What Is Retinol? How to use it? - The Dermatology Review

What Is Retinol? How to use it?



Ask any dermatologist what their favorite skincare ingredient is and chances are they’ll shout “retinol”from the mountain tops. One of the rare substances able to conquer both acne-related problems and aging concerns, retinol is also one of the few ingredients that have been well studied and proven to effect change in many clinical studies. Intrigued? Read on to learn all about this remarkable skin-changer.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, which is best known for its remarkable ability to assist with cell turnover.

What Is Retinol

There are a variety of retinoids, the family of chemical compounds that come from vitamin A, that can be found in various skincare products. Retinaldehyde and retinyl palmitate, for example, are two other popular types of retinoids.

Retinol’s secret lies in its ability to activate enzymes in the skin. These enzymes in turn convert retinol into retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is the active form of vitamin A, and it’s what gives your skin those many wonderful benefits that we will discuss in depth further on.

A caveat: Prescription-strength retinoids are very powerful and can help you achieve great skin results. However, there are also some significant side effects like irritation, redness and peeling. These can be rather problematic depending on the person, like for those suffering from rosacea. Still, retinol’s benefits cannot be ignored. On top of that, there are milder forms found over the counter that can deliver great results without all those offending side effects.

What Does Retinol Do for Your Skin?

Retinol has the unmatched ability to simultaneously help treat acne, wrinkles, pigmentation, fine lines and uneven skin tone. It can also help stimulate collagen production. In other words, it can conquer pretty much any skin woe. Read on to find out exactly how retinol helps to target various particular skin concerns.

Further reading: What does retinol do for your skin

Stimulates Collagen

Collagen is a protein fiber that keeps skin bouncy, springy, firm and taut. As we age, we slowly but surely begin to lose the amount of collagen in the skin. This causes skin to sag and develop either fine lines or deep grooves (usually a bit of both), and thus, skin begins to look older and lose that youthful firmness you enjoyed in your teens.

In short, the more collagen you have in your skin, the better it’s going to look. Retinol boosts collagen production by essentially activating certain genes and cells responsible for producing collagen in the first place. When fibroblasts, cells that produce and maintain collagen, are exposed to retinol, they are encouraged to trigger even more collagen. Moreover, retinoids help neutralize free radicals that damage and degrade collagen in the first place. As you can imagine, this collagen stimulation helps skin look plumper, feel firmer and have a more youthful appearance overall. This is just one reason regular use of retinol can make you look significantly younger.

Fights and Prevents Acne

Acne is a problem that affects millions of people all over the world. Though mostly a cosmetic issue that doesn’t give a person any particular health problems, acne is nonetheless very distressing and can also be rather painful, both physically and emotionally. Some people with severe, cystic acne may not even want to leave the house or go out in public because of the embarrassment that comes with having very problematic acne.

Retinol is one of the best, if not the best, acne fighters out there. Thanks to its ability to boost cell turnover (make skin cells shed faster, instead of letting them pile up), retinol helps to treat acne by unclogging pores and preventing them from being clogged. Thus, it is especially effective against blackheads, whiteheads and run-of-the-mill pimples.

Retinol is also an anti-inflammatory. Taken orally, in the form of isotretinoin, it can combat very severe cystic acne that has been resistant to other types of treatment. Previously known as Accutane or Roaccutane, this type of retinoid has very serious side effects including birth defects in children, and should be used under the supervision of a doctor. Alcohol-based gel formulations are particularly good for acne-prone skin, but if your skin is on the drier side, you might prefer to use cream-based formulations that provide hydrating effects.

Refines the Look of Fine Lines and Wrinkles

As you can probably picture, retinol’s ability to stimulate collagen also aids it in being able to reduce the size and depth of wrinkles. As collagen is triggered and enhanced, fine lines and even some slightly deeper wrinkles can be made to appear less noticeable. They are essentially refined and smoothed out, ultimately looking less prominent. If your wrinkles are very fine or newly formed, retinol might even help them disappear completely (for a time, of course). It should also be noted that regular use of retinol beginning at a young age, like in your 20s, can help prevent wrinkles from forming for a while.

A study on retinol further found that regular use stimulated the formation of glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), which are a group of complex proteins that support collagen and elastin. One famous GAG is hyaluronic acid, a substance that can retain 1,000 times its weight in water, meaning it can go far in keeping skin hydrated and plump. GAGs like hyaluronic acid also keep skin from developing wrinkles while also plumping up existing ones to make them less obvious.

