Everything You Need to Know About Retinol

Uyen Cao

You could say that the quest for perfect skin is a kind of sport for me. I’ve tried the seven-step Korean skincare routine, tried my hand with AHAs, and even braved a round of microneedling. Despite all of that, figuring out retinol has been a whole different ball game.

When I first heard the benefits of retinol (the ingredient can help treat acne, brighten skin tone, and reverse the signs of aging), I knew I needed to learn more — but honestly, I wasn’t sure where to start. What’s the difference between retinoids, retinol, retinoic acid, and Retin-A? When should I start using them? What products should I use them with?

To gain some insight on all of it, I called in the experts.

What’s the difference between retinoids, retinol, and Retin-A?

“Retin-based skincare products are worth understanding because of their proven results,” says Austin-based dermatologist Lela Lankerani, D.O. “Retinoids are essentially a form of vitamin A and a class of anti-aging compounds used in skincare. They help fight acne, reduce wrinkles, stimulate collagen, and promote cellular turnover.” They’re also known for evening out skin tone and increasing blood flow to the skin.

RELATED: How much we spend on anti-aging cream in a lifetime is ASTOUNDING.

Retinol is also a vitamin A derivative. “It’s added to topical skincare products to promote skin renewal, reduce acne and boost your skin’s collagen production,” says NYC dermatologist, Whitney Bowe, M.D. “It also functions like an antioxidant to help address free-radical damage, which leads to visible signs of aging.” The difference is that retinols are gentler versions of retinoids, and you typically don’t need a prescription to use them.

Retin-A, on the other hand, is a prescription-only retinoid, and thus stronger than anything you can get over the counter. “It was the brand name used for tretinoin, which was approved over 40 years ago by the FDA to treat acne,” says Bowe. Like retinol, Retin-A also improves skin tone, boosts collagen, reduces fine lines and wrinkles, and speeds up cell turnover, “except it’s a lot stronger, and consequently, more powerful.”

To sum it up: retinoids are a chemical class that both retinols and Retin-A fall under.

“The main difference between these two are potency, effect and irritation level,” clarifies Lankerani. “Retin-A will be the most effective and potent anti-aging cream but will have the highest irritation factor. Retinol is less irritating but takes longer to achieve results.”

The reason? “Retinol needs to work with the skin’s enzymes to convert it to retinoic acid before it becomes effective.” Retin-A is potent enough on its own. “This is why retinol takes several months of consistent use to see results.”

The reason you see results from a prescription-strength retinoid more quickly than you would an OTC retinol, Bowe says, is because “OTC retinols are in ester forms and there are more steps involved for these ester forms to be converted to active retinoic acid.” So if you have tough skin and are results-driven, you can go for the prescription-strength tretinoin. “It works faster than retinol and the results certainly are more dramatic,” says Lankerani. “It can be a matter of weeks.”

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Which one should I use?

“Patients who have never used a retinoid often experience more intense side effects from prescription-strength tretinoin (Retin-A),” says Bowe. These include redness, stinging, burning, peeling and flaking. “Retinol might work more slowly than prescription-strength retinoids, like Retin-A, but it’s less likely to cause side effects.” If you’re new to retinoids and are worried about side effects, Bowe recommends starting with an OTC retinol. “You can always graduate from a retinol to a prescription retinoid.”

Determining which form to use depends on your skin type and tolerability, warns Lankerani. “If someone has sensitive or dry skin, typically retinol is the best choice. Someone who has oilier skin or who has already used a retinol and had no irritation, a prescription-strength retinoid such as Retin-A would be best.” Prescription-strength retinoids are formulated with different concentrations so a physician can recommend which strength is right for you.

When should I start using it?

“I often recommend to my patients who are starting to notice fine lines (at 30-plus) to incorporate an OTC retinol into their nightly skincare routine,” says Bowe. “Not only does retinol help to diminish fine lines and wrinkles, but it can even help reverse some of the side effects of sun damage.”

If you’re struggling with acne, Bowe says to start even sooner, particularly comedones, which are bumps that occur when dirt and oil clog the skin. “Be more aggressive about titrating up the strength of your retinoid,” she says. “OTC retinols won’t clear up moderate to severe acne the way that prescription retinoids can.”

“Retinoids are great for preventing and treating acne, especially comedones because they help unclog pores, adds Lankerani. “And because of its collagen-stimulating ability, it can be beneficial for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and scarring.”

When and how should I apply?

“If you use retinol in the morning and then go out into the bright sunshine, you will not have happy, healthy skin,” says Bowe. Retinoids break down in sunlight and make your skin a lot more sensitive. Some retinoids are photostable — meaning they won’t break down in the sun — but if you’re unsure, better to use the product at night.

When it comes time to apply, Bowe recommends to first cleanse the skin using a gentle, pH-balanced cleanser. “Pat dry very gently. You don’t want to over-scrub or irritate your skin, and harsh cleansers do more harm than good when it comes to the health of your skin’s natural invisible barrier. You can then apply a retinoid serum or cream.”

Remember that a little goes a long way — most products only require you use a pea-sized amount for your entire face.

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How often should I use it?

Overuse of retinol can cause flaking, redness and burning, not to mention retinoid dermatitis which manifests as red scaly patches that can sting and burn. Here’s how to prevent that from happening:

“Introduce retinol slowly into your skincare regimen (not every night) and start off with a low percentage,” Bowe says. “Introducing retinol twice a week into your nightly skincare routine and slowly increasing the usage will give your skin a chance to acclimate and build up endurance.”

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Which products or tools can I use retinol with?

“Retinol and Retin-A do have exfoliating properties, but technically they aren’t exfoliants,” says Bowe. “On the day before you exfoliate (she recommends exfoliating 2-3 times a week), you’ll want to skip the retinol.” Additionally, if you’re getting certain in-office treatments like lasers, microneedling, or microdermabrasion, Bowe says to take a break from your retinol.

Speaking of mechanical devices, using a Clarisonic or washcloth may be unnecessary or uncomfortable in conjunction with retinoids. Lankarani recommends using retinoids alone or with other anti-aging products as long as there is minimal irritation.

“AHAs, BHAs and azelaic acids can allow better penetration of retinoids and increase the benefits of both ingredients,” Lankarani says. “But some patients can’t tolerate both.” Vitamin C, an antioxidant that defends the skin against environmental assault, can actually stabilize retinoids to extend their effectiveness.

“I often say to alternate between a Vitamin C serum and a retinoid at night,” says Bowe. “These two types of products are key tools for healthy, glowing skin.” Lankerani advises using a broad-spectrum sunscreen (SPF 30 to 50) to prevent photo-aging.

Now that you’re equipped with all of the information about retinol you could possibly need, it’s time to make some purchases. Looking for suggestions? Check out our roundup of the best anti-aging products you can buy in 2018.

We may earn a commission for products purchased through some links in this article.

If you’re constantly on the hunt for great skin (erm, who isn’t?), and have tried every self-proclaimed miracle solution under the sun to no avail, you might want – no, need – to keep reading because there’s a skincare miracle that’ll work wonders.


As the craze for actives and breakthrough skincare ingredients shows no sign of slowing, there is one ingredient that has been clinically proven to actually work. Enter retinol, the exfoliating, anti-aging, anti-breakout ingredient that brands are going crazy for. In fact, you can even get a good dose of retinol in your eye cream now. More recently, supermarkets are catching onto the trend, with Asda’s in-house beauty brand, Nspa, launching the £10 Expert Nightly Revitalising Retinol Capsules, making it the first supermarket to develop and sell these in the market. And they’re so confident about the product that they’re offering money back if you don’t see results in four weeks. If that wasn’t enough, a purse-friendly retinol has become one of Amazon’s best sellers ever. With almost 5,000 reviews, The Retinol Serum for Face and Skin by Tree of Life has earned its place as one of Amazon’s top beauty sellers of all time.

