Retinol Facts – What Retinol Can Do for Your Skin


Retinoids can work wonders to fight the signs of skin aging. I’ve used them for years in my dermatology practice.  

The two forms of retinoids that I use most often are prescription retinoic acid (called tretinoin, which is found in Retin-A and Renova) and retinol. Retinol products are non-prescription, so you don’t need a trip to the doctor to add retinol to your anti-aging skin care routine.

Are you wondering why you should add retinol to your skin care routine and what can retinol do for your skin?  Here’s what we know.

Retinol FAQs

Retinol is vitamin A. It is a member of the retinoid family that includes prescription tretinoin (aka retinoic acid as in Retin-A and Renova). Retinoids are vitamin A-related agents.

Retinol (non-prescription all-trans-retinol) is converted in the skin to retinoic acid (aka tretinoin as in Retin-A and Renova). Tretinoin has the proven ability to create a layer of new collagen in the skin. The production of new collagen is the most meaningful indication of wrinkle reversal. Retinol increases the biochemical processes of collagen synthesis too.

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Retinoids work by activating your skin’s retinoid receptors.

This means that retinoids have unique pathways to change your skin. When a retinoid binds to a skin retinoid receptor it activates biochemical changes that lead to anti-aging effects that you’ll see in the mirror. Tretinoin works to fight the signs of skin aging. Retinol does too.

Scientific studies have shown that when retinol at 0.4% is applied to the skin it can:

    • Penetrate the skin of living human beings (meaning it doesn’t just work in a petri dish) to bind to the retinoid receptor
    • Activate a gene that is used to demonstrate retinoid activity
    • Trigger biochemical evidence of collagen synthesis in the skin
    • Increase hyaluronic acid content of the skin to give it a more youthful and dewy look and feel
    • Reduce the visible appearance of fine lines and wrinkles 

Retinoids can stop the degenerative cycle of skin aging.

Your skin gets wrinklier and wrinklier over time from both UV light exposure and aging. This is because both cause a self-perpetuating cycle of collagen loss due to free radicals. Retinoids are capable of stopping the cycle and it’s never too soon or too late to intervene to stop the cycle.

Retinoids give skin a dewier and more youthful appearance.

One of the important ways that they do this is by increasing the hyaluronic acid content in skin. Both non-prescription all-trans-retinol and retinoic acid (Retin A and Renova) significantly increase skin hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid holds water giving skin a youthful, dewy appearance and plumps wrinkles. The more hyaluronic acid, the better skin looks and feels.

Retinoids give skin a smoother appearance. 

Both all-trans-retinol and retinoic acid (tretinoin) cause the dead cell layer, called the stratum corneum, to become smoother and more compact, which translates to less roughness and to further smoothing of your skin.

Retinol is less irritating to your skin than retinoic acid (Retin A and Renova).

Irritation is the main problem that people complain about with tretinoin (Retin A, Renova) and tazarotene (Tazorac). Retinol products are simply less irritating, making them better suited for sensitive skin.

I am a dedicated reader of your blog and my skin is better for it. Paul B

Not all retinol products contain active retinol.  

That’s because retinol is fragile and must be formulated and packaged carefully to preserve activity.

Retinol is the best non-prescription retinoid to use to fight the signs of skin aging.

Retinol anti-wrinkleThere are other non-prescription retinoids, but they don’t all work equally well to fight the signs of skin aging. Of the over-the-counter (non-prescription) retinoids, retinol is the one to use. The others, which are technically called pro-retinols (a.k.a. retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate), are much weaker at providing all of the retinoid goodness that I mentioned above. I don’t recommend them.

Retinol at higher concentrations will give your skin more age-defying results.  

It’s also more irritating. To help your skin tolerate higher retinol levels, look for products that include calming ingredients and slow-release formulations – but the devil is in the details because retinoid product formulation is tricky. Our new retinol cream is state of the art to help you work up to higher concentrations, so that you get more retinoid goodness with less risk of irritation.

Retinoid products are best used as your night cream.  

That’s because retinoids, including retinol, break down on contact with light. I recommend applying them at bed time.

If you have enjoyed these retinol and retinoid tips and how they can help you look and feel younger, please show your thanks by commenting on, sharing, “liking,” Google+, tweeting, and “pinning,” using the social sharing buttons above and below this blog post with friends and family.


Retinol & Retinoid References:

Improvement of Naturally Aged Skin With Vitamin A (Retinol), Reza Kafi, MD; Heh Shin R. Kwak, MD, Arch Dermatol. 2007;143:606-612

Improvement of photoaged facial skin in middle-aged Japanese females by topical retinol (vitamin A alcohol): a vehicle-controlled, double-blind study. Kikuchi K, Suetake T, Kumasaka N, Tagami H, J Dermatolog Treat. 2009;20(5):276-81

Choosing Topical Retinoids for Aging Skin, Sachs, DL, Dermatology Focus, Summer 2013 Vol 32 No 2 page 4

Application of Retinol to Human Skin In Vivo Induces Epidermal Hyperplasia and Cellular Retinoid Binding Proteins Characteristic of Retinoic Acid but Without Measurable Retinoic Acid Levels or Irritation, Sewon Kang, Elizabeth A. Duell, et. al., J Invest Dermatol 105:549-556, 1995

