Dermatologists Want You To Know These 15 Hidden Retinol Facts

Sometimes more is not more.

by The Zoe Report and Natasha Marsh
Originally Published: 
woman with glowing skin and retinol use

Is there any ingredient more hyped, loved, feared, or misunderstood than retinol? The powerful vitamin A derivative is now more accessible than ever, thanks to over-the-counter formulas like Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream and Mara Beauty Algae Retinol Oil. But, per usual, this boost in popularity has triggered an onslaught of rumors: Sensitive skin can’t handle retinol! It shouldn’t be mixed with AHAs! It thins out your skin! To separate the rumors from the truth, TZR consulted dermatologists and found out the retinol facts that you may have bypassed.

"Retinol can be beneficial for inflammatory conditions such as acne and redness, or for signs of mature skin, like lines and wrinkles," Dr. Neil Sadick, board-certified dermatologist at Sadick Dermatology in New York City, tells TZR. "It's also useful for preventing the signs of aging by encouraging the production of collagen."

That said, retinol famously causes irritation for many who use it, since it's essentially re-training your skin cells to turnover at a faster rate. There's a "learning curve" for the skin during the first few weeks of use, which typically presents as dry skin, redness, peeling, and overall inflammation.


Despite the side effects, dermatologists maintain that everyone can benefit from a dose of retinol — yes, even those with sensitive skin. However, in this case, what you don’t know actually can hurt you. Read on to discover all you need to know about retinol — from how to incorporate it into your skin care routine to common mistakes to avoid — to gracefully sidestep the side effects.

1. Retinol Can Decrease The Appearance Of Wrinkles

“Retinol is thought by dermatologists to be the most effective cosmeceutical rejuvenating ingredient,” Dr. Craig Kraffert, a board-certified dermatologist, tells TZR. “The benefits are scientifically proven via rigorous studies and include improving conditions associated with chronological aging, such as wrinkles and fine lines. It alters the behavior of aged epidermal and dermal cells so they act in a more youthful manner, while preserving and enhancing skin’s supportive blood vessel network.” Because the ingredient can boost collagen production, fine lines are plumped and smoothed for that youthful glow.

2. You Don’t Need To Wait Until You Have Wrinkles To Use Retinol

“It is erroneously thought that retinol products are best reserved until wrinkles have already developed, but this is not true,” Dr. Kraffert says. “It is completely appropriate for 20-somethings to incorporate retinol into an anti-aging skin care regimen.” Consistency of use, along with starting on your retinol journey at a younger age, will definitely lead to more satisfying results for your skin.

3. Prescription-Strength Retinol May Be A Better Fit For Fighting Acne

While over the counter retinol is ideal for treating and preventing signs of aging, dermatologists say that those looking to eliminate acne may want a prescription dose, instead. "Over-the-counter versions are primarily used for anti-aging benefits," Dr. Joshua Zeichner of Zeichner Dermatology tells TZR. "But prescription-strength retinoids, such as tretinoin, have been used for decades to treat acne." If fewer breakouts is what you're after, talk to your dermatologist before filling your Sephora cart.

4. Over-The-Counter Retinol Can Cause Irritation

“Retinol has a very diverse set of biological effects: reduction of inflammation and stimulation of collagen production,” Dr. Sadick says. That being said, it has some not-so-great effects, too. “Common side effects can be irritation, redness, flaking, and retinol peeling skin,” he says. “It’s not uncommon to feel a tingling effects when you apply retinol-containing cream.”

5. Opt For Soothing Ingredients To Use With Retinol

“Retinol products are often mixed with antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E; colloidal oatmeal; or peptides, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid,” Dr. Sadick notes. “These ingredients work synergistically with retinol to counteract irritation, and provide hydration and nourishment to the skin.”

6. No, Retinol Doesn’t Thin Your Skin

“There are a few myths about retinol products that may erroneously shy potential users away, including the idea that retinol products will thin out skin over time,” Dr. Kraffert says. “This is simply not true; retinol has a tendency to slightly thicken skin.” The ingredient does this by boosting your natural production of collagen, leading to fewer fine lines and wrinkles and plumper, bouncier skin.

7. Retinol Doesn’t Lead To Skin Cancer, Either

“Another incorrect idea is that retinol products increase the risk of skin cancer,” Dr. Kraffert tells TZR. This may because the ingredient makes skin more sensitive and thus, more prone to sun damage. The real retinol fact: “Retinoid products like retinol are well known to correct pre-cancers, slow growth of existing skin cancer and decrease the risk of developing new skin cancer,” he says.

8. Retinol Should Always Be Paired With Sunscreen & Antioxidants

“Retinoids perform best when included within a skin care regimen that also emphasizes daily use of broad-spectrum SPF or higher sunscreen on all exposed skin,” Dr. Kraffert says. Since retinol makes the skin more sensitive to pollution-induced irritation, “inclusion of antioxidant [or anti-pollution] skincare products within one’s daily skin care regimen is also important,” he says.

9. Use Retinol Less Frequently In The Winter

“In the winter, our skin becomes drier and more sensitive, so it's important to listen to your skin — sometimes we’re able to use retinols nightly in the summer months, but need to cut it down to a few times a week in the winter months,” Dr. Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, medical director of Mudgil Dermatology, explains.

10. No Smoking

“Completely avoid cigarettes and secondhand smoke,” Dr. Kraffert advises. Retinol makes the skin more sensitive to environmental aggressors, so retinol peeling skin is more likely to be damaged by pollution particles from smoke. This is a good rule of thumb for your overall health and your skin, but it’s even more important when you’re using retinol products.

11. Water Can Exacerbate Retinol Irritation

“Wait 30 minutes after washing your face to apply retinol,” Dr. Audrey Kunin, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of DERMAdoctor, tells TZR. “Water mixed with retinoids can exacerbate the side effects (retinol peeling skin and retinol dry skin).” Check the ingredients of your toners, essences, and serums before you apply retinol, too. “Water is frequently number one ingredient in skin care and can accidentally cause irritation,” she explains.

12. It’s Best To Use Retinol Products At Night

“The best way to use retinol is at night, where you are resting and the agent can work in full force, without being interrupted by exposure to sun, elements, excess facial muscle movement,” Dr. Sadick says.

13. Skip Harsh Actives With Retinol

While the latest retinol formulations are nano-encapsulated and thus somewhat immune to chemical degradation, retinol itself is an inherently unstable molecule that is rapidly oxidized and degraded by benzoyl peroxide and cosmeceutical strength AHA products (in addition to UV light and environmental oxygen),” Dr. Kraffert says. In layman’s terms, these ingredients will cancel each other out. “For best product results, one should not mix retinol products with AHAs, BHAs, or benzoyl peroxide.”

14. Start With A Low Retinol Percentage

“Over-the-counter products do not always disclose the percentage of retinol they contain, but are typically less than one percent,” Dr. Sadick says. “That’s a pretty strong percentage, so if you have never used retinol before, start with a lower percentage, such as 0.5 percent. It may be wise to perform a skin test prior to using it on the face.”

“One percent has been shown to be the most effective OTC level of retinoid,” Dr. Kunin adds. “Anything with a higher level may lead to skin irritation.” However, once your skin has become accustomed to retinols, you can (slowly) increase the percentage you use for better results.

15. You Don’t Need To Use Retinol Every Night

“Less is more,” Dr. Mudgil says. “Some patients are able to use retinol nightly, some folks can only use it two to three times a week. If your skin is getting irritated, try using less product. If your skin is still getting irritated, cut down the frequency of application.”

Ahead, 13 over-the-counter retinol products to use (with caution!) for smooth, clear, youthful skin.

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