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What is Retinol? Get to Know This Popular Skin Care Ingredient

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Retinol has earned its status as skin care royalty . It’s a powerful way to help common skin complaints like sun spots and wrinkles, but it’s often misunderstood. Here’s how to use it the right way. (And how to know when you should steer clear.)

What is retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid that’s derived from vitamin A. It works like an antioxidant to protect your skin from free radicals. It can also boost your bod’s collagen production, brighten your skin, and shrink the appearance of your pores. All of this makes it a top-notch treatment for mature-looking skin and acne.

What are the benefits?

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No.141 - Humectant

Retinol packs a ton of perks. Here’s the highlights.

Pro-aging. Studies show retinol can boost skin cell turnover, increase skin elasticity, and prevent moisture loss. This can give your skin a more youthful, plump lewk.

Sun damage. Retinol has some rockin’ antioxidant properties that can help repair hyperpigmentation and lighten dark spots.

Improves texture. Retinol can pump up the volume on collagen production. This can help give your skin a smoother, more even appearance.

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Clears acne. Research shows retinol can help unclog pores, reduce sebum production, and calm inflammation. So it might help you ditch your zits. Bonus: It has the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)‘s stamp of approval.

Who shouldn’t use retinol?

You shouldn’t use retinol if you’re preggo or breastfeeding. You also need to be careful if you have super sensitive skin or a condition like rosacea, eczema, or psoriasis.

FYI: Retinol doesn’t play well with certain skin care ingredients including the following:

  • vitamin C
  • salicylic acid
  • benzoyl peroxide
  • beta hydroxy acids
  • alpha hydroxy acids

What are the side effects?

Over-the-counter (OTC) topical retinols are usually very safe. But there are some potential probs to be aware of.

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No.142 - Humectant

Possible side effects include:

  • irritation
  • dryness
  • redness
  • flaking skin
  • acne breakouts (but this is rare)

PSA: It can take your skin a few weeks (or longer) to get used to retinol. You should only use it once a week until you know your skin can handle it.

How to use retinol

Incorporating retinol into your skin care routine is super simple. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser.
  2. Dab a pea-size amount of retinol onto your nose, forehead, chin, and each cheek.
  3. Gently rub the retinol into your skin.
  4. Apply a moisturizing skin serum to your face.
  5. Finish off with a hydrating cream.

Reminder: Start slow. Use retinol once a week until your skin adapts to it. Then you can use it twice a week or as directed by your dermatologist.

How long does it take retinol to work?

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It usually takes 3 months to see a noticeable difference in your skin. But for the best results, you may have to wait 6 months to 1 year. As for acne, it can take up to 6 weeks to notice improvements.

Keep in mind, everyone’s skin is different. Results can depend on your skin type and how severe your symptoms are.

What are the best retinols to use?

Ready for your retinol glow-up? Here’s the best retinol products for each skin concern:

  1. Best for newbies: Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Moisturizer
  2. Best for early signs of maturing skin: L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum
  3. Best for body: Paula’s Choice Retinol Body Treatment
  4. Best for acne-prone skin: Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1%
  5. Best for sensitive skin: CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Cream Serum
  6. Best for eyes: Eau Thermale Avene RetrinAL Eyes Contour Care

1. Best retinol for newbies

Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Moisturizer

This fab facial moisturizer is available at most pharmacies and drugstores. It goes on super smooth and it’s hella hydrating. The rich formula absorbs quickly and won’t leave you feeling greasy. We also love that it’s free from phthalates, fragrance, synthetic dyes, and mineral oil.

2. Best retinol for early signs of maturing skin

L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum

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No.501 - Frizzy Hair

With 0.3 percent pure retinol, this serum serves major anti-aging potential. It’s great if you’re starting to see fine lines and wrinkles pop up. The company claims it’s ideal for combination or sensitive skin, but it should work well on oily skin too.

3. Best retinol for body

Paula’s Choice Retinol Body Treatment

Show your bod some love with this lightweight moisturizer. As the retinol goes to work, shea butter and evening primrose oil will leave your skin baby-butt smooth. It also boasts vitamins E and C for an extra kick of antioxidants. BTW, Paula’s Choice says it’s suitable for all skin types.

4. Best retinol for acne-prone skin

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1%

This gel will help you send those pesky pimples packing. It targets breakouts deep in the pores and helps restore a smooth, even complexion. Reviewers say it took a few months to kick in, but after that the results looked solid. Note: It’s not meant to be used on eczema or sunburned skin.

5. Best retinol for sensitive skin

CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Cream Serum

This cream was designed with sensitive skin in mind. (And that’s great news since retinol can be a bit harsh.) Hyaluronic acid attracts moisture into your skin and ceramides help restore your skin’s natural barrier. But wait, there’s more! It’s noncomedogenic and budget-friendly.

6. Best retinol for eyes

Eau Thermale Avene RetrinAL Eyes Contour Care

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Show those crow’s feet who’s boss with this firming eye cream. The bomb blend of stabilized retinol and hyaluronic acid can reduce the signs of aging and improve puffiness. Some reviewers say it also helped reduce their dark circles.

Alternatives to retinol

Retinol isn’t for everyone. And that’s totally OK! Here are some alternatives that can help you achieve similar results.

  • Bakuchiol. A 2019 study found that this plant-based ingredient can decrease pigmentation and fine lines as well as retinol.
  • Rosehip oil. Rosehip oil is a popular stretch mark remedy, and lots of folks say it also works wonders on wrinkles. But we need more research to prove it works 10/10.
  • Rambutan. The high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities in this lychee-like plant make it a great acne treatment. A 2019 animal study found it can also improve signs of photoaging. But we need more studies on humans to know what’s up for sure.
  • Carrot seed oil. Studies show carrot seed oil contains antibacterial and antioxidant properties. This might make it a rad rejuvenator and acne remedy. Though more research on the effect of carrot seed oil on humans needs to be done.


Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that boasts beaucoup skin benefits. Specifically, it’s an uber popular anti-aging treatment that has promising pimple potential as well. Just keep in mind, it’s not for everyone. Folks who have certain skin conditions might want to try a gentler alternative.

Read more on: what is retinol

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