How Does Retinol Work? Learn the Science Behind the Anti-aging Ingredient

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Retinol is one of the best age-defying ingredients to ever exist in the skincare world. Not only does it help to treat premature aging skin concerns, but it also helps to treat acne, hyperpigmentation, dark spots, and so on. So how does retinol work?

Retinol works on the skin by first converting it into retinoic acid when it penetrates into the skin. After which it aids the production of collagen and elastin in the skin. It also works as an exfoliant to slough off debris from the surface of the skin. 

As with other vitamin A derivatives, retinol helps to improve the appearance of the skin. Read ahead to find out how it solves different skin concerns as this article explores how the ingredients work on all.

How Does Retinol Work for Acne?

Acne breakout usually happens when the pores become blocked due to oil and dead skin cells buildup. This can turn out to be mild until bacteria join the buildup. When this happens, the acne becomes inflamed and appears as bumps on the skin. 

As with other retinoids, retinol works on acne by dissolving and removing every debris that’s blocking the pores. This allows the skin to repair itself and that can reduce and prevent further breakouts. 

Retinol and other retinoids can help unclog the pores and enable the skin to repair itself, which can reduce swelling and smooth the skin. They can also help improve the appearance of acne marks and scars.

One study reveals that retinol can help to treat both non-inflammatory and inflammatory acne. Another study shows that retinol can also help in the regulation of sebum production in the skin. 

When there is a reduction in the rate at which the sebaceous glands produce oil in the skin, there will be no excess oil to secrete into the pores. This will help to reduce the rate of acne breakouts on the skin. 

Once applied to the skin, it works on the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin) to slough off dirt, dead skin cells, and oil buildup in the pores. 

Board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Marisa Garshick, “vitamin A derivatives such as retinol help to clear out acne by regulating skin cell turnover rate.”

The epidermal turnover process helps to develop more new skin cells to replace the damaged ones on the surface of the skin. 

However, since retinol is an OTC retinoid, it is weaker than potent forms of retinoid. Therefore, it is more suitable for mild to moderate breakouts. It may not work effectively or timely to treat a severe type of acne breakout.

How Does Retinol Work for Wrinkles?

The body produces protein fibers called collagen and elastin to help keep the skin smooth and healthy. Wrinkles and other aging signs begin to develop when there is a reduction in the rate at which the body produces these proteins.

This could be a result of aging or other factors. Retinol works to treat and reduce the appearance of aging signs by increasing blood circulation to the skin tissues.

This will help increase the production of collagen and elastin in the skin cells. The increase thereby helps to restore elasticity to the skin and reduce wrinkles.

Dr. Suzzane Friedler, a board-certified dermatologist, says that “Retinol needs to convert into retinoic acid to become active.” The retinoic acid penetrates into the cell to communicate with the cell receptors to start their turnover process.  

Additionally, the tiny molecules of retinol penetrate past the epidermis into the dermis to stimulate the production of collagen and elastin. This helps to tighten the pores and reduces the appearance of acne scars.

Retinol will help to prevent your skin from losing its collagen fibers as well as stimulate the production of new ones. As an anti-aging treatment, retinol reduces the appearance of aging signs, helps to treat sun damage such as sunspots, and it also gets rid of dark spots. 

A study confirms the effect of applying retinol on aged skin. The study carried out research on 53 participants who were aged 80 or above. 

Researchers discovered that after using retinol for a period of 7 days, there was a reduction in the breakdown of collagen and also an increase in the production of collagen. This reveals retinol to be an effective anti-aging treatment. 

How Does Retinol Work for Hyperpigmentation?

Retinol promotes skin cell turnover and can have many other beneficial effects on the skin. As new skin cells form, they become more evenly pigmented. 

Retinol works on hyperpigmentation by stopping the activities of tyrosinase in the skin. This helps in reducing the appearance of sun-induced dark spots. Using retinol will help to tighten and lighten the skin.

Using retinol creams and serums is one of the most promising ways to treat hyperpigmentation. They fade blemishes and increase the production of collagen and elastin in the skin. Retinol is also effective in reducing the appearance of scars.

How Long Does It Take Retinol to Work?

Retinol doesn’t work as a quick fix to solve your skin concerns. As with other skincare ingredients, you need to use it consistently to achieve your desired result more quickly.

Also, remember that retinol is an over-the-counter retinoid, therefore it will take time to solve skin problems. Using retinol as an acne treatment may take up to 12 weeks to see improvements.

Other skin concerns such as sun damage and aging will take a longer period to show improvement.

Depending on the strength of your retinol product, it can take up to 6 months to see significant results. To ensure better efficiency of the ingredient, ensure that you use it correctly on your skin.

Can You Use Retinol in Daylight?

It is no longer news that retinol is best used at night. This is because retinoids are photosensitive and can break down due to exposure to sunlight. When you apply retinol on your skin and expose your skin to sunlight, the retinol becomes less effective. 

While you can apply retinol to work on your skin during the day, you have to ensure that you avoid sun exposure throughout. If you do not plan to leave your home throughout the day, you can apply retinol on your skin during the day. 

Aside from being sensitive to direct exposure to sunlight, retinol also causes the skin to be prone to sun damage. This is because retinol causes the outer layer of the skin to become thin and this makes it easy for the skin to burn in sunlight.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take the skin to adjust to retinol?

It takes a minimum of three weeks. If you just started using retinol on your skin, it may take three weeks to manage the side effects. 

The skin needs time to work on building its tolerance towards the ingredient. Assist your skin by starting with a lower percentage of retinol. 

Should you moisturize after retinol?

Yes, you should. Moisturizing the skin after using retinol is very important as this will help to seal in moisture to keep the skin hydrated. 

Retinol can dry out the skin and this will cause the skin to become flaky and can develop other forms of sick problems in this relationship.

Can you use retinol every night?

Yes, you can. Using retinol as often as every night will speed up its efficiency on your skin. 

However, before this can be possible, you must have built up your skin’s tolerance rate to be able to do it.

Can you use retinol and vitamin C?

Yes, you can. Despite the fact that they are both active ingredients, you can introduce them both to your skincare routine. 

To use retinol and vitamin C, you can either alternate them each night or use one in the morning and the other at night. You can also layer them on your face together by applying vitamin C first and retinol after 30 minutes. 

Does retinol work immediately?

No, it doesn’t. Retinol doesn’t work immediately to solve your skin problems. 

As with other skincare products and ingredients, it works gradually to improve the overall appearance of the skin. It takes up to 12 weeks to see improvements on the skin.


Retinol is a skincare ingredient that helps to treat several skin concerns. It works on acne by unclogging the pores while it also encourages skin cell turnover.

The contact turnover rate of the skin will also help to improve the appearance of scars, and other blemishes.

While it does all that, it will also help with the production of collagen and elastin to tighten the skin and reduce the appearance of pores. Retinol works on the surface of the skin and inside the skin to ensure the revitalization of your skin cells. 

Thanks for reading.

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