Retinol is a form of vitamin A that is commonly used to treat acne and reduce wrinkles. It is one of the many types of retinoids — an umbrella term used for all vitamin A derivatives.
Retinoids come in a variety of strengths and are known by different names, but Retinol is the most common type. Retinol is weaker than most retinoids and is usually added to over-the-counter products. These are readily accessible and don’t need a prescription for use, unlike more potent forms of retinoids.
Here’s what you need to know about how retinol works and the benefits it can have for your skin.
How does retinol work?
Retinol works by triggering the skin cells of the outermost layer of the skin to turnover faster so that new skin cells can generate. This results in smoother and more even-looking skin.
It increases the production of natural chemicals like hyaluronic acid in the skin. These chemicals help to keep the skin moist and plump. Retinol also boosts collagen production and prevents the breakdown of collagen that already exists.
“Retinol doesn’t become biologically active until it is transformed into retinoic acid once it’s inside the skin,” says Suzanne Friedler, MD, a board-certified dermatologist who is a clinical Instructor at Mount. Sinai Medical Center and on the dermatology faculty at St. John’s Episcopal Medical Center.
1. Improves the appearance of acne
According to research published in the Journal of Clinical Dermatology and Therapy, clinical data from thousands of people shows that retinol is highly effective in treating both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne. It was proven to reduce the visibility of pimples on the skin and also stop the development of new pimples and acne blemishes.
One way retinol can improve the appearance of acne is by encouraging cell turnover, says Lindsey Bordone, MD a Dermatologist at Columbia Doctors and Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Acne develops when a combination of dead skin cells and oil collects inside hair follicles on your face. With retinol, those cells are shed and replaced more quickly.
“It also decreases oil production in these cells by binding to the specific receptors for retinol within the cells of the skin,” says Bordone. Decreased oil production prevents oil from blocking your pores and helps to prevent acne.
“To make sure you clear up your acne and keep it clean, we usually recommend three months of use to get to your optimal results,” says Bordone.
2. Is an anti-aging treatment
Retinol works as an anti-aging treatment in three major ways. It reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, helps with sun damage, and gets rid of dark spots.
Collagen is a protein made by our body that keeps our skin looking smooth. Wrinkles and fine lines are caused by a decrease in collagen production. Retinol works to reduce the appearance of these fine lines and wrinkles by boosting blood flow to the skin, which increases the production of collagen. This helps to improve the appearance of wrinkles, by thickening the inner layer of the skin.
It helps with sun damage and dark spots by encouraging skin cell turnover, allowing you to shed discolored skin cells. But retinol also makes you more susceptible to sun damage. This is why retinol products should only be used at night, alongside a broad-spectrum sunscreen each morning, even when you are indoors.
A 2000 study, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, studied the effect of applying retinol on aged skin in 53 participants who were aged 80 or above. Researchers observed that retinol application for 7 days, led to a reduction in the breakdown of collagen and an increase in collagen production. They concluded that this showed that retinol should be effective as an anti-aging treatment.
If you are using retinol for its anti-aging properties, continuous use is encouraged. “With anti-aging, retinol use should be a continual process, because you are constantly trying to turn back the hands of time. It can help with sunspots, fine lines, and wrinkles, but it’s something you want to continue using for years, to stay on top of an anti-aging regime,” says Bordone. It might take three to six months of regular use to see an improvement in wrinkles.
3. Brightens dull skin
Retinol also helps to brighten dull skin. Dull skin can be caused by several things including pregnancy, stress, sun damage, poor lifestyle habits like smoking and drinking alcohol in excess, or environmental pollution.
Retinol works by calming down the skin cells that produce melanin, a dark pigment. These cells are responsible for skin conditions like melasma, which causes discoloration of the skin. Retinol causes the skin cells to turn over, so the skin becomes healthier and looks brighter.
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology studied the effect of a product that contained 0.5% retinol on 25 people with mild to moderate hyperpigmentation. By week 4 participants showed an improvement in their hyperpigmentation. Researchers determined that the product worked well for skin brightening, especially when used with a complimentary skincare routine that includes sunscreen.
While mild flaking and redness occurred early in the study, by week 10, participants reported no stinging, itching, dryness, or tingling.