Vitamin A Antagonizes Decreased Cell Growth and Elevated Collagen-Degrading Matrix Metalloproteinases and Stimulates Collagen Accumulation in Naturally Aged Human Skin, James Varani, Roscoe L Warner, Mehrnaz Gharaee-Kermani, et. al., J Invest Dermatol (2000) 114, 480–486;

Mechanisms of Photoaging and Chronological Skin Aging, Gary J. Fisher, PhD; Sewon Kang, MD; et. al., Arch Dermatol. 2002;138(11):1462-1470

Topical Tretinoin for Photoaged Skin: a Double-blind Vehicle-controlled Study, Weiss JS, Ellis CN, et. al., JAMA. 1988, 259: 527-532

Tazarotene Cream for the Treatment of Facial Photo Damage: a Multicenter, Investigator-Masked, Randomized, Vehicle-Controlled, Parallel Comparison of Tazarotene 0.01%, 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1% Creams and Tretinoin 0.05% Emollient Cream Applied Once-Daily for 24 Weeks. Kang S, Leyden JJ, Lowe NJ, et al., Arch Dermatol. 2001;137:1597-1604.


If you have found these retinol facts helpful, please show your thanks by commenting on, sharing, “liking,” Google+, tweeting, and “pinning,” using the social sharing buttons above and below this blog post with friends and family.

Sincerely, Dr. Bailey Skin Care Team

Photo attribution: Thanks and gratitude to © Radius Images/Corbis, © Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Images/Corbis, © Brüderchen & Schwesterchen GmbH/Corbis

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9 Responses to “Retinol Facts – What Retinol Can Do for Your Skin”

  1. Nadine April 21, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

    Is isotretinoin anti-aging?

  2. Lillie McPherson April 21, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

    What about Tazorac?

  3. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. April 21, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

    It’s not used for that purpose for obvious reasons and I’ve not seen any studies or case reports looking at it’s impact on aging skin. You would think it would be but the risks way outweigh the benefits

  4. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. April 21, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    Tazorac works too but the really good studies were done on tretinoin. There are now some great ones, which I have listed, that have been done on retinol. I’ve always found that with the prescription retinoids tretinoin cream works best and has the right tolerance to benefit profile. For people whose skin can’t tolerate tretinoin cream then we switch to the Renova formula. Retinol is a great non-rx alternative and the science is supporting it’s role in anti-aging skin care.

  5. jenny April 22, 2014 at 2:43 pm #

    I was just at my derm today – she gave me samples of Tretin X 0.0375 (I have acne plus aging concerns). Where does Tretin X fall in this discussion? Also, what is your opinion/advice about Acutane (for adults and teens)? Thank you for your wonderful blog.

  6. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. April 22, 2014 at 10:15 pm #

    Tretin X is tretinoin. Tretinoin is a retinoid. Accutane is an invaluable medicine for patients with severe acne. It has many serious potential side effects and those must be weighed carefully against the benefits.

  7. cheryl mccoy April 22, 2014 at 10:36 pm #

    in the article above, you state “our new retinol cream is state of the art to help you work up to higher concentrations, so that you get more retinoid goodness with less risk of irritation” but you do not mention which cream this is nor do i see one available on your website.

    are you able to share what this cream is, how we can find it and most importantly for me as a rosacean whose skin is in very good shape, do you think it is possible that it can be tolerated?


  8. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. April 23, 2014 at 8:23 am #

    Hello Cheryl,

    We are releasing the product in the coming week – and we are excited! Stay tuned, we will be answering all your questions in detail and having a release “event”.

    I love your term “rosacean”, that’s wonderful and sounds mythically exotic. Having erythematotelangectatic rosacea myself I like the image it conjures.

    Back to your questions, rosacea is always a wild card so I never suppose to entirely predict a rosacea complexion’s tolerance to anything. That said, retinoids are such powerful and important anti-aging ingredients that I’ve made it my priority to learn how to introduce them to complexions suffering from inflammatory conditions such as rosacea and facial seborrhea. I have successfully added them to anti-aging skin care routines for my rosacea patients for years – but it is never simple. Have you read my post on how to sneak tretinoin into a skin care routine ? Here is another post to read that fills in some of the other info on rosacea and anti-aging skin care

  9. cheryl mccoy April 23, 2014 at 12:08 pm #

    thankd you kindly for the response, i am looking forward to the upcoming press release. i have been able to use a well formulated retinoid from Paula’s Choice and at 50, i’m willing to experiment a bit, now that my skin is under very good control — using a lot of the products you have recommended.

    i’m glad you got a kick out of ‘rosacean’, it really should be a word. it also does some funny word-association in my mind and morphs into ‘crustacean’. we all know what color they turn when the heat is on :D

    anyway, i do hope you are feeling better, i have been through that whole cancer experience a couple of times. the best part is looking back, realizing how much you have learned about yourself, knowing a new gratitude for just being alive and kicking, truly understanding what is important in this world and that it is behind you.

    keep on kicking, lady!