You know the saying about good things coming in small packages?
Retinol is one of those small packages that’s earned a major ‘gold standard’ reputation over the years for delivering a long list of skin-supporting benefits.1
But what is retinol, and how could it benefit your skincare routine? So, if you’re looking to learn more about this popular product, you’re in the right place.
What is retinol?
Before diving into the benefits, we must explain what retinol actually is.
Retinol is actually a catch-all term for compounds derived from vitamin A. Retinol products are classed as over-the-counter versions of retinoids (which are stronger and mainly prescribed by a doctor).2
It’s primarily used on the skin to reduce signs of healthy-ageing – but it has a variety of other benefits that we’ll delve into later.
Retinol has several different functions when it comes to caring for the skin. These include:
- Stimulating collagen production and helping plump up the skin
- Aiding cell regeneration, so skin looks healthier
- Reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles3
Retinol is also thought to have some success at fading scars, plus reducing pigmentation and blemishes.
How does retinol work?
Let’s take a closer look at some of the inner workings of this multi-tasking skin saviour, starting with a quick overview of how it works:
In a nutshell, retinol works its magic by sinking into the skin and speeding up cell turnover and exfoliating older cells at an increased rate.
The enhanced cell stimulation increases elastin and collagen production which can make skin look and feel plumper and potentially clear the appearance of pores and fade dark spots and redness.5
Over time, because retinoids work on a cellular level and not a topical level, i.e. simply sit on the surface, they can help to deeply resurface the skin.6
According to dermatologist, Jessica Krant, MD, retinoids are unique in the fact that they help to unclog pores and keep your skin refreshed without the need for harsh friction.
Over a long period, retinoids also help increase the production of collagen and elastin in the dermis - the second, deeper layer of skin.7
What does retinol do?
If you’ve been wondering, ‘what does retinol do?’ Here’s the claims that you'll see on the packaging of retinol:
- Smoothing existing fine lines and wrinkles and minimising new lines and wrinkles – note: it can take up to 12 months before seeing an improvement in wrinkles
- Exfoliating skin cells to produce brighter, smoother and newer skin
- Helping with clogged pores
- Evening out complexions by fading marks, such as sun spots, scars and hyperpigmentation8
No wonder there’s so much hype around it, hey?! Is there anything it can’t reportedly do?
7 benefits of retinol for skin
Celebrities, dermatologists, and beauty gurus have all praised the benefits of retinol.9 But could this product actually deliver? Some retinol benefits might include:
It may help with breakouts
Retinol is often used to support your skin during breakouts.
This is because retinoic acid (which is what retinol converts to) stimulates the process of skin cell proliferation, as well as the stimulation of elimination of the sebum remaining in the ducts.10
This essentially means that the retinol helps to unclog pores that cause pimples, and avoid dead cell build too.
It could reduce the appearance of fine lines
Retinol has been hailed as a wonderful anti-ageing product for many years now, but why is that?
Generally speaking, retinol can help to reduce the appearance of fine lines in the skin – and this is because it stimulates collagen production which has a skin plumping effect.11
Also, the increased production of natural chemicals like hyaluronic acid that comes with retinol use helps to make the skin plumper and moisturised.
This also helps to reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles.
May help to reduce signs of sun damage
The use of retinol helps to thicken the epidermis, as a result of increased skin cell proliferation. This then helps to reduce signs of sun damage on our skin, like sunspots and actinic keratosis.12
Could improve skin texture
The exfoliating effect that retinol has may also help with skin texture – this is also due to the increased production of collagen.13
It may help with hyperpigmentation
If you have hyperpigmentation that you’re looking to reduce the appearance of, it could be worth adding retinol to your skincare routine.
Topical retinol products have been shown to diminish clinical features of ageing such as hyperpigmentation.14
It may reduce the size of pores
As we mentioned earlier, retinol helps to stop your pores from getting clogged with dirt and dead skin cells. But as well as reducing breakouts, this may actually make your pores look smaller too – win-win!
It helps with skin thinning
As we get older, our skin tends to thin which is generally a natural bodily reaction to things like sun exposure and we stop producing as much collagen and elastin.