So why is everyone pumping their products with retinol? It’s all due to retinol’s ability to impressively decrease wrinkles, but it seems there may be another miraculous benefit to the wonder ingredient. Retinol comes highly recommended by dermatologists for its ability to clear up acne. Just take a look at this before and after:

In a post titled “Hard work and retinol rlly make a difference,” a Reddit user named Egotr4p posted this snap of her skin before and after using retinol – and the results speak for themselves.

Writing in the comment, she said: “I never thought I would be where I am now. I did not go to a derm, although I had access to RX retinol.”

The user explained that she uses tretinoin .025 percent that she gets via prescription.

While the transformation took two years, she’s certainly delighted with the result.

But – as with any skincare ingredient that will actually impact your skin, you need to use it with caution. Here’s everything you need to know before adding retinol to your own skincare regime…

What does retinol do?

First thing’s first – let’s start with what retinol actually does. Many refer to it as the only proven anti-ageing ingredient and that’s kind of on the money – Dr. Murad, dermatologist and founder of Murad Skincare, neatly summarises the action of a retinol as ‘exfoliating, aiding in the production of collagen, and fighting free radicals.’ Those three jointly are a pretty powerful skin overhaul.

That said, retinols don’t work equally as well on everyone – you shouldn’t touch the stuff if you suffer from rosacea, eczema, or psoriasis as retinol can make you more vascular – meaning that you will end up with more inflammation and thereby worse symptoms of whatever it is you are suffering from, (though clinical trials have shown PHAs to offset some of the negative sides of using a retinol).

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But now to the big question…

How do you pick a retinol product?

For starters, in the case of retinol, you kind of do want to judge a book by its cover – or, rather, consider the packaging as integral to the product. Dr. Maryam Zamani explains: “Packaging and formulation is key in determining which form to use. Retinol generally can be sensitive to air and light; however, if encapsulated, retinol is less affected by these factors…”

And that’s where things get even more confusing – all retinols aren’t equal, with brands relying far too heavily on the fact that it is included rather than on the form in which it comes and how effective it’ll be when using. Consider that cosmeceutical retinols (which need to be converted into retinoic acid before the skin can use it and which generally come in concentrations of between 0.1 and 0.5%) use around ten times more retinol content than prescription retinol and you get some idea of how key formulation is.

This lends some credence to naysayers who question the importance of percentages but rather insist on choosing a retinol from a brand who formulates well. “There’s a big focus on how much retinol is in the product you end up buying – but that’s really not the full story,” explains Pam Marshall, Clinical Aesthetician at Mortar & Milk, “there’s way more to consider than just the percentage of retinol: molecular weight (which brands don’t have to disclose on packaging) is a massive factor, as is how often you use your chosen retinol.”

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Ready to brush up on your retinol knowledge? Read our ultimate guide to all things retinol to sort the fact from the fiction…

Q. Retinol & Vitamin A are the same thing.
A. True

“Also known as Retinol, Vitamin A can help increase the appearance of firmness, diminish the look of fine lines and wrinkles, significantly improve uneven skin tone, smooth and finally refine the surface of skin as well. Retinol is definitely a powerful multi-tasker.” Linda Blahr, Head of National Training at SkinCeuticals.

Q. You should apply retinoids during the day.
A. False

Retinol breaks down in sunlight, which is why most retinol products are held in opaque packaging. Exposure to UV light renders the product less active, which makes the use of it less beneficial. “Retinol is prone to increase photosensitivity within the skin,” says Linda Blahr, Head of National Training at SkinCeuticals. “Always use a high, broad spectrum sunscreen when using this product.”

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Q. Retinoids are for all skin types.
A. True

While retinol is suitable for everyone, different strengths are appropriate for different skin types.
Retinol can by damaging if your skin is sensitive, enhancing inflammation and causing eczema, rosacea and peeling. Retinol can be quite drying, so it is recommended for those with dry & dehydrated to seal the product in with a moisturiser at the very least.

Q. Retinol should be used once a week.
A. True… to begin

Retinol causes redness, dryness and even flaking – however this can easily be avoided or minimised by gradually introducing the ingredient into your skincare regime and building a tolerance to the ingredient. “Night-time only, apply a pea-sized amount of retinol to clean and dry skin, avoiding the eye area,” Linda Blahr, Head of National Training at SkinCeuticals. “For optimal results, wait at least 30 minutes before applying other skincare products. Limit initial use to once or twice a week, gradually increasing frequency as tolerated.”

Q. Retinoids thin the skin.
A. False

Retinol actually thickens the skin, increasing cell turnover and collagen production for thicker, more youthful skin.

Q. Start using retinol in your 20’s.
A. True

While there is no set time to use retinol, most dermatologists advise introducing the product in your mid-twenties, particularly if you suffer from breakouts or pigmentation. It is suggested that one uses retinol for 3 months, then takes a three month break. This is due to research that suggests cell turnover is no longer increased after 3 months of retinol usage.

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Q. Retinoids are THE miracle ingredient.
A. True & False

Enzymes in the body covert retinol to retinoid acid, an active form of vitamin A. This increases cell turnover, stimulates collagen and elastin production. Thus it is appropriate for treating everything from pigmentation, cystic acne and wrinkles. There is also strong research that it clarifies and evens skin tone. In many ways it is considered the miracle ingredient, but it is important to note that, if used improperly, retinol can compromise the epidermal barrier.

Q. Retinol, Retin-A & Retinoid are the same thing.
A. False

Retin-A is a prescription level retinoid that is stronger in nature, used for acne as well as aging.
Retinol is the over-the-counter version of Retin-A, which becomes the active Retinoic Acid when it hits the skin.
Retinoids are the family that Retin-A, Retinol & Retinoic Acid belong to. It is a chemical compound of Vitamin A.

Q. Retinol can be used with acids.
A. False

Benzoyl peroxide, AHA’s & BHA’s are known to reduce productivity within retinoids, so do not mix them. These will also compromise the skin, as both acids and retinol can cause irritation.

Do retinoids really reduce wrinkles?

Topical vitamin A–based drugs called retinoids—the most used and most studied anti-aging compounds— may reduce fine lines and wrinkles. Tretinoin, under the brand name Retin-A, was the first retinoid. It was used as an acne treatment in the 1970s, but researchers later discovered that it also fades actinic keratosis spots, evens pigmentation, and speeds the turnover of superficial skin cells.

Retinoids reduce fine lines and wrinkles by increasing the production of collagen. They also stimulate the production of new blood vessels in the skin, which improves skin color. Additional benefits include fading age spots and softening rough patches of skin. However, it takes three to six months of regular use before improvements in wrinkles are apparent—and the best results take six to 12 months.

Because retinoids can cause skin dryness and irritation, doctors often recommend using them only every other day at first and then gradually working up to nightly applications. Wear a sunscreen during the day, because retinoids increase the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. These drugs must be used continually to maintain their benefits.

Tretinoin (Retin-A, generic), tazarotene (Avage, Tazorac), and adapalene (Differin) are prescription retinoids. Adapalene is also available over the counter (in a 0.1% formulation versus the 0.3% prescription version). Other retinoids are undergoing clinical trials.

In addition, several over-the-counter products containing retinoids, such as retinol, are available. Because they’re not as strong (and thus less irritating), they are not as effective in reducing wrinkles as tretinoin; but they do improve the appearance of photo-aged skin. Tretinoin can be used with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) for additional skin-smoothing effects.

To learn more about ways to care for your skin, buy Skin Care and Repair, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

The 4 Key Retinol Benefits

There’s finally something all dermatologists can agree on: retinol benefits.

