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Retinol is often touted as a miracle skin care ingredient. But alongside the good stories come plenty of bad ones.

Some people say retinol ruined their skin, leaving others too scared to try it.

But does retinol actually have the ability to damage your complexion? Or is it the one thing that could transform your skin care regimen for the better?

Read on to find out.

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Contrary to some beliefs, retinol is perfectly safe to use on your skin.

But if you rush into things and don’t use it properly, it can come with some unwanted side effects.

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that’s suitable for the skin. It belongs to a group of vitamin A derivatives, known as retinoids.

Some retinoids, including low-strength retinol, can be bought over the counter (OTC), without a doctor’s prescription.

Others, such as tretinoin, are more powerful and can only be prescribed by a doctor.

Retinol has multiple uses. It can be used to combat conditions like acne and can target areas of pigmentation.

It can also reduce signs of aging and sun damage.

As you age, “your skin cell turnover and collagen production slows,” explains Christopher Panzica, a licensed aesthetician from Brentwood, Tennessee.

“When applied topically, retinols help bring your skin cells and function back to a more youthful state,” he says.

How does it do this?

“This power boost helps speed up cellular turnover to keep pores unclogged, reducing acne breakouts,” Panzica says, adding that it also “improves texture, fine lines, and brightness of the skin.”

Plus, Panzica says, “retinol increases collagen production in the dermis to provide anti-aging benefits.”

Collagen is a substance needed to boost skin’s hydration and elasticity.

Stronger retinoid medications like Retin-A and Accutane are known to have a long list of potential side effects.

“Those with sensitive or easily irritated skin should approach retinol use with caution,” Panzica says.

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.

Some people have noticed acne breakouts after using retinol, though this is a rare side effect.

Eczema flare-ups, skin discoloration, swelling, and stinging are also rare occurrences.

Side effects are likely to disappear after a few weeks of regular use, so it’s important to give your skin time to adjust.

But if you’re worried, don’t hesitate to chat with a dermatologist.

“Retinols can be a beneficial addition for most skin types, but it isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach,” Panzica says.

Board certified dermatologist Zenovia Gabriel, MD, notes that “people with sensitive skin conditions like rosacea cannot tolerate really strong topicals like retinols.”

Also avoid retinol if you’re going to be spending a lot of time in direct sunlight without proper sun protection.

Retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it’s important to use sunscreen with at least SPF 30 every day — even when it looks cloudy.

Some retinoids are also not recommended for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Always consult with a dermatologist before starting a high-strength retinol or if you’re concerned about retinol’s effects.

“Even though you may have heard some retinol horror stories in the past, they can be safely incorporated into a complete skin care routine,” Panzica says. “Just remember that starting low and slow wins this race.”

Panzica advises working with a dermatologist or skin care professional to find “a good, lower concentration retinol” to try.

Start by applying it at night a couple of times a week.

“Each week, if your skin has done well, add at night until you’re applying it every night or as instructed,” Panzica adds.

When applying, first cleanse, tone, and exfoliate your face. (Only do all three of these steps if they’re included in your current skin care routine.)

Then apply a small, pea-sized amount of retinol to dry skin. Spread it over your face, avoiding your eyes and mouth.

Afterward, you can apply any brightening products, followed by serums or night creams.

“Because retinols can be drying, it’s ideal to follow with an effective moisturizer to help keep skin hydrated and [the] skin’s barrier protected,” Gabriel notes.

Finally, don’t forget to wear broad spectrum sunscreen during the day.

If you’re using any other topical acne treatment, speak to a dermatologist before using retinol.

It’s also a good idea to stick to gentle cleansers and ensure you’re only layering ingredients that work well together.

“For example, vitamin C and retinol used together can be way too harsh for most skin types,” Gabriel says.

Start with a low concentration retinol —around 0.2 percent.

If you want to target deeper issues like fine lines and sun damage, you may eventually want to opt for a higher percentage.

“A great beginner retinol-like product is Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 moisturizer,” Gabriel says.

It uses a retinoid complex and vitamin B3 to target fine lines and wrinkles. It can also help improve dark spots, brightness, and skin texture.

Panzica recommends Cosmedix Elite Serum 24.

It can “treat fine lines, boost collagen production, and brighten and smooth the skin,” he says. It’s suited to anyone with a normal to dry skin type.

SkinMedica Retinol Complex is another highly rated option.

It comes in three strengths — 0.25 percent, 0.5 percent, and 1 percent — so you can gradually move up if needed.

La Roche-Posay Redermic R retinol cream is designed especially for sensitive skin, while The Ordinary 0.2% Retinol in Squalane is an ideal starting point for people with fine lines and pigmentation.

Remember: Retinol isn’t a quick fix.

While prescription-strength retinoids may have an effect in a matter of weeks, it can take up to 6 months for OTC retinols to produce the same results.

You may notice a difference in conditions like acne after 12 weeks, but sun damage and signs of aging can take much, much longer to improve.

Whether you have acne or pigmentation concerns, retinol can work wonders. But OTC products will take their sweet, sweet time to have an impact.

That doesn’t mean you should opt for the most potent product you can find. Instead, start with a low-strength formula a few times a week.

Build up slowly to avoid side effects and give your skin the best possible results.


Lauren Sharkey is a U.K.-based journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.