What Does Retinol Do? A Complete Guide to Retinol for Skin

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, you probably already know about retinol. Praised as the single best product to stop signs of aging, almost every skincare routine for skin over 25 years old includes some form of retinol or another — but what exactly is this magical skincare ingredient? 

We’re taking the mystery out of retinol. We’ll break down exactly what this skincare ingredient is, how it works, and what it can do for your skin. 

What Is Retinol?

Retinol, like so many other powerful anti-aging skincare ingredients, comes from a type of vitamin — vitamin A, to be specific. 

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that works in your body to support your cells and help your cells grow. There are several types of vitamin A, including retinoids.

 Like vitamin A itself, retinoids can be further subdivided into four types: 

  1. Retinyl esters 
  2. Retinaldehyde
  3. Retinol
  4. Retinoic acid 

Retinol falls under the umbrella of retinoids and is arguably the most popular (and well-known) of the four types of retinoids. When combined with a topical serum or cream, you can use retinol to treat a variety of skin concerns, including acne and skin aging. 

How Does Retinol Work?

Your body cannot produce vitamins like other kinds of nutrients, meaning you rely on your diet to get these essential compounds into your body. As a derivative of vitamin A, retinol works the same way. While your body can convert some of the vitamin A you consume through food into retinol, it takes a long time for the nutrient to reach your skin this way. 

That’s why, as a skincare ingredient, retinol is applied directly to the surface of your skin. “This is known as a topical application,” notes Melinda Hany, Registered Nurse.

When you apply a topical retinol product to your skin, you immediately have access to this form of vitamin A. Rather than needing to process or synthesize the substance from other products in your body, your skin receives the retinol right away — through your pores. 

Once the retinol absorbs into your skin, your body converts it into its active form: retinoic acid . This acid then begins interacting with your skin cells and other compounds that make up your skin. This step begins a series of chain reactions that produce all of the skin benefits that come from retinol. 

What Does Retinol Do for Skin?

There is a reason why retinol is such a popular skincare ingredient: it does a lot for your skin! Whether you struggle with breakouts, want to avoid dark spots and skin discoloration, or even need a little moisture support to balance out all that dryness, retinol can help.

In fact, retinol does so much for your skin that it’s impossible to list all of the benefits. To get you started on your retinol journey, we’ve pulled out the top four benefits that your skin will love, no matter your skin type. 

1. Supports Rejuvenated Skin

When you start using retinol, one of the first things you may notice is just how supple and young your skin looks. This is a result of retinol’s naturally hydrating effects. 

When your skin doesn’t have enough moisture, it can start to look tired. With dry skin , wrinkles become deeper, eye bags become heavier, and your natural shine can turn dull.

Retinol works by helping your skin retain more moisture, combating these side effects of dryness. It does this by supporting cell turnover in your skin. 

Cell turnover describes the process of shedding old skin cells and replacing them with new ones at the surface of your skin. This mechanism is essential to maintaining the look of your skin because lingering dead skin cells can cause your skin to appear flaky and even create dry patches on your skin. 

By supporting and even speeding up cell turnover, retinol keeps your skin cells fresh, helping to prevent this type of dry skin from ever becoming a problem in the first place. 

2. Helps Reduce the Look of Fine Lines

Another benefit of retinol is its ability to smooth out fine lines that may be adding unwanted textures to your skin. 

This skincare ingredient does this by supporting one of the most important structures in your skin: collagen. 

Collagen is a structural protein in your body that helps connect tissues to each other. It’s what holds together your bones, muscles, tendons, and even some cartilage — and it’s also present in your skin. 

As a part of your middle layer of skin (called the dermis), collagen works to provide a structure for the internal workings of your skin. Without the support that collagen provides, your skin would start to sag, leaving behind fine lines and wrinkles. 

However, as you age, your body starts to produce less and less collagen — and what collagen you do produce is weaker than before. 

That’s where retinol comes in. The vitamin A derivative supports collagen production in two ways: 

  1. Supporting Collagen Production: Retinol has a stimulating effect on fibroblasts, the cells responsible for creating collagen. By kicking these fibroblasts into gear, retinol encourages collagen synthesis. 
  2. Supporting Cells During Exposure to Free Radicals: As a type of vitamin A, retinol also works to support your skin cells during exposure to free radicals — unstable molecules that accumulate in the body and, if left unchecked, can cause cell damage. Retinol prevents this damage by fighting against free radicals. 

3. Helps Combat the Appearance of Sun Damage

Retinol’s ability to support skin cell turnover also makes it a powerful tool in reducing the appearance of sun damage on the skin.