Removes Discoloration

Aging unfortunately can also cause dark spots to form over time, leading to skin becoming dull and uneven. A duller, uneven skin tone can significantly age one’s complexion, even if the person is still young. Retinol can make great strides in reducing uneven, patchy or discolored skin, helping skin to recoup its natural glow. The more even your skin tone, the less likely you would need to even it out in artificial ways, like by using foundation, powder or concealer.

Retinol combats discoloration by helping to deplete and disperse the amount of melanin in the epidermis. This causes the dark spots to slowly fade away. Moreover, faster cell turnover allows the darker layer of skin to peel away and allow your natural skin color to show through. One 40-week, double-blind study found tretinoin to be quite good at reducing post-inflammatory dark spots that are often attributed to acne. Once pimples heal, they can still leave behind a darker spot as a reminder of their presence. If you happen to pick at blemishes, these dark spots can be even more prominent. Of course, dark spots can also form from excessive sun exposure. Retinol use can help reduce discoloration no matter its provenance.

How To Use Retinol

Retinol is powerful, and, as previously mentioned, using it can cause some unwanted side effects. Therefore, it’s best to know how to use it the right way. If you have very serious skin concerns like highly problematic acne or skin that has aged significantly, you might want to talk to your dermatologist first and get a prescription-strength retinoid.

However, beginning with a prescription-strength product can cause significant irritation that may be a problem to deal with. Less powerful forms of retinol are available in many over-the-counter brands. Still, you should be aware that it might take longer to see results when you’re using over-the-counter options.

Now, when applying retinol, you should first wash your face with a moisturizing cleanser and pat skin thoroughly dry. You might want to apply some eye cream to create a buffer between the sensitive undereye area and your retinol cream. If you use a toner, apply it now as well. Then, use about a pea-sized amount of your retinol product and apply all over your face (or at least the affected areas) using upward motions.

Follow up with applying a moisturizer to help minimize side effects like irritation and redness. Always begin by using retinol one to three times a week (for example, every other night) before moving on to more regular, or nightly, use. Avoid using retinol during the day, as sunlight can exacerbate certain side effects. Always wear sunscreen while using retinol as well, although truly you should be wearing sunscreen no matter what. If you’re using prescription retinol, consult your dermatologist for proper use.

Retinol and Vitamin C

You might have heard that retinol and vitamin C shouldn’t be used in conjunction, but that’s not completely true in all cases. Sure, using a powerful active vitamin C serum along with retinol might cause irritation, but if you use a single formula that contains both you might be able to get the potent effects of both in one fell swoop.

One study on post-menopausal women with aging skin showed that the combination of vitamin C and retinol was significantly able to reduce signs of aging. Feel free to use both a vitamin C serum and retinol together for best results when it comes to reducing wrinkles. Vitamin C is also a very powerful antidote to discoloration and hyperpigmentation. The double whammy of retinol and vitamin C can greatly help to reduce all signs of unevenness.

Further reading: Best Retinol Creams

Formulyst Anti-Aging Night Cream

If you’re unsure of where to begin, try Formulyst’s Anti-Aging Night Cream. This product contains groundbreaking Encapsulated Retinol Technology that delivers a higher concentration of powerful retinol to help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and brekaouts. Jojoba and safflower seed oil help to improve hydration for skin that is supple, youthful and radiant, while minimizing the discomfort and redness typically associated with retinol use.

Remember: retinol is something you commit to regularly to see extraordinary results in the long term. Be patient with it and you’ll be amazed at how youthful your skin looks years from now!

Dermatology and Therapy “Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne”; Archives of dermatology “Improvement of naturally aged skin with vitamin A (retinol)”; Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology
“Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation”; Skin pharmacology and physiology “Histological evaluation of a topically applied retinol-vitamin C combination.”




The philosophy of Formulyst is long-term and effective skincare, rather than covering up any imperfections. The comprehensive line of products tackles everything from wrinkles to dark spots and dry skin. While some brands rely on unnecessary fillers and scents, Formulyst focuses on ingredients that help create results, such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Many of the Formulyst’s products harness the power of plant and citrus extracts as well as gold-standard workhorses such as retinol. Read More

Advanced Dermatology

The Advanced Dermatology skin care regimen addresses the most pressing aging concerns. It can be used by men and women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. This award-winning system can help diminish wrinkle appearance, reduce dark spots and hyperpigmentation, fade away redness, even out skin tone and improve the appearance of eye bags and dark circles. Some of the standout products in this line include the Super Youth Serum, Complete Age Defense and Anti-Wrinkle Firming Night Treatment. Read More

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