The Guide To Retinol - What It Is, How To Use It, and Common Side Effects


You’ve probably seen and heard a lot about Retinol. And you’ve probably heard all the claims. Dermatologists and scientists agree that it’s a very effective anti-aging ingredient, which boosts collagen and improves skin1. But there are a lot of questions about what it does, proper use, exactly what it’s effective for, and possible side effects. So we’ve put together a complete guide so you can separate the truth from the hype.

What is Retinol?

Retinol is a form of Vitamin A, sometimes referred to as Vitamin A1.

Dermatologists and skincare experts have called Retinol the ‘gold standard’ ingredient in facial cremes and serums, due to its many benefits from smoothing wrinkles to unclogging pores to firming skin.

Retinol is known to boost the amount of collagen your body makes, plumping out skin, and reducing wrinkles and fine lines. It also improves skin tone and colour and reduces dark or mottled patches2. It works differently than other anti-aging and acne products. Instead of removing dead skin cells, the small molecules that make up Retinol go deep beneath the epidermis (outer layer of skin) all the way to your dermis.

Once applied to the skin, Retinol is converted by skin cells into retinoic acid, and it’s this conversion process that creates visible improvements to the skin’s texture and condition.

What does Retinol do for your skin?

First and foremost, Retinol encourages cell renewal on your epidermis. This helps thicken the skin’s layers while enhancing its ability to retain water (which improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles). This enhanced surface skin cell turnover helps smooth skin’s texture, while brightening it up and making pores appear less visible. And for those who suffer from dark spots, Retinol also helps reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation3.

The Cellular Turnover Accelerator

Our bodies are constantly shedding dead skin cells and subsequently replacing them with younger ones. As we get older, this process slows down, which contributes to the visible changes we see in aging skin - deeper wrinkles, darker spots, and duller skin.

What Retinol does is put the whole process of cell turnover on fast-forward. Which makes the progression of the cells through the skin and the sloughing of the top layer happen a little bit faster.

That leads to a reduction in fine lines and wrinkles, as well as an improved appearance of the texture of the skin. By helping to accelerate cellular turnover, Retinol helps to refine the appearance of the skin, minimize pores, and remove the dead skin cells that make the skin look dull. Overall, Retinol promotes a more even tone and complexion4.

Because cellular turnover slows as you age, many dermatologists recommend adding Retinol to your routine by the time you hit your late 20s.

The Collagen Booster

Collagen is one of the most plentiful proteins in your body. It has a lot of important roles, one of which is giving structure to your skin. Our bodies produce collagen at a higher rate when we are young, and decreases as we age.

A 2000 study examined the effect of applying Retinol on aged skin in 53 participants who were aged 80 or above. The research showed that Retinol application for just 7 days led to a reduction in the breakdown of collagen, plus an increase in collagen production. The study concluded that Retinol can be an effective anti-aging treatment5.

Retinol has also been shown to increase the lifespan of collagen, while blocking certain enzymes that destroy collagen. Small wonder dermatologists say it’s such a valuable addition to many skin care routine.

The Antioxidant Anti-Ager

Antioxidants are compounds that are thought to protect your cells from the effects of free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that are produced when your body breaks down food, or is exposed to smoke or radiation. They help our body neutralize viruses and bacteria. But too much exposure to certain environmental factors like sun, pollution, sugar, processed carbohydrates, cigarette smoke and other toxic chemicals may cause an overload of free radicals, which adversely affect our skin and other major organs.

Antioxidants like Retinol can help your skin fight free radical damage, which is another reason Retinol is known as an anti-aging property6.

The Acne Attacker

Research published in the Journal of Clinical Dermatology and Therapy showed that Retinol is very effective in treating acne, both inflammatory and non-inflammatory. Retinol was proven to stop the development of new pimples and acne blemishes as well as reduce the visibility of pimples on the skin7.

According to dermatologists, acne develops when a combination of oil and dead skin cells collect inside those hair follicles on your face. Since Retinol encourages cellular turnover, those dead cells are shed and replaced more quickly.

The Wrinkle Reducer

By boosting your body’s production of collagen, Retinol effectively ‘plumps up’ your skin. Which results in a reduction of fine lines and wrinkles.

By prompting surface skin cells to turn over and die rapidly (that cellular turnover we talked about earlier), Retinol also enhances the new cell growth under the skin as well, which can stop wrinkles before they even start8.

This is especially relevant as we age, and our body slows in cellular turnover and collagen production. Retinol accelerates both of those phenomena, effectively ‘turning back the clock’ on those processes, and reducing the wrinkles that appear on aging skin.

The Dark Spot Fader

Another benefit of Retinol is its ability to reduce or sometimes completely eliminate dark spots or discolouration on skin. Retinol’s ability to increase your skin’s rate of cellular turnover means that the existing, darker skin cells are shed to make way for new, healthy skin cells. It also curbs the body’s production of melanin, the darker pigment that creates those dark spots and uneven skin tones9.