This all leads to frail, thin skin – but thankfully retinol can mitigate these factors as the increased cell proliferation helps to build up the epidermis (the outer three layers of skin).15
How to use retinol
Use the smallest amount – a pea-sized drop, just enough to cover your face with a thin layer as it can be pretty strong.
Apply it to clean, dry skin in order to get the best effects.
Wait for 20 minutes before applying your usual serums on top.
Use acids, such as AHAs, PHAs and BH alongside retinol as this can damage the skin’s barrier and increase sensitivity to the sun.
Use acne products at the same time as retinol as a lot of acne products can be drying as well so it may damage your skin.
Forget to apply SPF every morning to prevent your skin from sunburn or discolouration as some retinol products can cause sun sensitivity.
Use your regular moisturiser before applying if you struggle with sensitive or dry skin.
Be patient with results, as it can take a while before you start to see the positive effects of retinol on your skin.
As with all skincare products, it’s advisable to do your homework when purchasing retinol and start with a low strength formula, i.e. around 0.05% (unless you have a prescription-strength cream from your GP).
You may be keen to see results right away, but it’s essential that you start slowly with retinol. By that, we mean to apply it once a week for a week, then two nights a week for two weeks, then three nights a week for three weeks etc. and build up your use of it over time.
It’s also incredibly important that you apply an SPF 30+ to your skin. As well as maintain the efficacy of the topical retinol ingredient in the sun.
Using retinol for dry skin
Some people experience dryness when using retinol, especially in cases where people already have dry skin.
However, dermatologist Michele Green, M.D suggests, in this case, to build up your use of retinol slowly, starting from twice a week and gradually building up to daily uses once your skin has built up a tolerance.16
The same applies if your skin is sensitive, as retinol can potentially exacerbate any existing skin concerns, such as flakiness and peeling. So again, it’s best to approach with caution and seek professional advice if you’re unsure.
What is retinol skin peeling?
Otherwise known as retinisation, this is essentially the period of adjustment when your skin is getting used to the retinol.
Jenny Kim, M.D., Ph.D, professor of Dermatology, Medicine, and Nutrition at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA explains that it is generally normal to experience a period of sensitivity, dry skin and peeling and it should go away within a month.17
Is retinol good for skin?
Retinol’s good for the skin in the sense it can help achieve some or all of the benefits mentioned above (note – everybody’s skin is different and everybody, therefore, won’t see exactly the same results with retinol).
As with all skincare products, it’s advisable to do your homework when purchasing retinol and start with a low strength formula, i.e. around 0.05% (unless you have a prescription-strength cream from your GP). Always conduct a patch test before using a new retinol product.
You may be keen to see results right away, but it’s essential that you start slowly with retinol.
It’s also incredibly important that you apply an SPF 30+ to your skin. As well as maintain the efficacy of the topical retinol ingredient in the sun.18
Which retinol product should you go for?
All skincare products contain different ingredients and all of them work in different ways. They also all have the ability to impact our skin differently.
Just because the last person to review the product you’ve got your eye on had an amazing experience, doesn’t necessarily mean the same’s going to happen to you, as everybody’s skin is different.
Some people have dry skin, some people have oily skin, some people have mature skin and some people have a bit of a mixture of everything.
It’s precisely why it pays to do your research before experimenting with any new type of product, retinol included, especially as it’s available in both over-the-counter and prescription formulations.
H&B experts recommend: best retinol serums
Have you heard some great stuff about retinol serums? Are you already using one and are curious to see if you’re using the best one?
H&B experts recommend: best retinol serums
Different types of retinol
These are products you can easily buy yourself online or in-store. One look at the small print, and you’ll see they contain different ingredients (some that are stronger than others):
- Retinyl palmitate (the weakest of the retinoids)19
- Retinol (the next strongest)20
- Retinaldehyde (even stronger)21
- Adapalene 0.1% (the strongest over-the-counter option that's also specifically formulated to support acne and is prescribed by GPs)22
As the name suggests, these are retinol products that are prescribed to you by your GP.
