It's rare to find a skincare ingredient that can quite literally do it all. Then there's retinol, an undisputed ingredient in the world of beauty that's touted as being the golden standard of skincare. Beyond being an effective anti-ager, the vitamin A derivative also targets breakouts for an overall clearer, poreless complexion, not to mention has exfoliating properties and can improve elasticity. But as with many potent ingredients, retinol has its own set of, shall we say, quirks. For one, it takes consistent, dedicated use to see results. It's also known to make skin conditions appear worse before they get better. Then there's the fact that retinol is available in a variety of forms (including Retin-A and retinoid) and percentages.
Needless to say, it can get rather confusing navigating the ins and outs of this beauty wonder, but pros across the board still agree that it's worth looking into. To learn all there is to know about retinol, we tapped two board-certified dermatologists: Melissa Levin and Marnie Nussbaum.
Meet the Expert
Read on to learn the benefits of retinol and how long it takes to see results.
What is Retinol?
Retinol is a vitamin A molecule that falls under the umbrella group of retinoids. There are a few different forms of retinol, each targeting a different concern, making them ideal for a variety of skin issues from aging to dark spots. According to Nussbaum, retinols are the MVP’s of your skincare regimen. "Retinols are vitamin A derivatives that are extremely effective at preventing and minimizing fine lines and wrinkles," she says. They've also been proven to increase collagen production and increase skin elasticity.
What Does Retinol Do?
Retinol has a slew of benefits and functions, many of which target common skincare concerns.
- Refines skin texture: "Retinols increase skin cell turnover and slough away dead skin cells," says Nussbaum. "By triggering the skin cells on the outermost layer of skin to turnover at a faster rate, new cells can generate, resulting in smoother, more even skin."
- Minimizes fine lines and wrinkles: Because retinols induce cellular renewal, they can help with increasing collagen production and skin elasticity. According to Nussbaum, they also encourage new skin cell formation as well as the production of collagen and elastin, which will help reduce fine lines and wrinkles.
- Clears clogged pores: If you have oily or acne-prone skin, retinol can serve as an effective blemish-fighting treatment. Retinol acts as an exfoliant and also "balances sebum production, consequently shrinking the pores to prevent them from getting clogged and inflamed," says Nussbaum.
How Does it Work?
So how exactly does this miracle ingredient work? Nussbaum explains that "retinol works deep within the skin where it boosts collagen synthesis, increases elasticity, and repairs connective tissue." When you first start using a retinol or a prescription retinoid, you'll go through a process called "retinization," a period of dry, red, peeling skin. "Upon application of retinol, you are essentially re-training your skin cells to turnover at a much faster rate," explains Nussbaum. "There's a 'learning curve,' or adjustment period, for the skin during the first several weeks of use, which is why many people may experience these irritating and inflammatory side effects." Don't freak out, though—this is all part of the process, and you need to stick with it in order to get to a point where your skin starts to clear.
What's the Correct Way to Use Retinol?
In the case of this powerhouse ingredient, less is more. Here's exactly how often to use retinol.
- Nussbaum recommends applying a pea-sized amount to the skin every few nights and titrate up based on skin tolerance.
- Upwards titration is key to maintaining healthy skin and compliance (and minimizing irritation). Irritation can also be mitigated by mixing a small amount of retinol (pea-sized) with your moisturizer prior to applying to the skin.
- You can apply all over the face, but avoid applying too close to the lash line.
- Avoid using retinoid around the eyes, as it can result in symptoms of dry eye.
Levin recommends that if the retinization process is intolerable for your skin, try applying a pea-size amount of the retinol or retinoid first, waiting a few minutes, and then applying a moisturizer to combat any dryness or flaking. Then, by week 12, or three months in, you'll start to see a marked difference in your skin's texture.
How Long Does it Take to See Results From Retinol?
Many who use retinol and don't see quick results wonder, "does retinol work?" The answer is yes, but if you're looking for an overnight treatment, you won't find it in retinol. "Results will depend on the potency levels found in the formula and, interestingly, some people convert retinol into retinoic acid more quickly than others," says Nussbaum, noting that the skin typically takes between three to four weeks to adapt to consistent use. "Diligent use of Retin-A is needed for two to three months to see visible results. Pending potency, OTC retinol can take up to six months to see results." That's not to say you won't see any benefits upon the first few uses. Nussbaum explains that in the short term, the benefits are that your skin will be exfoliated of dead skin cells and your pores will be unclogged.
If you're using retinol to reduce wrinkles, the process can be lengthy. Studies saw a significant decrease in wrinkles after about three months of use, but even better results were yielded four months after the start of the application. Over time, retinol help boosts collagen and thicken the deeper layer of skin where wrinkles begin to form, so long-term consistency will be worth the results. When used longer than six months, Nussbaum says that "you’ll start to benefit from new collagen & elastin production and a noticeable reduction of fine lines wrinkles and dark spots."
Which Retinol Products Should You Use?
If the mere thought of the slew of retinol products available makes you want to look elsewhere for a skin-reviving product, hear us out. Nussbaum breaks it down for us: Retinoids are a group of vitamin A derivatives while retinols and Retin-A are types of retinoids derived from vitamin A. "In order for retinoids to work their magic, they have to be converted to retinoic acid or Retin-A (Retin-A is actually the brand name for the medication tretinoin)," she says. "This will bind to skin cell receptors and give a call to action."
She explains that retinol is another form of retinoid, which is earlier in the cascade process—the process begins with retinyl palmitate, then retinol, retinaldehyde, and finally retinoic acid. "Retinol are the gentlest on the skin and least potent alternative, however, if your skin is tolerating retinols well and you aren't getting the desired results, you can up the ante to retinaldehyde, which can be more potent and effective at jumpstarting your skin cells." And if you're looking for the most potent option available, you'll find it in retinoic acid (or Retin-A, a prescription alternative).
Nussbaum recommends this eye cream as it contains a trifecta of dark circle-combatting, depuffing ingredients: pure retinol, gradual release retinol, and caffeine. "I recommend applying it along with a sunscreen in the morning or you can also use it nightly," she says.
Nussbaum touts this moisturizer as it features long-lasting retinol—aka the gold standard in anti-aging ingredients—which helps to minimize fine lines and wrinkles.
Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019;36(4):392-397. doi:10.5114/ada.2019.87443
Del Rosso JQ, Levin J. The clinical relevance of maintaining the functional integrity of the stratum corneum in both healthy and disease-affected skin. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2011;4(9):22-42.
Cleveland Clinic. Acne: management and treatment. Updated September 1, 2020.
Buchanan PJ, Gilman RH. Retinoids: literature review and suggested algorithm for use prior to facial resurfacing procedures. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2016;9(3):139-144. doi:10.4103/0974-2077.191653