Do Retinoids Help Acne?
Acne is one of the most common skin conditions, and it occurs when the pores of the skin become clogged with hair, oils, bacteria, and dead skin cells, causing blockages in the form of pimples and blemishes. There are many different types of acne, and the good news is that retinoids are effective against all types.
How Topical Retinoids Treat Acne
Retinoids are a form of vitamin A derivatives, and are the mainstays of acne treatment given they have the ability to target the key pathogenic pathways of acne1. They are keratolytic in nature and move through the layers of the skin helping to dissolve the dead skin layers and promote new skin layers that come through smoother and softer2. Retinol works to prevent dead skin cells from getting clogged in pores, and also helps prevent scarring by preventing breakouts resulting from clogged pores3. If you’re plagued by blackheads and whiteheads, retinoids essentially help remove the keratin clogging those pores. As for inflamed, red bumps and pustules, retinol exfoliates the dead skin, allowing for other acne topicals to penetrate your skin more effectively. Retinoids increase the speed at which cell turnover occurs, helping to improve the appearance and texture of the skin. They encourage the removal of dead skin cells, thereby minimizing pores and promoting a brighter, more even complexion.
How to use Retinoids for Acne
Studies suggest that the local irritation associated with topical retinoids has been associated with poor treatment adherence by patients and that new generations and formulations of retinoids with improved stability and greater tolerability offer dermatologists improved options for ensuring proper treatment and greater success4. See Dr. Rivers’ suggestions on how to incorporate retinol into a routine here.
When incorporating retinoids into a skincare routine, it is best to begin with a low concentration and begin by applying it to the skin in short time increments before leaving on overnight. Retinoids should be applied to clean, dry skin and after eye cream, if used. Unlike other ingredients, retinoids are not used as a spot treatment for blemishes; instead, they should be applied on the entire affected area to both treat and prevent breakouts. A pea-sized amount should be used on the affected area spread in upward and outward motions. Since retinoids can be harsh on the skin, it is best not to use other irritating ingredients such as physical exfoliants and scrubs concurrently.
Instead, soothing products such as moisturizers should be used in combination with retinoids and reapplied as needed to combat dryness. Retinol can be applied after moisturizing or mixed into a moisturizing product for a gentler application. It is also recommended to use SPF when incorporating retinoids into a skincare routine as using retinoids increases the skin’s susceptibility to sun damage.
- Chien, A. (2018). Retinoids in acne management: Review of current understanding, future considerations, and focus on topical treatments. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, 17(12), s51-s55.
- Ruamrak, C., Lourith, N., & Natakankitkul, S. (2009). Comparison of clinical efficacies of sodium ascorbyl phosphate, retinol and their combination in acne treatment. International journal of cosmetic science, 31(1), 41-46.
- Acne: Treatment, Types, Causes & Prevention [Internet]. Cleveland Clinic. [cited 12 January 2022]. Available from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12233-acne
- Baldwin, H., Webster, G., Gold, L. S., Callender, V., Cook-Bolden, F. E., & Guenin, E. (2021). 50 Years of Topical Retinoids for Acne: Evolution of Treatment. American journal of clinical dermatology, 1-13.