor before using any retinol products, as too much vitamin A can be toxic and may cause liver damage.

If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, dermatologists advise against using retinol products, as they may cause birth defects.

How to use retinol

Beginners should start with OTC retinol before trying a prescription-strength retinoid, as it may cause the skin to feel more sensitive and cause redness and irritation. There is no set age to start integrating retinol into your routine, but it’s best to go slow to avoid irritating the skin. It’s recommended to start with retinol a couple of times a week at night and slowly increase use to every night once your skin can tolerate it.

It’s advised to only use one product at a time containing retinol. If you’re using other active ingredients like glycolic acid regularly, it’s safe to alternate nights with retinol. Due to the potential risk of sun sensitivity, retinoids should be applied at night.

If you have acne issues, dermatologists can prescribe retinoids as early as your late teens. Apply retinol consistently to see the maximum benefits; it may take up to 3 months to notice how retinol is affecting your skin.

Who can use retinol?

Almost anyone can use retinol unless you have sensitive skin or are pregnant/nursing. If you have skin concerns such as acne, dark spots, fine lines and wrinkles, you can integrate a retinol product into your skincare routine.

Best retinol products

Best retinol for beginners

First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum: available at Ulta and Sephora FAB retinol has a combination of 0.25% pure retinol and peptides, which is ideal for beginner retinol users with sensitive skin. It also contains colloidal oatmeal to soothe the skin.

Best retinol for mature skin

RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum: available at Ulta and Amazon With regular use, this popular retinol serum can visibly reduce deep wrinkles on your face and neck in 12 weeks. It's dermatologically tested and paraben-free.

Best splurge retinol

Sunday Riley A+ High Dose Retinol Serum: available at Sephora, Ulta Beauty and SkinStore A stronger retinol serum that works for all skin types, as it helps improve the look of wrinkles and dark spots. It has antioxidant CoQ10 to help with redness and honey for hydration.

Best budget retinol

L'Oréal Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum with 0.3% Pure Retinol: available at Ulta and Amazon This drugstore brand has 0.3% retinol, their highest percentage of pure retinol. It works on minimizing the appearance of the deepest lines and wrinkles and is free of parabens and silicone.

Best retinol eye cream

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Ferulic + Retinol Eye Cream: available at SkinStore and Amazon This luxurious eye cream has retinol and ferulic acid to help diminish fine lines and wrinkles, loss of firmness and dark circles.

Best retinol for acne

Differin Acne Treatment Gel: available at Ulta and Amazon This is the first FDA-approved full prescription-strength retinoid available OTC. It helps prevent pimples, acne and clogged pores and it's gentle enough to be used all over your face.

Best retinol for plumping

Vichy LiftActiv Retinol HA Concentrate Anti-Wrinkle Treatment: available at SkinStore, Ulta and Amazon This powerful daily wrinkle filler treatment can plump and refresh your skin in a month. It has Vichy's highest concentration of retinol, yet it's lightweight and fast-absorbing.

Best retinol for firming

La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Serum: available at Ulta, LovelySkin and Amazon This allergy-tested, fragrance-free retinol serum reduces the appearance of lines and wrinkles, while vitamin B3 smooths skin.

Best retinol for brightening

StriVectin Super-C Retinol Brighten & Correct Vitamin C Serum: available at Ulta, SkinStore and LovelySkin This serum is a powerful yet gentle combination of retinol to reduce lines and vitamin C to brighten skin. It can make your skin firmer and more radiant without any irritation.

Best vegan retinol

Juice Beauty STEM CELLULAR Anti-Wrinkle Retinol Overnight Serum: available at Ulta, Credo Beauty and LovelySkin This multitasking vegan retinol serum also has vitamin B5, jojoba, coconut and shea butter for extra hydration. It's made of organic ingredients and has 100% recyclable packaging.

Best retinol for dry skin

Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum: available at Murad, Ulta, Sephora and LovelySkin Safe for dry and sensitive skin, this serum helps reduce lines and boost skin radiance in 2 weeks. The dermatologist-developed formula is also cruelty-free.

Best fragrance-free retinol

Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum: available at Sephora, Ulta and SkinStore This 1.5% microencapsulated retinol serum is excellent for those looking for the best results with the least irritation. It's fragrance-free and contains vitamin C to brighten your skin.

Best retinol for nighttime

SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream: available at LovelySkin This stabilized retinol formula delivers great results for those with skin concerns like acne, dark spots and aging. It leaves your skin feeling smooth.

Best retinol alternative

Herbivore Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum: available at Sephora, Credo Beauty and Amazon Perfect for those who have sensitive skin or are pregnant or nursing, this naturally derived retinol alternative helps with hydration as well as smoothing lines and wrinkles.


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