- Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A that skin requires for cell turnover.
- Retinol is an effective blackhead prevention tool as it eliminates the bacteria and oils that can clog pores and cause inflammation.
- Sunscreen is highly recommended when using retinol as skin becomes more vulnerable to harmful UV rays.
Blackheads, or open comedones, are a result of oil and dead skin cells building up and becoming trapped within pores. Retinol, a vitamin A derivative, is a useful over-the-counter (OTC) product that can help clear and prevent blocked pores.
By dissolving dead skin layers, removing excess sebum released by the skin’s oil glands and eliminating acne-causing bacteria, retinol reduces acne inflammation and encourages the turnover of dead skin cells that clog pores, preventing future acne outbreaks.
How Retinol Benefits Skin
Retinol—like other retinoids such as retinoic acid, tretinoin and retinyl palmitate—is a derivative of vitamin A, a key nutrient that the skin requires to stimulate cell turnover. The active ingredient, vitamin A, has a powerful impact on the skin because it can:
- Decrease inflammation
- Increase skin cell growth to heal lesions and scars
- Reduce sebum, or oil, production
- Smooth out skin texture
- Even skin tone
- Protect against environmental damage
- Aid in treating acne
- Prevent further acne outbreaks
- Stimulate new skin growth
Topical retinol is formulated within creams, serums and other similar products to bolster the production of both collagen and elastin. By doing so, retinol provides firmer skin and pores which reduces the pore blockages that lead to blackheads.
Tighter pores also lead to less oil being produced and secreted by the skin, further reducing the potential for blackheads to form.
Retinol also works to unclog pores by clearing away excess sebum, dead skin cells and bacteria. This helps to treat blackheads and reduces the likelihood of future outbreaks. Keeping pores clear also allows creams, gels and other acne products to penetrate and therefore work more effectively.
While retinol can improve your skin’s condition and help to control acne, for optimal results, it should be used in tandem with other treatments that are specially formulated to treat acne. There are many medicated skin care products, including cleansers and pore strips that can be used simultaneously with retinol to eliminate blackheads.
How to Use Retinol for Blackheads
When used properly, retinol can become an effective part of your regular skin care routine. Following are some tips on how to use a retinol serum for best results:
- Wash your face with a mild to moderate cleanser
- Apply an eye cream to protect the skin around your eyes
- Allow your skin to dry before applying retinol; this reduces the risk of the product getting into your eyes and causing irritation
- Dab a pea-sized amount of retinol onto the cheeks, chin and forehead
- Follow with a moisturizer
- The morning after application, use an SPF cream or sunscreen on the treated area
When beginning a retinol treatment, begin by using products with a mild to moderate retinol strength to avoid skin irritation. Products that contain as little as 0.04% to 0.1% retinol can have visible results, however retinol products are commonly available in 1% concentrations.
Retinol can cause skin to be sun sensitive. It’s effectiveness can also be hampered by UV rays, and therefore should always be applied in the evening. Apply every third night, and increase treatments to every second night once your skin becomes accustomed to the treatment.
When starting a retinol treatment, the skin may purge itself of bacteria, oils and debris. This may lead to acne breakouts. Other side effects include skin dryness, tightness, peeling and redness – especially during the first few weeks of application.
After three months of application, these side effects tend to disappear as the skin acclimates to the treatment, giving way to a marked improvement in skin quality.
Those with sensitive skin may continue to experience redness, dryness, or mild swelling. Overuse of retinol may cause similar results. In some cases, skin discoloration can also occur.
Who Should Avoid Using Retinol
Although retinol can be an effective blackhead treatment, it is not suitable for all skin types as it can be harsh and irritating. It is important to consider if retinol is right for you before including it in your skin care regimen.
Retinol and sensitive skin
People with sensitive skin are advised to seek the advice of a dermatologist before adding retinol to their skin care routine. Retinol can disrupt the delicate natural balance of sensitive skin leading to dryness and irritation.
Similarly, those dealing with rosacea and eczema already have a compromised skin moisture barrier and skin could be further irritated due to an application of retinol. If you experience chronic issues such as eczema, speak with your dermatologist before applying retinol.
Retinol and pregnancy
Retinol may harm unborn children. Topical retinoids should be avoided during pregnancy as small amounts may be absorbed through the skin.
Retinol and sun exposure
Skin may become more sensitive to the sun after an application. While it is always important to apply sunscreen daily, it is especially important to do so while using retinol-based products. Retinol use should be suspended when spending long periods of time in the sun.
Retinol can be an effective blackhead prevention tool that helps remove sebum, bacteria and dead cells from the skin. Its ability to increase the production of vital components of the skin such as collagen and elastin make it not only useful for eliminating blackheads, but also as a general skin maintenance product.
That said, it is crucial to use retinol-based products with caution, especially if you have sensitive skin. Even under ideal conditions, retinol can cause skin purging that temporarily worsens acne-prone skin. If you continue to experience side effects after the purging period, speak with your dermatologist about potential changes to your retinol treatment.
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- Tolleson, W. H., Cherng, S. H., Xia, Q., Boudreau, M., Yin, J. J., Wamer, W. G., … Fu, P. P. (2005). Photodecomposition and phototoxicity of natural retinoids. International journal of environmental research and public health, 2(1), 147–155. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3814709/
- Panchaud A, Csajka C, Merlob P, Schaefer C, Berlin M, De Santis M, Vial T, Ieri A, Malm H, Eleftheriou G, Stahl B, Rousso P, Winterfeld U, Rothuizen LE, Buclin T. Pregnancy outcome following exposure to topical retinoids: a multicenter prospective study. J Clin Pharmacol. 2012 Dec;52(12):1844-51. doi:10.1177/0091270011429566