Skin Experts Weigh in on Using Retinol for Acne

Skin Experts Weigh in on Using Retinol for Acne

Using retinol for acne isn’t new, but there are still a lot of people who aren’t aware of how well it can work.

Retinol, on its own, is an incredibly powerful skin care ingredient. So much so, that it often gets misused by people who aren’t quite sure how it works and what to use it for. 

To help clarify, we gathered together the advice of various skin experts and combined it all in a single place. 

Here’s what we found and how you can take this advice and turn it into something that can reveal your best, most beautiful skin yet. Trust us, it’s what we do here at Skin Pharm.

Retinol basics

You can’t learn about the ways that retinol for acne has the potential to make drastic differences in your skin without first learning about the basics of retinol as an ingredient. 

For starters, retinol is a derivative of something you’re probably more familiar with… vitamin A. 

Vitamin A is one of the essential vitamins that the human body needs to be able to thrive. It is essential to cell division, growth, reproduction, vision and immunity. 

While it may not get the same attention as vitamins like B, D and E, it is just as powerful and just as important. This form of vitamin A can be taken orally or topically, and vitamin A is part of nearly every multivitamin formula out there. 

Retinol is just one part of the larger retinoid family. The semantics here can get a little tricky, but stay with us. 

Retinoids are also the term that is used to describe the stronger, prescription-strength retinol products, including the prescription retinoid with the longest track record – Tretinoin (or isotretinoin). 

Other prescription retinoids include tazarotene, Retin-A and adapalene gel (also known as Differin). Retinol, on the other hand, is the term that is used to describe the ingredient commonly used in over-the-counter products.

You may recognize it in some of your favorite acne treatments, like niacinamide. 

The way that retinol works on the skin is through exfoliation. When applied to the skin (specifically the outermost layer, the epidermis), retinol helps clear away dead skin cells and build-up. 

Retinol can also go one step further, as it can travel deep into the pores and into the middle layers of skin (the dermis). It’s a quality that not many other skin care ingredients can claim to do, which is why this is so often a go-to ingredient for dermatologists. 

Retinol also regulates skin cell turnover, which is partially why retinol serums are so popular for those looking to achieve youthful-looking skin.

Acne 101

Now that you understand retinol a little better, what does it have to do with acne? And what exactly is acne?

Essentially, acne is what happens when the tiny, microscopic pores on your face get clogged with dirt, debris and excess oil from the skin (known as sebum). 

Also, it is important to note that acne is also caused by other things that retinol may not work for, such as hormone imbalances, certain medical conditions and stress.

How does retinol for acne work?

When you put together the method of retinol and an understanding of how acne occurs, you probably already have some idea of how it can be so effective.

Retinol skin care products have been something that dermatologists have recommended to treat acne breakouts, acne lesions and scars since 1971. It has also been recommended to treat fine lines, wrinkles, scarring and uneven skin texture.  

That’s because it has been fairly thoroughly researched, and we know more about how it works. Especially when it is opposed to other, more fad products that are a lot of hype and not much science to back it up.

The key to using retinol for acne is how deep it can get into the skin. While many people use over-the-counter acne products that only work on the very surface of the skin, retinol can dive deeper. 

It clears and unclogs the pores, which helps prevent the formation of acne. It also helps to stimulate the skin to repair and rejuvenate itself on a deeper, cellular level, clearing the skin from the inside out. 

This makes the skin clearer, less red and irritated and even more youthful and radiant. 

What side effects you might expect from using retinol for acne

Most of the side effects that you might see with retinol usage are dependent on the concentration of the dose and how often you are using it. 

Here are some of the more common side effects that you might see, although the severity and intensity may vary:

  • Dryness and flaking skin
  • Flushing of the skin
  • Itching
  • Tightness

If these symptoms get too intense, it could be a sign of something more than just some initial retinol irritation. It could be that your skin is either sensitive or allergic to retinol (or another ingredient in your product like fragrances), or that it has gotten dehydrated. 

Take a break from your product, give your face a chance to heal its skin barrier and then return to it slowly. If you have sensitive skin, try fragrance-free products and stay away from harsh chemicals like sulfates.

How to incorporate retinol for acne into your skin care routine

If you’re ready to start incorporating retinol for acne into your pre-existing skin care routine, there is a way to do that safely and effectively. It’s also important to make sure that none of the ingredients in your skin care routine work against each other. Our Night Watch gentle retinol drops is a great retinol skin care product to start with. 

Formulated with 0.2% pure retinol, along with other complementary ingredients like vitamin C and bisabolol, Night Watch helps to refine the skin’s surface without causing as much irritation as a lot of other similar ingredients. It can help to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as pore size. Night Watch can also help to boost collagen production and balance the amount of oil production from the face. 

In terms of when in your skin care routine you should apply Night Watch, or any other retinol-based serum, there is a “right” order. Serums should always be applied after your skin has been thoroughly cleaned and dried. 

If you use a toner, you’ll also want to do that before your serum, too. 

However, toners can often include ingredients that may work against or neutralize the impact of retinol, so make sure that you check before combining them. 

When you first start using retinol, make sure that you don’t use it too frequently in the beginning. Even if you don’t have naturally sensitive skin, due to the way that it can get deep into the skin, it can still cause some irritation when you first start.  

The good part about using retinol for acne instead of a stronger retinoid is that it tends to ease the skin more gracefully into its effects. While it’s still recommended to only use it a few times a week at first, you will likely not notice as many side effects as you would with a more potent version.

What skin care ingredients don’t pair well with retinol?

There are a few skin care ingredients that don’t work well with retinol. Being aware of them is a great way to help you cater your routine to help you get results. 

For instance, pairing retinol with alpha-hydroxy acids is often too much for delicate skin. Retinol is an exfoliator, just like AHAs are. When you pair them together, they can strip too much of the natural oils away from the skin. That can lead to a compromised skin barrier, which also can cause damaged and dehydrated skin. 

The same goes for beta-hydroxy acids, or BHAs. Both are especially useful for people with oilier skin or those prone to acne, but using them together can also be too stripping and irritating for the skin. 

If you’re absolutely adamant about using both retinol and an AHA or BHA together, make sure that you’re separating them out. You can either use them on separate days, or at least include them in different parts of your routine, such as applying one in the morning and the other in the evening. You’ll also want to make sure that you use a supportive moisturizer or hydrating cream consistently. 

Gentle ingredients like glycerin, ceramides and hyaluronic acid are safe to use alongside retinol – and some may even help boost its effects.

In conclusion...

Whether or not you use retinol for acne or age-related concerns, it can be a real game-changer for your skin. With how deep it can penetrate into the skin and the fact that it is an ingredient that has been researched for decades, you can count on it to help provide the results you’re looking for in a New York minute. 

Skin Pharm has products that you can incorporate into your existing skin care routine or use to revamp your entire routine so that you can take control of your skin and look – and feel! – your best.

Peer review

This article was medically reviewed by Chelsie Rogers, PA-C, a board-certified physician assistant with 6 years of experience in cosmetic dermatology.


Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety | National Institutes of Health

Retinoids, topical | American Osteopathic College of Dermatology 

Topical retinoids in acne | Wiley Online Library


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