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What happens when you stop using retinol?

Discover what to expect and how to help your skin adjust when you change your routine.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Nov 10, 2023 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
Applying Retinol
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Nov 10, 2023 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

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Retinol has become a staple in skincare routines worldwide because of its potent anti-aging and skin-enhancing benefits. But have you ever wondered what happens when you bid farewell to this impactful ingredient?

Here, we’ll discuss the potential consequences of removing retinol from your well-established skincare routine—and how you can maintain its results even if you do stop using it. Read on for expert-approved advice from Curology’s licensed dermatology providers.

The basics behind retinol-based products 

Retinol is a form of vitamin A and belongs to a group of fat-soluble compounds known as retinoids.¹ Retinoids are molecules derived from vitamin A that are used in skincare to help fight signs of aging and improve your skin’s appearance. These powerful vitamin A derivatives are generally safe to use under the guidance of a dermatology provider and, aside from having anti-aging effects, are also commonly found in products to treat acne and other skin conditions.²

How retinol works

Retinoids work by regulating important processes in your skin cells, like cell growth and collagen production.³ By doing so, it may reduce wrinkles, increase skin firmness, and improve overall texture. Different forms of retinoids—like retinol and retinoic acid—have various benefits for your skin. They interact with special skin receptors which help encourage these positive effects.⁴

One study compared the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on the skin. Both treatments increased the thickness of the skin and boosted the production of collagen, which resulted in an anti-aging effect.⁵ Interestingly, retinol also reduced facial wrinkles. So, in a nutshell, both retinol and retinoic acid may be beneficial for your skin and make it look younger and smoother.⁶

Using retinol in skincare

If you’re considering using retinol in skincare, you may be wondering about the differences between retinoids and retinol. Retinoids cover a range of vitamin A-based products, often used on the skin for their acne-fighting and anti-aging properties.⁷ They come in various forms, including topical adapalenetretinoin, tazarotene, and oral isotretinoin

Retinol, is a milder type of retinoid commonly used to improve skin tone, pigmentation, and texture. Retinol is available over the counter in many products.⁸

We recommend applying retinoids at night only and using sun protection during the day, as retinoids can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.⁹ Look for a physical sunscreen with titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide if you have sensitive skin. It’s better to start with the lowest formulation available to avoid excessive irritation.¹⁰

Seeking guidance from a dermatology provider is always a good idea as they can help you choose the right retinoid product for your specific skin needs.

Discontinuing retinol use in a skincare routine

If you’ve been using retinol for a long time and are considering discontinuing its use, how your skin reacts can vary. For some people, stopping retinol abruptly may not lead to serious changes, but it’s always best to consult a dermatology provider to determine the most suitable approach based on your specific circumstances.

However, there is a chance your more obvious signs of aging may return after discontinuing retinol. 

A study evaluated the effects of stopping tretinoin—a more powerful form of retinol—in individuals who had used 0.05% tretinoin daily for 48 months. The study found that thrice weekly tretinoin treatment was effective in improving fine wrinkles compared to once weekly therapy. However, discontinuing the therapy resulted in the reversal of beneficial effects to some extent.¹¹ 

Keeping in mind that this study was done on tretinoin, which is a stronger strength retinoid than retinol, it is likely that stopping an over the counter retinol product could also lead to a regression of the positive results achieved with its regular application.

Remember that skincare outcomes can vary from person to person, and it’s essential to tailor your skincare routine according to your unique needs. If you’re considering changes to your routine, especially involving prescription-strength products like tretinoin, always seek advice from a dermatology provider to ensure the best approach for your skin. 

Luckily, getting in touch with a licensed dermatology provider has never been easier! You can start your skin quiz at Curology and we'll pair you with a dermatology provider to help work with you to achieve your skincare goals. 

Maintaining your results after stopping retinol 

Maintaining your skin’s smoothness and youthful appearance after discontinuing retinol requires a thoughtful skincare approach. Depending on why you stopped your retinol, there may be alternative anti-aging methods that can help you achieve similar results.

