Retinol is one of those miracle products that diminishes fine lines and wrinkles, clears up blemishes, 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 potentially 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 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.
Keep reading for the most common retinol myths, debunked.
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 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."
Retinol Causes Sun Damage
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
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."
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
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
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.
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