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This page was updated on Tue, Oct 15, 2019

What is Retinol?

Retinol is Vitamin A, and it is in the family of ingredients called retinoids. Retinoids applied to skin have been scientifically-proven to fight wrinkles, uneven hyperpigmentation and dull complexion tone and texture. They are some of the best studied ingredients in skin care for these problems.

Other retinoids include tretinoin (also called retinoic acid and sold as Retin-A). Retinol, which is non-prescription all-trans-retinol, is converted in the skin to retinoic acid.

How does retinol work for your skin?

Retinoids work by activating special receptors in your skin called retinoid receptors. This means that retinoids have unique pathways to change your skin. Retinoid binds to the retinoid receptor and activate biochemical changes that lead to anti-aging effects that you’ll see in the mirror. 

How does retinol fight the signs of skin aging and pigment problems?

  • Retinol stops the breakdown of skin collagen that happens after UV sun exposure; UV rays activate the matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) enzyme cascade that leads to the breakdown of your skin collagen. Retinol turns off the MMP enzyme.;
  • Retinol stimulates cells in the skin called fibroblasts to make collagen to reverse wrinkles and skin thinning from sun damage;
  • Retinol brightens skin appearance to give you glowing skin by exfoliating and improving the structure of the dead cell layer on the skin surface;
  • Retinol improves epidermal layer thickness and structure in the top, living skin cell layer to improve crepey skin appearance; 
  • Retinol normalizes pigment problems in the epidermis to fight uneven skin hyperpigmentation; and
  • Retinol increases skin production of hyaluronic acid, the water binding powerhouse, to give skin a moister, dewier and more youthful appearance.

Retinoids can stop the degenerative cycle of skin aging.

Your skin gets more and more wrinkles over time from both UV light exposure and aging. This is because both cause a self-perpetuating cycle of collagen loss due to free radicals. Retinoids are capable of stopping the cycle and it’s never too soon or too late to intervene to stop the cycle.

Retinol is the best non-prescription retinoid to use to fight the signs of skin aging.

There are other non-prescription retinoids, but they don’t all work equally well to fight the signs of skin aging. Of the over-the-counter (non-prescription) retinoids, retinol is the one to use. The others, which are technically called pro-retinols (a.k.a. retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate), are much weaker at providing all of the retinoid goodness that I mentioned above. I don’t recommend them.

Retinol at higher concentrations will give your skin more age-defying results.

It’s also more irritating. Start at lower levels and work up as your skin adjusts. Also, you can help your skin tolerate higher retinol levels when you use products that calm skin inflammation such as green tea. Also, some retinol products are made in slow-release formulations. My Retinol Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream uses both of these methods for skin tolerability. It comes in 2 strengths so you can work up.

Is retinol good for acne?

Yes, retinol helps fight acne by:

  1. Preventing dead cells from clogging pores and causing blackheads and pimples; and
  2. Preventing acne scars by preventing pimples that form from clogged pores.

Retinol is less irritating to your skin than retinoic acid (Retin A and Renova).

Irritation is the main problem that people complain about with tretinoin (Retin A, Renova) and tazarotene (Tazorac). Retinol products are simply less irritating, making them better suited for sensitive skin.

Not all retinol products contain active retinol.

That’s because retinol is fragile and must be formulated and packaged carefully to preserve activity.

4 Tips to find the best retinol cream or serum.

Look for a retinol product with:

  1. Pharmaceutical grade Retinol;
  2. High, professional Retinol concentration in a product;
  3. Packaging that protects ingredients from air and light; and
  4. Hypoallergenic base that does not contain unnecessary fragrance or other ingredients which can be absorbed excessively by retinol treated skin.

My top choices for professional and pharmaceutical grade retinol products include:

Retinol Intensive Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream

Retinol Ultra-Intensive Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream

Advanced Corrective Eye Cream, made with just the right amount of retinol for the delicate eye area. 

How do you apply retinol to your face?

  • Retinoid products are best used as your night cream because retinol breaks down on contact with light.
  • You can apply retinol during the day under a mineral zinc oxide sunscreen that protects retinol from light.
  • Retinol can be applied alone or layered with other skin care products like moisturizers or glycolic acid AHA products.
  • I usually recommend starting every other night and working up to every night.
  • Sensitive complexions might need to avoid using retinol on sensitive areas of the face such as eyelid folds or around the nose creases.

How long does it take to see results from Retinol Night Cream?

  • In my dermatology practice, I see results that evolve over time when a person starts using retinoids:
  • You can expect to see results in a week in terms of improved skin tone and texture. Skin will look brighter and healthier because of the rapid impact on the dead cell layer.
  • Fine lines and wrinkles will begin to look better in the first few weeks due to the changes on the dead cell layer.
  • Surface pigment problems will be reduced within the first month.
  • Pores will be less clogged within a month or two.
  • There will be a reduction in milia in a month or two.
  • It takes several months to reduce deeper pigment problems.
  • It takes a 3 to 6 months for dermal collagen production to build up to help reduce wrinkles.


Improvement of Naturally Aged Skin With Vitamin A (Retinol), Reza Kafi, MD; Heh Shin R. Kwak, MD, Arch Dermatol. 2007;143:606-612

Improvement of photoaged facial skin in middle-aged Japanese females by topical retinol (vitamin A alcohol): a vehicle-controlled, double-blind study. Kikuchi K, Suetake T, Kumasaka N, Tagami H, J Dermatolog Treat. 2009;20(5):276-81

Choosing Topical Retinoids for Aging Skin, Sachs, DL, Dermatology Focus, Summer 2013 Vol 32 No 2 page 4

Application of Retinol to Human Skin In Vivo Induces Epidermal Hyperplasia and Cellular Retinoid Binding Proteins Characteristic of Retinoic Acid but Without Measurable Retinoic Acid Levels or Irritation, Sewon Kang, Elizabeth A. Duell, et. al., J Invest Dermatol 105:549-556, 1995

Vitamin A Antagonizes Decreased Cell Growth and Elevated Collagen-Degrading Matrix Metalloproteinases and Stimulates Collagen Accumulation in Naturally Aged Human Skin, James Varani, Roscoe L Warner, Mehrnaz Gharaee-Kermani, et. al., J Invest Dermatol (2000) 114, 480–486;

Topical Tretinoin for Photoaged Skin: a Double-blind Vehicle-controlled Study, Weiss JS, Ellis CN, et. al., JAMA. 1988, 259: 527-532

Tazarotene Cream for the Treatment of Facial Photo Damage: a Multicenter, Investigator-Masked, Randomized, Vehicle-Controlled, Parallel Comparison of Tazarotene 0.01%, 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1% Creams and Tretinoin 0.05% Emollient Cream Applied Once-Daily for 24 Weeks. Kang S, Leyden JJ, Lowe NJ, et al., Arch Dermatol. 2001;137:1597-1604.

Mechanisms of Photoaging and Chronological Skin Aging, Gary J. Fisher, PhD; Sewon Kang, MD; et. al., Arch Dermatol. 2002;138(11):1462-1470