Black woman holding a white jar of retinol

Retinol: Benefits and usage

By Dr. Anna H. Chacon, MD, Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology Feb 07, 2022 • 7 min

Retinol is a form of vitamin A and belongs to the retinoid class of chemical compounds.

Retinol is a popular skin care ingredient because of its antioxidant properties and anti-aging benefits. But the benefits of retinol don’t stop with reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. There are many ways this skin-loving ingredient can work for you.

What is retinol used for?

Vitamin A is an important nutrient for the skin. It can promote healthy cell growth and regeneration, helps build collagen, and has powerful anti-aging and antioxidant properties that can help reduce skin damage from environmental toxins and free radicals.

Retinol skin benefits include helping to even out skin tone and texture and reducing the appearance of:

  • Fine lines and wrinkles
  • Discoloration from pigmentary disorders like postinflammatory hyperpigmentation and melasma
  • Psoriasis lesions
  • Minor acne scarring

Does retinol help acne?

Retinoids, including retinol, are comedolytic agents, which mean they work to unclog blocked pores. Over-the-counter retinol treatments can help heal mild to moderate acne, but retinol might not be the best choice for acne that’s more severe. Your dermatologist may recommend a prescription retinol or another retinoid, such as tretinoin, adapalene (available in over-the-counter and prescription strengths) or tazarotene, as these may be more effective for more severe acne.

People who have acne related to hormonal changes should visit their dermatologist before using retinol for acne. You should also talk to your dermatologist before you use retinol for acne scars.

In addition to treating acne, retinol is commonly used to address other skin problems. However, people with red, inflamed skin associated with conditions like rosacea shouldn’t use a product with retinol without talking to their dermatologist. Retinol for rosacea may not be the best choice for your skin type.

When to start using retinol

People in their 20s may benefit from starting a skin care regimen that includes retinol, and those in their 30s may choose to start using retinol if they haven’t already, since it can help keep their skin looking healthy into their 40s and 50s.

When to use retinol in your skin care routine depends on the product you choose. If you’re using a retinol serum, use it after you cleanse but before you moisturize. If you’re using a retinol moisturizer, use it after you cleanse.

Since retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, increasing your risk for sunburn and other skin damage, use products containing retinol at night, and always apply sunscreen during the day before going outdoors.

How to use retinol

To use retinol, start with the lowest formulation you can find. Many products don’t disclose this information on the packaging, so look for one that does, and start with 0.25% if your skin is somewhat dry or sensitive, or 0.3% if you have a normal skin type.

To avoid dryness and other potential side effects of retinol, start using the product slowly. If your skin tends to react to new products, or if it’s mildly sensitive, use retinol once or twice a week to start. If your skin takes to new ingredients well, you may consider using the retinol product every other day to start. After a couple of weeks, if your skin is tolerating it well, consider increasing the number of times you use the product by one or two days a week. If after a month you haven’t experienced any side effects, you can consider using the product every day.

How much retinol to use also depends on your skin, but no matter what skin type you have, over-applying retinol can lead to dryness and other skin issues. The ideal amount is the size of a pea for your face and the same amount for your neck and decollete. If that amount causes irritation, apply a smaller amount of product less frequently.

Here are some tips to get the most out of your retinol treatments:

  • Apply the product to your skin around 20 to 30 minutes after you wash your face
  • Apply the product at night before bed, since cell turnover peaks at night
  • If you experience irritation after you increase the frequency of application, stop using it until the irritation resolves, and then try using the product again but less often
  • If your skin tolerates retinol well, you can try increasing the concentration

Side effects of retinol

Retinol may cause side effects for some people, especially those with sensitive or dark skin. Women who are pregnant shouldn’t use retinol, and people who have darker skin should watch out for hyperpigmentation, or the appearance of dark spots, and discontinue use.

Common side effects of retinol on the skin include:

  • Excessive dryness
  • Redness
  • Scaling
  • Itching

Less-common side effects of retinol and other retinoids on the skin include:

  • Discoloration
  • Acne or eczema flare-ups
  • Swelling
  • Blistering
  • Stinging
  • Photosensitivity to UV light

If you experience side effects, stop using the product and talk with your dermatologist about other options for your skin.

Retinol is a beneficial anti-aging ingredient for the skin. If your skin tolerates retinol well, using it regularly may be an effective way to keep it looking healthy and reduce environmental and sun damage. Retinol isn’t for everyone, though—it can dry out your skin and cause other side effects. If you’re unsure whether you should use a product containing retinol, talk to your dermatologist.

Published February 2022.

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