What Does Retinol Do for Your Skin? A Dermatologist Explains

When purchasing skincare products or cosmetics, you’ve probably seen the term ‘retinol’ popping up more and more. These products claim to do a lot for your skin, but what does retinol do, exactly? And is it something that you should be using?

Dr. Lowella Esperanza, a board-certified dermatologist at Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health, explains what you need to know about retinol, who it’s for, and what it can do.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A. It’s used in lots of different medicines and skincare products to address a variety of skin concerns and conditions.

When hearing about retinol, you may also notice terms like ‘retinoid’ and ‘Retin-A’—but are those the same as retinol? Let’s break down what each of those terms mean:

  • Retinoid. Retinoids are a family of chemical compounds that are all related to vitamin A. Retinol and Retin-A are types of retinoids. Most products specifically labeled ‘retinoid’ require a prescription from a dermatologist.
  • Retinol. Retinol is an OTC (over-the-counter) retinoid. Retinols aren’t as strong as prescription retinoids, but they can still be effective in treating certain skin concerns.
  • Retin-A. Retin-A is the brand name of a drug called tretinoin, which was the very first retinoid developed for skin use. Retin-A requires a prescription from a dermatologist.

There are many different forms of retinoids, but most OTC products include retinol. Other retinoids typically require a dermatologist’s prescription.

What conditions can retinol treat?

Retinoids (including retinol) affect the skin on a cellular level, increasing the rate at which old skin cells die and new cells grow underneath. While it’s not a miracle ingredient, its unique properties are helpful in treating a variety of common skin conditions, such as: 

  • Acne. By clearing out blocked pores and encouraging new skin cell growth, retinol products can treat whiteheads, blackheads, and even reduce the appearance of acne scars. When prescribed by a doctor, topical retinoid products like adapalene, tazarotene, and tretinoin (Retin-A) have been shown to help treat acne in both teens and adults.
  • Hyperpigmentation. Retinols can help even out hyperpigmentation, which is when patches of skin appear darker than others because of uneven melanin production.
  • Fine lines and wrinkles. When we’re younger, we naturally experience a lot of cell turnover, but that process slows down as we age. Most OTC retinols are designed to target wrinkles by improving collagen production and promoting cell turnover.
  • Psoriasis. Tazarotene is a prescription retinoid medicine that can help manage thick and scaly skin, a common psoriasis symptom. It can also treat nail psoriasis.
  • Keratosis pilaris. Topical retinoids can help treat keratosis pilaris. Many patients may find results with OTC creams, though some may need prescription-strength products.

Possible Side Effects

There are some side effects associated with vitamin A products. Using a product with a higher concentration of a retinoid can increase your risk of experiencing these side effects.

  • Peeling, itching, and/or irritation. The most common side effects of retinoids include peeling and skin irritation. This can last several weeks, but can be avoided by reducing how often you use a product or using a product labeled for sensitive skin.
  • Dryness. Retinol can make the skin feel tight and dry—moisturizing after using retinol products can help.
  • Sun sensitivity. While you should wear sunscreen every day to prevent skin cancer, it’s especially important to wear sunscreen when you’re using retinols. Retinol can make your skin more sensitive to UV rays, so make sure to apply sunscreen as the last step in your skincare routine (at least 30 SPF with broad-spectrum protection). Alternatively, only use retinol during your nighttime routine.

Retinol side effects typically go away after several days or weeks. However, if you’re experiencing severe discomfort, talk to your dermatologist about ways to reduce irritation.

Frequently Asked Questions About Retinol

How long does retinol take to work?

It can take several weeks or as long as several months to see results with retinol products. How quickly you notice improvements in your skin will depend on:

  • The strength of the product you’re using
  • How often you use a product
  • Your specific skin concerns
  • Your skin type

If you’ve been using an OTC retinol for a while and haven’t noticed any results, talk to a dermatologist. They may be able to prescribe a stronger product or help you find a different retinoid.

Should I use an OTC product or get a prescription?

OTC products can be helpful for patients who are curious about retinols and want to give them a try. However, if you have sensitive skin, have a specific skin condition you want to address, or just aren’t sure which product to try, talk to a dermatologist first.

Additionally, your dermatologist can help if you find that OTC products aren’t getting you the results you’re looking for.

Who shouldn’t use retinol products?

Retinol isn’t the right choice for all patients. You shouldn’t use retinol products if:

  • You’re pregnant or breastfeeding—while the risk is low, excessive amounts of vitamin A can potentially affect your baby
  • You’re allergic to any of the ingredients used in a product
  • You have an open wound or sore on your skin where you intend to use a product
  • You have very sensitive skin and can’t tolerate certain side effects (like peeling or irritation)
  • You spend a lot of time in the sun and don’t always wear sunscreen

Still Have Questions? Ask a Dermatologist

Retinol is a popular skincare ingredient for patients looking to treat a skin condition like acne or psoriasis or smooth out some fine lines and wrinkles.

However, there are a lot of retinol products on the market. If you’re wondering what type of retinol is right for you, a board-certified dermatologist like Dr. Lowella Esperanza can help make recommendations based on your particular skin concerns.

Patients can schedule a consultation with Dr. Esperanza at a Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health location in Wiregrass or Zephyrhills. Virtual telemedicine appointments are also available.

About Lowella Esperanza, MD

Dr. Lowella Esperanza is certified by the American Board of Dermatology and has been serving Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health patients since 1996. Dr. Esperanza is passionate about helping her patients keep their skin healthy and pursue cosmetic solutions that best address their concerns.

In addition to cosmetic dermatology, Dr. Esperanza specializes in performing skin cancer surgery as well as cosmetic procedures like Botox, Juvederm, Radiesse, and Sculptra.


Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Always talk with your doctor before starting or stopping medications or treatments.




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