While it may have started out as just retinol creams, you can now find retinol in almost any skincare product. From sunscreens to serums, and everything in between.

And it’s not just found in skincare products anymore, either. If this sounds like Greek to you, check out our introductory article called “What Is Retinol“?

Retinol is popping up in makeup, too, such as in foundations and lipsticks.

So it’s clear that retinol benefits simply can’t be disputed. But what exactly are those benefits? Allow us to enlighten you…

The First of Many Retinol Benefits: Anti-Aging

Image via Women’s Health Mag

Some of us may not fear getting old, but that doesn’t mean we want to look our age. That’s why so many young women, as early as late teens, are already on a retinol.

So whether you have yet to have your first real job, or you’ve already reached the later years in life, a retinol is a great fit for everyone.

Why? It’s anti-aging benefits.

Not only can it help prevent signs of aging, but it can also drastically rewind the clock on your face and undo some of the damage you’ve done throughout the years.

How does retinol do this? By boosting the collagen in your skin.

More collagen = less wrinkles. So if you already have wrinkles (or laugh lines) on your face, one of the retinol benefits is its ability to help “pop out” those wrinkles.

The same is true about preventing fine lines. Having additional collagen in your face will make is harder for your face to create those lines in the first place.

Kiss Your Acne Goodbye

Image via Huffington Post

Fun fact: Retinol was first branded as an acne-fighting product. It wasn’t until they realized the anti-aging qualities it had, too, that it was rebranded for that purpose.

A common misconception is that a retinol is the same product an exfoliator.

While that isn’t true, it does act as an exfoliator, in a way. One of the retinol benefits is its ability to unclog pores and prevent further build up.

When your pores can actually breathe, and your other products can sink in to your fresh skin, you’ll see way less breakouts.

And you haven’t even heard the best news yet.

Say you struggled with acne in the past, and have some pesky scars to prove it. Retinol has been proven to both prevent AND undo acne scarring.

So when you’ve finally kicked acne to the curb, there will be no sign she was ever there.

Say Hello to Your Incredible Complexion

As we age, our skin cells stop maturing, and tend to pile up. Which is definitely not ideal for a beautiful complexion.

Retinol works on a molecular level to normalize cell turnover.

So what does that mean for your skin?

Smoother texture. Brighter complexion. Smaller pores. Diminishing hyperpigmentation. Less dark sunspots and age spots.

Those retinol benefits, are just plain and simple, impossible not to get excited about.

Who else is sick of large pores on their nose and chin? Or what about that horribly dark age spot you can never cover up with foundation?

Or what about that one rough spot on your face that foundation never seems to stick to?

Maybe you aren’t a makeup girl. What about the confidence to leave your house without an ounce of makeup on and have people comment on how beautiful your skin is?

How do you achieve that? By introducing a retinol into your skincare routine.

No Match For More Severe Skin Issues

For most of us, we’re probably already sold on the retinol benefits.

When you mix anti-aging with acne-fighting abilities, it’s a win-win no matter who you are.

But for individuals who struggle with more unique skincare concerns, retinol can be an absolute lifesaver.

I’m talking specifically about individuals who struggle with psoriasis and warts.

For those who battle psoriasis, one of retinol benefits is the ability to slow down the cell growth in those areas.

So instead of the buildup of thick, white or red patches of skin, retinols can help reduce the pain and appearance of psoriasis.

If you’ve also tried every wart treatment under the sun, retinol has the ability to kill the cell growth of warts, helping you kick that problem once and for all.

So, there you have it. While the true list of retinol benefits is probably endless, you have the major benefits at your fingertips.

Whether you’re a teenage girl with acne you’re hoping to get under control, or a middle-aged woman who is starting to see the signs of aging, a retinol is the perfect ingredient to add into your skincare routine.

Start slow, give it 12 weeks, and you’ll be thanking yourself, and your skin, that you introduced it into your regimen.

Tags: benefits of retinol, results of retinol, retinol, retinol benefits, retinol perks, retinol results, what is retinol, why should I use retinol

Knowledge is power when it comes to anti-aging skin care ingredients. Would you slather a cream all over your face if you didn’t know exactly what it did?

That’s how you may feel about a little thing called retinol, which you may have seen everywhere by now. While we’re used to hearing a lot about it, how much of the information out there is fact and how much is marketing double-speak? What does retinol really do?

We caught up with an expert to break it all down—what it does, how it works, the results you can expect, and much, much more.

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Retinols, retinoids, Retin-A—what is the deal? If you’re confused by these similar-sounding terms, we understand.

Dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross tells us that retinoids are the category name of these vitamin A derivatives, but that retinol and retinoids vary in their chemical structure. Practically speaking, retinol (and their derivatives) can be included in over-the-counter creams and serums, whereas a retinoid can only be prescribed by your doctor.

They Do Amazing Things for Your Skin

Overall, this category is packed with anti-aging benefits. “They stimulate the production of new skin cells,” says Dr Gross. “They also help to fade dark spots resulting from photo-aging, hyperpigmentation, hormonal changes, and blemish scars. Prescription-strength retinoids renew the skin and treat acne, reduces appearance of fine lines, and helps with skin discoloration.”

If You’re a Newbie, Start with Retinols

We won’t lie: Prescription-strength retinoids can be tough on your skin. If you’re prone to dryness, you may want to start out with an over-the-counter retinoid, which will give give you anti-aging and skin-improving results in a much more gentle way.

“Retinol is much more gentle than prescription retinoids, and I find often people can tolerate using retinol daily, but often need to stop prescription retinoids to allow the skin to calm down,” says Dr. Gross. “Retinol is a potent anti-aging ingredient and because its tolerated so well—unlike retinoid prescription strength—so using it everyday makes for great results.”

However, if you’re not happy after using it for about three months, he says you should check in with your dermatologist to see what more you could be doing.

What Are the Side Effects?

There are some skin concerns associated with the ingredient you should be aware of.

“Based on the chemistry of the ingredients, which cause a drying effect of the oil glands, even over-the-counter retinols can lead to redness and flaking,” explains Dr. Gross. “UV sensitivity is another side-effect that is based on increased uptake of the sun’s rays. The redder the skin, the more the skin absorbs sun’s rays. Skin is already inflamed with baseline sun sensitivity, the sun’s rays can heighten this reaction.”

These effects can be more dramatic when it comes to prescription retinoids. The peeling, redness, and sensitivity usually lasts a few weeks, so make sure you baby your skin while it adjusts. Keep in mind that this won’t last forever and that the results will make it all worthwhile!

MORE: Lucy Hale Makes the Case for Why Retinol Needs to Be in Your Skin-Care Routine

If that redness and flaking thing scares you because of preexisting dryness, Dr. Gross says that lotions and creams may be a better option than a retinol gel.

There Are Options for Oily Skin, Too

If you are struggling with oily skin and want to know how to incorporate your retinol, peels may be an option to consider. “These penetrate deeper and control oil while improving wrinkles and complexion problems,” says Dr. Gross.

It’s in All Types of Products—and Anyone Can Use It

No matter your specific preferences in skin care, you can find something with retinol that fits into your routine. If pores are your concern, StriVectin has formulated an Advanced Retinol Pore Refiner ($69 at StriVectin) that works to tighten pores while improving skin texture. Other products combine the power of retinol with other beneficial ingredients—take Dr. Dennis Gross Ferulic + Retinol Brightening Solution ($88 at Dr. Dennis Gross), a formula infused with the anti-inflammatory ingredients, antioxidants, moisturizers, and even exfoliators. Shiseido even produces eye masks infused with the ingredient (Benefiance WrinkleResist24 Pure Retinol Express Smoothing Eye Mask, $65; at Sephora), while there are plenty of night creams and cleansers on the market that include the ingredient.

