Retinol is a common skin care ingredient that can help treat mild acne and improve the appearance of the skin.

It belongs to a group of drugs that experts call retinoids, and it is available in the form of serums, gels, creams, lotions, and wipes.

This article will explain what retinol is, how it works, and how to use it. It will also look at some of the other benefits of retinol, as well as the potential side effects.

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Retinol belongs to a group of drugs known as retinoids, which derive from vitamin A. Vitamin A is an essential vitamin that plays an important role in immunity, eye health, and skin health. It helps the skin maintain itself by stimulating the production of the proteins collagen and elastin.

Retinol is a common ingredient in many skin care products, including anti-aging and anti-acne products. Some people may also refer to retinol as a cosmeceutical.

It is typically a topical product, meaning that it is available as a cream, gel, or serum that a person can apply directly to their skin.

Retinol is not the same as prescription-strength retinoids such as tretinoin. It is less potent than prescription products, though it is stronger than other over-the-counter (OTC) retinoids, such as retinyl palmitate.

Since 1971, specialist skin doctors, or dermatologists, have recommended topical retinoids, such as retinol, to treat skin conditions. In particular, a dermatologist may recommend retinol for acne, fine wrinkles, or hyperpigmentation.

Acne can occur when oil and dead skin cells block pores on the skin. Bacteria can then mix with the blockage, leading to inflammation and bumps.

Retinol and other retinoids can help unclog the pores and enable the skin to repair itself, which can reduce swelling and smooth the skin. They can also help improve the appearance of acne marks and scars.

One 2017 study notes that topical retinoids are beneficial for treating both noninflammatory and inflammatory acne.

Another study indicates that retinoids can also reduce sebum production and bring about other effects that can help control acne.

Many expert groups and guidelines suggest that people should consider topical retinoids as the foundation of acne treatments.

As retinol is a weaker form of retinoid than the more potent types, it may be most suitable for mild-to-moderate acne. People experiencing more severe acne may want to discuss other treatment options, such as stronger retinoids, with a doctor.

People tend to apply retinoid medications to the skin once per day, about 20 or 30 minutes after cleaning their face. Doctors sometimes recommend only using them every other day at first. This is because they can cause skin irritation.

However, this is not the same for all retinol products on the market. Different creams contain different concentrations of retinol and different combinations of ingredients. Therefore, people using retinol products should follow the instructions on the label very carefully.

It is important to note that retinol, and other retinoids, may thin the outer layer of the skin, causing increased sensitivity to sunlight (photosensitivity) and an increased risk of sunburn and sun damage. So, people may prefer to apply retinol at night and ensure that they also use sunscreen during the day.

It is also worth remembering that the effects of retinol will only last if the person continues to use the product.

Although OTC retinol products are effective for treating acne, they will have less of an impact than prescription retinoids and will also take longer to achieve the desired results.

This is because retinol is not as potent, which is why it works best for mild-to-moderate acne. However, this also means that it is gentler on the skin.

In addition to retinol, people can also buy other OTC retinoid products. These can include weaker retinoids such as retinyl palmitate or stronger retinoids at weaker concentrations.

For example, people can purchase products containing 0.1% adapalene, while the prescription-strength product contains 0.3% adapalene.

In addition to treating acne, retinol has other potential skin care benefits. These include:

  • anti-aging, reducing fine lines and wrinkles
  • reducing pigmentation
  • improving skin elasticity
  • improving skin texture and tone

A 2016 study suggests that the topical application of retinol can provide similar anti-aging effects as stronger retinoids such as retinoic acid. It does so by encouraging the formation of collagen, which can improve the appearance of skin.

In addition to the above skin conditions, doctors may also recommend retinol to treat keratosis pilaris. This is a common skin condition wherein dead skin cells do not flake off and instead plugs hair follicles, resulting in small bumps.

Side effects of retinoid products are typically dose- and concentration-dependent. This means that they are more likely to occur with stronger retinoids, but they can still occur with retinol.

Side effects may include:

  • dry skin
  • flushing
  • scaly skin
  • itching

In rare cases, these products may also cause:

  • discoloration of the skin
  • initial acne breakouts
  • eczema flare-ups
  • swelling of the skin
  • blisters
  • stinging

Additionally, using retinol products may make the skin more sensitive to sunlight. Therefore, it is advisable to apply the products at night and use sunscreen during the day.

It is also advisable for pregnant people and those trying to get pregnant to avoid using retinol products, as certain retinoids may increase the chance of miscarriage and congenital anomalies.

Retinol is a type of retinoid. Retinoids are a group of medications derived from vitamin A. It is available over the counter in many formulations.

Retinol helps unblock pores, making it an effective treatment for acne. It can also help reduce signs of aging and improve skin texture and tone.

Retinol is less potent than prescription-strength retinoids. Because of this, people may use it to treat mild-to-moderate acne. People with more severe forms of acne may consider talking with a doctor about prescription-strength options.

Side effects of retinol products may include flushing, dryness, and itching. However, these tend to occur more often with higher strength retinoids.