How to Apply Retinol for Multiple Skin Benefits (2024)

Retinol is a form of vitamin A used as an ingredient in skin creams, lotions, and serums. Products containing retinol are very popular and widely available as over-the-counter (OTC) products.

When used on the surface of the skin (topically), retinol’s benefits include preventing skin changes associated with aging, fading dark spots, and helping clear acne.

This article will discuss retinol as a skin care ingredient, explain its benefits, identify the formulations in which retinol can be found, and discuss who should and shouldn’t use retinol. It will cover when to start using retinol, what retinol is good for, how often to use retinol, and how long retinol takes to work.

How to Apply Retinol for Multiple Skin Benefits (1)

Skin Benefits of Retinol

The benefits of retinol include a more even skin tone, a reduction in skin pigmentation, and improved skin texture. It can help treat mild acne and mild fine lines and wrinkles.

Retinol and Vitamin A

Retinol is one of the chemical compounds of vitamin A. Vitamin A is a nutrient the body needs in small amounts, typically from the diet. Vitamin A can also be taken as a supplement or as part of a multivitamin, and studies suggest it may help prevent or treat some cancers.

Fading Dark Spots

Retinol can help fade dark spots. This is useful for treating dark acne scars, melasma, and liver spots (solar lentigo).

Fine Lines and Wrinkles

Retinol has what some consider antiaging effects by treating mild fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol can plump the skin by building collagen (a protein that helps hold tissues together) and prevent and potentially reverse sun-related photoaging, which is damage due to ultraviolet (UV) exposure.

Controlling Acne

Retinol can help unclog blocked pores that lead to blackheads, whiteheads, and acne. It can be used with an antibacterial agent, which can go into the pores and destroy the bacteria inside them.

Flaky Skin

Retinol and related retinoid Fabior (tazarotene) may help improve the texture of rough and flaky skin conditions. Specifically, Fabior is used to treat psoriasis (an autoimmune skin disease). Retinoids help regulate the shedding of epidermal skin cells and can decrease inflammation, two things that worsen flaky skin.

Application of Different Retinol Formulations

Retinol can be found in many leave-on treatments, including moisturizers, creams, eye treatments, and serums. There’s no optimal concentration that balances skin irritation against effectiveness for everyone—it’s a personal preference based on the sensitivity of your skin and how oily or dry it is.

In skin care products, the concentration of retinol is typically between 0.0015% and 0.3% though labels don’t typically indicate the amount in the product. You can see where the retinol is included on the ingredients label—the higher on the label, the more retinol.

Retinol vs. Retin-A (Tretinoin): What’s the Difference?

Most of these products are made to be used daily during your facial care routine. It’s OK to use retinol every day. If your skin is extra sensitive, use it every other day. You may consider starting off using your retinol product just two to three times a week. Try a weaker formula first if you still have an unpleasant reaction.

Retinol vs. Retinoids vs. Retin-A

You may be confused about the differences between retinol, retinoids, and Retin-A. "Retinoid" is an umbrella term for all skin care ingredients derived from vitamin A. Retinol is a retinoid used in skin care. Retin-A is the brand name for tretinoin, a prescription-only retinoid that is stronger and works faster than retinol.

Wash your face before applying your retinol product. When your skin is completely dry (20 to 30 minutes after washing), apply a pea-sized amount of the retinol product. Use your fingers to work the product into your skin. Apply your retinol product first, then apply moisturizer and sunscreen during the day.

Skin Care and Products

Retinol comes in many formulations. Follow the application instructions on the bottle of any given product. Formulas that might contain retinol:

  • Serums: Used on the skin after cleansing but before moisturizing, serums deliver active ingredients directly to the skin.
  • Creams: These are the least irritating and often contain moisturizers that help fight the drying effects of retinol.
  • Gels: These are the least likely to interfere with makeup.
  • Sunscreens: Added sun protection is necessary when you’re using retinol products. Look for at least a 30 sun protection factor (SPF) sunscreen.
  • Eye treatments: Retinol is a gentle option for sensitive skin around the eyes.

How Long Until Retinol Starts to Work?

You can start using retinol products at any time. For fine lines and wrinkles, consider starting retinol around your late 20s. To fight acne, these products can be used at any age after puberty—the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves retinol and retin-A for use in people age 12 and up. Skin care products with retinol are generally fairly gentle compared to other retinoids.

