Retinol is a form of vitamin A. In recent years, retinol has gained popularity in the skin care market, due to its support of graceful aging and its beneficial effects on acne and skin tone.

Retinol comes as a liquid serum, gel, cream, and emollient. A person can apply it topically to reap the many benefits it may provide to the health of their skin.

This article will explain the benefits of retinol, how to safely incorporate it into a skin care routine, and any potential side effects.

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Retinol is a type of retinoid — a class of drugs that come from vitamin A. Retinoids include both over-the-counter (OTC) retinoid products and prescription retinoid medication.

OTC retinol comes in doses of up to 2%, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Stronger retinoids may require a prescription.

A person will typically use retinol as a topical treatment, meaning they can apply it to their skin.

Retinol can penetrate the layer of the skin known as the stratum corneum and can also slightly penetrate a deeper layer known as the dermis. Retinol converts into retinoic acid in the body, according to a 2019 research review.

When present in the layers of the skin, retinol promotes cell turnover and prevents the breakdown of collagen, a protein that promotes skin elasticity.

Retinol has many uses that can benefit skin health, due to its ability to penetrate the stratum corneum and the dermis of the skin.

To help treat acne

With acne — a common chronic skin condition — dead skin cells and oils from glands block the hair follicles of the skin.

Bacteria can also invade these blocked pores. This can result in inflammation and can cause:

  • blackheads
  • whiteheads
  • pimples
  • cysts

Topical retinoids such as retinol can reduce the abnormal skin peeling that blocks pores and unclog them, according to a 2017 article. Retinol can also reduce inflammation by blocking molecules that can cause inflammation.

A 2019 systematic review suggests that topical retinoids effectively and safely treat acne. It also suggests that the dose of a topical retinoid a person uses is more important than the type of topical retinoid they choose.

Additionally, the review notes that retinoid treatment in combination with an antimicrobial agent may improve the efficacy of acne treatment.

A person with severe acne may require stronger retinoids than retinol (a weaker retinoid), such as isotretinoin. These retinoids generally require a prescription from a dermatologist.

Learn more about how retinol can help treat acne here.

More on acne:

Anti-aging properties

Skin aging can occur due to biological age as well as external factors, such as:

  • ultraviolet (UV) light exposure
  • smoking
  • pollution

This can result in a loss of elasticity in the skin as well as the epidermis layer of the skin holding less water. Visible signs of skin aging include:

Skin aged by sun damage may also show darker spots on the skin, known as age spots, according to the AAD.

Retinol can protect against the breakdown of collagen, and it stimulates cell turnover and collagen production in the skin, per the 2019 research review mentioned earlier.

Additionally, retinol can strengthen the epidermis and reduce the amount of water that passively evaporates from the skin.

This can result in the skin looking plumper and can reduce and slow the signs of skin aging.

In a small 2017 study, topical application of retinol at a strength of 0.4% on participants resulted in increased epidermal thickness and improved blood flow to the treated area of skin.

Researchers also note an increase in collagen and elastin expression. This suggests that retinol improves the microenvironment of the dermis.

A 2019 study found that retinol improved the appearance of wrinkles around the eyes and on the neck after 8 weeks of use by participants.

Additionally, a small 2016 study compared the effects of retinol and retinoic acid. The study found that retinol has smaller effects but remains effective in increasing epidermal thickness and collagen expression.

Facial imaging analysis also demonstrated a significant decrease in facial wrinkles after participants had used retinol for more than 12 weeks.

More on pro-aging support:

To improve the appearance of skin

Retinol can improve the appearance of uneven skin tone and skin texture, due to its effect on cell turnover and collagen production. It can also brighten the skin.

A small 2020 study notes that hyperpigmentation and unevenness decreased in participants who used retinol serums at concentrations of 0.3% and 0.5% for 8 weeks. However, researchers also note that participants who used the 0.5% serum experienced more frequent symptoms.

A 2019 study investigated the effects of a 3% strength retinol peel in participants, including people of color. The study noted that the peel significantly improved pigmentation and complexion. The researchers suggest that this treatment option is safe and effective in people of all skin types.

However, the AAD notes that people of color, particularly people with dark skin, should be careful when using retinol. It may cause irritation, which can trigger hyperpigmentation.

The AAD recommends that a person using retinol start slowly and monitor its effects.

More on skin health:

Other benefits

Other benefits to using retinol include:

  • Treatment of keratosis pilaris: Retinol can treat keratosis pilaris, a condition that causes the skin to be rough and bumpy, according to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD).
  • Protection of the skin: Research shows that retinol also strengthens and thickens the epidermis, which may protect the skin against external stressors such as pollution.
  • Minimizing scars and pores: Retinol can also improve the appearance of acne scars, per the AAD. It can also minimize the appearance of pores, 2019 research suggests.

Retinol side effects will typically occur when a person uses retinol for a prolonged period of time or uses a higher concentration. Side effects may include:

  • excessive skin dryness
  • flushed skin
  • itchy skin
  • scaling of the skin

Less common side effects may include:

  • discoloration of the skin
  • sensitivity to UV light
  • flare-up of acne
  • skin swelling
  • stinging and blistering of the skin

Retinol use can make the skin more sensitive to sun damage, so the AAD recommends using sunscreen after retinol use and wearing protective clothing.

As a topical treatment, retinol comes in a liquid serum, gel, cream, and emollient form.

A person using retinol for the first time should conduct a patch test first to ensure that their skin does not react negatively.

A person can apply retinol once per day and about 20–30 minutes after cleansing the face, according to the AOCD.

The AAD recommendation is that a person newly starting retinol should start slowly and at a lower concentration to determine how well their skin tolerates it. The AAD also advises applying retinol at night.

A person should check product instructions before use, as products containing retinol will vary in concentration. A person should apply sunscreen after retinol use to prevent sun damage.

Retinol is a type of retinoid, a derivative of vitamin A. A person may obtain this weaker retinoid over the counter in various forms.

Retinol can improve skin texture and tone and can also help combat conditions such as acne. Retinol also has graceful aging effects by stimulating collagen production and cell turnover.

Common side effects of retinol include itchy, dry, and flushed skin.

A person can apply retinol once per day. Retinol can increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun and a person should apply sunscreen after use.