What Does Retinol Do To The Skin? Facts, How To Use, and More

Skin Care
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what retinol does for skin: healthy glowing skin

Retinol—can't be underestimated. Hailed as a legendary ingredient in the skincare world, Retinol is the buzziest active that pops up in many products, and for a good reason. When it comes to addressing just about any skin issue, from wrinkles and uneven tone to rough texture and acne, Retinol is where it's at. But what exactly does Retinol do that justifies its obsession-worthy status? And is it worth adding it to your routine? Spoiler: yes,, we're going to explain how Retinol improves skin and why it's a miracle ingredient among dermatologists and skin enthusiasts. 

What is Retinol

Retinol (alongside other retinoids) is a derivative of Vitamin A used by the body to promote cell turnover. When topically applied, Retinol converts to retinoic acid by enzymes in the skin, increasing cell proliferation and differentiation. In layperson's terms, Retinol encourages cell growth and dictates them to act younger. The properties of Retinol strengthen the protective barrier, thicken the skin, protect collagen against degradation, restore collagen and inhibit the degradation of the extracellular matrix, which is responsible for skin structure and support.[1]

How does Retinol work?

When topically applied, Retinol penetrates the epidermis and enters the middle layer of the skin, where it stimulates the fibroblasts (protein-producing cells) to synthesize collagen and elastin and repair the connective tissues.[1][2] Furthermore, Retinol thickens the outer skin layer by increasing cell proliferation and boosts hyaluronic acid production, keeping skin plump and moist.[3] Retinol also reduces swelling and mitigates oxidative stress through its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacities. Lastly, it balances excess sebum known to exacerbate pimples; the reason it is often the go-to for acne sufferers[4]

What does Retinol do for the skin?

Retinol encourages cell proliferation and increases collagen growth, reducing fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol also unclogs pores and provides anti-inflammatory benefits as a potent acne fighter. Here is what Retinol does for the skin:

Diminishes fine lines and wrinkles

With age, the division of cells slows down, and the production of essential proteins is needed for firm, elastic skin. Consequently, the skin becomes thinner and more fragile, and its ability to retain moisture drops. All of these factors lead to fine lines and wrinkles. Topical Retinol reduces fine lines and wrinkles

A study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology analyzed the impact of using Retinol on volunteers with aged and photodamaged skin. By the end of the study, researchers noticed that applying Retinol for seven days led to a significant reduction in collagen breakdown and growth in collagen production. The study concluded that Retinol is an effective anti-aging treatment for naturally aged, sun-protected, and photoaged skin.[5]

Retinol is a potent agent to diminish aging signs and increase firmness and elasticity. Topical Retinol can also work as a preventative measure to delay the appearance of early wrinkles. Generally, skin experts recommend most people start using Retinol in their mid to late 20s when the production of proteins begin to slow down. 

Minimizes acne and shrinks pores look

Even though the Retinol found in OTCs does not address severe cases of acne, like prescription-strength forms (think tretinoin and adapalene), it is undoubtedly a mainstay in mild acne therapy. Retinol addresses the condition through a few pathways, with its ability to encourage cell proliferation as the most evident. When dead cells shed off, skin resurfaces, and pores get unclogged. Clogged pores occur when dead skin, oil, and bacteria get blocked in the hair follicles which then leads to blackheads and pimples. Because it renews the skin, regulates sebum production, and blocks some inflammatory pathways activated in acne, Retinol has an essential role in managing acne.[6] 

When Retinol removes the buildup of dead cells, oil and gunk, it implicitly clears pores and makes large pores — a common issue for people with oily and acne-prone skin — appear smaller. In a study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, women noticed an improvement in their pore size when they applied Retinol every night for three months.[7]

Improves tone

For hyperpigmentation and uneven tone, Retinol is king. Thanks to its ability to increase epidermal turnover rate, Retinol replaces dark, pigmented cells with brighter ones.[1] Also, it blocks the transfer of melanin to the skin's surface and inhibits the activity of tyrosinase (dark pigment-producing enzyme), lightening skin discoloration over time.[8][9]

Smooths texture

Retinol is also the go-to whenever you struggle with uneven, irregular texture and dull skin. Factors like aging, post-acne scars, free radical damage, hormones, and poor skincare all induce a rough surface and dullness. By boosting collagen production and encouraging skin renewal, Retinol helps maintain a smooth and even texture.

