Dermatologists Debunk 11 Common Retinol Myths

graphic with 3 different retinol products

Byrdie / Cristina Cianci

Retinol is a proven ingredient in skincare that can help reduce fine lines and wrinkles and blemishes while leaving behind brighter, smoother skin. But it can also cause some side effects, such as redness and dryness, making some people wary of adding it to their routine. There are also many misleading retinol myths circulating, such as retinol causing your skin to peel or burn easily. Some also wonder if retinol is good for dry skin or if it should be avoided by this skin type due to its potentially drying effects.

To get to the bottom of the retinol rumor mill, we reached out to Adam Friedman, Ali Tobia, and Julia Siegel to shut down these major retinol myths once and for all.

Meet the Expert

  • Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD is a board-certified dermatologist and professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
  • Ali Tobia is a licensed esthetician specializing in facial massage, dermal infusion, laser treatments, gua sha, lash lifting and tinting, and body and facial waxing.
  • Julia Siegel, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in Boston, Massachusetts and practicing at Boston Dermatology and Laser Center
  • Marnie Nussbaum is a New York-based board-certified dermatologist.

Keep reading for the most common retinol myths, debunked.

All Retinoids are Created Equal

To effectively incorporate a retinol product 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 Tobia. "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."

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Retinol is Bad for Dry Skin

Retinol is known to sometimes cause dryness, so this may lead you to wonder if retinol is good for dry skin or if it should be avoided. While retinol might not be ideal for everyone with dry skin, it can be tolerated by many.

Marnie Nussbaum, a New York-based board-certified dermatologist, previously explained to Byrdie that retinol boosts collagen synthesis, increases elasticity, and repairs connective tissue, which is all beneficial for dry skin. However, when you first start using retinol or a prescription retinoid, you will likely experience a time of dry and peeling skin, which is called retinization.

"You are essentially re-training your skin cells to turnover at a much faster rate," Nussbaum previously told Byrdie. This faster turnover rate can lead to irritation and inflammation, which may cause someone with dry skin to be concerned it's getting worse. This period should end after a few weeks, according to Nussbaum. Be sure to apply moisturizer to help combat the effects of dryness and prevent skin peeling during this time.

Retinol Causes Sun Damage

person standing in the sun on the beach

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According to Friedman, it is not necessary to avoid daylight while using a retinol product. "Retinol itself is not sun sensitizing," he says. "Just take the proper sun-protective precautions, such as using sunscreen daily, on affected areas."

Retinol Thins Skin

Not only is this one untrue—it's actually the opposite of the truth. "Retinol does not actually thin the skin," says Siegel. "It causes compaction of the stratum corneum (the very top layer), but overall thickens the epidermis."

Retinol Shouldn't Be Applied Around the Eyes

Being that the area around the eyes falls prey to wrinkles and crows feet, 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."

It Delivers Fast Results

Retinol may be known as a miracle product, but it doesn't work overnight. According to 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.

It Should Be Applied to Dry Skin

woman applying eye cream

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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 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. 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."

Key Ingredients

Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid that loosens bonds between dead skin cells. It helps stimulate collagen production and acts as a humectant, attracting moisture to the skin.

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 20s - 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.

It Makes Your Skin Peel

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While retinol can make your skin peel it is "mostly secondarily," says 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

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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.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatmentsPostepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019;36(4):392-397. doi:10.5114/ada.2019.87443

  2. Del Rosso JQ, Levin J. The clinical relevance of maintaining the functional integrity of the stratum corneum in both healthy and disease-affected skinJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2011;4(9):22-42.

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