What does retinol do for acne

What is the effect of retinol on the skin?

What is retinol?

The active ingredient retinol is a form of vitamin A that is often used in skin care and anti-aging products. Since there is often confusion around the terms retinol, retinal and retinoids, we want to show you the differences first:

  1. First there are retinol precursors (retinol esters). Perhaps you have heard of Retinyl Palmitate or Retinyl Linoleate here - although they are less effective than retinol, they are very mild on the skin and are therefore also used a lot in over-the-counter skin care products.
  2. The precursors are converted into pure retinol in the skin. In Germany, products such as a cream or serum with retinol concentrations of up to 1% are freely available.
  3. In an intermediate step, the retinol is converted into retinal (retinaldehyde) and then into active retinoic acid (vitamin A acid), which you may know in the form of the retinoid (= vitamin A derivative) tretinoin. The higher the concentration of retinol, the more of it can be converted into retinoic acid.

This multi-stage conversion process is also the reason for the different effectiveness of the individual retinol variants: Since the retinol precursors and retinol themselves require three or two conversion steps to become retinoic acid, part of the effect is always lost in this way. Instead, tretinoin is used directly in the form of retinoic acid and therefore has a much stronger effect, which is why it is not found in common cosmetic products and you can only buy tretinoin preparations in Germany with a prescription in the pharmacy. Basically, the higher the retinol concentration, the stronger the effect. However, a higher concentration also carries a higher risk of skin irritation.

What is a retinol serum?

While most of the active ingredients in cosmetics and also in acne treatment are used in the form of creams or gels, the term “serum” is often read in connection with retinol. These are mostly relatively high-dose variants that are reminiscent of an oil, and are often only used in an amount of 1 to 2 pipette fillings per application. We advise you to be careful with a retinol serum, as it can cause severe skin irritation under certain circumstances - especially if your skin is not yet used to the active ingredient.

What is the effect of retinol on the skin?

Even if the differences between the individual variants can be a bit overwhelming at first, the effect of retinol speaks for itself. The very broad spectrum of activity includes the following properties, among others:

  • Refinement of enlarged pores
  • Reduction of wrinkles
  • Regulation of oily skin
  • Reduction of (acne) scars
  • Fading of hyperpigmentation (pigment spots)

Perhaps you have already read in the context of retinol that it supports the structure of the skin and can therefore also work effectively against acne and skin blemishes. What is meant by this: Retinol stimulates the formation of new horn cells and is also involved in many other growth processes of the skin cells. It also supports the so-called collagen synthesis (collagen build-up). Since the collagen framework in the lower layers of the skin ensures the flexibility of the skin, the entire structure is strengthened.

Why does retinol have an anti-aging effect?

Part of these effects is also responsible for the fact that retinol works against wrinkles, “renews” the skin and thus has an anti-aging effect. The fact that your skin looks fresher and smoother thanks to retinol is due to the following effects:

  • Regeneration of the skin through the formation of new horn cells (corneocytes)
  • Higher skin elasticity (= fewer wrinkles) due to greater collagen production
  • Slower skin aging thanks to the antioxidant effect

On the last point: Since retinol or vitamin A is a so-called antioxidant, it actively counteracts free radicals. This is a type of molecule that is formed in the skin through UV radiation, where it combines with the fats and can damage the cells. Retinol and other antioxidants (e.g. vitamin C, vitamin E) can specifically prevent the free radicals from oxidizing and thereby protect the cells. The result: your skin ages more slowly and there are fewer wrinkles.

Why is acne not treated with retinol (anymore)?

With this broad spectrum of action, retinol naturally sounds like the predestined remedy for the treatment of acne and skin blemishes. And while the active ingredient still plays an important role in over-the-counter anti-pimple products, it is rarely used by dermatologists. The simple reason: With retinoids (e.g. tretinoin, adapalene), a much more effective (and faster effective) variant of vitamin A (acid) is available, which has proven itself in the treatment of acne for decades. 

These topical (external) retinoids require a prescription and can be processed very well in creams or gels. This makes them ideal for a holistic treatment approach, in which you support the external treatment of acne with clinically tested active ingredients through targeted adjustments to your skin care, your diet and your lifestyle.

How do I use retinol in skin care?

Regardless of whether you use a (face) cream or a retinol serum - at the beginning your skin is not used to the active ingredient. So that there is no skin irritation, it makes sense to work step by step towards permanent use. This means: It is best to start with a low concentration (<0.3%) and only use the (face) cream, serum or other products once or twice a week. Our tip: First test the active ingredient on one spot on your forearm and wait for your skin to react - this way you can rule out a possible intolerance in advance.

If your skin tolerates the retinol well, you can initially apply the products every two days in the evening and gradually use it every evening. If you still feel the effect is too weak, you can start using a higher dose of retinol. Since every skin is different and can therefore react differently, it is difficult to give general recommendations here. It is therefore best to seek advice from a dermatologist - but the basic rule is: It is better to increase slowly than too quickly and thus protect the skin.

Above all, it is important that you always apply products such as a retinol serum or a face cream in the evening, as the active ingredient is very sensitive to UV radiation. At the same time, it also makes your skin more sensitive to light, which is why you should always make sure that you protect your skin well from the sun and that you apply sun protection with SPF 50 even on cloudy days.

What side effects can retinol cause?

The same applies to the side effects: every skin is different. Whether and how strong side effects occur can always be different and is also heavily dependent on the concentration of your retinol products. Particularly at higher concentrations (from 0.3%), the following skin irritations may occur:

  • Dry skin
  • Slight redness
  • Easy peeling

Often the side effects can only be observed in the first few days and they recede quickly as soon as your skin has got used to the retinol. Stronger skin irritations can also be a clear indication that the retinol concentration is too high for your skin. If you are unsure or if something seems unusual to you, it is best to stop using it and first ask a dermatologist for advice.

Often the side effects mentioned can also be alleviated well if you regularly use a moisturizer. It is important that the cream is water-based and does not contain any comedogenic (blackhead-causing) ingredients.

Can I use retinol creams during pregnancy?

Especially for products that have a higher retinol concentration (e.g. retinol serum) it has not yet been conclusively proven whether they could possibly have negative consequences for the unborn child during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Dermatologists therefore generally advise against treating with retinol during this time.