What does Retinol do?

Retinol is a molecule frequently used in dermatologic drugs. Other names in this same category are retinoids or retinaldehydes depending on the exact molecular structure. More important is what they can DO for the skin when applied topically.

This unique category of topicals is often misunderstood, since it can produce irritation and even burning of the skin as it is first introduced. Dermatologists like to overcome this minor pitfall due to the importance of what retinol can do, that no other topical does quite as well–by increasing the cell turnover within the skin, there are multiple benefits that can be applied to many different dermatologic diagnoses. When you increase cell turnover (proliferation and differentiation), you essentially clean out pores and hair follicles at a much faster rate. This leads to the appearance of smaller pores and reduction of issues such as acne.

Acne itself as four separate causes but two of the main issues can be addressed using retinoids. Acne results from overproduction of sebum resulting “clogging” and inflammation of the pores and hair follicles that lead to non-inflammatory acne (blackheads and whiteheads) as well as inflammatory acne (pimples and pustules). By increasing cellular turnover, there is no clogging, and there is no resulting inflammation.

As an added bonus, dermatologists understand the importance of cellular turnover when it comes to photoaging. We all experience photoaging due to the accumulation of light over time. No one is exempt. However, the use of topical retinol can create the deep cellular turnover that leads to an increase in collagen production within the dermal layer of the skin, and reverse or repair the effects of photodamage.

Topical retinol and retinoid can also be used for a variety of other skin conditions from psoriasis to genetic disorders of keratin over-production. They are technically a category X when it comes to pregnancy, especially when used over more than 1% of the surface area on the body. As with all prescription medications, it is important to seek the input and education your dermatologist can give you before starting a retinol.