Retinol is a naturally occurring form of vitamin A. It’s in many skin-care products.
Retinol can help with acne breakouts and has anti-aging benefits.
It’s common to get skin irritation when you first start using retinol or other retinoid products.
If you’re new to retinol, use a lower strength, start slowly, and build up as tolerated.
Retinol is vitamin A, and it’s an active ingredient in many skin-care products. Retinol benefits the skin in many ways — from preventing acne breakouts and enhancing skin turnover to reducing the signs of skin aging.
If you’re new to a skin-care routine, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all of the options, ingredients, formulations, and price tags. Retinol is one of the top five evidence-based skin-care ingredients. The other top ingredients are sunscreen, hyaluronic acid, vitamin C, and alpha hydroxy acids.
If you’re looking for streamlined information about how and when to use retinol, look no further. Here’s our beginner’s guide to retinol and why everyone should consider adding it to their skin-care regimen.
What is retinol?
Retinol is vitamin A that occurs naturally in the body and in foods. It’s also an added ingredient in many over-the-counter (OTC) skin-care products. To have an effect, retinol has to be converted to its active form — retinoic acid. This happens in the body, after applying retinol to the skin.
How is retinol different from retinoic acid?
Pure retinoic acid, like Retin-A, is about 20 times stronger than retinol. It’s only available by prescription. Retinoic acid comes as a cream, like tretinoin (Retin-A), or as a pill, like isotretinoin (Accutane).
How is retinol different from retinoids?
Retinoid is an umbrella term for many chemical compounds related to vitamin A (retinol). Retinoids can be OTC or prescription, and they come as creams or pills.
Examples of prescription retinoids are adapalene (Differin), tazarotene (Avage, Tazorac), and trifarotene (Aklief). Healthcare providers prescribe them for conditions like acne, hyperpigmentation, and psoriasis. There’s also a lower-strength, OTC version of adapalene (Differin Gel).
In general, retinol is not as strong as Retin-A or other prescription retinoids. But when it comes to anti-aging, retinol may work just as well and cause less dryness, redness, and flaking. Retinol comes in different forms in OTC products. Here are some ingredients to look for when choosing a retinol:
Retinaldehyde (also called “retinal”)
When should you use retinol?
If you’re dealing with acne or you’re worried about skin aging, adding a retinol to your skin-care routine may be a great option for you. Retinol can help keep pimples at bay and also help fight the signs of aging.
Retinol for acne
Retinol and prescription retinoids are very effective treatments for acne. If you have mild acne — like a few whiteheads, blackheads, or pimples — an OTC retinol may be a good option for you. For more severe acne, you may need a prescription-strength retinoid. Retinol is often used along with other acne medications, like a face wash that has benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid.
Anti-aging benefits of retinol
Studies have also shown that retinol and prescription retinoids reverse many of the signs of aging, including:
Improving fine and coarse wrinkles
Increasing skin firmness
Evening skin tone
Remember to apply sunscreen every day while using retinol. This will help prevent future aging from sun damage.
At what age is it recommended to start using retinol?
There are no set rules on how old you should be to use retinol. For anti-aging purposes, you can start to use it in your 20s as a preventive step. If you’re using it for mild acne, you can use it even younger.
Keep in mind that while OTC retinol can help mild acne, many people with breakouts will need a prescription-strength retinoid cream. These are FDA approved for ages 12 and up, but dermatologists sometimes use them off-label in children under 12 years old.
Retinol serum vs. cream: How to choose
When starting a retinol, it’s important to choose a low-strength version in a formulation that works for your skin type. Retinol and retinoids come in many different formulations, like creams, serums, and lotions. Serums tend to be thinner and absorb quickly. Unlike creams and lotions, serums don’t provide any moisturization.
Here are the best retinol formulations for different skin types.
Best retinol formulation
Oily or prone to acne
Gel or lotion
Serum, cream, or oil
Vary by season: serum or cream for winter, lighter lotion for warmer months
Can you use retinol every night?
Yes. In fact, retinoids work best if you use them daily. Specifically, try to use them at night because light and air deactivate some types. If you experience any side effects — like skin redness or dryness — then it’s a good idea to back down to once every 2 or 3 nights. As your skin gets used to it, then you can work your way back to using it every night.
How to use retinol
Starting a new routine can feel overwhelming. But we have you covered with eight tips to keep in mind as you incorporate retinol into your skin-care routine.
1. Always start slowly
It can take time for your skin to get used to a retinoid. Start by applying it once or twice a week. As your skin adjusts, you can work your way up to using it nightly. If your skin gets red, dry, or flaky, you may be moving too fast.
Try using it less often until these side effects resolve, and then increase slowly. Once you’re comfortable with nightly use, you can consider increasing the strength.
2. Use only a pea-sized amount
When it comes to retinoids, a little bit goes a long way. In general, a pea-sized amount is enough for your whole face. Dab it on your forehead, nose, cheeks, and then your chin. Gently rub it in to distribute the product evenly.
3. If you’re prone to acne, beware of ‘purging’
4. Stick to mild, gentle skin-care products
Retinoids can be irritating, especially at first. It’s best to avoid using them with other sources of irritation, like:
Alpha hydroxy acids
5. Moisturize your skin
Retinoids can cause dryness and irritation (retinoid dermatitis). Using a moisturizer can help. If your skin is dry or sensitive, you can apply your retinoid on top of a moisturizer.
6. Protect your skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays
Retinoids make your skin more sensitive to burning, even if you only apply it at night. Avoid tanning beds. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily. It should be SPF 30 or higher and cover UVA and UVB rays. Reapply frequently when outside.
7. Stop your retinoid before any facial procedure
Retinoids increase your skin’s sensitivity. It’s best to stop using them for 5 to 7 days before waxes, peels, lasers, and other facial procedures.
8. Don’t use a retinoid if you’re pregnant or could be pregnant
Most experts advise against using a retinoid during pregnancy. Alternatives include OTC alpha hydroxy acids (look for ingredients like glycolic or lactic acid) or prescription-strength azelaic acid (Azelex).
The bottom line
Retinol and other retinoids help with acne breakouts, dark spots, sun damage, fine lines, and other signs of aging. It can be intimidating to know how to start using it —especially if you’re new to skin care. But it’s a key ingredient in most skin-care routines.
The most common side effect is skin irritation, especially when you first start using it. For best results, take it slow, use gentle skin-care products, and protect your skin from the sun.
American Academy of Dermatology Association. (n.d.). Is any acne treatment safe to use during pregnancy?
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