What Does Retinol Do? See the Benefits and Side Effects

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Retinol is a very popular skincare ingredient. But what does it do? Why is it so popular? What is it that makes it so special? This article will answer all your questions about this amazing ingredient.

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that has been modified to be used as an active skincare ingredient instead of just being consumed as part of your diet. It helps maintain healthy skin by increasing cell turnover and reducing inflammation.

According to Dr. Alan Durkin, a board-certified dermatologist, “retinol helps to improve the appearance of fine lines, acne scars, and acne, as well as discoloration due to sun exposure by speeding up the skin’s natural exfoliation process.”

It also helps to achieve healthier, younger-looking skin by working on the surface of the skin to boost collagen production. Collagen is a structural protein that gives your skin its firmness, elasticity, and turgor.

Retinol is available in many different forms, such as creams, lotions, gels, serums and works at different speeds to achieve varying results. But before you consider one over the other, there are some other things you should know about this ingredient. Keep reading to find out.

How Does Retinol Work?

Retinol works by stimulating the skin cells on the surface of the skin to turn over faster, which allows for new cell generation. It also helps to reduce the production of sebum in the skin, thus keeping pores clean and improving skin texture.

In addition, it increases collagen production and prevents collagen breakdown in the skin. This helps to improve the skin’s firmness and structure, thereby resulting in brighter and younger-looking skin.

“Retinol doesn’t become biologically active until it gets into the skin, where it is transformed into retinoic acid,” says Dr. Durkin explains further. Once inside the skin, it increases the production of hyaluronic acid, a natural chemical in the skin that keeps it moist and plump.

What Does Retinol Do for Acne?

Retinol helps to reduce acne by preventing the clogging up of pores and by reducing the growth of acne-causing bacteria. It also increases skin cell turnover rates, which can make it tough for oil and dead skin cells to build upon the surface of your skin.

Additionally, it helps to reduce the visibility of acne scars. These scars are caused by inflammation below the skin’s surface, which creates deep tiny holes in the skin that you can’t easily erase with topical treatments or laser resurfacing.

Studies show that retinol can increase collagen production by up to 5% after just two months of use. The more collagen produced, the better the skin will fill out those deep holes, making acne scars less visible.

Does Retinol Work on Stretch Marks?

One of the best ways to get rid of stretch marks is by using retinol. Stretch marks are scars on the skin that appear when there is damage to the elastic fibers in the skin. These elastic fibers are called collagen and they help the skin maintain its elasticity. 

“To combat this effect, retinol works by increasing collagen production in the dermis, hence reversing the process of stretch marks and making them less visible,” Dr. Durkin explains.

Additionally, the increase in collagen production causes your skin to plump up quickly and become more elastic. This helps to strengthen skin tissues while improving your skin’s tone and texture over time.

Who Should Stay Away From Retinol?

Stay away from retinol if you spend a lot of time in the sun. Vitamin A is photosensitive, which means it breaks down when exposed to sunlight. The combination of UV rays with retinol can cause your skin to get damaged, which might lead to several skin conditions.

More so, if you have sensitive skin, there’s a good chance that retinol will irritate your skin and make your face red and swollen. You might also experience dryness or peeling at first as your skin adjusts to this new ingredient. If any of these symptoms persist for more than a few days after starting retinol, stop using it.

“It is recommended to avoid retinol if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding as it can lead to birth defects,” says a board-certified dermatologist Dr. Leslie Baumann. In cases like this, it is always better to consult with your dermatologist first before starting retinol treatment.

Benefits of Using Retinol

Retinol is a vitamin A compound that has been shown to be effective in the treatment of many skin conditions. Below are some of the common benefits of using retinol on the skin.

1. Improves Acne

Retinol has been shown to be effective in the treatment of acne and acne-related conditions. It produces several effects on the skin, including reducing oil production and eliminating acne-causing bacteria.

In addition, it opens up pores and boosts the production of new skin cells. This helps the skin to shed away dead skin cells, oil, and dirt that can accumulate to block pores, hence leading to blackheads and breakouts.

2. Anti-aging Treatment

You can find retinol in most anti-aging creams. That is because it increases collagen production, exfoliation, and cell turnover, resulting in less visible wrinkles and healthier-looking skin.

This ingredient penetrates deep into your skin, making it more effective than most topical treatments. It also has antioxidant properties that help to fight off free radicals that can cause damage to your skin cells.

3. Shrinks Pores

Studies have shown retinol to increase the turnover of cells in the skin, leading to a reduction in the number and size of pores. Studies also show it increases the production of collagen and elastin, which helps to support the skin’s structure and reduce pore appearance.