So, When Should You Start Slathering It On?

This ingredient has no age requirement, which means even if you’re in your early 20s, you can give it a go.

“Done right, retinol is a very, very powerful tool and applicable to everyone—in your 20s or 60s. There is no right or wrong age,” says Dr. Gross. “Anyone who is serious about anti-aging, whether it be preventative or restorative, should have retinol in their anti-aging routine. And over time, you’ll see some great results.

“Whatever your aging concern is, your skin will globally look better with retinol,” he continues. “Continued use will treat discoloration and leave skin looking brighter, younger, and more alive.”

What Does Retinol Do and Should You Try It? | @stylecaster

A version of this article was originally published in October 2015.

13 Facts to Know Before Adding Retinoids to Your Skin Care Routine

By now, you’ve likely heard how amazing retinoids are for the skin — and with good reason!

They’ve been proven in study after study to encourage cellular turnover, stimulate collagen, help treat acne, soften wrinkles, fade pigmentation, and give the skin an overall youthful glow. Their existence to the skin care industry is what the Queen is to the world: royalty.

But with so many benefits, it’s easy to let word of mouth travel further than the science.

Here are 13 myths about retinoids that we’ll clear up for you so you know exactly what you’re getting into with this holy grail ingredient.

1. Myth: All retinoids are the same

Retinoids are a huge family of compounds derived from vitamin A. There are actually several forms from over-the-counter to prescription strength in topical and oral medication form. Let’s understand the differences!

Over-the-counter (OTC) retinoids are most often found in serums, eye creams, and night moisturizers.

Available Retinoid type What it does
OTC retinol has fewer side effects than retinoic acid (prescription strength), it converts on the cellular level of the skin, thus taking several months to a year for visible results
OTC retinoid esters (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate) weakest in the retinoid family, but a good starting point for beginners or sensitive skin types
OTC Adapalene (better known as Differin) slows the process of excessive growth in the lining of pores and desensitizes the skin to inflammation making it an ideal treatment for acne
prescription only retinoic acid (retin-A, or tretinoin) works significantly faster than retinol since no conversion in the skin needs to take place
prescription only Isotretinoin better known as Accutane oral medication that’s prescribed for severe forms of acne and requires close supervision by a doctor

Should I get a cream or gel? Cream forms are ideal for people that need a bit more hydration since they’re creamy and emollient. Gels, on the other hand, are preferred for oilier skin types. Since they’re also thinner than a cream, they penetrate faster making it more effective and stronger. But this can also mean more side effects.
This is really trial and error, depending on the individual and per your doctor’s advice.

2. Myth: Retinoids thin the skin

This is commonly believed because one of the side effects when first starting the use of a retinoid is skin peeling.

Many assume their skin is thinning, but quite the opposite is true. Since retinoids stimulate collagen production, it actually helps to thicken the skin. This is beneficial because one of the natural signs of getting older is thinning of the skin.

3. Myth: Young people can’t use retinoids

The original intent of retinoids was actually used to treat acne and prescribed to many young people.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, when a study published the skin benefits — like softening fine lines and lightening hyperpigmentation — that retinoids got remarketed as “anti-aging.”

But there is no age restriction on the use of retinoids. Instead, it’s about what skin conditions are being treated. After sunscreen, it’s one of the best preventive anti-aging ingredients around.

4. Myth: Retinoids will make me more sensitive to the sun

Many people worry that the use of retinoids will make their skin more sensitive in the sun. Hold on to your seats — this is untrue.

Retinoids break down in the sun, making it unstable and less effective. This is why they’re sold in metal tubes or opaque containers and are recommended for use at night.

But retinoids have been studied extensively and have shown with most certainty that they don’t increase the risk of sunburn. However, that isn’t permission to go out in the sun without proper sun protection! It would be pretty counterproductive since much of extrinsic aging is due to photo damage.

5. Myth: You’ll see results in 4 to 6 weeks

Don’t we wish this was true? For over-the-counter retinol, it can take up to six months and with tretinoin up to three months for full results to be visible.

6: Myth: If you have peeling or redness, you should stop using the retinoid

With retinoids, it’s often a “worse-before-better” type of situation. Typical side effects include dryness, tightness, peeling, and redness — especially when first starting out.

These side effects usually subside after two to four weeks until the skin acclimates. Your skin will thank you later!

7. Myth: It must be used daily to see results

Often, daily use is the goal, but you’ll still reap the benefits by using it a few times a week, too. How fast the results happen also depend on the strength and type of retinoid.

8: Myth: The more you apply the better the results

Using too much of the product can often cause undesirable effects like peeling and dryness. The recommended amount is about a pea-sized drop for the entire face.

9. Myth: You should avoid applying retinoids around the eye area

Most people assume the delicate eye area is too sensitive for retinoid use. However, this is the area where wrinkles usually show up first and can benefit the most from the collagen-stimulating effects of retinoids.

If you’re sensitive around your eyes, you can always layer on an eye cream first followed by your retinoid.

10. Myth: Stronger percentages of retinoids will give you better or faster results

As far as strengths go, many think it’s best to just jump right into the strongest formula, believing it’s better or will provide a faster result. This usually isn’t the case and doing so can even have annoying side effects.

For retinoids, building a tolerance will create better results.

Think of it as if you took up running. You wouldn’t start with a marathon, would you? From over-the-counter to prescription strength, there are several delivery methods. What works well for one person may not another.

When getting a prescription from your doctor, they’ll help you decide the best percentage strength, formula, and frequency for your skin type and conditions.

11. Myth: Retinoids exfoliate the skin

This is a widely believed misconception. Since retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A, they’re actually considered antioxidants.

In addition, they’re a “cell communicating” ingredient. This means their job is to “talk” to skin cells and encourage healthier, younger cells making their way to the surface of the skin.

It’s easy to assume the skin is exfoliating itself since some of the side effects are peeling and flakiness. However, those side effects are actually a result of irritation and dryness until the skin acclimates, as retinoids don’t have the ability to clear or dissolve dead skin cells on their own.

12. Myth: Sensitive skin can’t tolerate retinoids

The reputation of retinoids is that they’re a “harsh” ingredient. Sure, they can be a little aggressive, but people with sensitive skin can still happily use them with just a little modification.

It’s best to start off cautiously with once or twice a week application. It’s often recommended that you either layer it on top of your moisturizer or mix together with your moisturizer.

13. Myth: Only prescription-strength retinoids provide results

There are many OTC retinoids that provide some really great results.

Maybe you’ve seen Differin (Adapalene) at your local drugstore which was only prescribed by doctors but is now being sold over-the-counter. Adapalene works slightly differently than retinol/retinoic acid. It slows the process of hyperkeratinization, or excessive growth in the lining of pores, and desensitizes the skin to inflammation.

Studies indicate that Adapalene has less irritating side effects than other retinoids which is why it’s so great for acne. If you’re dealing with acne and aging at the same time (which is common), Differin may be a great option for you.

So, should you start using retinoids?

If you’re interested in treating or taking preventive measures for wrinkles, fine lines, pigmentation, scarring, and more, then your late 20s or early 30s is a great age to start with an over-the-counter retinol or even prescription-strength tretinoin.

It’s around this timeline when the body starts to produce less collagen, less rapidly than our earlier years. Of course it also depends on your lifestyle and how much sun damage you have accumulated in those years!

Dana Murray is a licensed aesthetician from Southern California with a passion for skin care science. She’s worked in skin education, from helping others with their skin to developing products for beauty brands. Her experience extends over 15 years and an estimated 10,000 facials. She’s been using her knowledge to blog about skin and bust skin myths on her Instagram since 2016.

