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15 Retinol Myths, Debunked - The Do’s and Don’ts of Using Retinoids

April 17, 2021

15 Retinol Myths, Debunked - The Do’s and Don’ts of Using Retinoids

Retinol and other retinoids (the umbrella term for retinol products) are powerhouse skincare ingredients. Derived from Vitamin A, retinoids work hard enough to improve skin texture, pigmentation, and tone with just a few drops. 

Because of their reputation and scientifically-backed proof, retinoids like retinol have garnered considerable attention. And even more questions.  How do retinol formulas work? Are they compatible with sensitive skin? Do alpha or beta hydroxy acids deactivate retinol or reduce its effectiveness? Should you only use retinol at night? Are retinol products incompatible with vitamin C products? 

15 Retinol Myths

With plenty of false information floating around about retinoids, we've sifted through the craziest claims out there to offer you some clarity. We’re deep-diving into everything retinoid and breaking down fifteen myths.

Myth 1. All retinoids do the exact same thing

For the most part, yes. All retinoids provide the same benefits, but it's not that simple. 

Retinoic acid is usually found in prescription-only formulas. Retinoic acid directly penetrates the skin and binds to cell receptors targeting the visible signs aging. 

Retinol is a weaker derivative that’s available over-the-counter. The skin needs retinol to produce retinoic acid at the cellular level and produce effects. There is research showing that while retinol is more gentle than retinoic acid, biochemically it does exactly the same thing. It may just take longer to see results.

Myth 2. Retinol will make your skin peel

This one’s not necessarily true. The most common side effect of using retinol is called retinisation. This is the process through which your skin gets used to topical retinoids, and peels. But not everyone experiences this. You can still get visible results with retinol without the peeling. Avoiding over-exfoliation and harsh products helps reduce irritation as well.

Myth 3. Retinol works by exfoliating your skin

Not true. Retinol is not an exfoliant, but an antioxidant. Retinoids work at a much deeper cellular level by affecting gene expression and causing enhanced collagen production, skin smoothing, and an evening of pigmentation. And, while retinol can cause a flaking reaction, this (often temporary) side effect shouldn’t be mistaken for exfoliation. AHAs, BHAs, and other skin acids shed dead skin from its surface, invisibly. You shouldn’t see or feel healthy, normal exfoliation.

Myth 4. You shouldn't wear retinol during the day because it increases your risk of sunburn

This is one of the biggest myths when it comes to retinol. There’s some reasoning behind this misconception, but it has more to do with reducing the efficacy of the product. Retinol and retinoic acid degrade in sunlight, which is why they are usually bottled in opaque packaging 

It’s totally fine to use retinol products during the day, as long as you wear a sunscreen over them. Sunscreen is the first and most formidable defense in helping your skin combat things like wrinkles, uneven skin tone, discolorations, and loss of firmness.

Myth 5. Retinol should never be combined with vitamin C

False. A recent studyrevealed that not only did pairing vitamin C and retinol prove effective, but the two work synergistically to defend skin against environmental aggressors when applied under a sunscreen. While this myth has been busted, using them together can cause skin sensitivities. To be safe, use your vitamin C serum in the morning and retinol serums at night

Myth 6. You can't use retinol with an exfoliant

This myth gets repeated so often that even some skincare experts tend to believe it.

But the truth is no research has ever concluded that alpha or beta hydroxy acid exfoliants make retinol any less effective when used in the same skincare routine. What research does show is that using retinol products with an effective AHA or BHA product increases the benefits of each.

Myth 7. You should always apply retinol to dry skin

This one’s up to you. When it comes to putting retinol products on wet or dry skin, there’s no scientific evidence that shows damp or wet skin exacerbates sensitivity. Nothing having to do with application decides how much of the retinol is converted into retinoic acid, the form of vitamin A that actually repairs skin. It isn't always feasible to sit around for 20 to 30 minutes waiting for your skin to dry before your skincare products. So if applying retinoids on damp skin works for you, go for it.

Myth 8. You should stop using retinol if your skin gets irritated

Flushed, drier-than-usual, and even lightly peeling skin is all part of the process. It takes about two weeks of using retinol for your skin cells to adapt to the retinoic acid and begin to tolerate it. If the irritation is prolonged or very uncomfortable, use it once a week or switch to a weaker formula.

Myth 9. The skin around your eyes is too sensitive for retinol

Not only can you, but you should use retinol around your eyes. The skin around your eyes is often one of the first places to show signs of aging and sun damage. So careful use of a retinol product around the eyes is recommended. And studies show that people who apply retinoids right up to the orbital bone get the best results. The skin there is no more likely to get red or flaky than anywhere else on the face.

Myth 10. The benefits of retinol plateau after six months

The results of retinoid treatments are dose-dependent, so this will depend entirely on the formulation of the retinol, and how often you apply it. But several clinical studies have shown that retinoids smooth wrinkles and fade blotches significantly for over a year. So what are you supposed to do after the year is up? Your skin may just be ready for a stronger retinoid.

Myth 11. You can’t use retinol with other anti-aging actives

In the long run, this myth falls flat. But if you’re first starting out with retinol or other retinoid products, it's wise to simplify your skincare routine to minimize the retinisation effect. Over time, you can phase other actives like vitamin C and AHAs/BHAs back in, but do it slowly and mindfully.

Myth 12. It takes six weeks to see results from using retinol

This is one myth we wish we could say was true. It’s more likely double (or even triple) that amount of time. It takes an average of 12 weeks for retinoic acid to produce noticeable changes in the skin. So stick with your retinol product of choice for at least that long to see the benefits.

Myth 13. Gentle retinoids are as effective as stronger ones

This one is false. A lower concentration of retinol is best for people with sensitive skin. As your skin adjusts and your skin cells adapt to handling the active retinoid ingredient you can move up to higher concentrated retinol products.

Myth 14. Retinol thins your skin

Yes and no. This myth is likely a result of the retinisation reaction that can happen when people first start using retinol. Vitamin A (particularly in retinoic acid form) affects the various layers of the skin differently, and at different times during treatment. 

Within the first weeks, the outermost layer of the skin becomes more compact. This thinning of the skin improves smoothness and glow. Over several months of treatment, the epidermis reverts to its normal state, but in the deeper dermis, collagen and glycosaminoglycan (a group of complex proteins) production increases. This plumps out lines and wrinkles, minimizing their appearance and actually thickens the dermis.

Myth 15. You can't take your retinol with you when traveling 

Once skin cells have adapted to the strength of the retinoid you're applying, the irritation should stop. A change in climate won't suddenly make your skin react to a retinoid you were tolerating a few days earlier at home. It's unlikely to flare up again until you switch to a stronger dose.

Retinoid Strength Cheat Sheet

How it’s available

Type of retinoid

What it does

over -the counter


has fewer side effects than retinoic acid (prescription strength), it converts on the cellular level of the skin, thus taking several months to a year for visible results

over -the counter

retinoid esters (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate)

weakest in the retinoid family, but a good starting point for beginners or sensitive skin types

over -the counter


slows the process of excessive growth in the lining of pores and desensitizes the skin to inflammation making it an ideal treatment for acne


retinoic acid 

works significantly faster than retinol since no conversion in the skin needs to take place



oral medication that’s prescribed for severe forms of acne and requires close supervision by a doctor

If you’re not already using this superhero anti-aging ingredient in your skincare routine, start by using a retinol cleanser or serum. As your skin adjusts to the powerful ingredient, you can begin using it in both your AM and PM routines.