The Main Benefits of Retinol

An older woman applying retinol cream while looking in the mirror

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Retinol is a type of retinoid, a form of Vitamin A, used in skincare to treat acne and reduce signs of aging. As a skincare ingredient, retinol helps increase cell production and collagen to reveal smoother, more even skin.

However, retinol can be a harsh for sensitive skin and can make your skin sensitive to sunlight. Outside of skincare, retinol is also naturally found in fish, dairy, eggs, and organ meat. It can be taken as a dietary supplement to treat Vitamin A deficiencies.  

While not as powerful as other retinoids, retinol has the same ability to speed up cell turnover and increase collagen production. This makes it an effective ingredient for reducing the look of fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol's exfoliating effect also helps it treat hyperpigmentation and acne. Here's how retinol benefits the skin. 

Treats Acne

Retinol can help treat different types of acne by preventing clogged pores. Acne occurs when dead skin cells, or oil, block your pores, resulting in whiteheads, blackheads, or pimples.

Because retinol increases cell production and exfoliates away dead skin cells, it helps prevent clogged pores. Retinoids, like retinol, also help reduce oil production and inflammation.

Note: Retinoids like retinol can make acne worse before it gets better. It happens because the initial cell turnover can clog your pores. This is known as "skin purging."

Treats Hyperpigmentation

Retinol may also help treat hyperpigmentation—dark spots where you have more skin pigment caused by hormonal changes, sun damage, or acne scarring. Increasing cell turnover helps exfoliates the skin, smoothing the outer layer of the skin and allowing new skin cells to grow faster. This helps smooth the skin for a more even skin tone and lightens the appearance of dark spots.

Small percentages of retinol may also be effective at treating hyperpigmentation. A small 2020 study of 37 people found using 0.3 and 0.5% retinol serums once a day for 12 weeks helped reduce hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone.

Reduces Fine Lines and Wrinkles

As you age, you lose collagen and elastin that help keep the skin plump and elastic. When the skin starts to thin and lose elasticity, the skin begins to show wrinkles. Retinol promotes collagen and elastin production, accelerating cell turnover and skin thickening. This helps reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles.

A 2019 study of 152 Japanese women found applying retinol twice a day for 12 weeks helped reduce the look of neck and eye skin wrinkles. Neck wrinkles were less apparent after only eight weeks.

How to Use Retinol

Retinol used in skincare is applied topically as a cream, lotion, or serum. If you're new to retinol, apply it every other night with these steps:

  1. Wash your face using a gentle cleanser. 
  2. Pat your skin dry (do not rub).
  3. Take a pea-sized amount of retinol and apply a thin layer to your face (avoid the mouth and eyes). 
  4. Apply a moisturizer to your face.  
  5. Apply sunscreen if it's daytime.

It can take a few weeks for your skin to adapt, and you may break out when you first start using retinol. Research also shows it can take up to three months of retinol use to see improvements.

If using retinol every other night doesn't irritate your skin, you can start applying it every night.

Before applying any new skin care product, do a patch test on your skin (like the inside of your wrist) to see if you have a reaction. 


Retinol in skin care typically comes in concentrations of 0.0015% to 0.3%. However, there are many different products with many different concentrations. How much and how often you use retinol will depend on your skin type and specific concerns. Before you start using retinol, it's best to chat with a healthcare provider, like a dermatologist. They can help you figure out the dose and frequency for you to use retinol.

Is Retinol Safe?

Retinol is considered safe but can irritate your skin and make you more prone to sunburn and sun damage. Still, compared to other retinoids, retinol is typically better tolerated by most people and causes less irritation. 

Since retinol can irritate red and inflamed skin, you might want to skip retinol if you have sensitive skin or conditions like rosacea, psoriasis, or eczema.

If you're pregnant, it's also advised to not use topical retinoids like retinol. Oral retinoids like isotretinoin can cause birth defects. While the body doesn't absorb a lot of Vitamin A from topical retinoids as it would by oral retinoids, there is not enough research to eliminate the risk of using topical retinols altogether if you're pregnant.

Potential Interactions

Retinol can interact with other active skincare ingredients and irritate the skin. Some common skincare ingredients you may want to avoid mixing with retinol include: 

  • Vitamin C
  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic and glycolic acid
  • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)

These skincare ingredients are often too strong when combined. However, you may be able to use various skincare ingredients if you alternate and use them on different days or times. Chat with your dermatologist about what skincare ingredients you can layer or should use separately.

Where to Buy Retinol

You can find retinol over-the-counter (OTC) at most drugstores or get a prescription retinoid from your dermatologist. 

Since many OTC retinol products are cosmetics and don't require clinical trials to test their effectiveness, it is hard to know if they work. However, looking for products with third-party testing can help you determine a product's effectiveness for acne, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation. 

Can You Use Too Much Retinol?

How much retinol your skin can handle varies person to person. Some people may find higher-strength retinol products and frequent application irritating. Some people may tolerate high doses of retinol fairly well. Generally, dermatologists suggest using retinol every other night when you get started to avoid overdoing it.

Side Effects of Retinol

Retinol's most common side effect is dry, irritated skin. Other side effects of retinol can include:

  • Acne breakouts
  • Skin peeling
  • Skin redness
  • Photosensitivity to sunlight

Applying retinol at night and 30 minutes after cleaning your face may help reduce irritation and sun sensitivity. Talk to your dermatologist if skin irritation doesn't go away or you experience severe side effects. You should also wear sunscreen and avoid direct sunlight, which can worsen dryness and irritation.

A Quick Review

Retinol, a form of Vitamin A, is often used as a skincare ingredient to help treat acne and reduce the look of hyperpigmentation and fine lines and wrinkles. You can find most retinol OTC or by getting a prescription from your dermatologist for a stronger retinoid. 

Retinol can be drying and irritating, making your skin sensitive to the sun. Only using retinol a few times a week and wearing sunscreen can help reduce irritation. Retinol products are safe for most people but may be too harsh for people with sensitive skin. Pregnant people are also typically told to avoid retinol products. 

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