Wrinkles. Dark spots. Uneven skin tone. Stubborn acne. These are all common skincare concerns that retinol can address. Retinol is a vitamin A derivative and part of the powerful retinoid family proven to effectively improve skin. It not only prevents aging, but can reverse signs of it. Yet not everyone is a fan. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) gives the ingredient a 9 in its Skindeep Database, meaning they think it presents a high hazard to human health. On the other hand, Credo Beauty, a popular clean beauty retailer that maintains strict ingredient standards, does sell products with retinol.

Retinol not only prevents aging, but can reverse signs of it.

Determined to find out whether or not I could responsibly use retinol, I spoke with experts from Credo and EWG, as well as a dermatologist. My takeaway: retinol comes with some side effects, but you can take precautions to minimize the potential harm. Precautions include using it at night as directed on the label of the product, avoiding use in direct sunlight, and talking to a dermatologist. If you’re intrigued by the powerful yet controversial ingredient, here’s a breakdown of everything I learned.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol falls into a category of vitamin A derivatives known as retinoids. “Retinol is probably one of the best over-the-counter ingredients to counteract aging skin,” Dr. Jerome Potozkin, a dermatologist and author of Botox and Beyond: Your Guide to Safe, Nonsurgical, Cosmetic Procedures, told me. Other retinoids may show up on ingredients lists as retinoic acid, retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate. These have varying level of potency. You may find retinol in sunscreens, anti-aging creams, and topical acne treatments. Since retinol and other retinoids can potentially heighten sun sensitivy, it is safest to only use them at night and to avoid them in products you would use during the day, like sunscreen. More on that below.

How It Works

As mentioned, retinol and other retinoids come from vitamin A, which is a nutrient that helps drive cell turnover. Studies show that when applied topically, retinoids can increase collagen production and decrease collagen breakdown. By accelerating skin renewal, it can reduce the appearance of wrinkles and age spots and even out skin tone. It can also make your skin resistant to new wrinkles. It dissolves oil and makes pores tighter and smoother, helping to keep them unclogged. Dr. Potozkin believes that retinol is great to incorporate into a daily skincare regimen. “I usually recommend it as an anti-aging ingredient and for some patients with mild acne,” he explained.

Over the Counter vs. Prescription

Retinol is a weaker, over-the-counter retinoid. Tretinoin is a stronger, prescription retinoid. (Retin-A is a brand name for tretinoin, but there are also generics.) Prescription-strength retinoids contain retinoic acid as the active ingredient. Retinol is a precursor of retinoic acid and has to go through two steps after application before it becomes retinoic acid. This makes the prescription version more effective for treating wrinkles and acne in a shorter amount of time, but it can also come with more side effects. You can typically get similar results with retinol; it just may take longer.

The Potential Health Risks

Carla Burns, a research analyst for EWG, says that in general, EWG recommends avoiding skincare products containing vitamin A, often labeled as retinol or retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, and retinoic acid. “Vitamin A is an essential nutrient and found in many foods we eat; however, at EWG we looked more closely at its use in sunscreens and cosmetics and found it is not necessarily safe for use on skin,” she told me. Here are some of the risks EWG is concerned about.

Skin cancer: Research has linked retinoids to an increased risk of skin cancer when used on sun-exposed skin. Unfortunately, cosmetic companies have added the ingredient to plenty of products meant for daytime use — including sunscreen.

A government study from 2012 found that mice who were exposed to creams containing retinyl palmitate or retinoic acid had more tumors and an earlier onset of tumors than mice who were exposed to a cream that did not have these ingredients.

You should always avoid going into sunlight while you have a retinoid on your skin.

EWG recommends that consumers avoid sunscreens and other daytime cosmetics that contain vitamin A. You can check their Skindeep Database to find out if your products include these. If you’re using a night cream with retinoids you can decrease your risk by wearing sunscreen during the day. And you should always avoid going into sunlight while you have a retinoid on your skin.

BHT and Paraben Exposure: Conventional retinoids are often stabilized with BHT or parabens, ingredients linked to serious harm like cancer and reproductive issues. These can make it into the final product, but you wouldn’t know it from the ingredient label.

Retinol products sold at Credo, like this serum, undergo strict ingredient checks.

Purchasing products through clean beauty retailers like Credo can help minimize the exposure. Michelle Connelly, Credo’s director of merchandising and planning, told me that brands sold at Credo must ensure that all ingredients are compliant with their standards, including trace ingredients used during processing that might not show up on an ingredient list. “BHT is on our dirty list, and we request that brands obtain spec sheets from all of their suppliers and have the documentation readily available,” she explained. Currently, Credo sells two products containing synthetic retinol, including Marie Veronique Gentle Retinol Night Serum and MARA Evening Primrose + Green Tea Algae Retinol Oil. These meet their standards.

Problems for Pregnant Women, Children, and Older People: Although there is room for more research, some studies show greater health risks for pregnant women, children, and older women who use retinoids. “If you have too much pre-formed vitamin A in your body it can cause health problems, including liver damage, hair loss, and osteoporosis, and hip fractures in older adults,” Burns told me. She says authoritative health bodies have cautioned women who are pregnant to avoid cosmetic products with vitamin A since excessive vitamin A may cause increased risk of birth defects in a developing fetus. “Children can also suffer a variety of harmful effects from too much vitamin A and young children have increased skin sensitivity and are more vulnerable to sun damage,” she added.

“I advise patients to avoid retinol while pregnant as it has not been studied in pregnant women.”

While Dr. Potozkin recommends daily sunscreen application, he is less concerned about retinol than Burns. Still, he said it’s best to avoid retinoids while pregnant. “I advise patients to avoid retinol while pregnant as it has not been studied in pregnant women,” he said.

As for the risk of having too much pre-formed vitamin A in your system here’s what Dr. Potozkin thinks: “There is a risk of vitamin A toxicity, but I am not aware of this ever being reported from the use of topical retinol. It is much more likely due to excessive vitamin A in foods such as carrots or vitamin A supplements.”

Dryness and Irritation: “The most common side effects of retinol are dryness and irritation,” Dr. Potozkin explained, adding: “For many people this will diminish over a couple of weeks. Some people need to use a moisturizer along with retinol.” The flaky skin phenomenon has a cutesy and cringey nickname: the “retinoid uglies.” In addition to using a moisturizer, you can minimize it by applying retinol to dry skin and only every three nights during the first few weeks.

Connelly told me that Credo includes retinol on their “Ingredients You Might Be Wondering About” section of their Dirty List, since it has a reputation for being potentially irritating. “However, we believe that generally it is fine for night time use, assuming you use an SPF during the day,” she continued.

Bakuchiol: An Effective Natural Alternative

Products with bakuchiol have been shown to have similar results without the side effects.

For people who would rather avoid all potential side effects of retinol, there are various “natural” alternatives out there, including rosehip oil, moringa oil, mango butter, Spanish needle, sea fennel, and more. While these can often brighten and protect your skin, they’re not as effective as retinoids at reducing existing signs of aging. But! There is one natural ingredient that proves promising in clinical studies: bakuchiol. One study found that after 12 weeks of treatment there was significant improvement in lines and wrinkles, pigmentation, elasticity, firmness, and overall reduction in photo-damage, without the usual retinol therapy-associated undesirable effects. Connelly told me Credo expects bakuchiol to become increasingly popular and already has plans to stock new products from their existing vendors. Currently, Credo sells Alpyn PlantGenius Melt Moisturizer, which includes bakuchiol.

The Bottom Line on Retinol

It’s up to each person to decide if the powerful qualities of retinol and other retinoids are worth the risks. If you decide retinol is for you, be sure to consider the safest way to use it. “Consumers undergoing skin treatments for medical purposes with any form of vitamin A should consult a dermatologist, apply treatments at night if possible, and always practice strict sun avoidance when using these powerful ingredients on their skin,” is how Burns summed it up for me. You can’t argue with that.

