Retinol is one of those miracle products that clears up blemishes, diminishes fine lines and wrinkles, and brightens the complexion. So why are so many people nervous about adding a retinol cream to their skincare regimen? Probably because of the many misleading retinol myths out there, such as retinol will make your skin peel, or you must avoid sun exposure if using retinol. Sure, retinol may not be for you—not every skincare product works for everyone—but don’t let these myths deter you from trying what could possibly be the answer to your skin woes.
To get to the bottom of the retinol rumor mill, we reached out to Dr. Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD, and associate professor of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, to shut down these major retinol myths once and for all.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD is a board-certified dermatologist and professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in New York, NY. His experience and work with nanotechnologies have lead to being published in medical journals over 120 times and winning awards such as the La Roche Posay North American Foundation Research Award.
Keep reading for Dr. Friedman’s expert take on these seven popular (and mostly untrue) retinol myths.
Myth 1: Avoid sun exposure
According to Dr. Friedman, it is "not necessary" to avoid daylight while using a retinol product. Since retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, can thin the skin, it decreases the skin's "protective capacity." However, "retinol itself is not sun sensitizing." Therefore, enjoy the sun, "just take the proper sun-protective precautions, such as using sunscreen daily, on affected areas," says Dr. Friedman.
Myth 2: Retinol thins skin
While this myth happens to be true, it's not as scary as it sounds. Retinol only thins the "very top layer" of skin, which Dr. Friedman says "is a good thing, as this will prevent skin pore-clogging as well as retention of dead skin cells."
Myth 3: Don't apply retinol around the eye area
Being that the area around the eyes falls prey to wrinkles and crows feet, Dr. Friedman says you "absolutely can" apply retinol under and around the eye. However, he cautions us to be mindful of applying retinol in this area, "as the skin is thin here; its ability to absorb and do its thing is greater and therefore the potential for irritation is slightly greater." So if you want to treat the eye area, be sure to "take the proper precautions—moisturizer to damp skin and use sun protection."
Myth 4: You will see results within one month
Retinol may be known as a miracle product, but it doesn't work overnight. According to Dr. Friedman, "Given [that] retinol works by literally augmenting the biology of the skin, it takes real-time. Most studies use 12 weeks as a cutoff to seeing any significant changes—as do I."
Myth 5: Always apply retinol to dry skin
If you've ever read the directions for applying retinol, you've likely seen the sentence, "Always apply retinol to dry skin." While this seems easy enough, if you prefer to do your skincare routine in the shower, you've likely wondered if this step is absolutely necessary. While Dr. Friedman says you don't have to apply retinol to dry skin, he does say that "applying retinol to dry skin will limit penetration and therefore irritation potential." In other words, sensitive skin ladies, it's probably best to stick to the instructions.
Myth 6: Retinols work by exfoliating the skin
When we think exfoliation, we think facial scrubs and chemical peels. Dr. Friedman is quick to point out that retinol "is not like an alpha hydroxy acid like glycolic acid that actually makes the skin peel. The 'exfoliation' noted is more gradual and based on how retinol can regulate how the skin makes itself."
Myth 7: Retinol will make your skin peel
While retinol can make your skin peel it is "mostly secondarily," says Dr. Friedman. When you use retinol, the skin loses water and "the top layer is dry; its ability to shed itself actually diminishes and therefore dead skin cells can get stuck (what we perceive as flaky, dry skin)." Hence it is important to moisturize regularly when using a retinol.
Now that the retinol rumors have been put to bed, shop some of our favorite retinol products below.
This retinol from PCA Skin claims to alleviate breakouts and lighten acne scarring thanks to powerhouse ingredients like vitamin A, C, and lactic acid. It also balances oil production thanks to witch hazel.
Shea butter is a plant lipid that comes from African shea tree nuts and is rich in fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins. It's used to help moisturize, nourish, and soothe the skin.
This overnight anti-aging cream uses retinol to fade lines and wrinkles while also hydrating the skin with shea butter.
This gentle formula of Shani Darden's original celebrity-favorite retinol (both Jessica Alba and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley use it) more than lives up to its hype by fading sunspots, scars, and diminishing the appearance of wrinkles.
If you're nervous about using retinol, I highly recommend this all-natural alternative that gently works to smooth and plump skin.
Want to learn more about retinol? Check out our comprehensive guide to everything you've always wanted to know about retinol.
Beckenbach L, Baron JM, Merk HF, Löffler H, Amann PM. Retinoid treatment of skin diseases. Eur J Dermatol. 2015;25(5):384-391. doi:10.1684/ejd.2015.2544