Consider these recommendations to support your skin’s health and maintain younger-looking skin:

Opt for topical vitamins and antioxidants

For effective anti-aging in skincare, consider incorporating topical vitamins and antioxidants into your routine. These powerful agents may help protect and improve your skin more gently:

Antioxidants: Antioxidants can be beneficial in skincare products when fighting signs of aging. Vitamins C, B3, and E are particularly helpful as they have been shown to reduce collagen degradation and can help safeguard your skin from harmful free radicals.¹²

Vitamin C: Vitamin C, especially in concentrations of 5-15%, can help stimulate collagen production and enhance skin elasticity, promoting a youthful appearance. Using a combination of vitamins C and E provides even higher antioxidative protection, working together to combat oxidative stress.¹³

Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide): Vitamin B3 may help regulate cell metabolism and regeneration, improving skin elasticity and reducing hyperpigmentation, contributing to a more even skin tone.¹⁴

Green Tea Polyphenols and Soy Isoflavones: Extracts from green tea and soy may act as antioxidants, reducing DNA damage in the skin and helping prevent premature aging.¹⁵

Polypeptides or Oligopeptides: These ingredients may stimulate collagen synthesis and activate dermal metabolism when applied topically, promoting firmer and more youthful-looking skin.¹⁶

A Woman with a Curology Product

For a product that incorporates powerful anti-aging ingredients such as niacinamide, consider trying Curology's Future-Proofᴿˣ formula. This anti-aging product contains clinically proven ingredients, which may include tretinoin. However, its inclusion in your formula depends on your specific skin health and goals. Your Curology provider will assess your skin concerns and consider your medical history and desired outcomes before recommending the most suitable formulation. 

Amp up the moisture 

As we age, our skin tends to lose moisture and elasticity.¹⁷ To combat this effect, using a moisturizer is a must.

One of the primary benefits of using moisturizers is their ability to enhance skin barrier repair.¹⁸ They work to strengthen your skin’s natural protective barrier, which is vital for retaining moisture and shielding your skin from external aggressors. Moisturizers also act as humectants, emollients, and occlusives, which means they help lock in moisture—preventing dehydration and maintaining your skin’s suppleness and healthy appearance.¹⁹ 

Another aspect of moisturizers is their role in reducing trans-epidermal water loss.²⁰ By applying a moisturizer, you may significantly decrease water loss through your skin’s outermost layer, keeping your skin well-hydrated and plump.

For optimal results, it’s recommended to use a high-quality moisturizer that suits your specific skin needs, such as Curology’s The Rich Moisturizer. This can ensure that your skin remains well-hydrated and protected, supporting your skin’s overall health.

Keep wearing sunscreen 

Continuing to wear sunscreen is key for maintaining healthy and youthful skin after stopping retinol. Sunscreen not only protects your skin from harmful UV rays, which can lead to skin cancer, but it also plays a vital role in preventing premature skin aging.²¹

Research has shown that regular use of sunscreen can help delay the signs of skin aging. In a study that aimed to assess the impact of sunscreen and β-carotene supplementation on skin aging, the group using daily sunscreen showed no increase in skin aging after 4.5 years of use.²² Moreover, their skin aging was 24% less compared to those who used sunscreen only occasionally.²³

Happy Woman Holding the Curology Sunscreen

To reap the benefits of sunscreen, choose a product that offers broad-spectrum protection and has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Apply it generously and reapply as needed. When outdoors, reapply sunscreen approximately every two hours or after swimming or sweating.²⁴ 

Stay connected with a dermatology provider

The expertise of a dermatology provider will help you develop a suitable skincare routine to preserve your skin’s health and youthful appearance. Regular check-ups and personalized guidance can ensure you continue to achieve your skincare goals effectively.