Dr. Judge’s prescription said to apply a thin layer of the cream once a week, but in my desperation to be cured I instead slathered my chest generously several times a day. By Day Three, the pimples seemed to have dried up. By Day Seven, the first flakes of dry skin were floating off my chest and settling on my sweater. I took this as evidence that the cream was finally working, and rubbed it on with even more dedication, carrying the tube around like a talisman. By Day Fifteen, triumph turned to horror: the cream had certainly cleared out the zits, but it had also obliterated the entire layer of skin that they’d occupied. In its place now were a multitude of angry, pink dry patches that peeled off in the shower in grotesque sheets. With the casual cruelty that comes so easily to teen-agers, a girl in my dorm took a look at my chest and offered that, if she were me, she’d be contemplating suicide by now. I threw out the tube of cream and endured the chafing of a woollen scarf until the peeling finally stopped. During the winter holidays, my mother, a firm believer in impeccable self-presentation, and never one to mince words, took one look at me and asked, “What have you done to yourself?”

Today, hundred-and-five-dollar retinol serums can be purchased at Sephora in apothecary-inspired bottles, enhanced with added azulene oil and blue tansy. But the original, all-chemical, prescription-only retinoid skin cream is not a glamorous product. Nearly indistinguishable from hemorrhoid cream, the blue-and-white, plastic-capped metal tube doesn’t lend itself to performative #selfcare on Instagram. Its design is seemingly immune to the passage of time, having remained true to the same aesthetic since 1971, when it first got F.D.A. approval. My mother credits her teen-age commitment to the cream for the singularly lineless forehead and wrinkle-free nasolabial folds she now sports in her fifties.

Within the field of dermatology, retinoid and its family of Vitamin-A-derivative compounds—retinoid’s less potent offspring, retinol; its purest form, tretinoin, or retinoic acid, of which Retin-A is a common brand name—are spoken of with mythic reverence. Retin-A, which works by purging old skin cells and forcing new ones to form at an astonishing rate, is the insufferable overachiever of skin treatments, known not only to blast away acne but to boost collagen production, dissolve unwanted pigmentation, and, as if that weren’t enough, treat skin lesions before they turn cancerous. Whether you’re hoping to get rid of wrinkles or acne or malignant cells, though, a retinoid-improved visage cannot be attained without enduring the carnage of red, inflamed, and flaking dry skin along the way. And whether you adhere to using the cream once a week, or go overboard, as I did, peel you will—perhaps not enough to elicit suggestions of suicide but enough to make onlookers do a double take, as if to silently confirm that, yes, that is indeed your face, and it seems to be doing something usually seen only in National Geographic specials about snakes and crustaceans.

Since Internet access was strictly forbidden at my Indian boarding school, it wasn’t until my second major breakout, at the age of twenty-three, when I was living in New York, that I found the reams of message boards, subreddits, blog posts, and magazine articles devoted to what are fittingly called the “retinoid uglies.” It was my face, this time, that erupted in cystic pustules that ached and throbbed angrily if I smiled too widely. I’d wake up with pinpricks of blood littering the spot where I’d been sleeping. When I visited home, in October of 2015, my mother took one look at me and asked, “What have you done to yourself?”

I saw an Upper West Side dermatologist—tall, blond, with intimidatingly great skin—who prescribed me another round of Retin-A. This time, previous experience, and the advice of strangers on the Internet, had prepared me for the flake-pocalypse. I stuck to the prescribed treatment, a thumb-size dab once a week. A couple of months into the regimen, the “purge” began. “Think of it as your skin taking out the trash from inside the house,” my dermatologist explained. She wrote me prescriptions for moisturizers, separate ones for morning and night. I began lying on my left side in bed when the right side of my face became too inflamed to position flat on the pillow.

Having adult acne is far from the worst way your body can betray you. It was a blow to my vanity, certainly, and a minor indignity—even as a tax-paying, apartment-renting, health-insurance-having citizen of the world—to have to battle once again a condition I thought I’d left behind along with braces and weeknight curfews. But there is a unique cruelty in Retin-A’s way of making the problem worse before it gets better. The before-and-after photos on Reddit didn’t prepare me for what I underwent in between—the farce of maintaining eye contact during conversations, even as I could see the person I was talking to glance involuntarily toward the raw patches along my jawline. Unlike the wounds from a face-lift or a surgical procedure, the recovery caused by Retin-A does not take place underneath bandages. The inevitable shedding of skin violates one of the tenets of being an adult—and, especially, a woman—in polite society: it is a public display of the concerted, and occasionally painful, effort that goes into maintaining an appearance of outward normalcy.

Like love and bankruptcy, clear skin, when it finally came, did so gradually, then all at once. It’s been two years since I uncapped a new tube of Retin-A 0.1% and more than six months since a zit last invaded my face. My forehead now emits a truck-headlight-like glare in iPhone photos owing to its somewhat artificial, Barbie-esque smoothness. Occasionally, I still feel the throbs of a nascent pimple that threatens to emerge from deep underneath my skin, but it never actually does. Just in case, I keep a gnarled, half-squeezed tube of Retin-A on my dresser, dusty from disuse. I didn’t get to post my own before-and-after shots to Reddit—my phone fell into a puddle and all the photos from my retinoid years were wiped out. But, last month, my mother peered into the grainy screen of our weekly WhatsApp video call. “Skin looks good, Iva,” she said.

Retinol could be your skin saviour (Picture: Ella Byworth for

In the world of beauty, there are some strange-sounding ingredients flying around.

Retinol is one of those words frequently thrown into the mix – but knowing what it is and how to use it could make all the difference to your skin.

Perhaps you’ve already heard of it? It does have a reputation as being one of the most effective skin-plumping ingredients on the market, after all.

So here’s everything to know about the holy grail of skincare.

What is retinol and what does it do?

Simply put, retinol is an anti-aging molecule that helps with skin renewal – reducing lines, wrinkles and age spots.

It’s a derivative from Vitamin A which is used by the body to boost cell turnover and to enhance collagen production. This starts to go downhill at the age of 30.

Dr Sarah Shah, founder of the Artistry Clinic on Harley Street and Liverpool Street, tells ‘Retinol stimulates the production of new blood vessels in the skin, increasing cell turnover and improving uneven skin tones.

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‘The dermis layer of the skin contains cells called fibroblasts which produce collagen. These cells start to slow down with ageing and, after the age of 30, our collagen level drops by 1-2% every year.

‘Retinol acts directly on these cells to keep them switched on and working to their best ability.’

After an individual hits their mid 30s, their cell regeneration starts to slow down.

This is where retinol helps.

It stimulates cell renewal by increasing the rate of cell division – this new cell growth leaves skin feeling soft and smooth.

But it doesn’t stop there, it can also help with acne, hyper-pigmentation, dryness, rough skin texture, blemishes and more.

What’s not to love about that?

How do you use retinol?

The Ordinary has a wide range of retinol products (Picture: BeautyBay)

The number one rule of retinol is to use it at night, after cleansing. This is because Vitamin A derivatives lose their effect in the sunlight.

They also make skin more sensitive to UVA and UVB, as new cells are prone to burning. So be sure to top up with SPF when incorporating retinol into your skincare routine.

In terms of when to start using it, most people are motivated to incorporate it when they catch their first glimpses of aging – be it crow’s feet or laughter lines.

Dr Sarah says: ‘You can also start to use retinol on young skin (from your mid-twenties) as it has further benefits, such as reducing acne and inflammation and controlling the levels of oil production.’

