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What does Retinol Do for your Skin?

Updated: Jan 27, 2020


There are affiliate links below, but these are all products I highly recommend. I won’t put anything on this page that I haven’t verified and/or personally used.

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What does Retinol do for your Skin?

Some call it the holy grail of skincare, others have referred to it as the fountain of youth. These are only a couple of the various phrases used to describe retinol, a form of vitamin A with a long list of benefits to your skin. Products containing retinol can give an improved texture to your skin, diminish blemishes from acne and makes the skin look younger by boosting collagen production. It’s easy to see from all of these great benefits why retinol is so popular in the beauty and skincare industry. So how can you incorporate these products in your cleansing routine to get the best results. My picks for the best retinol formulas—from mild to potent are listed in this article too.

What is Retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid, derived from vitamin A. Your body naturally produces retinol, and aids in boosting cell turnover, which in turn kickstarts collagen production. More collagen production means reduced fine lines and wrinkles, and brighter younger looking skin, making beauty products with this type of vitamin A very enticing. Retinols are a more skin-friendly type of vitamin A that is regularly used in skin care products; much more powerful are retinoids, for which a prescription is required.

What's the Difference between Retinol and Retinoids?

Retinol is found in over-the-counter products and contains a lower concentration of the active ingredient. This means that it also works gradually to clear skin of blemishes and fine lines, because it takes more steps to be converted into molecules your skin can absorb.

Prescription formulas contain stronger retinoids – particularly retinoic acid, whereas nonprescription alternatives are based on formulas that get converted into retinoic acid at the cellular level when the product is put on your skin. Retinoids require a prescription and have a much higher dose of the active ingredient, so it readily absorbs into the skin without having to be converted. This means you’ll see results much quicker than you will while using retinol. This also means that retinoids are slightly more irritating to the skin than over-the-counter retinol-based products. If you are using retinol for the first time, it’s best to start out using very small dosages and gradually ramp up the strength (for example, using retinol over the counter products before using a prescription-based retinoid product). This will limit irritation to the skin when prescribed retinoid-based treatments.

When it comes to over the counter retinol products, other derivatives called pro-retinols (aka, retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate), are the gentlest on the skin — but also much weaker, and really don’t show the same benefits and effects that retinol products have demonstrated. Essentially, retinol products and retinoid prescriptions effectively work the same, however retinoic acid is stronger and results are faster acting. With retinol-based over the counter products the results and benefits are the same, but take longer and is a more gradual process.

What are the Side Effects?

When these products are used redness and peeling of the skin often occurs (particularly with prescription-only stronger doses), which turns a lot of people off. This is a side effect of your skin feeling irritated, and is not the same kind of exfoliating effect that you would get from a chemical peel using ingredients such as glycolic acid. If you have recently had a chemical peel (even a light one), wait a couple of weeks before introducing retinol-based products into your skin routine. On the other hand, if you’re preparing for a light chemical peel then retinol-based products can be great for the before-care process.

There are certain acids (like AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs) that should be used sparingly when using a retinol, and if you’re battling acne issues, you don’t want to use products containing benzoyl peroxide at the same time as using retinoids, since they can cancel out each other’s efficacy.

How Long Does it take to See a Difference in your Skin?

With any new skin routine or skincare product there is always a period of adjustment, and with retinol it does take a little time to see drastic results. Usually after about 4 -6 weeks you will start to notice differences in the appearance and texture of your skin. If you are using retinoids to treat acne, it can take about 12 weeks to see improvement. Over longer term usage (6 months and beyond), retinol kicks up the natural production of collagen and elastin which in turn reduces fine lines and wrinkles as well as lighten up any brown pigmentation in your skin as a result of aging.

What are the Best Retinols to Use?

