Can Retinol be Used to Treat Acne?

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Retinol is a natural vitamin A derivative commonly found in pro-aging creams. But it may also be an effective ingredient for treating acne and reducing the appearance of acne scars.

But how does it work? Are there side effects, and how often should you use it for clearer, smoother skin?

In this article, we’ll help answer those questions and also provide suggestions on some retinol products that may be good choices for acne-prone skin.

Retinol is a popular ingredient in over-the-counter (OTC) skin care products like serums, wrinkle creams, and overnight moisturizers.

It’s part of a family of compounds called retinoids. While all retinoids come from vitamin A, their properties and effects on your skin vary.


Retinol works in a few ways. On the skin’s outermost layer (epidermis), retinol exfoliates to remove dirt, dead skin cells, and oil from pores. This can help prevent pimples from forming.

Unlike many other acne treatments, retinol also works by literally getting under your skin. Tiny molecules penetrate the middle layer of your skin (dermis) and stimulate the production of collagen and elastin.

Both of these compounds reduce the appearance of pores and acne scarring over time.

Retinol and retinoids are chemically similar, and both are used to treat the same skin conditions. But there are a few important differences.

Retinol is a type of retinoid. Other common retinoids include:

  • adapalene (Differin)
  • tretinoin (Retin-A)
  • isotretinoin (Accutane)
  • retinoid esters (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate)

Retinol is a medium-strength retinoid. It’s stronger than retinoid esters but weaker than tretinoin or isotretinoin, which are only available with a doctor’s prescription.

While the results of using retinol may not be as fast or dramatic as those produced by prescription-strength products, it poses a lower risk of side effects. For instance, it’s less likely to cause skin irritation.

The regular availability of retinol also makes it a good place to start if you want to try it as a treatment for acne.

OTC retinol creams, gels, and serums typically contain between 0.25 and 1.5 percent retinol. The overall strength that you’ll need depends largely on your skin type.

If you have sensitive skin, consider starting off with a lower dose first. If you don’t experience side effects, you can always increase the dose.

In addition, keep in mind that not all pro-aging products with retinol are formulated to treat acne too. You’ll want to avoid ingredients that might aggravate acne, like certain fragrances and oils.

Below, you’ll find a few of our top retinol picks for acne-prone skin. To create this list, we choose products that not only contain retinol but also include other ingredients useful for acne, like niacinamide and vitamin C. We also included picks designed for multiple skin types too, including sensitive skin.

Each product on our list has been vetted by our team for business and medical standards. Learn more here.

Pricing guide

  • $ = under $15
  • $$ = $15-$30
  • $$$ = over $30

Best inexpensive retinol serum for acne

The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane

  • Price: $$ for a two-pack
  • Size: 30 milliliters (ml)
  • Key ingredients: squalane, jojoba seed oil, retinol

The Ordinary is well known for its super inexpensive skin care products. The brand’s retinol serum contains 1 percent pure retinol and is formulated to reduce fine lines, sun damage, and other general signs of aging.

Keep in mind that this is the highest strength available from The Ordinary, so if you’re new to retinol, you’ll probably want to start with a lower concentration to avoid irritation. You can expect some tingling when using this product, and some redness as your skin adjusts.

What do customers have to say? The popular serum is well-liked by users who say that it helps smooth out skin and clear up acne.

Best retinol serum for sensitive skin with acne

First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum

  • Price: $$$
  • Size: 30 ml
  • Key ingredients: retinol, peptides, proprietary skin savior complex

Retinol can be irritating to some people’s skin. So, if you have particularly sensitive skin or a condition like rosacea, you’ll want to use a gentle formula like this one from First Aid Beauty.

The 0.25 percent pure retinol serum is formulated to combat fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin texture. And it’s specifically made for people with easily irritated skin.

Retinol newbies like this beginner-level concentration and generally agree that it’s non-irritating to their skin. But some say they experienced breakouts after using the serum.

Most splurge-worthy retinol serum for acne

iS CLINICAL Pro-Heal Serum Advance+

  • Price: $$$
  • Size: 30 ml
  • Key ingredients: vitamin C, olive leaf extract, vitamin E, vitamin A

Looking to treat yourself to a luxury skin care splurge? The iS CLINICAL Pro-Heal Serum Advance is a high-end serum tough enough to fight acne yet gentle enough for people with rosacea to use too.

It’s designed to improve the look of the skin and soothe irritation.

Reviewers say it does a good job calming sensitive skin but note that it’s quite expensive.

