Can Retinol Cause Acne? Here’s All the Information You Need

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Can retinol make acne worse? This is the exact question that comes to mind when you begin to use retinol to treat your acne in a bid to make it all go away. However, you may begin to notice your acne become worse than before you started using retinol. 

Retinol can make your acne appear worse when you start using it. However, in the long run, it begins to treat the acne and eventually clear it. Using retinol long-term can reduce acne breakout and reduce the appearance of acne scars on your skin.

Retinol has been an effective acne treatment and it is quite popular amongst dermatologists and skincare experts. This is definitely because it is an active ingredient that helps to treat several skin concerns, and acne is one of them.

Don’t stop using retinol on your acne even when it seems to be making it worse. This is totally normal as it is just retinol doing its job.

Can Retinol Make Acne Worse?

Yes, it can. This happens during the purge phase, where retinol worsens your acne by causing a severe breakout. This phase lasts for a duration of two to six weeks. This doesn’t happen to everyone. 

However, retinol did not cause the development of acne, it only purges out existing acne that is yet to appear on the skin. The acne must have developed already in your skin, retinol just helps in pushing it out to appear on the skin.

This is part of the healing process to rid your skin completely of acne. During this phase, try as much as possible to keep your skin hydrated, and avoid exposing your skin to the sun.

Also, using too much retinol can cause your acne to be worse. Therefore, avoid applying too much retinol to your skin. In this article, you will find a guide to help you to use your retinol serum properly without triggering side effects. 

Is Retinol Good for Acne?

“Retinol is a natural form of vitamin A that is more gentle compared to other retinoids and is often used in over-the-counter skincare products,” says Dr. Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist.

This means that; unlike other retinoids, retinol is less irritating. This makes it a good choice for you if you are hoping to clear your acne without irritating your face. If you have mild or persistent acne, using retinol might help to treat and rid your skin of it.

Can Retinol Fade Acne Scars?

Yes, it can. It helps to slough off old skin cells to give room for newer ones, as well as boost the production of collagen and elastin in the skin. This way, the dead skin on the skin seen as acne scars will reduce. 

With the production of collagen, the skin will be firm and evenly toned. This thereby leads to a reduction in the appearance of acne scars. 

How Does Retinol Work on Acne and Acne Scars?

Acne occurs when bacteria mix with the buildup of oil and dead skin that is clogging the skin pores. Retinol does stop acne breaks out by removing the buildup of dirt from your skin. This reduces the swelling of acne and also smoothens the skin. 

A 2017 study shows that retinol and other topical retinoids can help to treat inflammatory and noninflammatory acne. 

Another study reveals that retinoids can help to regulate sebum(oil) production in the skin. This reduces the rate at which oil is produced in the skin; this prevents excess oil from clogging the pores. This also means that it prevents acne breakouts from occurring.

To reduce the appearance of acne scars, retinol penetrates the middle layer of your skin to enhance collagen production. This helps in the reduction of acne scars.

How to Use Retinol as Acne Treatment

As effective as retinol is in treating skin concerns like acne and aging, it has serious side effects when it is used incorrectly. You need to learn to use the compound correctly on your skin to avoid side effects such as dryness, peeling, flaking, and discoloration of the skin.

Below is a list to help you use the compound correctly on your face to treat acne and eliminate acne scars.

1. Choose the right percentage

Over-the-counter retinol forms, like cream, lotion, and gel, often contain between 0.25 to 1.5 percent of the compound. Now, before you pick a product, you need to consider your skin type and how much percentage it can tolerate. 

If you have sensitive skin, or are a newbie to the ingredient, start with a low concentration. If you do not experience any side effects, you can upgrade to a product that contains a higher percentage of the compound.

As you pick your retinol product, try as much as possible to avoid ones that are not formulated for acne, and ones that contain fragrances and oils. 

2.  Start slow and gentle

Be sure to not rush into using too much when you begin to use retinol on your skin. Start slowly by limiting your usage to two times weekly for the first month of using it. 

Dr. Garshick suggests two to three times usage until your skin can tolerate a more frequent usage of the product on your skin. Also, start with a low concentration of retinol, as using a high concentration on your skin can cause your skin to overreact and get irritated.

Although the product may cause mild irritation on your skin for the first week of using it, you will no longer experience such after the first week or at most after the first month.

3. Use retinol in your nighttime routine

The best time to apply your retinol product as an acne treatment is at night. This is because retinol and all other vitamin A derivatives make the skin sensitive to the sun. This causes the body to be prone to get damaged by sun and ultraviolet radiation. 

Besides that, exposing your body to the sun after using retinol in your morning skincare routine will render your retinol useless. This is because the sun deactivates retinol and makes it have no effect on the skin. 

4. Wash your face before applying retinol 

It is important to cleanse your face with soap or cleanser first, however, does not apply the product immediately after washing your face. 

Wash your face or the affected area of your skin 30 minutes before you apply your retinol product to it. Do this using a gentle cleanser or soap that does not contain any acid or exfoliant that can irritate your skin. 

Using a cleanser that contains exfoliants and acids such as benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid along with a retinol product can irritate your skin. It may also lessen the effectiveness of your retinol product.

5. Always moisturize after

Dr. Garshick suggests using a moisturizer after applying your retinol product as this will prevent your skin from drying up due to the retinol. 

The best way to avoid the side effects of using retinol on the skin is to moisturize your skin after using retinol on it. It helps to seal hydration into the skin to keep the skin moisturized throughout the day. 

Use a basic hypoallergenic moisturizer that will not irritate your skin to help you hydrate your skin.

6. Use sunscreen for protection

Even as you apply your retinol in your skincare routine, ensure that you apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher in your morning skincare routine. This is important to protect your skin from damage, as retinol increases the sensitivity of the skin to the sun.

How Long Does It Take Retinol to Work on Acne?

It takes a few weeks for retinol to help stop acne breakouts on the skin. Depending on the potency of the retinol product you use on your acne, it may take up to 2 to three months to see tangible improvement in the eradication of your acne. 

You should keep using your retinol product till your skin is completely free from acne and acne scars. Do not stop when you start seeing improvement or give up halfway. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Does retinol prevent acne breakouts?

Yes, it does. It does this by ridding the skin of any buildup of dirt and oil clustering together to block your pores.

It also regulates sebum production in the skin, to prevent excess oil from clogging up the pores. Likewise, it sloughs off dead skin cells from the skin. When there is no dead skin cell and oil to clog the pores, there is no acne formation.

Can you use retinol on open acne?

No, you can’t. You shouldn’t apply retinol on open wounds such as open acne. 

Not only will it burn your skin, but doing that will irritate the skin and cause retinol burn and side effects to appear on your skin.

How long does retinol make you to break out?

2 to 6 weeks. Retinol can cause you to experience more acne breakouts, and the purge phase can last up to 6 weeks, depending on how severe your acne is.

However, not everyone experienced this purge. This only happens if you have acne developing in your skin but is yet to appear on the surface. When you start using retinol to treat acne, it forces every developing acne to be able to treat all of it at once.


Retinol is a gold standard ingredient in the skincare world, as it helps to treat different skin concerns such as acne and aging. Using retinol on acne is a good way to rid your skin of acne, as it helps to remove the dirt clogging your skin pores.

It also helps to remove dead skin cells before it clogs the skin cells. Additionally, It stops the skin from producing too much oil. With these, there will be no mixture of dead skin cells and oil to clog up your pores.

Although retinol may cause acne to become worse, it is just to treat the acne completely. Do not dump your retinol product because of that, stick to using retinol long-term and your acne will be cleared out completely.

Thanks for reading.

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