The longer you use them, the more likely you'll see results such as skin firming and smoothing and the reduction of dark spots. These results may not show up for six months or longer. Results are cumulative, so the longer you use the retinol, the better results you will see.

More potent retinoids like Differen (adapalene), Zenatane (isotretinoin), Retin-A Micro (tretinoin), and Aklief (trifarotene) can also take 12 weeks or more for acne-fighting effects.

Skin Purging With Acne Products

When to Avoid Retinol (and Possible Skin Damage)

Generally, avoid retinol if you have skin allergies or excessive dryness.

On the label as a skin care ingredient, retinol derivatives may also be called retinal (retinaldehyde), retinal esters (retinyl palmitate and retinyl acetate), or retinyl linoleate. Two derivatives—retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate—should be avoided as they can increase skin cancer risk.

Because retinol removes the outer layer of dead skin cells, it reveals the fresh skin beneath that is also more sensitive to the sun. This can lead to skin damage and even skin cancer. If you're at a higher risk for skin cancer due to family history or other conditions, you may want to avoid products that make your skin more sensitive to the sun's damaging rays.

Avoid skin damage and sunburns by using sunscreen every day. Use the retinol product at night. During the day, avoid direct sunlight on treated skin areas—stay in the shade, and wear sun-protective clothing, like a wide-brimmed hat, to shade your face.

Potential Side Effects

Topical retinol may make your skin a bit pink after application. You may also feel mild stinging, dryness, scaliness, or itching. Side effects depend on how much retinol you use and how often you use it. More potent retinoids are more likely to cause side effects.

People with eczema should be cautious when using retinol and retinoids. These compounds' side effects will likely worsen in people whose skin is already sensitive and dry. Retinol is less likely to lead to these side effects than other retinoids.

These compounds may even trigger eczema in the long term, developing a condition called epidermal barrier dysfunction leading to eczema and other skin disorders.

You should also avoid using topical retinol and other retinoids during pregnancy. Never use oral retinoids during pregnancy. Pregnant people should not use retinol or Retin-A. Newer retinoids may present less risk, but talk to your healthcare provider before starting use or continuing to use these products.

Retinol Alternatives

Retinol is a first-generation retinoid. Many compounds derived from it are more effective at fighting acne or aging but may also have more side effects.

Other retinoids that may be alternatives to retinol if it is not effective enough include:

  • Retin-A Micro (tretinoin)
  • Differin (adapalene)
  • Fabior (tazarotene)

Other OTC acne fighters include benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is an exfoliant that may reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, as well.

Lifestyle for Healthy Skin

Staying hydrated, eating healthy, and exercising are all critical in making your skin look younger. But they aren’t going to exfoliate (remove) dead skin cells, undo sun damage, or rebuild the collagen in your skin. You also need to continue to protect your skin with sunscreen to avoid sun damage and reduce your risk of skin cancer.

Other alternatives for firming and preventing redness and dark spots include antioxidants like vitamins C and E.

Adapalene vs. Retinol: Which One Is Right For You?


Retinol, a form of vitamin A, is a popular ingredient in skin care products. When applied to the skin, retinol has skin-smoothing effects, fades dark spots, and treats acne. It helps even skin tone, improves texture, and treats mild acne, fine lines, and wrinkles.

Retinol can effectively fade dark spots such as hyperpigmentation, melasma, and liver spots. It can also reduce some of the signs of aging skin. It can stimulate collagen production, plumping the skin, and reverse sun-related aging due to UV exposure. Retinol helps control acne by unclogging pores and killing bacteria. It can also improve the texture of rough and flaky skin conditions.

Retinol is in moisturizers, creams, eye treatments, and serums. You can start using retinol in your late 20s to increase your collagen production and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. For acne treatment, you can use it at any age after puberty.

Retinol may cause mild side effects such as dryness, scaliness, or itching. Individuals with eczema should use caution, as retinol may worsen their symptoms. Don't use retinol if you have eczema, are pregnant, or are at a high risk of developing skin cancer.

Alternative retinoids include tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene, and others. These are stronger and may be more effective but have more side effects. Alternatives for acne treatment include benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Retinol alternatives for reducing the appearance of aging skin include antioxidants like vitamins C and E.

How to Apply Retinol for Multiple Skin Benefits (2024)
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