When your skin is exposed to the sun’s UV rays for too long without the protection of sunscreen , it can leave behind marks on the skin: dark spots (also called sun spots), hyperpigmentation, and fine lines are all common signs of sun damage. These effects occur in your skin at the cellular level — meaning that getting rid of those skin cells can help reduce these visual effects. 

Retinol encourages skin cell turnover, pushing out old skin cells at the surface in favor of new ones from underneath. Over time, this process can gradually push out skin cells that weren’t protected by SPF, reducing the appearance of sun-damaged skin. 

4. Supports a Clear Complexion

Retinol also supports the look of your skin by removing impurities. That’s right: retinol can help address breakouts. 

One of the effects of retinol’s role as a supporter of skin cell turnover is that those leftover dead skin cells are no longer lingering on your skin and clogging your pores. In general, retinol can help clear clogged pores of dirt or debris. 

By keeping your skin free of these impurities , retinol helps address blemishes, preventing breakouts or blemish marks from ruining your clear complexion. 

Does Retinol Have Side Effects?

After hearing all the great things that retinol can do for your skin, you might be tempted to go all-in with the skincare ingredient right away. 

While retinol can be safe for even the most sensitive skin types, remember that it is a powerful acid — and so it should be approached with caution. 

To avoid skin irritation and other potential side effects of retinol, introduce the skincare product to your routine slowly. First-time users should start by using retinol once a week, building up to higher frequencies as the skin adjusts to the product. Seasoned retinol users may opt to use the product every night, but even then, keep an eye on your skin and scale it back if any irritation occurs. 

How Can You Incorporate Retinol Into Your Routine?

So, you want to give retinol a try. Now comes the hard part: choosing the best retinol product to add to your skincare routine. 

To help you narrow down the choice, we’ve put together four of our favorite retinol products. And don’t worry — they’re all great for beginners. 

SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0

The SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0 cream is a lightweight retinol treatment that works overnight to target even your toughest skin concerns. It’s specifically formulated to support photodamaged and sun-damaged skin, so you can say goodbye to dark spots, clogged pores, fine lines, wrinkles, and more.

Augustinus Bader The Retinol Serum

The Retinol Serum by Augustinus Bader is a lightweight and hydrating retinol serum designed to breathe life back into your skin. Made to protect against premature aging, this skincare product can rid your complexion of unwanted skin texture, pigmentation, and even breakouts. 

In a clinical trial, participants said skin hydration improved by 177%, transepidermal water loss was reduced by 27%, and the appearance of fine lines was reduced by 73%. 

M-61 ProSmooth Retinol Eye Serum

The M-61 ProSmooth Retinol Eye Serum works to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while giving you back your youthful glow. In a clinical study with 30 participants, 100% said their eye area looked more hydrated, and 97% said their eye area skin looked smoother.

Different from other retinol serums, this skincare product specifically targets the delicate skin around your eyes, delivering the same powerful benefits of retinol but with a gentle touch that won’t irritate sensitive skin. 

111SKIN Wrinkle Erasing Retinol Patches

The 111SKIN Wrinkle Erasing Retinol Patches deliver the same anti-aging benefits of retinol through an innovative patch formulation. 

The microcone technology is clinically proven to give twice the absorption speed and depth of active ingredients of topical skincare. This technology sends the retinol (and other skincare ingredients, like vitamin C) deep below the surface of your skin where it smooths out your skin tone and lifts fine lines as you sleep. 

The Bottom Line

Retinol skincare products are one of the best ways to brighten your skin and combat signs of aging. Powered by the strength of vitamin A, the best retinol products can take your skin from dry and dull to hydrating and glowing. High-quality retinol products are widely available over the counter, but you can also speak to your dermatologist about which one is right for you.

Whether you prefer a lotion or a serum, give this skincare ingredient a try and see what retinol can do for your skin. We promise that you won’t be disappointed. 


Vitamin A | Mayo Clinic

Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments | National Library of Medicine

“Seventh age itch”: Preventing and managing dry skin in older people | BPAC NZ Better Medicine

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

Collagen | The Nutrition Source - Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Decreased Collagen Production in Chronologically Aged Skin | National Library of Medicine 

Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments | National Library of Medicine

Why You Should Care About Free Radicals | Cleveland Clinic

Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation: What It Is & Its Effect on Your Skin | Cleveland Clinic

Clogged Pores: What They Are, Causes, Treatment & Prevention | Cleveland Clinic