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Updated: Feb 5

Retinol gets a lot of love in the over-the-counter anti-aging skincare product world. Retinol itself is a form of vitamin A found in foods and products. Read more...



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What is Retinol?

Retinol gets a lot of love in the over-the-counter anti-aging skincare product world. Retinol itself is a form of vitamin A found in foods and products. It’s naturally occurring. When applied to the skin, retinol is actually not active in the skin. It needs to be converted into its active form called retinoic acid by the skin. The ability of our skin to convert retinol into its active form varies from person to person. This can also lead to results that are widely variable between users.

RELATED | Dr. Erum Ilyas discusses Retinol with Suggest


How does Retinol work?

When applied to the skin, the inactive retinol is converted into retinoic acid which is considered an active retinoid. It is the active retinoid that can actually benefit the skin, not the retinol directly.

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Retinoids work by targeting specific cell receptors regulating gene expression. They increase the rate of cell turnover. They increase collagen production and decrease the rate at which collagen is broken down.

Retinol (inactive) → Retinoic Acid (active Retinoid)

Retinoids are known to improve fine lines and wrinkles by boosting collagen production in addition to helping to retain water in the skin.

They can actually help reverse the signs of aging that come from sun damage.

They can also work to minimize discoloration in the skin and give the skin more of a glow.

How does retinol compare to other anti-aging ingredients found over the counter?

This is in contrast to most OTC products for anti-aging. For example, ingredients such as Hyaluronic acid applied topically do not directly boost collagen production. These products actually just minimize the appearance of fine lines by retaining moisture in the superficial layers of skin to make it appear less wrinkled. These products do not provide a long-term benefit from actual collagen production. As soon as the product is gone- its effects are gone too!

Is it possible to know how active the retinol product I purchase will be?

Retinol is found over the counter so it’s widely available for consumers. There are a few things to point out with retinol when compared to prescription tretinoin and tazarotene which are active retinoids and much stronger than retinol. Because retinol relies on our skin’s ability to convert it into active retinoic acid, this may not always give quick or consistent results.

RELATED | Dr. Erum Ilyas discusses retinol with Truly


The amount of active retinoic acid formed by your skin is based on

  • The amount of retinol in the product

  • Our skin’s ability to convert retinol into retinoic acid

  • The time for this process to occur

RELATED | Dr. Erum Ilyas discusses Retinol with SheFinds


The only one of these that is potentially in our control to choose is the amount of retinol in the product. Although many retinol products will list their retinol percentage, however, we simply cannot predict how much of this retinol will be activated by the skin.

What should I do if retinol is too irritating to my skin?

The main issue with retinoids is that they can cause significant dryness and skin irritation. By increasing the rate of cell turnover, the skin can feel and appear red, raw, and sensitive.

To get around this issue it helps to talk to your dermatologist as your options vary based on which product you are using. In general, it helps to reduce use to every other night instead of every night. Work your way up to every night as tolerated. Some retinoids can be used by applying a moisturizer first with the retinoid on top. Check with your dermatologist as for some retinoids this will not affect the potency of the product while for others it may.

RELATED | Dr. Erum Ilyas discusses Retinol with Oprah Daily


How often should I apply retinol?

If you can tolerate retinol or retinoids, nightly use is ideal. Otherwise, every other night is reasonable as tolerated.

If you have sensitive skin or eczema-prone skin, be cautious with the use of retinol. It may just aggravate your dryness and make it hard for you to appreciate its benefits. I tend to caution my rosacea-prone patients on retinol use. They are already frustrated with persistent redness that this may only make it worse! It is reasonable to consider the use of bakuchiol as an alternative.

One of the most common misconceptions is whether retinol can be used in the summertime or on sunnier days. Retinol increases the rate of cell turnover which can make your skin a bit more sensitive to sun exposure, however, retinol itself is not photosensitive. This means that the product itself will not cause a toxic reaction in the skin from sun exposure. Actually, UV light may inactivate retinol making it less effective when exposed to UV. This is why it is ideally integrated into the evening routine and not the morning routine to allow it to have maximal effectiveness.

Which ingredients should not be used with retinol?

Try to look at your products to see if there is a little redundancy. Retinol can not be used with other alpha hydroxy acids or beta hydroxy acids simultaneously but may just aggravate irritation. If you are tolerating retinol well, then it is reasonable to consider adding other products.

RELATED | Dr. Erum Ilyas discusses retinol with Prevention


How can I find the best retinol for my skin type?

Retinol has a love-hate relationship for some people simply because it can be so drying and even cause irritation. Finding the right balance can be difficult. If you are struggling I have tried to go through each option to find one that may suit your skin better than others.

Retinol for Dry Skin

For my patients with dry skin, I tend to favor the CeraVe line of products.

Cerave Skin Renewing Cream Serum is an excellent combination of retinol for anti-aging with ceramides to hydrate the skin. It’s a nice balance to strike when you want to have the benefits of retinol for anti-aging but struggle with excess dryness these products can cause.

Retinol for Oily Skin

Roc Deep Wrinkle Serum works so well with oily skin that I sometimes switch my younger acne patients to this product when they are looking to maintain skin clearance without prescription products.

Retinol for Combination Skin

Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Max Moisturizer rejuvenating retinol that is moisturizing without feeling too greasy. It is a great product for combination skin because of the hydration it offers.

Retinol for Sensitive Skin

The 'retinol alternative' in this affordable Burts Bees product is Bakuchiol!

This is a retinol alternative. It’s a functional analog of retinol meaning it actually has the exact same effect as retinol topically in studies with one huge advantage- it’s less irritating because it’s also an anti-inflammatory agent.

This is an excellent option for our sensitive skin patients.

Retinol for Acne Prone Skin

Sunday Riley A+ High Dose Retinoid Serum has the benefit of anti-aging and being lightweight enough to avoid triggering acne. If you are looking for an option but do not want to risk breakouts, this is a nice option to try.

Retinol for Mature Skin

Anti-aging, thinning of the skin, discoloration, tissue paper-like wrinkling of the skin—there are so many factors to address that choosing the right product to multitask as much as possible is important. The Kate Somerville Retinol Vita C Power Serum combines both retinol and vitamin C to boost its effectiveness at addressing multiple issues such as fine lines and discoloration.