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Retinol can do a lot for your skin: aging support, acne relief, and overall skin rejuvenation. Derived from vitamin A, this multitasking skin care ingredient is a form of retinoid.
Unlike stronger retinoids, like Retin-A (tretinoin), you can buy retinol over the counter in formulas of up to 2 percent. In other words, it’s fairly accessible if you want to use it.
Read on to learn more about retinol’s skin benefits, potential side effects, and how to safely incorporate it into your skin care routine.
From breakouts to sun damage, retinol can help address a variety of skin concerns.
Retinol helps keep pores clear by reducing the buildup of skin cells. Plus, it can block inflammation pathways in the skin.
In a nutshell, that means retinol doesn’t only help reduce the number of breakouts you have. It can also minimize the redness and swelling that comes with them.
Skin cells naturally turn over, revealing fresh cells underneath.
But this happens less frequently as you age, which can lead to a duller complexion. You might also begin to notice fine lines and wrinkles — these can appear at any age.
Retinol helps speed up this turnover process and promote brighter, smoother skin. It also goes deeper into the skin to encourage collagen production and further plump the skin.
Faster skin cell turnover can also help improve skin tone.
This can have particular benefit when you have signs of sun damage, like:
- fine lines
Retinol can even strengthen the skin, helping protect it against further environmental damage. (Just keep in mind it can leave the top layer of skin thinner and more sensitive to sunlight, so you’ll want to apply sunscreen with extra vigilance.)
A buildup of dead skin cells can leave your skin drier than you’d like. Removing those dead cells, with the help of retinol, can lead to more hydrated skin.
Retinol can also help treat keratosis pilaris by smoothing rough and bumpy skin textures.
Several studies have found evidence to support retinol’s effectiveness.
According to a 2019 study, retinol appeared to reduce the appearance of wrinkles after 8 weeks of use.
Even lower concentrations can have benefits.
That said, stronger prescription retinoids, plus the addition of other treatments, like benzoyl peroxide, may have more benefit for severe acne.
More powerful retinoids may also yield better results when it comes to aging support.
Retinoids, including retinol, aren’t recommended if you’re pregnant or nursing.
You’ll also want to proceed with caution if you have:
If you tick any of those boxes, you’ll want to talk with a dermatologist or healthcare professional before giving retinol a try (yes, even the over-the-counter options).
Of course, it’s never a bad idea to consult a dermatologist before trying any new skin care product.
Does age matter?
Anecdotal wisdom used to suggest starting a retinol regiment around the age of 30, due to the aging support it can provide.
Yet retinol offers plenty of other benefits. What’s more, there’s no set age of when you’ll begin noticing changes in your skin.
Only you and your dermatologist can make the call on the right products for your skin — and your age may factor in far less than you imagine.
Once you begin using retinol, you might notice some signs of irritation as cell turnover increases. This includes:
These effects tend to be worse with stronger retinoids. But you can certainly experience them with retinol, too — especially if you use more than one product that contains retinoids (which professionals discourage).
These side effects will usually disappear within a few weeks of use. If you don’t see any improvement, you’ll want to stop using the product and talk with your health professional.
If you have darker skin, keep in mind that irritation could lead to hyperpigmentation.
When using any retinoid product, aim to avoid sitting in strong sunlight, and always wear sunscreen — you’ll want to apply a minimum of SPF 30 every day.
You can check out our list of 9 invisible sunscreens for darker skin here.
If you feel uncomfortable about any side effects or severe irritation, try getting guidance from a dermatologist.
If you want to try retinol, keep two main guidelines in mind: Start slow, and use a low strength.
A concentration of 0.05 percent makes a good place to start.
You’ll want to build up to more frequent use, so start by applying a pea-size amount of product two or three times per week.
Tip: Use retinol at night if you’re concerned about increased sun sensitivity.
If your skin seems to tolerate retinol well after 1 or 2 weeks, you can work your way up to applying the product every other night.
If you don’t notice any side effects after another 2 weeks or so, you can begin applying it every night, if needed. You can absolutely stick to two or three nights per week if you prefer. Less frequent application can still offer benefits, with a lower risk of side effects.
A few tips to minimize irritation
- Try to wait at least 30 minutes after cleansing your face before applying retinol.
- Always moisturize before or after. You might even opt for the sandwich technique: applying a layer of moisturizer, then retinol, and then another layer of moisturizer on top.
- Keep the ingredients in the rest of your routine in mind. You’ll typically want to skip acne treatments and acids on nights you apply retinol.
- Sticking to just one vitamin A product can help you avoid irritation and other unwanted side effects.
- Don’t forget a broad-spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen.
So how long do you need to wait until you see results? Patience is key. It can take anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months before you notice a difference.
If you still haven’t noticed any improvement, you may want to consider a stronger retinol, or a different form of retinoid. A dermatologist can always offer more personalized advice and recommendations.
The sheer number of retinol products available can make it tough to decide which to choose.
Here are a few of the more highly rated formulas:
- CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum has a gentle formula that’s said to be great for sensitive skin.
- Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream contains a vegan form of retinol, plus other nourishing ingredients, to help reduce the appearance of fine lines, sun damage, and deeper wrinkles.
- Kate Somerville +Retinol Vitamin C Moisturizer is a lightweight skin brightener, which may help if you’re looking to address dark marks.
- Dermalogica Retinol Clearing Oil features both a slow-releasing retinol and breakout-fighting salicylic acid to help reduce acne breakouts.
- Alpyn Beauty PlantGenius Melt Moisturizer includes the ingredient bakuchiol for a hydrating, plant-based retinol alternative.
Retinol offers an easy way to dip your toe into the world of retinoids. It may take some time before you notice any results, but many consider those benefits worth the wait.
Just remember: Retinol can provoke some unwanted side effects, so it’s always wise to start slow.
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.