Retinol: A Powerful Skincare Treatment

Retinoids are the best-known and most effective anti-aging treatments. They were discovered in the early 1900s but not FDA-approved and marketed until the 1970s. Since then, retinoids have experienced a meteoric rise in popularity, becoming almost a household word. There are several different types of retinoids, with retinol being the most popular and widely used over-the-counter retinoid.

Key takeaways:
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    Retinol is a member of the retinoid family, which consists of products derived from vitamin A.
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    Retinol may help treat acne, fade wrinkles and dark spots, improve the appearance of scars, and make your skin smoother and brighter.
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    Retinol is available over the counter in several formulations.
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    Common side effects of retinol include dryness, redness, irritation, inflammation, soreness, and itching.
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    If you are pregnant, planning on becoming pregnant, or breastfeeding, you should not use retinol.

Retinoids are derived from vitamin A. Retinol is a type of retinoid. Retinol is the strongest and most popular of the over-the-counter retinoids. Stronger retinoids, like tretinoin and tazarotene, are available by prescription.

How does retinol work?

Retinol works in several ways to help various skin issues and conditions:

Increases cell turnover to rejuvenate skin cells.

Exfoliates dead skin cells that clog pores and make skin look dull.

Decreases sebum (oil) production, making skin less greasy and acne-prone.

Increases the production of collagen and elastin, thickening the skin and making it less prone to wrinkling.

Decreases water loss and makes skin more "plump".

Neutralizes free radicals to prevent collagen breakdown.

Retinol also treats a variety of skin conditions:


Retinol removes dead skin cells that clog the pores and lead to blackheads. It also decreases sebum production and has anti-inflammatory properties. Since retinol is a weak retinoid, it may not be strong enough to treat moderate and severe cases of acne.


Retinol helps with wrinkles in many ways. It increases collagen and elastin production, which thickens the skin and improves its appearance. Thinning skin as we age makes wrinkles more apparent. Retinol neutralizes free radicals that cause collagen and elastin breakdown. It helps plump your skin by preventing water loss.


Retinol can fade dark spots caused by the sun, acne, or trauma by increasing cell turnover and exfoliating dead skin cells. Retinol brightens skin and evens out your complexion.

Rough, dull skin

Retinol eliminates dead skin cells that can make your skin look dull and feel rough, leading to a brighter, smoother complexion.


Retinol can help fade scars by stimulating collagen production and removing dead skin cells.

What are the side effects of retinol?

There are several common side effects when beginning a retinol routine. The most common ones include dryness, itching, and irritation. If left untreated, your skin may become red and inflamed. This will lead to soreness, stinging, and swelling.

How do I use retinol?

When beginning a retinol routine, most patients need to start off using it slowly. If you have sensitive skin, you want to start out using it once a week. Every 2 weeks you can increase the frequency of use if your skin tolerates it. Over several weeks, you can gradually increase retinol use to every night. Many try a test spot first on the inside of their arms to see if it is tolerable.

Your nighttime retinol routine should begin by washing your face with a gentle cleanser. You do not want anything harsh that can further irritate your skin. Select a hypoallergenic, dye- and fragrance-free cleanser. Avoid bar soaps that destroy your skin barrier and damage your skin. Pat dry with a clean towel.

When you first start retinol, you want to
wait 30
60 minutes after washing your face before applying your retinol. This will decrease the amount absorbed and the side effects you may experience. You only need a pea-sized amount of retinol to get the benefits. More is not better.

Using a moisturizer before applying your retinol may help reduce the side effects. Moisturizer after retinol is a must. Many with sensitive skin will need to "sandwich" their retinol with moisturizer before and after. Select a moisturizer that is oil-free, non-comedogenic, and fragrance and dye-free. When using retinol, all your products should be gentle and hypoallergenic.

Retinol should only be applied at night. It can be inactivated by sunlight, so there is no point in using it during the day. Also, you want the retinol to be applied under a thick nighttime moisturizer.

Retinol use can make your skin more sensitive to the damaging effects of the sun. It is extremely important to use sunscreen with SPF 50+ daily and reapply throughout the day. A wide-brimmed hat is also beneficial to keep direct sunlight off your face.

There are several formulations of retinol available over the counter, including creams, serums, gels, oils, and emollients. Often the selection is based on your skin type and the tolerability of the product. Patients with dry, sensitive skin benefit from retinol creams, oils, and emollients, which are more hydrating. On the other hand, patients with oily skin should select retinol in gel and serum formulations, which will not make the skin oilier.

Who should not use retinol?

While retinol is a wonderful drug with many important benefits for the skin, some patients should not use it because it could be harmful. Patients who are pregnant, planning on becoming pregnant, and breastfeeding should not use retinol. It could potentially harm the baby.

Patients with eczema and rosacea could have severe side effects from retinol. If you have eczema, you should first try a test spot to see how your skin will react. Start with the lowest strength and build up as tolerated. If you have rosacea, be aware that it could trigger a rosacea flare, so start slowly and listen to your skin.

Retinoids are the best anti-aging ingredient you can add to your skincare routine. Retinol is a revolutionary drug that has helped many with different skin issues. Not only does it improve the appearance of your skin, but it also helps make your skin healthier on the inside. If you are unsure which retinol is right for you or how to start using it, always seek help from a board-certified dermatologist.


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