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What retinol should I use?

Everything you need to know about retinol, including which formulation may be right for you.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 6, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
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Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 6, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, 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.

In the world of skincare, retinol is widely regarded as a superstar—and with good reason. Dermatology providers often praise retinol for its ability to tackle signs of aging skin.¹ If you’re looking to incorporate it into your skincare routine but don’t know what retinol you should use, we can help. Here’s what you need to know about how retinol works, how to apply it, the different types of topical retinoids to choose from, and their potential side effects.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, which may have antioxidant properties, and it's one of the most popular over-the-counter skincare ingredients. Vitamin A was the first vitamin approved by the Food and Drug Administration as an anti-wrinkle agent that may change the appearance of the skin’s surface and have anti-aging effects.²

Retinol is available in many forms, including retinol cream and retinol serum. It works by boosting the skin's cell turnover rate. It may also increase collagen, smooth skin texture, fade hyperpigmentation, and reduce the appearance of the signs of aging, such as wrinkles and fine lines.³ Essentially, it strengthens and renews the skin from the inside out.

Potential benefits of retinol

Over-the-counter retinol products offer a step down from prescription retinoids, such as tretinoin (more on these later). Here are a few potential benefits of adding this anti-aging powerhouse to your routine:⁴

  • Improve fine lines: Retinol may boost skin collagen production, helping reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles.

  • Fade hyperpigmentation: Retinol may stimulate skin cell turnover and help fade dark spots. 

  • Smooth the skin: Retinol has been shown to improve the skin’s texture.

  • Improve skin's firmness: Boosted collagen production may make skin appear firmer. 

Potential side effects of retinol 

Retinol is usually well tolerated, but it's normal to experience some sensitivity and irritation during the first few weeks.⁵ We recommend introducing it slowly and gradually increasing the application frequency as your skin adjusts. The following are some potential side effects of retinol use:⁶

  • Irritation 

  • Redness

  • Sun sensitivity

liquid grey gel

How to use retinol 

Here at Curology, we recommend applying retinol as part of your evening skincare routine. Topical retinoids can increase your skin's photosensitivity.⁷ It’s difficult to recommend a specific retinol percentage for beginners, as formulations can vary between companies. In general, if you’re new to retinol, it’s best to start with the lowest formulation possible and increase as tolerated.⁸ To get the most out of the product, apply it before bed and let it get to work while you sleep. As always, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 (or higher!) as your final skincare step in the morning.

Getting to know retinoids

Retinol and tretinoin are both topical retinoids, similar to vitamin A. Retinol is available in OTC products, but tretinoin and some other retinoids are more potent and require a prescription. Here are the most common retinoids and their effects: 

  • Retinyl palmitate: Retinyl palmitate is a retinyl ester that ultimately converts into retinoic acid. It is commonly used in cosmeceuticals but has decreased effectiveness when it comes to anti-wrinkle properties.⁹

  • Retinaldehyde: Retinaldehyde is a retinoid that's typically considered to be less irritating than tretinoin and tazarotene. In one study, retinaldehyde was shown to improve surface roughness and wrinkling.¹⁰ 

  • Retinol: Retinol is used to smooth skin texture, fade hyperpigmentation, and reduce the appearance of signs of aging, such as wrinkles and fine lines.¹¹

  • Tretinoin: Tretinoin is a topical retinoid that's commonly used to treat acne as well as signs of aging, including fine lines, wrinkles, roughness, and hyperpigmentation.¹²

  • Tazarotene: Tazarotene is a synthetic retinoid used as a treatment for plaque psoriasis and acne vulgaris. Tazarotene may also be used to treat chronically photodamaged skin.¹³

  • Adapalene: Adapalene is another synthetic retinoid used to treat acne. It also has a range of off-label uses, including treating signs of aging, pigmentary conditions (such as melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation), actinic keratoses, and alopecia areata.¹⁴

Remember, different retinoids may be more suitable for different skin types. If your primary skincare goal is treating acne, consider using tretinoin or adapalene. Tretinoin or retinol may be best if you want to reduce signs of aging. For sensitive skin, you may want to consider opting for retinol over tretinoin at first to minimize the likelihood of side effects, such as skin irritation, peeling, dryness, and redness.

The difference between tretinoin and retinol infographic

Retinol recommendations from our experts 

No matter your skin type, there's likely a retinol that’s right for you. Our licensed dermatology providers have done their research to provide some ideas to get you started. These products are easily found online or at a local drugstore or specialty store:

Curology provides prescription retinoids

Founded in 2014 and powered by board-certified dermatologists, Curology is a full-service skincare company offering affordable, effective treatment. Our skincare products are made with proven active ingredients that treat acne, fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and rosacea.

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Curology offers tretinoin in prescription formulas that are customized to your skin's needs. Sign up for a consultation from an in-house, licensed dermatology provider who will share expert guidance throughout your skincare journey. Getting started is as easy as taking a quick quiz and snapping a few selfies for our experts to review. 

Our providers take the guesswork out of your skincare routine and help you meet your skin goals.* Your custom treatment comes with any of our recommended skincare products, such as our cleanser, moisturizer, or sunscreen.

FAQs

What is retinol?

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, which may have antioxidant properties, and it's one of the most popular over-the-counter skincare ingredients. Vitamin A was the first vitamin approved by the Food and Drug Administration as an anti-wrinkle agent that may change the appearance of the skin’s surface and have anti-aging effects.

What are some potential benefits of retinol?

Over-the-counter retinol products offer a step down from prescription retinoids, such as tretinoin (more on these later). Here are a few potential benefits of adding this anti-aging powerhouse to your routine:

  • Improve fine lines: Retinol may boost skin collagen production, helping reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles.

  • Fade hyperpigmentation: Retinol may stimulate skin cell turnover and help fade dark spots. 

  • Smooth the skin: Retinol has been shown to improve the skin’s texture.

  • Improve skin's firmness: Boosted collagen production may make skin appear firmer.

How to use retinol?

It’s difficult to recommend a specific retinol percentage for beginners, as formulations can vary between companies. In general, if you’re new to retinol, it’s best to start with the lowest formulation possible and increase as tolerated. To get the most out of the product, apply it before bed and let it get to work while you sleep.

• • •

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

  1. Kong, R., et al. A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. (2015).

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

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

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

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

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

  7. Retinoid or retinol?American Academy of Dermatology. (2021).

  8. Retinoid or retinol?American Academy of Dermatology. Ibid.

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

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

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

  12. Yoham, A., Casadesus, D., Tretinoin. StatPearls. (2022).

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

  14. Tolaymat, L., et al. Adapalene. StatPearls. (2022).

Laura Phelan is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Benedictine University and went on to get her post-master’s certificate as a Family Nurse Practitioner at the University of Cincinnati.

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• • •
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 policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
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Curology Team

Image of Laura Phelan Nurse Practitioner

Laura Phelan, NP-C

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