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Retinol for Anti-Aging: What You Really Need to Know

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When you have to deal with wrinkles, dark spots, acne, or skin discoloration there is no better ally than retinol. Most derms and cosmeticians recommend retinol, and that’s because it has so many benefits for your skin. Rightly so, retinol showed potential in diminishing acne, has anti-aging effects, and reduces hyperpigmentation, while it can even boost collagen production, making your skin always look plump, firm, and bouncy. Vogue, Elle, Glamour, and many other beauty magazines recommend retinol, and guess what, we are on the same side. If this “gold standard” ingredient in skincare products got your attention, this read is just what you need right now.

Here everything you need to know about retinol and its derivatives so that you can make the best decision for your skin. 

What retinol is exactly?

A simple form of vitamin A with massive regenerative power for the skin is what retinol is. Technically speaking, retinol is a type of retinoid, more precisely a precursor of retinoic acid (or tretinoin), an effective anti-aging treatment widely used in skincare products. Many people confuse retinol with retinoic acid or vice-versa. While both are retinoids derivates, they work differently. Retinols first need to be converted by special enzymes into the active form of vitamin A (retinoic acid), which can eventually affect skin cells and reduce aging signs. Tretinoin is retinoic acid and does not need to go through this conversion, thus it works more effectively and faster. That’s why OTC forms of retinoids are considered less potent.


Retinol vs. tretinoin

Available as a generic medication, tretinoin (Retin-A, generic), tazarotene (Avage, Tazorac), and isotretinoin (known as Accutane) are all prescripted retinoids. In addition, several over-the-counter products containing retinoids are available: retinyl palmitate, the weakest form of retinoid, retinol, the most tolerable form, retinaldehyde, and adapalene, the strongest OTC option, also formulated to treat acne. Because OTC retinoids are not as strong, they are not as effective in reducing wrinkles; but they do improve the appearance of photo-aged skin. On the other side, prescripted retinoids increase the risk of skin irritation to a point where you can’t longer use it anymore if your skin is sensitive. That’s why you must consult your doctor before getting into it. 

Most people wonder if tretinoin, or other prescription retinoids, works better than retinol. Not necessarily. It is true that tretinoin is more powerful and works faster, but in the end, it gives the same results as retinol. Studies have shown that retinol can have similar positive effects on anti-aging as retinoic acid — “Retinol induces similar skin changes as retinoic acid application. These results were confirmed by the significant facial anti-aging effects observed in the retinol efficacy clinical study.” 

Retinol effects on skin rejuvenation

In 1971, when Dr. Albert M Kligman discovered the retinoic acid for acne treatment, something happened: doctor’s older patients noticed that their skin became smoother, their wrinkles were more filled, and their pigmentation lighter. After some years, in 1996, Dr. Kligman developed a product that contained a retinoid derivate, called tretinoin, in a richer base, and it was registered for use in photo-aging. Since then, more and more products that contain retinol or its derivates are launched, promising astonishing effects for aging signs. But is it true? When it comes to taking action against aging signs, retinol can do wonders. This happens thanks to its power of accelerating skin renewal and wrinkles reduction for smoother, evenly-toned skin.

How does retinol work?

Retinol is essential for the skin because it activates the skin cells’ recuperative abilities. When applied topically, retinoid products can reduce fine lines and wrinkles by protecting collagen against degradationStudies also point out that retinol, while it regulates and normalizes cell functions in the skin, increases epidermal thickness and smooths the skin’s outer layer. If that isn’t enough, research proved that retinol helps increase hyaluronic acid levels, which will make the skin appear more hydrated, plumped, and healthy. Retinol may also stimulate the production of new blood vessels in the skin, which improves skin color. Retinol can do all of that due to its exfoliating effect on the skin’s surface that sheds old skin cells and replaces them with new and stronger cells. However, as already mentioned above, that happens when the retinol is actually converted to retinoic acid. Unfortunately, the conversion rate is low and varies significantly among people; thus, fewer persons respond to retinol products than tretinoin ones. 