Best retinol serum for acne scars

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum

  • Price: $
  • Size: 30 ml
  • Key ingredients: encapsulated retinol, ceramides

CeraVe is known for its skin-friendly dermatologist products, and its retinol serum is designed to target acne scarring and reduce the appearance of pores.

The gel serum is also formulated to restore the skin’s moisture barrier, and it’s safe to use on sensitive, acne-prone skin. Plus, it’s unscented, so you don’t have to worry about dealing with overwhelming fragrances.

Reviewers with sensitive skin say the serum is ultra-gentle and love that it helps clear up deep acne scars. A few people point out that the label doesn’t specify a retinol concentration, which likely means it’s low.

Best non-drying retinol serum for acne

Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum

  • Price: $$$
  • Size: 30 ml
  • Key ingredients: squalane, niacinamide, bakuchiol

This combination of plant seed extract, squalane, and niacinamide is formulated to reduce wrinkles, firm up skin, and improve overall skin tone — all while keeping skin moisturized.

Bonus: The serum now comes with an airless pump dispenser that is designed to make sure you get every last bit of serum left in the bottle. Eco-friendly packaging also helps reduce the company’s carbon footprint.

Customers say it feels great on the skin and has a light, pleasant scent. But one person notes that the serum left their skin overly shiny.

Best retinol cream for acne

Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Treatment

  • Price: $$$
  • Size: 30 ml
  • Key ingredients: retinol, peptides, vitamin C, licorice extract

If you prefer a creamier consistency, this retinol acne treatment might be for you. The 1 percent retinol formula is designed to help with the signs of aging and clear up acne marks and hyperpigmentation.

It’s also free of parabens and fragrances, so it shouldn’t cause redness or irritation.

Reviewers note that while it’s effective, it may take some time to see results. Additionally, they shared that since it’s a 1 percent concentration, it can take some getting used to if you haven’t used retinol products before.

When trying out a retinol product, it’s important to follow the product instructions and to start out using it gradually until you know how your skin reacts to it. It may cause a little redness or irritation at first until your skin adjusts to the retinol.

Start by adding the product to your skin care routine one night per week at first. If you don’t notice side effects, you can apply it more often.

To reduce the risk of irritation, try washing your face first and then waiting about half an hour before you apply the retinol treatment.

Retinol is best applied at night since it can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. When you do go outside, be sure to use sunscreen to protect your face.

It’s worth noting that you don’t need to use retinol on a daily basis for it to effectively treat your acne. Even two to three times per week might be enough.

The important thing to keep in mind with retinol is to use it on a consistent schedule. Even if you only use it a few times per week, aim to apply it on the same days of the week or after a set number of nights.

Retinol is a natural form of vitamin A, but that doesn’t mean it’s free from side effects. Some potential side effects include:

  • dryness
  • irritation
  • itchiness
  • peeling
  • redness
  • stinging
  • sun sensitivity

These side effects are more commonly seen when you first start using retinol. They should subside after a few weeks as your skin adapts to the product. But if side effects continue, you might want to switch to a lower-strength product.

Retinol might trigger or aggravate rashes in people who have eczema.

In addition, retinol isn’t safe for pregnant people. Talk with your doctor about using retinol if you’re thinking about getting pregnant in the near future.

Unfortunately, research on the subject is currently limited. So, if you have concerns, you should consider talking with your doctor before you start using retinol.

In addition to helping reduce acne, retinol can be used to treat several other skin conditions, including:

Remember that in order to start seeing the benefits of retinol, you need to use it regularly and over a period of time. Try not to get discouraged if you don’t see quick improvements — it can take up to 2 to 3 months to see the results.

How does retinol treat acne?

Retinol is an exfoliator that removes the dirt and grime that builds up on your skin and clogs your pores. By scrubbing away the elements that can cause acne, retinol can help to prevent or minimize acne breakouts.

Can you use retinol every day?

Start slow. If you’re a new user, your skin may only be able to tolerate retinol once every other day or so. As your skin gets used to retinol, you can apply it more often.

Some people with sensitive skin may need to take breaks regardless of whether they’ve used retinol regularly or not.

How long does it take for retinol to cure acne?

Don’t expect instant results. It can take several months to see significant improvement.

Retinol is a well-known ingredient in pro-aging creams, gels, and serums.

What many people don’t know is that it can also be used to treat acne and acne-scarred skin. It works on both the surface and middle layers of the skin to unclog pores, smooth scars, and improve tone and texture.

If you’re considering trying retinol for the first time, be aware that it can cause side effects, including irritation. Most of the time, these side effects go away after a few weeks of use.

Talk with a doctor or dermatologist to learn more about using retinol for acne.

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