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If you’re thinking of stopping retinol and worried about what comes next, one of our licensed dermatology providers can guide you and create a customized plan to help you achieve your skin goals. 

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FAQs

Should you take a break from retinol?

If you experience adverse effects like burning, redness, or peeling from retinol, consider taking a break, reducing the frequency of use, or switching to a less irritating retinoid.²⁵ When in doubt, seeking professional guidance ensures the safe and effective use of retinol in your skincare routine so always consult your dermatology provider for personalized advice.

Is retinol damaging long-term?

In several studies looking at the long-term use of retinoids (greater than 6 months), significant improvements were seen in the clinical signs of photo-aging like fine wrinkling, hyperpigmentation, skin texture, and elasticity. If irritation is experienced, it’s recommended to decrease the strength, reduce frequency of use, or switch products.²⁶ 

Remember, it’s always best to consult a dermatology provider before starting retinol.

What happens to your face when you stop using retinol?

When you decide to stop using retinol, the results can vary from person to person, so it’s essential to consult a dermatology provider for personalized advice. Without a retinoid, you may notice that visible signs of aging start to reappear.²⁷ 

What's the primary function of retinol in skincare?

Retinol belongs to the retinoids group, molecules derived from vitamin A. They play a pivotal role in skincare by regulating skin cell growth and collagen production, potentially reducing wrinkles and enhancing skin's firmness and texture.

How do retinol and retinoic acid differ in their effects on the skin?

Both retinol and retinoic acid are forms of vitamin A, with retinol being milder and commonly used to improve skin tone, pigmentation, and texture. They both can help increase skin thickness and boost collagen production, resulting in firmer skin. Intriguingly, retinol also helps reduce facial wrinkles. So, while both compounds have distinct benefits, they may contribute to making your skin look rejuvenated, smoother, and younger. For a personalized approach and to choose between them, consulting with a dermatology provider is recommended.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. (August 2019).

  2. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. Ibid.

  3. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. Ibid.

  4. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. Ibid.

  5. Kong, R., et al. A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin. J Cosmet Dermatol. (March 2016).

  6. Kong, R., et al. A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin. J Cosmet Dermatol. Ibid.

  7. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol? (2021, May 25).

  8. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol? Ibid.

  9. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol? Ibid.

  10. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol? Ibid.

  11. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. (December 2006).

  12. Ganceviciene, R., et al. Skin anti-aging strategies. Dermatoendocrinol. (2012, July 1).

  13. Ganceviciene, R., et al. Skin anti-aging strategies. Dermatoendocrinol. Ibid.

  14. Ganceviciene, R., et al. Skin anti-aging strategies. Dermatoendocrinol. Ibid.

  15. Ganceviciene, R., et al. Skin anti-aging strategies. Dermatoendocrinol. Ibid.

  16. Ganceviciene, R., et al. Skin anti-aging strategies. Dermatoendocrinol. Ibid.

  17. Papakonstantinou, E., et al. Hyaluronic acid: A key molecule in skin aging. Dermatoendocrinol. (2012, July 1).

  18. Purnamawati, S., et al. The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review. Clin Med Res. (December 2017).

  19. Purnamawati, S., et al. The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review. Clin Med Res. Ibid.

  20. Purnamawati, S., et al. The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review. Clin Med Res. Ibid.

  21. Gabros, S., et al. Sunscreens and Photoprotection. StatPearls. (2023, July 17).

  22. Hughes, M.C., et al. Sunscreen and prevention of skin aging: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. (2013, June 4).

  23. Hughes, M.C., et al. Sunscreen and prevention of skin aging: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. Ibid.

  24. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen. (2023, July 19).

  25. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid.

  26. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid.

  27. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid.

Erin Pate is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our thoughts on sun protection: *Sunscreen is only one part of UV protection—cute sun hats and shades are also recommended.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Erin Pate Nurse Practitioner, NP-C

Erin Pate, NP-C

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