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What are the best retinol products to use?

Goodbye fine lines and wrinkles (Picture: Elizabeth Arden)

Results won’t be apparent instantly but after consistent use for around three months or so, there should be a reduction in fine lines and wrinkles.

It’s worth noting that retinol comes in different strengths – it typically starts at a low 0.1% and goes up to a high 2%. So if you’re starting out, it’s best to opt for a lower concentration and use it sparingly (a pea-sized amount) – just to see how your skin reacts to it. This is particularly important if you have sensitive skin.

Start by using it approximately two times a week and see how your skin takes to it.

Then use it like a ladder – if there’s no irritation after using a 0.5% product, slowly but surely go up to a 1%, and so on.

Mild irritation, slight dryness and sun sensitivity are normal side effects but flaking, redness, and burning sensations are not normal. Some skin types – particularly those with eczema and rosacea – cannot deal with retinol.

If this is the case, fear not, there are plenty of alternative anti-aging products on the market. Don’t make your skin suffer.

Some products are worth the investment (Picture: SpaceNK)

When it comes to buying products, look for the percentage retinol for guidance.


The Ordinary is a great brand to start with. It has a variety of products ranging from 0.2% upwards.

Alternatively, Elizabeth Arden offers biodegradable single-use capsules (each with a shot of retinol) and the brand claims the product is 76% more potent than un-encapsulated retinol.

The Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum does what it says on the tin. It’s a high-strength product, so newbies should steer clear.

MORE: Why we need to stop judging women who wear makeup to the gym

MORE: How to make a homemade face mask from your leftover pumpkin pulp

MORE: What order are you supposed to apply your skincare products?

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What was the process in creating your second retinol product?

I was playing around; I wanted to reformulate my retinol. I was working with a retinol palmitate and I gave it to a bunch of people to test out, and they ended up loving it so much–one of them was Rosie Huntington-Whiteley–so I kept having to go back to the lab to get just enough so that my clients and friends could have it. Finally, I was like, I’m going to put it out, because it’s so good. I just have an obsession with retinol. Retinol palmitate is more gentle, and it’s more gentle than my current Retinol Reform.

What are the the benefits of using retinol?

It boosts collagen in the skin, reduces fine lines and wrinkles, can help with pigmentation, resurfaces the skin to help with texture, which then helps unclog pores. Originally, people were using Retin-A for acne, and over time we saw that those people never aged. And that’s honestly why I fell in love with it, because I worked with a woman that must have been in her 60s and she had the most perfect skin I have ever seen in my life–not a wrinkle–but her neck looked like she was 100. She had used Retin-A her whole life, but forgot to use it on her neck. So after that I was like, I’m sold. When you use a stronger prescription of retinol, over time, your skin does thin. Personally, I think using an over-the-counter is the best way to go, unless you have really bad acne, then I would say use a prescription.

What are the negative effects retinol can have on the skin if you misuse it?

If you go out in the sun, it will bring out pigmentation, and you can damage your skin that way. You have to be someone that’s good about not being in the sun. Retinol is something you have to use at night; you really, truly have to be good about it. I’m not someone who goes in the sun. When I go to Hawaii in the summer, I don’t use it while I’m there at all, but if you are someone who likes to be in the sun, then retinol is not good for you.


How should someone incorporate retinol into their skincare routine?

I think with every retinol product, you should start with once a week. If you’re someone who has been using retinol forever, use it one-to-two times and then build up gradually, using it as often as your skin can tolerate. Also, if it was a prescription retinol, especially if you have sensitive skin, I would use a moisturizer before applying the prescription retinol, just to cut it down, and then moisturize afterward. If you’re truly dry, then you’ll never be able to use it daily, but you could probably do three-to-four times , every other night. Your skin either loves retinol or it doesn’t.

When do you recommend starting to use retinol?

I think using it in your twenties is the best. Typically, I wouldn’t give a teenager retinol, but when I worked for a dermatologist, I would see so many kids starting at 13 years old with acne and they were on retinol, but that’s a different situation.

Can you still exfoliate while using retinol?

I would always say to people, ‘Don’t do it, unless you know your skin.’ So exfoliate on an opposite night. Everyone’s skin is different, but for the most part it can irritate. If you scrub and then you put a retinol over it, it can be so irritating, and then you could really damage your skin. So that’s why I like for people to exfoliate on opposite nights.

Can you still use facial treatments likes lasers with a retinol product?

If you are doing laser treatments, you can’t do them both together. You have be careful, and a doctor will tell you when you shouldn’t, but otherwise they can go together. Typically, if you have pigmentation and you do laser for pigmentation, a doctor will give you a tretinoin, which is a retinol mix to keep your pigmentation under control. So, they do go hand in hand, but you don’t want to do them at the same time.

What are your top rules about skincare?

You have to stay out of the sun, wear sunscreen, make sure you are exfoliating once a week, and try to incorporate a retinol.

What does your weekly skincare routine look like?

I use retinol daily, so every night I cleanse, apply retinol, eye cream, and I usually use a hyaluronic acid serum. Sometimes, I’ll a use a moisturizer, but that’s typically my nightly routine. Sometimes, I’ll do an at home peel instead of the retinol, but I don’t really switch it up.

How often do you recommend getting a facial?

In a perfect world, I tell everyone to get one once a month.


Whether you prefer two steps or seven, we’ve cleared the fog on skincare routines and other FAQs

With approximately a bajillion products on the market (ball park), it’s safe to say that skincare order has got a little confusing lately.

From glycolic acid to vitamin C serums to retinol and more, for a lot of us our skincare routine is no longer a case of simply cleansing and moisturising. So if you find yourself constantly asking yourself ‘what order should I apply my skincare products? Am I doing this right?’, then keep reading.

‘The order and steps depend on your skin type, which is why when reading blogs and online articles you have to keep in mind the person writing might have totally different skin needs to you,’ explains Ksenia Selivanova, co-founder of skin consultancy Lion/ne.

‘For example, dry and reactive skin will not need a toner and oils aren’t suited to every skin. A good way to remember how to layer product is: thinner, water-based products first followed by oil-based, thicker products, and always ending with SPF .’

Below you’ll find a handy ‘cheat sheet’ for the order you apply skincare products as advised by the experts. We recommend you bookmark this for future reference.

Daytime skincare order


First thing’s first – wash your face morning (and night) as your first step, using your best cleanser and a hand-hot flannel or muslin cloth.


If you choose to use it, do so after cleanser, but whether toner is really a necessary step is widely debated. ‘I’m not a big fan of toners as they often irritate the skin,’ says consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk.

‘Not all skin types need a toner,’ adds Kate Bancroft, founder of Face the Future. ‘Sometimes a hydrating spray is a better option.’

However, toners that contain AHAs or BHAs (like glycolic acid or salicylic acid) are a different story as they provide an exfoliating step in your routine. These can help if you struggle with breakouts, clogged pores or slow skin cell turnover, depending on the acid.


In the morning, it’s a good idea to use something antioxidant-based, like Vitamin C serums, as these will offer additional protection against pollution. Hydrating serums can be used at any time of day; skincare brand The Inkey List recommends using treatment serums first and hydrating serums (like hyaluronic acid) second.


Depending on your skin type, be sure to choose the best moisturiser for dry skin, best moisturiser for oily skin or best moisturiser for combination skin.

Sun cream

Sun protection should be used every day, especially if you use acids and/or retinol in your routine; view our edits of the best SPF moisturisers and best sun creams for recommendations.

Evening skincare order

Start by removing make-up and washing the day’s grease and grime away, double cleansing if you wish, again using your trusty muslin cloth or flannel.


A frequently asked question is, where do masks fit into the cleanse-tone-moisturise shebang? The short answer is: after cleansing, before all your other skincare steps, about twice weekly.