One of the common myths about retinol is that you shouldn’t use it in the daytime because it makes the skin more susceptible to sunburn. It's true that retinoids break down in sunlight, this is why they are packaged in a specific way and why they are best to wear at night. Clinical studies have proven quite definitively that retinoids do not lower the MED (minimal erythemal dos) of human skin, which is the amount of UV light one can be exposed to before the skin burns. SkinMedica Retinol complex is a great starter retinol product as it is gentle enough for all skin types. This product is encapsulated with PhytoShield™ Complex, an antioxidant

complex, that is great for enhancing skin texture and minimizing irritation. It comes in .25 and .5 level and should be applied in the evening after cleansing and toning and before applying your moisturizer. If this is your first time using a retinol product start with using it twice a week, 2-3 days apart, gradually increasing the frequency to every other night, and then advancing to each evening or as tolerated by your skin.

Another one of my favorites for starter retinol use is Skincueticals Retinol Mx firming night cream. This product is a highly concentrated facial cream containing pure retinol, and really shows great results when it comes to improving appearance of fine lines along with minimizing breakouts. Glo Skin Beauty Retinol Serum is another great product, and has a nice exfoliant effect on the skin too.

Is Retinol for Me?

Both retinol and retinoid treatments have powerful effects on the skin. The results can be amazing but you need to make sure you adhere to your plan and do your homework on how this can be incorporated into your skin routine. Experimenting with retinol-based products is not like trying out a new moisturizer or lipstick – it’s a commitment and it needs to be used correctly to avoid undesirable side effects such as flaky skin (which can occur if you overdo it). If you find your skin is too irritated, try an ointment such as Emuaid First Aid Ointment or Aquaphor Healing Ointment - both of these products are really soothing and will help your skin bounce back much faster than your usual moisturizer.

Some beauty experts claim that mixing over-the-counter retinol products with a bit of moisturizer can help ease the skin into absorbing the active ingredient, and decreasing any initial flakiness that may occur when your skin reacts to it. This type of application is called ‘buffering’ which basically dilutes the retinol product for a gentler effect, and hydrates the skin at the same time with your moisturizer.

Selecting a good cleanser and exfoliator is also really important when it comes to a winning skincare routine. I find the ZO Skin Gentle Cleanser and ZO Exfoliating Polish to be a winning combination for your everyday skincare routine, and these products compliment stronger retinol treatments very nicely.

You can start using retinol as early as your 20s. This is the perfect age to dive into these products – they aid in boosting cell turnover, kickstarting collagen production, and reducing fine lines and wrinkles. Try incorporating retinol into your nightly routine after you cleanse and tone. After applying, use a hydrating lotion on top. Use retinol sparingly around the mouth area as this type of product can cause redness, irritation, and dryness.

If you’re in your 30s-40s, aside from sunscreen, the best product for smoothing the texture of your skin and making lines less visible is retinol. At this age you will be thankful to introduce its properties that promote skin renewal, reduce acne, and boost your skin’s collagen production.

If you missed out on benefitting from retinol products in your early years, it’s not too late to start. For those in their 50s, 60s and above, at this age, you’re probably noticing deeper fine lines, redness or the appearance of small veins around the nose, as well as thinner skin, and sun damage. Consider using retinol or a product containing tretinoin as it helps to thicken the skin with an increase in collagen and elastin development. In doing this, you will thicken the dermis and help the skin to maintain a healthy look.

No matter your age (as long as you’re at least over 20), over a long period of time retinoids work to improve your skin’s texture, tone and elasticity. Very few products work on so many different areas of skin health at the same time. Even if you don’t have acne or fine lines to battle, the ingredient gives you a fresh-from-the-spa glow and maintains an even skin tone.

Products featured in this article include:

*There are affiliate links below, but these are all products I highly recommend. I won’t put anything on this page that I haven’t verified and/or personally used.

This website is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to





Altreno - Retinoic Acid 0.5%: Retinoic Acid Is a RX product and can only be obtained through a licensed practitioner

Do not use retinol products if you are pregnant, lactating or planning to become pregnant. Mild redness, peeling and irritation are expected when using most retinol products.

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Maama Mung
Maama Mung
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