The Skin Firmer

Collagen is a super important component of your body. In fact, about one third of all protein in your body is collagen. It’s a basic building block of skin, bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons (as well as many other body parts). Collagen is often referred to as the ‘glue’ holding all of these things together. The word ‘collagen’ is actually derived from the Greek ‘koíla’, which means glue.

As is probably apparent to you by now, collagen production is a very big factor in the health and the firmness of your skin. And since Retinol helps the body produce collagen faster, that means firmer, healthier looking skin for you.

Who Should Use Retinol?

Retinol (and its prescription counterpart, retinoids) is recommended for skin with flammatory and non-flammatory acne. Increased cell turnover pushes the dead skin cells that cause acne out of the way, and opens pores.

For anti-aging purposes, any skin type can use Retinol. But sensitive or fair skin types should use extra caution, since it might be hard for their skin to adjust.

Many dermatologists recommended using Retinol around the age of 30. This is when the body’s collagen levels begin to decrease. But women of any age can benefit from its many anti-aging properties.

Retinol isn’t recommended for people whose skin has been over-exfoliated, whether from at-home or in-office treatments. Also, do not use Retinol on skin that has been sun burned, or if you have an active eczema rash. It’s also recommended that pregnant women not use Retinol10. Be sure to talk to your doctor or dermatologist first if you think you’re pregnant or are planning on getting pregnant in the near future.

What Are The Side Effects Of Retinol

When used properly, Retinol works well on most people. But there are some known side effects, especially if it’s used improperly.

All Vitamin A derivatives, including Retinol, break down when exposed to sun and air. This is why any product containing Retinol will come in tubes or pumps with tight fitting caps. So once it has been opened, the product should be used within a couple of months.

After using Retinol, it’s important to stay out of any exposure from the sun. Some of the drying and irritating effects can be exacerbated by exposure to the sun. In fact, that exposure can actually make age spots and wrinkles worse11. To reduce the risk of adverse effects from the sun, wear sunscreen every day and reduce your direct exposure to the sun as much as possible.

If you’re pregnant, side effects can be quite serious. So it’s highly recommended not to use Retinol when pregnant, or if you are planning to get pregnant.

What Strength of Retinol Should You Use?

Retinol is a very potent compound. So as most dermatologists say, ‘Less is more.’ It’s recommended to start at the lowest concentration, at the lowest interval. Then, after a few weeks, if your skin can tolerate it, you can slowly apply it more often or at higher concentrations. But dermatologists recommend to increase just one or the other, not both at the same time.

Building a Skincare Routine With Retinol

How Often Should You Use Retinol?

The initial period of acclimation is very different from person to person. It can vary from weeks to months to get adjusted so it’s best to start slow and adjust gradually. For best results, renowned dermatologist Dr. Rivers suggests the following Retinol routine and best practices for application.

Retinol Routine

Week 1: Apply the Retinol for 1 hour before bed every evening. Wash off with a gentle cleanser, then moisturize.

Week 2: Apply the Retinol for 2 hours before bed every evening. Wash off with a gentle cleanser, then moisturize.

Note: If irritation occurs in week 2, reduce to 1 hour of application (instead of 2) for a full week, then move to 2 hours in the next week. Proceed until you can comfortably wear it for 3 hours with no irritation for a full week.

Week 3: Apply the Retinol for 3 hours before bed every evening. Wash off with a gentle cleanser, then moisturize.

Week 4 and beyond: Apply before bed, then moisturize. Wash off with a gentle cleanser in the morning, follow with a moisturizer. If any irritation develops, reduce the quantity by 50% and start the step again.

Retinol Application
  1. Wash your face and wait a few minutes until your skin is completely dry.
  2. If you use eye cream, apply it before the Retinol.
  3. Apply a pea-sized amount of Retinol to your face. Using your fingertips, spread the product in upward and outward motions, starting at your chin.

What Are The Best Products To Use With Retinol?

When starting out with Retinol, or if your skin is particularly sensitive, it’s best not to combine it with any other potentially irritating ingredients, like physical exfoliants or scrubs. However, you can (and should!) incorporate the following products:

Moisturizer – Upon using Retinol, many people feel their skin requires more hydration than usual. To help soothe the dryness, apply moisturizer right after Retinol and reapply throughout the day, as needed.

Glycolic Peel – Some believe that chemical exfoliants, like this alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), can deactivate Retinol so they should not be used together. In actuality, not only are they safe to use together, but they may even be more effective together versus on their own12. As with any new skincare routine, we recommend starting slow. Try using Retinol for 3-4 weeks before incorporating chemical exfoliants into the routine.

SPF – It’s typically recommended that Retinols be used at night, but it’s mainly because skin rejuvenates at night when it’s unexposed to the elements and free of the day’s impurities. It doesn’t mean Retinol isn’t safe to use during the day13. Most reputable products on the market have stabilized Retinol so they can be used in the morning or the evening. Just remember, your skin will be more susceptible to sun damage while using Retinol. So it’s very important to apply high SPF sunscreen every day when using any product with Retinol - even if you’re only applying it at night14.

