This Is How Long It Takes for Retinol to Actually "Work"

Photo: H&M

True story: About a month before my friend's wedding, she had deep, cystic hormonal acne along her jawline and was desperate for a solution so she could walk down the aisle and well into married life with clear skin. On top of recommending a clean, gentle skincare regimen, I gave her a tube of a prescription-strength retinoid cream hoping it would work wonders. She used it religiously up until the day of the wedding, but on her big day, her skin was still smattered with large, inflamed breakouts. We were able to conceal them well with makeup and no one was the wiser, but still, I was sad for her that she couldn't have her dream skin on her dream day and wondered why the retinol had failed her. Turns out, she should have started using it three months back.

When you first start using a retinol or a prescription retinoid, you'll go through a process called "retinization." During this period, your skin is getting used to the retinol and may see redness, dryness, and flakiness as a result of the retinol breaking down the "sticky" cells causing buildup within your pores. 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. If the retinization process is intolerable, Melissa Levin, MD, recommends 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. Clinical studies have seen an 87% decrease in acne lesions after 12 weeks of using a retinoid.

If you're using retinol to reduce wrinkles, that process can take even longer. Studies saw a significant decrease in wrinkles after about six months of use, but even better results were yielded up to a year after the start of application. Over time, retinols help boost collagen and thicken the deeper layer of skin where wrinkles begin to form, so long-term consistency will be worth the results.

When you're first starting out, you can use a retinol or retinoid every third night, but once your skin builds up a tolerance, try applying every other night (or every night if your skin can handle it) for best results. Sunlight deactivates retinoic acid, so only apply before going to bed.

Are you ready for the retinol commitment? Shop some of our favorite products below.