Does my skin need a retinol (vitamin A) cream?

Author: Dr. Matthew Karpman
Date Posted: Thursday, April 30, 2020

Retinol is one of the most active compounds that can be applied topically to the skin. It plays a diverse role in our skin, regulating our skin cells and shaping their growth by affecting the function of our DNA on a cellular level. Among numerous proven effects that retinol has on our skin, it has been shown to reduce the appearance of fine lines, even out complexion, brighten skin tone, unclog pores to prevent acne, and repair sun damaged skin. Here are some factors to consider when committing to a retinol.


  • Concentration: Retinol creams come in several concentrations, with the most common ranging from
    0.25% up to 1%. Generally, it is safest to start off with a lower concentration and work your way up as your skin develops tolerance to the cream. The goal is NOT necessarily to use the highest concentration available, but rather to find the highest concentration that your skin can tolerate without any side effects.
  • Strength: Retinol is the most common molecule used as part of a daily skin care regimen, but this belongs to a larger class of similar medicines called retinoids. Different retinoids have overlapping effects on the skin, but can vary greatly when it comes to strength. For example, one retinoid could be designed for very thick flaky skin and therefore would cause great irritation and redness if applied to the face. Different strengths suit different purposes depending on what your individual skin care needs are.

  • Stability: Some retinol formulations are specifically designed to withstand the elements like ultraviolet (UV) light. Some retinols break down within minutes of sun exposure, so best results would only be seen with nightly application.

  • Formulation: Retinols come in different types of formulations. Some are designed for dry skin and come in a heavier cream. Some are designed for sensitive skin and are formulated for a slow extended release of the active retinol. Others are mixed in gels which can be quite drying and optimal for oily, acne prone skin. Finding a retinol that is ideal for your skin type will help you achieve optimal results.


The potential main side effects of topical retinoids are irritation, redness and peeling of the skin. It is important to have a complimentary skin care regimen in addition to your use of retinol to maximize benefits and minimize any unwanted side effects. Your dermatologist can help you determine how to effectively add a retinol to your daily routine.

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