How Do You Incorporate Retinol Into Your Skincare Routine?

Using Retinol causes slight irritation for your skin. But the right application can help your skin adjust and minimize irritation. After applying your moisturizer, use a pea-sized dab to cover your whole face. For even gentler application, mix the Retinol product with a moisturizer in your hand and then apply to your face. Another method is to ‘sandwich’ the product between two layers of moisturizer.

Retinol For A Younger Looking You

There you have it - your complete guide to Retinol, all its anti-aging properties, and how to use it properly, so you can have younger, firmer skin. As we mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to talk to your dermatologist first before incorporating any new product or starting any kind of new routine, especially if you suffer from any skin conditions.


  1. Anders Vahlquist, Jung B. Lee, Gerd Michaëlsson, Ola Rollman, Vitamin A in Human Skin: II Concentrations of Carotene, Retinol and DehydroRetinol in Various Components of Normal Skin, Journal of Investigative Dermatology, Volume 79, Issue 2, 1982, Pages 94-97, ISSN 0022-202X

  2. Kafi R, Kwak HSR, Schumacher WE, et al. Improvement of Naturally Aged Skin With Vitamin A (Retinol). Arch Dermatol. 2007;143(5):606–612. doi:10.1001/archderm.143.5.606. Improvement of Naturally Aged Skin With Vitamin A (Retinol). Retrieved from:

  3. Peter M. Elias, Epidermal effects of retinoids: Supramolecular observations and clinical implications, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Volume 15, Issue 4, Part 2, 1986, Pages 797-809, ISSN 0190-9622,

  4. PubMed Health. Acne. Retrieved from:

  5. Kong, R., Cui, Y., Fisher, G.J., Wang, X., Chen, Y., Schneider, L.M. and Majmudar, G. (2016), A comparative study of the effects of Retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin. J Cosmet Dermatol, 15: 49-57.

  6. Varani J, Warner RL, Gharaee-Kermani M, Phan SH, Kang S, Chung JH, Wang ZQ, Datta SC, Fisher GJ, Voorhees JJ. Vitamin A antagonizes decreased cell growth and elevated collagen-degrading matrix metalloproteinases and stimulates collagen accumulation in naturally aged human skin. J Invest Dermatol. 2000 Mar;114(3):480-6. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1747.2000.00902.x. PMID: 10692106.

  7. D Delia, A Aiello, L Meroni, M Nicolini, J C Reed, M A Pierotti, Role of antioxidants and intracellular free radicals in retinamide-induced cell death., Carcinogenesis, Volume 18, Issue 5, May 1997, Pages 943–948,

  8. Emanuele E, Bertona M, Altabas K, Altabas V, Alessandrini G. Anti-inflammatory effects of a topical preparation containing nicotinamide, Retinol, and 7-dehydrocholesterol in patients with acne: a gene expression study. Clin CosmetInvestig Dermatol. 2012;5:33-37. doi:10.2147/CCID.S29537

  9. R Blomhoff, M Rasmussen, A Nilsson, K R Norum, T Berg, W S Blaner, M Kato, J R Mertz, D S Goodman, U Eriksson. Hepatic Retinol metabolism. Distribution of retinoids, enzymes, and binding proteins in isolated rat liver cells., Journal of Biological Chemistry, Volume 260, Issue 25, 1985, Pages 13560-13565, ISSN 0021-9258,

  10. Sungbum Kim, Youngmin Kim, Younggyu Kong, Hyojung Kim, Jahyo Kang, Synthesis and in vitro biological activity of retinyl polyhydroxybenzoates, novel hybrid retinoid derivatives. Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters, Volume 19, Issue 2, 2009, Pages 508-512, ISSN 0960-894X,

  11. Cuilin Zhang, Michelle A. Williams, Sixto E. Sanchez, Irena B. King, Suzie Ware-Jauregui, Gloria Larrabure, Victor Bazul, Wendy M. Leisenring, Plasma Concentrations of Carotenoids, Retinol, and Tocopherols in Preeclamptic and Normotensive Pregnant Women, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 153, Issue 6, 15 March 2001, Pages 572–580

  12. T E Moon, N Levine, B Cartmel, J L Bangert, S Rodney, Q Dong, Y M Peng and D S Alberts. Effect of Retinol in preventing squamous cell skin cancer in moderate-risk subjects: a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial. Southwest Skin Cancer Prevention Study Group. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev November 1 1997 (6) (11) 949-956;

  13. Feinberg C., Hawkins S., Battaglia A., Weinkauf R. JAAD Volume 50, Issue 3, SUPPLEMENT, P27 (2004),Comparison of anti-aging efficacy from cosmetic ingredients on photoaged skin. Retrieved from:

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  1. What is Retinol?
  2. What does Retinol do for your skin?
  3. Who Should Use Retinol?
  4. What Are the Side Effects of Retinol?
  5. What Strength of Retinol Should You Use?
  6. Building a Skincare Routine With Retinol