Things you must know about retinol before using it

Mervyn Patterson, a cosmetic doctor at Woodford Medical, explained for Business Insider that the new skin cells don’t function well because they have been quickly produced. Therefore, they lack the fundamental lipid production to protect the skin properly“The main function of the top layer of the skin is to protect us, to keep away environmental factors. The more retinol you put on, the poorer the barrier function becomes,” says Patterson. Retinol is effective for some, but don’t feel like you absolutely have to use this ingredient. It can happen that you can’t tolerate it, or you just don’t want to commit to a complex skin regimen. In the end, if you believe retinol is for you, starting to use it in your mid to late 20s would be reasonable. But don’t forget to use sunscreen, and follow a proper skincare routine — prevention first.

What should I use: OTC or prescribed retinoids? 

If this is your first experience with retinoids, we suggest limiting just to over-the-counter retinol products. The OTC-approved are available in almost every product form, while prescription retinoids are more difficult to obtain and are found only in creams or gels. Another reason would be your tolerance for retinoids. Starting directly with intense forms of retinoids might get you in trouble, as no one can tell you exactly how your skin will respond to it. Taking it easy at first and see how it goes is a wise decision. Anyway, your doctor should help you decide the best percentage strength and formula for your skin type and condition if you want to go for prescribed products.

types of retinoids retinol

How long does it take to notice wrinkles’ appearance reduction?

Don’t get fooled by advertisements. Many OTC products claim you’ll see results within a few weeks, but most specialists affirm that it can take up to 3 – 6 months of retinol use before improvements in wrinkles are apparent — the most notable results can take even 6 to 12 months. “Over the long-term—six months and beyond—they help grow new collagen and elastin, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and lighten brown pigmentation,” says Shari Marchbein, a medical dermatologist, for Glamour. Of course, prescribed retinoids can work faster. 

When should you start using retinol products?

There is no age restriction on the use of retinol or other retinoids. They are mostly used for skin rejuvenation, so if you feel like agings signs took control over your skin, then go for it.

How do you use retinol in your beauty routine?

The risk of skin irritation is real when applying retinoids, and for this reason, the specialists recommend using them every other day and gradually working up to nightly applications. After cleansing your complexion, used toner, apply the prescribed product. Any brightening product should be applied after the retinoid. And after, use the serum or night cream. Warning: never diverge from your doctor’s recommendations.

Does retinol really improve aged skin?

Most people know that retinol can reduce the effects caused by photoaging, but studies found that retinol can also help combat the aging signs unrelated to the sun, including fine wrinkles, roughness, and skin looseness.  Samantha Tucker-Samaras, beauty and personal care R&D, demonstrated that a facial moisturizer containing 0.1% retinol improved the appearance of photodamaged skin in an 8-week treatment. No less than 36 women with moderate facial photodamage have used the retinol-containing moisturizer daily for two months. “After eight weeks, the retinol moisturizer significantly improved lines and wrinkles, pigmentation, elasticity, firmness, and overall photodamage. Many of these differences were significant at week 4, with a progressive improvement to week 8,” says Samantha. 

Another study found out that a 0.04% retinol cream provides less prominent improvements in fine wrinkling but minimal irritation, making it more suitable for daily use. We can continue like this all-day as dozens of studies show the benefits of retinol in anti-aging.

What are the best retinol products for wrinkles?

If you want to introduce retinol in your beauty routine here are the best products available right now.

Pure Retinol Face Serum

La Roche-Posay Pure Retinol Face Serum 

The anti-aging serum by La Roche-Posay is enhanced with Pure and Gradual Release Retinol and vitamin B3, leaving the skin hydrated and reducing the look of fine lines and sun damage signs.

Retinol Eye Cream,

StriVectin-AR Advanced Retinol Eye Cream

And for the eye area, this cream does a fantastic job! Fine lines, dehydration, uneven texture, firmness, dark circles, puffiness are all improved with regular application.

StriVectin Retinol Moisturizer

StriVectin Retinol Moisturizer

Complete your regimen with this anti-aging cream, formulated with Retinol to help keep skin to its healthiest, and copper tripeptides that protect the skin and promote its revitalization.


  •, “Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments,” published in 2019 August.
  •, “A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin,” published in 2016 March
  •, “Improvement of photoaged facial skin by topical retinol (vitamin A alcohol): a vehicle-controlled, double-blind study”
  •, “Improvement of Naturally Aged Skin With Vitamin A (Retinol)”
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