These tend to be stronger retinoids, Tretinoin (Retin-A, generic), Tazarotene (Adage, Tazorac), and Adapalene 0.3% (Differin). They reportedly work faster and more effectively, but can also be irritating, which brings us nicely to our next point….23
Different forms of retinol
As well as over-the-counter or prescription retinol, there are also different formats to consider too.
If you’re after a product that offers a rich and moisturising texture, retinol cream could be the option for you. Usually, in the form of a night cream, these act just like your regular moisturiser but with the added benefits of retinol.
Arguably the most common format, retinol serums are simple and easy to use products that usually just offer retinol on its own. However, they do also come with added ingredients like vitamin C – and in a range of different strengths.
For the simplicity of serums and the moisturising effect of creams, a good middle ground for your skin may be retinol oils which are another option for you to consider.
When to avoid using retinol
As retinol can be quite a drying ingredient, it may not be suitable for those who already have dry skin. It can also be quite a potent product, so you’ll want to be cautious if you have sensitive skin or certain skin concerns.24
It’s also a good idea to not use other potent products, like salicylic acid, at the same time. This might be too much for your skin to handle.25
While the absorption of vitamin A from skincare products is relatively low, it is not recommended to use any form of retinol product during pregnancy as this may harm the baby.26
It’s also worth mentioning that people have reported unpleasant reactions to retinol when used in conjunction with hair removal techniques like waxing.
This can lead to skin damage and potentially scarring, so try to avoid using it on areas that you also get waxed.27
Potential retinol side effects
While retinol products are generally thought to be safe for most skin types, it’s a good idea to do a patch test before using them.
Some retinol side effects might include:
- Sensitivity and dryness
If you experience any of the above side effects, consider a low-percentage product or consult a dermatologist or healthcare professional to be on the safe side.
It’s also useful to remember that some peeling and dryness is to be expected when using retinol products, as they exacerbate cell turnover.31
Retinol and sunshine
It’s worth bearing in mind that retinol products can cause sun sensitivity.32
So you may have heard some stories relating to retinol, sun damage and skin thinning.
This is because retinol makes your skin more sensitive to UV rays and sunlight, so SPF is strongly recommended when using topical retinol.
If you have pre-existing skin concerns or sensitive skin, it may be a good idea to avoid retinol products and instead look for face cream or serum that’s better suited to your skin type.
But as we’ve mentioned, it’s worth speaking to a medical professional first before ruling anything out.
Is retinol safe?
Yes – retinol used in cosmetics and medical products are of course safe to use as all cosmetic and medical products are legally required to be safe for consumer use. Retinol would not be used in topical products if there weren’t substantial evidence of safety.
But it’s important to remember that while retinol is marketed as being suitable for most people, different strengths are appropriate for different skin types.
Like with all beauty products, it’s essential to read the label and follow the instructions carefully. Using too much retinol or using it too often might have unwanted side effects.
If you’re anxious about your skin, consider talking to a dermatologist or your doctor about the best route forward.
Fortunately no, retinol does not thin skin. The results are quite the opposite, with the thickening of the epidermis!
However, this is a commonly believed myth because of the initial stages of using retinol when the skin can start to peel as it adjusts to the product.
Retinol is used in skincare products because of its healthy-ageing properties and its success with helping breakouts.
There are a variety of types of retinol on the market, and while all are a gentler version of the prescribed Retin-As, they’re still effective on your skin.
However, you can still choose the percentage of retinol in your products, depending on your skin type and preferences.
Once your skin has adapted, retinol is safe to use every day. Just make sure to use an SPF during the day to keep your skin protected as it can increase your skins sensitivity to the sun.
This largely depends on where you’re at with using your retinol. To begin with, a couple of times a week will work. But as your skin starts to adapt, you could try and build this to every day.
The final say
From reducing fine lines and wrinkles to unclogging pores, the results retinol can achieve differ from person to person. Although it can take a while to work.
It might take as long as three months before you start seeing results and, for some products, this could be even longer.
Patience is vital with this skincare product, although you should always stop use if you notice any sensitivity or discomfort.
We hope you’ve found this article useful in helping you get to grips with all things retinol and you’re feeling confident about giving this super popular skincare ingredient a go.
Last updated: 4 August 2022