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 and Ali Tobia to shut down these major retinol myths once and for all. Below, we’re debunking the most common retinol myths.
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.
- Ali Tobia is a licensed esthetician specializing in facial massage, dermal infusion and laser treatments, gua sha, lash lifting and tinting, and body and facial waxing.
All Retinoids are Created Equal
To effectively incorporate retinol into your routine, you must understand the different options available to you. "Several potent retinoids are available only with a prescription: Tretinoin (popular under the Retin-A name), Isotretinoin (commonly known as Accutane), and Tazarotene (one of the most potent retinoids, this is often prescribed to treat psoriasis, but is sometimes used to treat acne)," says Tobial. "Over-the-counter retinoids tend to be a bit more all-encompassing, but can still be extremely effective for anti-aging utilities, and are often formulated to be gentler for your skin."
Retinol Causes Sun Damage
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.
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."
Prescription Retinol is Better Than OTC
You might assume that stronger automatically equals better when it comes to retinol, but don't hit up your dermatologist for Retin-A just yet. It's worth considering what your skincare goals are before you decide whether to go the prescription vs. over-the-counter route. "Prescription retinoids are often more potent, but that potency is usually most effective for a specific treatment (such as cystic acne or psoriasis)," explains Tobia. "OTC retinoids are gentler, but are usually the right option for general skincare and anti-aging usages."
"I try to explain it like a pain medication," Tobia continues. "The ibuprofen you get at your local pharmacy isn’t as strong as what you might get in the emergency room, but it’s still the more appropriate remedy for a regular headache."
Retinol Shouldn't Be Applied Around the Eyes
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."
Retinol Delivers Fast Results
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."
Retinol Must Be High-Strength
If you have more delicate skin, you can still enjoy the effects of retinol. "One of the fantastic parts about low-strength retinoids is that they do provide mild benefits while helping to adjust your skin to retinoids and allow you to avoid the sort of irritation and inflammation that sometimes accompanies the early stages of a potent retinoid treatment," says Tobia. The same goes for how often you apply it; begin with a lower strength retinoid a couple nights a week before building up to daily application.
Retinol Should Be Applied 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.
Retinol Exfoliates 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."
You Shouldn't Use Retinol Before Your Skin Has Visible Damage
Don't wait until you see the first signs of aging before incorporating retinol into your routine. "The best time to start using retinol is in your early 20’s - being proactive and preventative is definitely a good thing when it comes to skincare and anti-aging!" says Tobia. Start out with a gentle formula like First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate ($58). "The gentle formulation is a great way for acclimating your skin to Retinol and providing benefits while you build your skin’s tolerance to retinoids so that you can progress into a stronger product over time," says Tobia.
Retinol Makes 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.
"While some people do experience flaking and peeling when they start using retinoids, and acne-prone individuals can occasionally have a reaction/breakout when they first begin a retinoid regimen, it doesn’t have to be a necessary step in the process," notes Tobia. "The way to avoid that reaction phase is to begin with an extremely gentle retinoid, and then work up to a stronger formulation and more frequent application over the course of a few months."
Retinol Can't Be Mixed with Vitamin C
Retinol and vitamin C are both touted as extremely potent anti-aging ingredients, but they're often considered too harsh to be paired. Tobia says that's not the case, however. "In fact, there are some fantastic products that are specifically formulated to incorporate the benefits of vitamin C combined with vitamin A and retinoids," she says.
So, where does this myth come from? Tobia says it's "an incorrect assertion that the increased acidity from vitamin C somehow reduces the effectiveness of vitamin A." Turns out that the opposite is true: "There has been a lot of research more recently that shows that Retinol and vitamin C actually complement each other quite well, and provide stability for each other." She recommends products from Environ's Skin EssentiA and Youth EssentiA, which combine both retinol and vitamin C.
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