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Retinol is a natural vitamin A derivative commonly found in anti-aging creams. But it may also be an effective ingredient for treating acne and reducing the appearance of acne scars.

So, how does it work, are there side effects, and how often should you use it for clearer, smoother skin?

In this article, we’ll help answer those questions and also provide suggestions on retinol products that may be good choices for acne-prone skin.

Retinol is a popular ingredient in over-the-counter (OTC) skin care products such as serums, wrinkle creams, and overnight moisturizers.

It’s part of a family of compounds called retinoids. While all retinoids come from vitamin A, their properties vary.

Retinol works in a few ways. On the skin’s outermost layer (epidermis), retinol exfoliates to remove dirt, dead skin cells, and oil from pores. This can help prevent the formation of pimples.

It also works by literally getting under your skin, unlike many other acne treatments. Tiny molecules penetrate the middle layer of your skin (dermis), where retinol stimulates the production of collagen and elastin.

Both of these compounds fight acne indirectly by reducing the appearance of pores and acne scarring over time.

Retinol and retinoids are chemically similar. They’re also used to treat the same skin conditions. However, there are a few important differences.

Retinol is a type of retinoid. Other common retinoids include:

  • adapalene (Differin)
  • tretinoin (Retin-A)
  • isotretinoin (Accutane)
  • retinoid esters (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate)

Retinol is a medium-strength retinoid. It’s stronger than retinoid esters but weaker than tretinoin or isotretinoin, which are only available with a doctor’s prescription.

That means that while the results of using retinol may not be as fast or dramatic as those produced by prescription-strength products, it poses a lower risk of side effects. For instance, it’s less likely to cause skin irritation.

Its availability also makes it a good place to start if you want to try retinoids for acne.

OTC retinol creams, gels, and serums typically contain between 0.25 and 1.5 percent retinol. The strength you need will depend largely on your skin type.

If you have sensitive skin, start with a lower dose. If you don’t experience side effects, you can always increase the dose.

In addition, keep in mind that anti-aging products with retinol might not be formulated to treat acne. You’ll want to avoid ingredients that might aggravate acne, such as fragrances and oils.

Some retinol-based products that may be especially helpful for acne treatment and scarring include the following, which can be bought online:

When trying out a retinol product, it’s important to follow the product instructions and to proceed gradually. It may cause a little redness or irritation at first until your skin adjusts to the retinol.

Start by adding the product to your skin care routine one night per week at first. If you don’t notice side effects, you can apply it more often.

To reduce the risk of irritation, wash your face and then wait a half an hour before you apply retinol.

Retinol is best applied at night, since it can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. When you do go outside, be sure to use sunscreen to protect your face.

Also, keep in mind that you don’t need to use retinol on a daily basis for it to be effective at treating acne. Two to three times per week may be enough. You should keep using it even after you start to notice an improvement in acne.

Retinol is a natural form of vitamin A, but that doesn’t mean it’s free from side effects. Some potential side effects include:

  • dryness
  • irritation
  • itchiness
  • peeling
  • redness
  • stinging
  • sun sensitivity

These effects are more likely when you first start using retinol. They should subside after a few weeks as your skin adapts to the product. However, if side effects continue, you might want to switch to a lower-strength product.

Retinol might trigger or aggravate rashes in people who have eczema.

In addition, it’s not safe for pregnant women. Talk to your doctor about retinol if you’re thinking about getting pregnant in the near future.

Finally, long-term use of retinol may pose additional risks. Both the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group have raised concerns about a possible link between retinol use and cancer.

Unfortunately, research is currently limited. If you have concerns, speak to your doctor before using retinol.

In addition to helping reduce acne, retinol can be used to treat several other skin conditions, including:

Remember that in order to start seeing the benefits of retinol, you need to use it regularly. It can take up to 2 to 3 months to see results.

Retinol is a well-known ingredient in anti-aging creams, gels, and serums. What many people don’t know is that it can also be used to treat acne and acne-scarred skin. It works at both the surface and middle layers of the skin to unclog pores, smooth scars, and improve tone and texture.

If you’re considering trying retinol for the first time, be aware that it can cause side effects including irritation. Most of the time, these side effects go away after a few weeks of use. Talk to a doctor or dermatologist to learn more about using retinol for acne.