- Retinol is an example of retinoids, medications obtained from vitamin A
- Retinol is used to treat blemishes, fine lines, wrinkles, and skin conditions such as psoriasis
- Products containing retinol include creams and gels
- Side effects of retinol tend to occur only with long-term or high-dose usage
- Acne medications with retinol are available in over-the-counter and prescription products
Made from vitamin A, retinol is a medication used to treat acne and generally improve the appearance of your skin. At lower concentrations, it’s an ingredient in over-the-counter (OTC) skin care products, while prescription medications contain retinol in stronger doses.
Overuse of retinol products can lead to patchy redness and dryness, but in general, retinol is a safe treatment for mild-to-severe acne. However, stronger medications may be needed for serious acne breakouts.
What Is Retinol?
Retinol is a chemical compound that derived from vitamin A and used in skincare products that treat acne breakouts and help slow aging. Gel-based and cream-based products and lotions are applied directly to the skin. Gels are usually stronger because they penetrate deeper into the skin and can clear up pimples and remove dead skin cells faster.
In these products, retinol is the active ingredient, meaning it is the ingredient that is the main medication. But in most acne products containing retinol, only 1 percent or less of the medication is actually composed of retinol. The rest is made up of plant oils, water, and chemicals that give the products their form so they can be used as medications.
Retinol vs. retinoids
Retinol is one of several types of vitamin A-related and widely used medications for acne called retinoids. Other retinoids include adalapene (Differin), tretinoin (Retin-A), isotretinoin (Zenatane), and tazarotene (Tazorac), among others. Some retinoids, including retinol, are natural, while others, such as isotretinoin and adapalene, are synthetic.
Retinol and all retinoids eventually are converted into retinoic acid, which is the form of a retinoid that can be used by the skin. Retinoic acid helps accelerate the growth of new skin cells and the shedding of older skin cells from the surface. Retinoic acid, when combined with glycolic acid, is also proven to help reduce acne scars.
Despite having similar origins, all retinols work a little differently in the body. Some are stronger than others, and some of these medications are better tolerated than others. Retinol is among the milder retinoids, and is therefore the one commonly found in OTC skincare products. Tazarotene is the strongest retinoid and requires a prescription.
Does Retinol for Acne Work?
Acne is a complicated health challenge that develop from a variety of sources, such as hormonal changes and bacterial infections. Retinol products and good hygiene may be enough to keep skin clear. But sometimes, the combination of retinol with other medications is needed to clear up an acne breakout.
Retinol treats acne in two ways. It helps increase the amount of collagen in the skin, which makes it useful in treating age-related skin changes. Retinol also helps treat acne by spurring the turnover of skin cells, accelerating the removal of older skin cells and the growth of newer, acne-free skin cells.
Acne before and after retinol
Retinol may take several weeks to produce results, and may need other medications and skin cleansers to help treat severe acne. Your dermatologist should be able to advise you on the right combination of products and skincare routines that will clear up your skin, and give you an idea of how long the process should take.
Best Retinol Products for Acne
Because retinol is a milder retinoid, it is considered safe for most individuals. OTC retinol products may be a good place to start, particularly if you have mild acne. If you have moderate or severe acne, see a dermatologist, who may write you a prescription for a stronger retinol product or a topical treatment that contains a more powerful retinoid.
Over the counter retinol
OTC retinol products include gels and creams. Gels may be better for oilier skin because they are lighter and are less likely to clog pores, while creams often contain ingredient that help soothe skin. These can be helpful if your skin is particularly sensitive to retinol and tends to dry out. Retinol creams are more commonly used as anti-aging treatments.
OTC retinol products come in strengths ranging from 0.01 percent up to 2.0 percent—the highest percentage you can get without a prescription. Retinol products with very low concentrations aren’t recommended for acne treatment. If you’re just starting out, try a 0.025 percent product. If you find that you need a stronger medication, look for 0.05 percent or even a 1.0 percent skincare product. If you are still not getting results, get an evaluation from a dermatologist, who make recommend a stronger retinol product or a different retinoid altogether.
Prescription-strength retinol treatments come in concentrations of 2.0 percent and higher, usually in gel form. These can usually deliver symptom relief in a shorter amount of time. However, as with any medication, the stronger it is the greater the risk of side effects.
If your dermatologist thinks that a retinoid is appropriate, however, he or she may prescribe one other than retinol. You may instead be advised to take adapalene, tretinoin, isotretinoin or tazarotene.
How to Use Retinol for Acne
Though you are probably anxious to clear up your acne breakout, the key to retinol use is to start slow and use a little at a time. Use a pea-sized amount of cream or gel and apply it to your face every three nights for the first two weeks. Then use it every two nights for another two weeks, then every other night for a week, and then nightly if needed.
Try “dotting” areas of acne at first, before rubbing those dots into your skin. Also, wait at least 20 minutes after washing your face to apply retinol. Putting it on damp skin may increase the risk of skin irritation. Allow retinol to penetrate the skin and start working for an or so before putting on any moisturizer.
Topical retinoids, such as retinol cream or gel, often are combined with benzoyl peroxide as first-line treatment for acne breakouts. If you have any questions about other products to use in addition to retinol, check with a dermatologist. It’s generally a good idea to wash your face daily with mild cleansers and gently dry it before using any skincare products for acne.
Retinol Side Effects
Retinol for acne is generally well-tolerated for people with sensitive skin. It’s also effective at reducing acne breakouts. However, the medication does carry the risk of some side effects:
- An initial breakout may follow your first few applications of retinol. Starting slow and with small amounts at first may reduce your risk of a new breakout.
- You may have red or dry skin patches. This may be a sign you’re using too much. A gentle moisturizer may help.
- If your face turns hot and bumpy, you may have an allergic reaction. You should stop using it immediately and contact a dermatologist.
- Retinol can make your skin especially sensitive to light, so using a sunscreen may help reduce the risk of sunburn and the formation of red patches on your skin.
Retinol, either alone or with other medications, can be an effective treatment for acne. Available in lower strengths over the counter or by prescription at higher doses, retinol helps speed up cell turnover. Even at low concentrations, retinol is a powerful medication, so it’s important to follow the instructions on the label and work with a dermatologist if you are dealing with moderate-to-severe acne.
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