What Is Retinol Good For?

Retinol, tretinoin, retinoid — chances are, you’ve heard at least one of these terms being used in the world of skincare. 

While there are some differences between these ingredients, they all have one thing in common: as vitamin A derivatives, they’re excellent for supporting youthful-looking skin. 

It’s no wonder why retinol is considered the gold standard in dermatology, with tons of clinical research to back up its effectiveness. 

Unfortunately, it’s not all good news when it comes to this powerhouse ingredient. Retinol — in its many forms — is known for causing skin irritation, dryness, and flakiness. 

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone. And once you get past the hurdles, it is so, so worth it. 

To help you incorporate retinol into your skincare routine, this guide from Nourishing Biologicals goes into the full details of what it is, how it works, and how you can begin using it today.

Read on for your best skin yet.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol refers to a type of vitamin A derivative available over the counter (without a doctor’s prescription). It’s an incredibly popular ingredient for reducing skin aging, with plenty of scientific evidence to back up its use. 

Retinol is a weaker version of retinoid, which has to be prescribed by your dermatologist. Retinoids are essentially pure retinoic acid, which can easily penetrate the deeper layers of the skin to stimulate collagen production. 

Retinols, on the other hand, must be converted into retinoic acid before they start working their magic. This can only happen with the help of other added ingredients, such as enzymes. So, the results of using an over-the-counter retinol product usually aren’t as dramatic as the prescription-grade stuff.

What Are the Different Types of Retinoids?

Retinoids describe a group of powerful vitamin A derivatives that speed up skin cell turnover. 

They’re available in different forms, which include cream, gel, foam, and serum. 

There are five main types of retinoids: 

1. Tretinoin

Tretinoin (commonly sold under its brand name Retin-A) is the original retinoid. It has been in use since about the 70s and is the most commonly prescribed form of retinoid. 

However, some dermatologists might choose not to prescribe it to some patients because they tend to be drying and irritating. Those with sensitive skin types generally take some getting used to when starting out on a tretinoin prescription. 

2. Tazarotene 

Tretinoin may be more common, but tazarotene is more potent. It’s been shown to be much more effective in reducing clogged pores and active breakouts than the other retinoids, as well as for hyperpigmentation induced by sun damage. 

Of course, these benefits come with a downside: Increased irritation, redness, sensitivity, dryness, and flaking. So, tazarotene is unlikely to be the first retinoid prescription you get from your dermatologist. 

3. Adapalene

Adapalene is the first retinoid that became available over the counter. It’s currently approved by the FDA for treating acne, but it’s also effective for treating fine lines, wrinkles, and photodamage. 

Of course, it won’t have the potency of tretinoin and tazarotene, meaning it is generally much less likely to cause side effects. And it’s cheaper than other retinoids, making it the perfect choice for those starting out in the retinoid game. 

4. Retinyl Palmitate 

Retinyl palmitate is the weakest form of a prescription-grade retinoid. It won’t cause serious side effects, so it’s a great choice for those with sensitive skin. Of course, because it’s not very strong, it should be used in those with minimal wrinkling, photodamage, and acne. For more serious skin concerns, stronger prescriptions should be used. 

5. Retinol 

Last but not least, retinol is a type of retinoid that’s used in many over-the-counter (OTC) products. It’s the least potent retinoid — both prescription and OTC — but consistent use can still get you to your #skincaregoals. 

What Are the Benefits of Retinol?

There are plenty of benefits of retinoids, including retinol. All of them can be summed up as the following: support for skin cell turnover. 

This can translate to the following noticeable changes to your skin: 

1. Smoother Skin 

By supporting proper skin cell turnover, retinol can ensure that dead skin cells don’t linger for too long. This, in turn, can lead to brighter, smoother, and more even-toned skin. 

2. Less Breakouts 

By supporting skin cell turnover, retinol can help purge your pores of gunk. Not only can this make your skin look better, but it may also reduce your chance of breakouts. No wonder retinol comes so highly recommended for those battling blemishes. 

3. Reduced Appearance of Hyperpigmentation 

Waiting for hyperpigmentation to go away on its own is an arduous process. Think of that pimple you had that took months to fade. Well, retinol can seriously support this process by maintaining healthy skin cell turnover. This can get you closer to a smooth and even skin tone — no heavy foundation required. 

What Are the Downsides to Using Retinol?

While there are many benefits to using retinol, it’s not going to be for everyone. Those with sensitive skin, dry skin, and skin conditions may not be able to tolerate the side effects of this potent ingredient. 

But even for those with a normal skin type, retinol can present some serious challenges. No wonder dermatologists ask their patients to give their skin months to adjust. 

You won’t necessarily experience all of the following, but here are some things to be on the lookout for when it comes to starting with retinol. 

1. Irritation 

Retinol can be a shock to your skin. After all, it’s seriously ramping up skin cell turnover. So, expect to see some peeling and flaking. While it’s annoying, it’s all part of the process that’s leading you to great skin.

But while your skin adjusts to a new product, you’re bound to be more irritated than usual. So, it’s important to use ultra-nourishing skincare products, such as those from our Miracular Line. And it’s just as important to avoid harsh ingredients that can make the irritation worse. When you start out, retinol should be the only active skincare ingredient in your routine. 

2. Sensitivity to the Sun 

Retinol is going to get rid of lots of dead skin cells, which means the skin layers underneath won’t have as much sun protection. If you use retinol and go out into the sun without protection, the effects are bound to be much worse. That’s why your next beach vacation will require you to be extra careful when going outside. 

3. Purging 

For those with acne, starting out with retinol can lead your skin to purge itself. This means lots of extra flaking, clogged pores, and increased breakouts. For about a month or two, it may get worse before it gets better. But after this (temporary) purging period, your skin should look as clear as ever, so hang in there!

Are There Alternatives to Retinol?

Not everyone’s skin is cut out for retinol. If the irritation gets to be too much — and going down in strength doesn’t help — then it might be time to pack it up and move on. 

Fortunately, there are other skincare ingredients that can speed up cell turnover and ramp up collagen production. 

The most popular retinol alternative is bakuchiol. One study found that this natural plant ingredient could minimize the look of wrinkles and hyperpigmentation just as well as retinol, making it a solid alternative. 

The Perfect Complement to Retinols

Retinol is the gold standard for improving wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and acne. But its awesome benefits come with serious downsides, such as extreme dryness, flakiness, irritation, sun sensitivity, and purging. 

If you’re going to introduce retinol into your skincare routine, it’s important to pair this ingredient with natural ingredients that nourish your skin. 

Nourishing Biologicals creates our skincare products with botanical ingredients that are clinically proven to moisturize and hydrate your skin — so you can use your retinol with minimal side effects. 



Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety | PMC

Tazarotene versus tretinoin or adapalene in the treatment of acne vulgaris | NCBI

Tazarotene Cream for the Treatment of Facial Photodamage: A Multicenter, Investigator-Masked, Randomized, Vehicle-Controlled, Parallel Comparison of 0.01%, 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1% Tazarotene Creams With 0.05% Tretinoin Emollient Cream Applied Once Daily for 24 Weeks | JAMA Network

Recent Advances Regarding the Therapeutic Potential of Adapalene | PMC

Prospective, randomized, double-blind assessment of topical bakuchiol and retinol for facial photoageing | NCBI

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