How to use Retinol

Because it's often associated with dryness, peeling, and irritation, knowing how to use Retinol is essential. The key when using pure Retinol not mixed with other ingredients is to start it low and slow and help the skin build a tolerance to Retinol. To get the most significant benefit, use Retinol in a serum rather than in a moisturizer with a concentration of 0.1% to 0.3%. Ideally, use Rx Retinol two-three times per week and let the skin recover in between to get the most out of it. Overusing Retinol won't do any good; on the contrary it may lead to a broken barrier, dehydration, more visible wrinkles, and a dull look. If you’re using OTC Retinol, find a product that has at least 0.25% concentration and includes other buffering ingredients like Hyaluronic Acid or Niacinamide and have shown that it’s safe to use every night for benefits without irritation.

Another essential aspect is to apply Retinol in your nighttime routine because it makes the skin photosensitive and breaks down quickly in light, which renders it ineffective. Equally important is to use a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher during the day.

Exponent Time Rewind Retinol 

pictured: before and after 6 weeks of using Exponent Beauty Time Rewind Retinol Serum.
See more clinical results, reviews and shop: Exponent Beauty Time Rewind System

When it comes to youth-boosting skincare, few options are as compelling as Retinol, the Vitamin A derivative that can minimize wrinkles sans prescription. Now that you know what Retinol does to your skin, it's about time to add a Retinol product to your skincare routine. And what can be better than a serum with 0.25% Retinol housed in a system that does not allow degradation of actives and buffers Retinol so it’s safe to use every night without irritation? Exponent Time Rewind Serum stimulates cell turnover to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, smooth texture, and minimize breakouts. It’s also clinically tested and can be used daily for visible benefits without irritation at effective concentrations, so it does not require a slow and steady build up for tolerance. 


  • Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019 Aug;36(4):392-397. doi: 10.5114/ada.2019.87443. Epub 2019 Aug 30, Source
  • Rossetti D, Kielmanowicz MG, Vigodman S, Hu YP, Chen N, Nkengne A, Oddos T, Fischer D, Seiberg M, Lin CB. A novel anti-aging mechanism for Retinol: induction of dermal elastin synthesis and elastin fibre formation. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2011 Feb, Source
  • Li WH, Wong HK, Serrano J, Randhawa M, Kaur S, Southall MD, Parsa R. Topical stabilized Retinol treatment induces the expression of HAS genes and HA production in human skin in vitro and in vivo. Arch Dermatol Res. 2017 May, Source
  • Leyden, J., Stein-Gold, L. & Weiss, J. Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb) 7, 293–304 (2017), Source
  • Varani J, Warner RL, Gharaee-Kermani M, Phan SH, Kang S, Chung JH, Wang ZQ, Datta SC, Fisher GJ, Voorhees JJ. Vitamin A antagonizes decreased cell growth and elevated collagen-degrading matrix metalloproteinases and stimulates collagen accumulation in naturally aged human skin. J Invest Dermatol. 2000 Mar;114(3):480-6, Source
  • Leyden J, Stein-Gold L, Weiss J. Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2017 Sep;7(3):293-304. doi: 10.1007/s13555-017-0185-2. Epub 2017 Jun 5, Source
  • Anne Bouloc MD, Ph.D., Andre Luiz Vergnanini MD, Maria Claudia Issa MD, Ph.D., A double-blind, randomized study comparing the association of Retinol and LR2412 with tretinoin 0.025% in photoaged skin, First published: 21 January 2015, Source
  • Callender, V.D., Baldwin, H., Cook-Bolden, F.E. et al. Effects of Topical Retinoids on Acne and Post-inflammatory Hyperpigmentation in Patients with Skin of Color: A Clinical Review and Implications for Practice. Am J Clin Dermatol 23, 69–81 (2022), Source
  • Sato K, Morita M, Ichikawa C, Takahashi H, Toriyama M. Depigmenting mechanisms of all-trans retinoic acid and Retinol on B16 melanoma cells. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2008 Oct;72(10):2589-97. doi: 10.1271/bbb.80279. Epub 2008 Oct 7, Source


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