Retinol is a form of Vitamin A – a nutrient in the body that is important to vision, growth, reproduction, immunity, and cell division. That last point is why it is considered so desirable to use retinol creams on the skin. They increase cell turnover on the face, which reduces the incidence of acne, scarring, and areas of hyperpigmentation. However, this can also cause the skin to become very dry and flaky. For this reason, it is not recommended to use retinol if you have eczema, rosacea, or any other form of skin allergies. However, retinol can be advantageous in people with naturally oily skin due to its ability to dry out the skin and hasten cell turnover.
It is important to note that retinol usage is not without symptoms, but most are mild and include peeling, flakiness, irritation, redness, and a stinging sensation upon application. These should subside in 2–3 weeks. If they do not, consult your healthcare provider.
Retinol will also cause your skin to be more sensitive to the sun, so make sure you apply sunscreen of at least SPF 30 before going out. The mild side effects mentioned above may be worsened significantly by sun exposure.
While retinol generally works with all other skincare ingredients, it can cause irritation if used with Vitamin C or hydroxy acids (on top of the skin irritation these can already cause). It can also take 3–6 months to see results in the form of more youthful, glowing skin. There is a possibility that prescription retinol products (most famously including Accutane/isotretinoin) will work faster, but it is important to be patient and wait for the payoff.
It is safest to start out incorporating retinol into your skincare routine no more than once or twice a week, until you become used to the side effects or they disappear. After this, you can begin using it every night safely.
This article reviewed by Dr. Jim Liu, MD and Ms. Deb Dooley, APRN.
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April 8, 2023