‘Masks, if used, can be applied once or twice a week,’ says Dr Kluk. ‘I would suggest applying a mask after cleansing in the evening, then following with the rest of your usual skincare routine.’

Retinol (not to be used with AHA/BHAs)

Retinol is known for being a pretty potent potion, so on the days you apply it, swap out any acid-containing products to avoid any reactions. It can make your skin more sensitive to the sun so always apply in the evening and use SPF the next day.

Depending on your skin’s sensitivity, you may want to avoid any acids at all on the days you’re using retinol (more on why later) and if you’re new to it, be sure to introduce it gradually and begin with a low concentration.

‘Following retinol with any other topical skincare will dilute the active ingredient, vitamin A, and reduce its effectiveness,’ Kate adds.


Again referring to The Inkey List’s earlier advice, apply treatment serums first – this includes retinol – and hydrating serums second.

Finish your nightly routine with your usual moisturiser or the best night cream for your skin type. And if your skin is particularly dry, layer an oil over the top to lock in moisture.

Are there products that can’t be applied together?

More and more of us are using potent skincare ingredients, like acids and retinol, on the regular, so it’s important to know which of the strong stuff don’t mix.

‘I would avoid using multiple products with irritant properties at the same time,’ explains Dr Kluk. ‘An example of this would be avoiding the application of AHAs, such as glycolic acid, and retinol or any of the prescription retinoid creams together. Many people can’t even tolerate using these on the same day, so my advice would be to choose one or the other unless advised otherwise by a dermatologist.’

Kate agrees: ‘I don’t like to mix acids and retinols at the same time; some skins are highly susceptible to retinoid reactions and mixing too many actives in one go is asking for trouble.’

Which products should you not use during the day or at night?

‘Vitamin A creams, such as retinol or retinaldehyde, may increase sensitivity to the sun and so should be applied at night – and SPF should be applied the following morning. The same goes for acids,’ explains Dr Kluk.

‘Antioxidants like vitamin C can be used both morning and night, but as they provide a form of protection against UV and pollution, it seems sensible to me to use them in the morning before heading out the front door.’

How many acid products is too many?

These days acids come in just about every skincare form, from cleanser to toner, serum and moisturiser. So what’s the safe limit for how many AHA/BHA products you can use in one go?

‘It depends on how reactive your skin is and also on your individual skin needs,’ advises Dr Kluk. ‘Acids are potentially quite irritating to the skin and can cause redness, peeling and sensitivity, so it’s best to select one product and only add others if there is still a clinical need and your skin is able to tolerate it. You don’t need to use every acid just because you can!

‘If you have oily skin or breakouts, choose salicylic acid. If you want to smooth and hydrate the skin, choose lactic acid. And if you want to brighten dark spots or treat wrinkles, choose glycolic acid.

‘For those who can’t tolerate any of the above acids, mandelic acid may be less irritating to use as the larger molecules don’t penetrate as deeply.’

So, to recap the correct skincare order…

Mask (evening, max twice a week)
Retinol (evening)
SPF (daytime)

For more skincare advice and product recommendations, head to our Hair & Beauty section

Everything You Need to Know About Retinol and Its Skin-Care Benefits

Photo: PhotoAlto/Milena Boniek/Getty Images

Trendy skin-care ingredients come and go (snail venom, anyone?) but when it comes to tried-and-true, effective options, the same one constantly tops the list-retinol. With the ability to do everything from stimulating collagen to fighting blemishes, this multitasker is a worthy addition to pretty much anyone’s skin-care routine. Ahead, answers to six common questions about this important ingredient, straight from derms.

What is it, exactly?

Let’s start with the basics. “Retinoids are a class of chemicals that are all related to vitamin A,” explains Neal Schultz, M.D., NYC dermatologist, host of, and creator of BeautyRx by Dr. Schultz. This includes both retinol-the OTC form-and prescription-strength versions, many of which, like the commonly prescribed Retin-A, are retinoic acid. To simplify matters, it’s easiest to think of them all in the same category, essentially delivering the same type of benefits (though there are some important differences-more on those in a minute).

What does it do?

A whole laundry list of good-for-your skin stuff including stimulating collagen (translation: fewer wrinkles), speeding cell turnover (translation: less discoloration and smoother skin), and keeping pores clear (translation: bye-bye breakouts). While the level of efficacy depends on the product you’re using and whether it’s prescription or OTC, you’ll reap all of these benefits to some degree, even if the product is marketed as only addressing one of these issues, say, anti-aging or anti-acne. (Related: Why It’s Never Too Early to Start Protecting the Collagen In Your Skin)

What’s the difference between the kind I can buy and what a dermatologist will give me?

While it all goes back to vitamin A, “OTC and prescription-strength versions differ in their potency, ability to be absorbed into the skin, irritation potential, and efficacy,” says Dr. Schultz. Retinol, which you’ll find in over-the-counter serums and creams, interacts with enzymes when applied on the skin, and is ultimately converted into retinoic acid. Prescription-only Retin-A is already retinoic acid, meaning this conversion isn’t required. The upshot? Prescription versions are stronger and more effective-but they’re also more likely to cause irritation. To that point…

Won’t it irritate my skin?

In a word, probably, at least initially. “If you’re not careful, retinoids can cause redness, peeling, burning, or itching,” points out Debra Jaliman, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist. Still, there are lots of things you can do to help mitigate these side effects. It’ll take some time for your skin to acclimate to the powerful ingredient, so take it slow. (You wouldn’t run a marathon without training for it, right?) Translation: Don’t jump right to a prescription-strength version. Start with a product that contains less-intense retinol, like RoC Retinol Correxion Max Daily Hydration Crème ($29; There are also other forms, such as retinaldehyde and retinyl palmitate, available in OTC products, which are even gentler-a great starting point. (Try Avène RetrinAL 0.1 Intensive Cream, $70; Either way, “start slowly, using it every other night for two weeks, then gradually build up to nightly use,” suggests Dr. Jaliman. (And FYI, no matter what kind of retinoid you’re using, a pea-size amount is plenty for your entire face.)

Super sensitive? Mixing the retinoid with a dollop of a plain moisturizer (such as Cetaphil Daily Hydrating Lotion, $12; can also help cut down on any irritation, adds Dr. Jaliman. Keep in mind that despite all these efforts, your complexion may still look a little worse before things get better, but any unsightly side effects won’t last forever. Once you’re in a good groove with a store-bought product, talk with your dermatologist about bumping it up to a prescription version (Retin-A, Renova, Refissa), as even within these options there are lots of choices.

How long will it take to work?

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this is a months, not weeks, situation. It’ll take at least a few months to start seeing results, though the longer you use a retinoid, the more results you’ll see. This is why many derms suggest starting a retinoid in your 20s as a preventive anti-aging measure. But if you’re older than that and have never used a retinoid, it’s not too late! As the saying goes, better late than never, since everyone can reap the benefits of this powerful anti-ager. (Related: 10 Healthy Skin Habits to Establish In Your 20s)

Can anyone use it?

Pretty much, yes. The only time you should skip any kind of retinoid is if you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant, cautions Dr. Schultz. (But don’t stress, there are plenty of other pregnancy-safe anti-aging ingredients you can use; discuss this with your derm and your ob-gyn.) There may be some people with extra sensitive skin who won’t be able to tolerate it. But most people should be able to handle at least retinol, if not the stronger prescription stuff. Also worth noting: Contrary to popular belief, retinoids don’t make you more susceptible to sunburn, but it’s best to use one at night because sunlight can render the ingredient inactive. (Though that’s not an excuse to skip your daily sunscreen.)

  • By By Melanie Rud Chadwick

Retinol benefits for skin

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