4. Brightens Skin

When applied to the skin, retinol penetrates deeply to fade acne scars, dark spots, or hyperpigmentation by stimulating collagen production and exfoliation.

This ingredient also helps to thicken the skin, and increase the cell turnover rate. This allows old skin cells to shed more quickly, hence providing a fresh canvas for new skin.

Side Effects of Retinol

Retinol is an effective way to combat aging and nourish your skin. However, it also has some side effects that you should be aware of before you decide to start this treatment.

1. Dryness

Retinol causes dryness on the skin because it removes dead cells from the skin’s surface, which causes the skin to lose its natural oils. “This also explains why dermatologists recommend retinol treatments to be done before bedtime because this is when our bodies are repairing themselves,” Dr. Leslie explains.

If you want to avoid this dryness caused by retinol, try using lotion or applying an oil-based moisturizer before applying it. This will help to lock in moisture and keep your skin hydrated.

2. Irritation

Retinol can cause skin irritation due to its exfoliating properties. This is because the ingredient removes the topmost layer of dead skin cells from the surface, leaving a raw and irritated surface behind.

The best way to avoid this is to start with a lower concentration of retinol and increase it over time as your skin becomes accustomed to it.

3. Itching

Retinol is also known to cause itching on the skin. “For some people, this may be mild and not bothersome. But for others, it can be severe,” says Dr. Durkin.

This is because it changes the pH balance on the surface of your skin, which can result in an allergic reaction or inflammation. The best way to avoid this is to apply retinol before bedtime, so your skin has more time to absorb it.

4. Redness

Some people may experience increased redness on their skin when they use retinol. This can be caused by sun exposure or contact with other substances that irritate your skin.

You may also experience increased redness if you have rosacea or acne rosacea, which is a chronic skin condition that causes redness on your face or neck.

How to Use Retinol

  • Clean your face with a gentle cleanser suitable for your skin type.
  • Apply the retinol of choice to your face.
  • Wait for at least 10 minutes to give the retinol time to absorb into your skin.
  • Apply a moisturizer or night cream to seal in moisture. 
  • Apply sunscreen during daytime hours to prevent sun damage and aging of the skin caused by UV rays.
  • Use retinol at least two times a week to reveal clearer, smoother skin.

How to Know if Your Retinol Is Fake

There are many different types of retinol, and some of them can be very expensive. But it is possible that you might purchase a counterfeit product that doesn’t work as well or has a higher potential for side effects.

A few things to look out for:

  • If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • If the product is not in packaging with an identifiable company logo, take caution.
  • The manufacturers should list the ingredients on the package, but if they are not there make sure you find out what they are before purchasing.


Is retinol dangerous?

It depends on how you use it. Retinol is not toxic in moderate doses; however, too much may lead to severe side effects, including pain in the stomach or intestines, nausea, or vomiting.

Retinol can also be dangerous if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, if you’re allergic to any of the ingredients used in a product, or if you spend a lot of time in the sun.

How long does it take for retinol to work?

It can take about four weeks or as long as six months for retinol to show signs of working. This depends on your skin type, the strength of the product you’re using, and how often you use it.

You’ll know that you’re seeing improvement when your skin becomes smoother and has fewer wrinkles, less redness, and feels softer.

Can you use retinol around your eyes?

Yes, you can. Retinol is not classed as either an irritant or allergen so you should be able to use them comfortably around your eyes with no problems.

However, if you have sensitive skin or rosacea, you may experience some irritation. If you notice any signs of irritation on your skin that persists for more than a few days, contact your dermatologist.

Does Retinol contain vitamin A?

Yes, it does. Retinol is a form of vitamin A that helps to promote skin cell rejuvenation, boost collagen production, and shed away dead skin cells.

It is an essential ingredient in many beauty products because it has numerous benefits that include brightening skin, fighting acne, and reducing signs of aging such as age spots, fine lines, and wrinkles.


Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that your body needs every day. It helps to smooth and firm your skin from the inside out. But as you age, you lose this essential vitamin from your body as it becomes harder to get from your food sources alone.

This is where retinol comes in. This ingredient is a form of vitamin A that has been modified into skincare products. It helps to promote collagen production, exfoliates dead skin cells, and stimulate cell renewal, which helps to brighten skin and smooth out wrinkles.

It’s a wonder drug for those of us who want to maintain a youthful appearance and avoid getting wrinkles and age spots before it’s too late. However, you can experience some side effects like redness, itching, and dryness.

Furthermore, It’s best to stay away from retinol if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. That is because it can cause defects in babies due to its high level of vitamin A. You should also stay away from retinol if you have sensitive skin or spend a lot of tie in the sun.

Thanks for reading.

Serum 101 has many articles that you can read to learn more about retinol and other serums.