How Does Retinol Work on the Skin?

Medically reviewed by Clare Wightman MS, PAC, Dermatology, Medical Research By Kristeen Cherney Updated on January 4, 2022

Retinol is one of the best-known skin care ingredients on the market. An over-the-counter (OTC) version of retinoids, retinol is derived (made from) vitamin A and is primarily used to treat mature-looking skin concerns as well as acne.

That said, retinols are not the same products as prescription retinoids, which are more powerful. However, retinol is still the strongest OTC version available, compared with OTC retinoids such as retinaldehyde and retinyl palmate.

Retinol has many potential skin care benefits, but there are side effects to consider, too.

Curious about whether retinol could be a beneficial addition to your skin care routine? Learn more about this key ingredient below.

Retinol is a type of retinoid, which is made from vitamin A. It does not remove dead skin cells, as many other products for mature skin do. Instead, the small molecules that make up retinol go deep beneath the epidermis (outer layer of skin) to your dermis.

Once in this middle layer of skin, retinol helps neutralize free radicals. This helps boost the production of elastin and collagen, which creates a “plumping” effect that can reduce the appearance of:

While retinol is also sometimes used to help treat acne as well as related scarring, severe acne is usually treated via a prescription retinoid along with other medications that help target inflammation and bacteria.

Finally, retinol has an exfoliating effect on the skin’s surface that can help improve texture and tone.

Retinol is primarily used to treat the following skin conditions:

  • fine lines
  • wrinkles
  • sun spots and other signs of sun damage, sometimes called photoaging
  • uneven skin texture
  • melasma and other types of hyperpigmentation

To achieve the best results from your retinol-containing skin care product, try using it every day. It may take several weeks until you see significant improvements.

While retinol is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this doesn’t mean it’s free from side effects.

People who use retinols commonly experience dry and irritated skin, especially after using a new product. Other side effects may include:

  • redness
  • itchiness
  • peeling skin

To lessen these side effects, try using your retinol every other night or every third night, and work your way up to using it nightly.

If you continue to experience skin irritation, you may want to talk with a dermatologist. Or better yet, talk with a dermatologist before you start using a retinol product to see if it’s a good idea for your skin.

Less than 10 percent of individuals who use retinols may experience more severe side effects, including:

  • an acne flair up
  • an eczema flare up
  • discoloration of the skin
  • photosensitivity to UV light
  • blistering
  • stinging
  • swelling

Applying retinol 30 minutes after washing your face may also reduce skin irritation.

Your risk for side effects may be greater if you use more than one retinol-containing product at the same time. Read product labels carefully — especially if you’re using a combination of products labeled as “anti-aging” or for acne, which are more likely to contain retinol.

Due to the risk of sun sensitivity, retinols are best applied at night.

Sun exposure may worsen some of the drying and irritating effects of retinol, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Ironically, sun exposure could put you at risk for some of the same exact effects you’re using retinol for, such as age spots and wrinkles. To reduce such risks, wear a mineral-based sunscreen (an SPF of 15 at least) whenever you plan to spend long periods outside.

It’s generally recommended that pregnant individuals avoid retinols. Talk with your doctor about retinol if you think you’re pregnant or are planning on getting pregnant at some point in the near future.

Using retinol may aggravate eczema and rosacea. Avoid using it if you have an active case of either.

OTC retinols are available without a prescription, but you might want to consider talking with a dermatologist before using a specific brand. They can help you assess your overall skin condition and recommend the right products based on your individual needs.

Alternatively, if you’re not seeing results from common beauty or drug store products, your dermatologist may recommend a prescription retinoid instead.

While prescription formulas are indeed stronger, this also means they carry a higher risk for side effects. Follow your doctor’s instructions and wear sunscreen every day.

If you are not seeing the desired cosmetic results after trying retinol, there are many other options to discuss with a dermatologist, such as:

How long does it take to see results from retinol?

For most OTC retinols, it may take a few weeks of continued use to see results. According to a 2015 study, a “significant reduction” in wrinkles was seen in participants who used a retinol for 12 weeks.

A more recent study from 2019 found that wrinkles around the eyes and on the neck improved in individuals who used retinol for 8 weeks.

What are the benefits of using retinol?

Using retinol may help:

Can you put moisturizer over retinol?

Yes, you can. If you’re using a retinol product, your nightly routine should look something like this, according to the American Academy of Dermatology:

  1. Wash your face.
  2. Dry your face.
  3. Apply retinol.
  4. Wait a few minutes, then apply moisturizer.

Can retinol ruin your skin?

Most OTC retinol products are safe to use as directed, but there are some common side effects that can cause irritation in the short term. These side effects include:

  • dry skin
  • peeling
  • sensitivity to the sun
  • an allergic reaction (rare)

To reduce the risk of irritation or allergic reaction, talk with a dermatologist about the specific OTC retinol brand you’re considering. They may have good insight.

It’s also a good idea to do a “use test.” This is when you put a small amount of the product on your inner forearm for several days to make sure you don’t have a reaction prior to applying it all over your face

Retinoids are known for having positive effects on both aging and acne-prone skin.

Retinol is the most accessible form of retinoids, as well as the best choice for most people’s skin. However, it can take a few months of constant use before you see results.

Consider contacting a dermatologist before buying a specific retinol product. They may have good insights, especially if they are familiar with your skin.

Last medically reviewed on January 4, 2022

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Current Version

Jan 4, 2022

Written By

Kristeen Cherney, PhD

Edited By

Jessica DiGiacinto

Medically Reviewed By

Clare Wightman MS, PAC

Copy Edited By

Chris Doka

May 28, 2020

Written By

Kristeen Cherney, PhD

Edited By

Allison Tsai

Medically Reviewed By

Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN

Copy Edited By

Kayt Sukel

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Medically reviewed by Clare Wightman MS, PAC, Dermatology, Medical Research By Kristeen Cherney Updated on January 4, 2022