Retinol for Healthier Skin

Our skin, one of the major sense organs is also the biggest organ in our body. It serves as the first line of defence and shields all of the other organs from the outside world. Hence it becomes important for us to take care of our skin health as much as we do of all our other internal body parts.

The epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue make up the skin, along with many other structures and cell types. Like any other body tissue, our skin is also susceptible to various physiological changes. The aging of organs begins from the time when one is born, and there is no exception for the skin. But there are certain measures that one can take to ensure that skin aging starts at the right phase in life. Nobody wants those wrinkles and skin dullness in their youth right!

Nowadays, we hear a lot about various cosmetics and chemicals which can be used to reverse skin aging. One such chemical is retinol. What is this retinol and how can we use it? Will it have any beneficial effects on our skin? Let us understand the use of retinol for healthy skin in further article.

Skin Aging

The skin is directly exposed to air; hence it is not only subject to intrinsic aging but is also superimposed by extrinsic aging. These aging processes are accompanied by changes in the cutaneous cells as well as structural and functional changes in cellular matrix components such as collagen, elastin, and proteoglycans. These components are required to provide strength, elasticity, and hydration to the skin, respectively. (1)

Genetics, environmental exposure, hormonal changes, and metabolic processes are the other factors that play a role in skin aging. These also cause changes in skin structure, function, and appearance.

Photoaging is a type of premature skin aging due to overexposure to sunlight. It is characterized by wrinkles and brown spots on the face and the back of the hands. (2)


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Retinol also called vitamin A is a compound found in green and yellow vegetables, egg yolk, fish liver oil, etc. It is the primary form of vitamin A that circulates throughout the body and is essential for growth and vision in dim light. (3) The natural derivatives of retinol such as retinaldehyde, retinoic acid, and retinyl esters, as well as a huge variety of synthetic compounds, make up the retinoid family. If the body is unable to produce vitamin A, it must be obtained from outside sources.

Retinol derivatives like retinyl acetate, retinyl propionate, and retinyl palmitate have been widely used in cosmetic products instead of retinol. They are used to treat acne, wrinkles, fine lines, sun damage, uneven skin tone, large pores, hyperpigmentation, etc. Various studies have been published on the efficacy of the derivatives of vitamin A for the treatment of different types of acne as well as other skin disorders like psoriasis. (4). Tretinoin is the most bioactive form among retinoids applied topically to the skin. (5)

How does it work?

A derivative of Vitamin A is used to make retinol, which is a form of retinoid. The chemicals in the retinol go deep under the epidermis, the outside layer of skin, to the dermis and help to boost collagen and elastin production. In the epidermis, retinoids may influence the secretion of various growth factors. This helps in increasing the thickness of the epidermal layer thus strengthening its protective function.

This also decreases the water loss from the skin which, if not, results in skin dryness and dullness.

Retinoids also exert anti-comedogenic effects to a certain extent. They regulate the process of shedding from the oil glands which further regulates the formation of blackheads and acne. Moreover, they also reduce discoloration and pigmentation of the skin by about 60% and contribute to a proper distribution of melanin. (5)

How to use Retinol?

Retinol is most frequently used in cosmeceutical treatment and is marketed under different formulations. Retinol concentration in cosmetic products is between 0.0015% and 0.3%. It comes in the form of gels or creams to be applied topically. It is even available in the form of solutions and emollients. (5)
Application is the key when it comes to active ingredients. It is important to increase penetration of retinol in the skin to avail its benefits.

It is generally recommended that you begin adding retinol into your skincare routine in your mid-20s to early 30s. It is also recommended to use retinol at night since day use can cause skin dryness and irritation. It is advisable to start every alternate day and eventually increase to only nightly treatments.

Side effects of Retinol

The most common and frequent adverse effect of topical retinoids is known as ‘retinoid reaction’. It is characterized by burning sensation at the sites of application, peeling, redness, dry skin. (6) This may happen more frequently in first-time users. Retinol may aggravate an active skin rash and is not to be used for the same.

Reducing the frequency of application or switching to a less irritating retinoid is usually recommended to alleviate the symptoms of retinoid response.

Acne breakouts after using retinol have also been reported but it is a rare side effect. Retinols are not recommended for pregnant women. They may increase the risk of birth defects and miscarriage.

Remember as you are unique so is your skin. If you are experiencing premature skin aging or any skin-related ailments you need to understand the factors that as causing it for you. What may be useful for others may not work for you, hence you need to consult your dermatologist before taking or applying any over-the-counter drugs including retinol.

Although over-the-counter retinol is accessible without a prescription it is recommended that your dermatologist examine your general skin health and provide you product recommendations based on your specific needs.

Have you used retinol or its derivatives on your skin? How was your experience while using these products? Let us know in the comments section below.

Author: Dr Pooja (Content writer and editor)


  • Mora Huertas, AC, Schmelzer, CE, Hoehenwarter, W, Heyroth, F, Heinz, A. Molecular-level insights into aging processes of skin elastin. Biochimie 2016;128–129:163–173.
  • Kafi, R., Kwak, H.S.R., Schumacher, W.E., Cho, S., Hanft, V.N., Hamilton, T.A., King, A.L., Neal, J.D., Varani, J., Fisher, G.J. and Voorhees, J.J., 2007. Improvement of naturally aged skin with vitamin A (retinol). Archives of dermatology, 143(5), pp.606-612.
  • Van Wicklin, S.A., 2021. Are Over-the-Counter Cosmetic Retinol Products an Effective Treatment for Facial Skin Aging?. Plastic surgical nursing: official journal of the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgical Nurses, 41(4), pp.185-187.
  • Khalil, S., Bardawil, T., Stephan, C., Darwiche, N., Abbas, O., Kibbi, A.G., Nemer, G. and Kurban, M., 2017. Retinoids: a journey from the molecular structures and mechanisms of action to clinical uses in dermatology and adverse effects. Journal of Dermatological Treatment, 28(8), pp.684-696.
  • Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E., 2019. Retinoids: Active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology/Postȩpy Dermatologii i Alergologii, 36(4), p.392.
  • Dhaliwal, S., Rybak, I., Ellis, S.R., Notay, M., Trivedi, M., Burney, W., Vaughn, A.R., Nguyen, M., Reiter, P., Bosanac, S. and Yan, H., 2019. Prospective, randomized, double‐blind assessment of topical bakuchiol and retinol for facial photoageing. British Journal of Dermatology, 180(2), pp.289-296.

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