The Truth About Retinol & What It Means For Your Wedding Beauty Routine

Experts address the viral myths going around SkinTok.
maddy sims the knot associate editor
Maddy Sims
maddy sims the knot associate editor
Maddy Sims
Former Associate Editor
  • Maddy is a Brand and Social Content Manager at Birdy Grey, and was a former associate editor at The Knot.
  • Maddy has written for several different publications, including HUM Nutrition, Insider, Bustle, Real Simple and Apartment Therapy.
  • Maddy has a Bachelor's degree in magazine journalism and a Master's degree in health, science and environmental reporting (both of which are from Northwestern's Medill School of Journa...
Updated Aug 06, 2021
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In a sea of skincare products, retinol rises above the rest. It's the number one ingredient experts recommend to-be-weds add to their routines. It's clinically proven to help with acne, anti-aging and evening out skin tone. But what is retinol? The technical answer is that it's a form of vitamin A. "Retinols are vitamin A derivatives that ultimately get converted into retinoic acid, the active form of the molecule," explains Dr. Corey Hartman, a board-certified dermatologist in Alabama. "Retinols are the single most effective component of a skin care regimen for prevention of signs of aging that's backed by science and research."

But despite the scientific proof of the ingredient's efficacy, retinol seems to have gained a bad reputation. "SkinTok" (a hashtag on TikTok about skincare with hundreds of millions of views) has exploded, with everyone from influencers to teenagers to medical professionals sharing advice. And with that recent growth has come a slew of different myths related to retinol, discouraging people from using it. The anti-retinol movement has seemingly taken over social media—claiming that the ingredient is toxic, that it'll worsen depression, and that it thins your skin. Amid these concerning statements, to-be-weds may be feeling hesitant to use retinol, which is why we tapped board-certified dermatologists to explain everything you need to know about the popular ingredient.

These experts walk through it all: what retinol is, how to use it, what side effects to expect, and more. Plus, they bust the viral myths you've likely seen on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Their consensus? These myths are untrue, and to-be-weds should still be using retinol leading up to their nuptials if they can. Read about how you can incorporate the all-star skincare ingredient into your pre-wedding routine, below.

In this article:

What is retinol?

woman with retinol on face
Beauty Agent Studio/

"Retinoids are structural and functional derivatives of vitamin A," explains Dr. Adeline Kikam, a board-certified dermatologist based in Texas. "The most biological active form is retinoic acid, which is mostly available via prescription. Retinol is a weaker version of retinoic acid available over the counter."

To understand how retinols work, it's helpful to learn how retinoic acids work first. "Retinoic acid is the prescription form of retinoids—that's the big kahuna," says Dr. Papri Sarkar, a board-certified dermatologist based in Massachusetts. "It travels into the cell and starts asking the cell to make proteins like collagen."

But retinol has more work cut out for it to be as effective. "Once applied to skin, retinol undergoes a two-step conversion to become retinoic acid," Kikam explains.

How exactly does it do that? "Retinol transforms into retinaldehyde, and then retinoic acid," Sarkar says. "Prescription retinoids have a straight shot to getting their work done, while retinols have a more complicated road."

Retinoid vs. Retinol

As mentioned above, retinoids and retinols are not the same thing despite how similar they sound. "Retinols must be converted to retinoic acid to have an effect as opposed to prescription-strength retinoids, which exist as retinoic acid," Dr. Marisa Garshick, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York, says. "Once a product is in its retinoic acid form, it diffuses through the cell membrane to bind nuclear receptors to promote cell turnover."

But there are benefits to that extended process. "Retinols take much longer to yield results but they are much gentler on skin compared to prescription retinoic acid, which some people can't tolerate," Kikam says.

Retinol Benefits

When used regularly, retinol boasts a host of benefits. "Retinoids reveal fresh, new skin by increasing skin turnover," Sarkar says. This helps even out your skin tone and texture. Read: It can seriously help with any stubborn dark spots or discoloration you may have.

Suffering from stress-related breakouts thanks to wedding planning? Retinol can help with that too. "It regulates sebum production and breaks down dead skin cells—keeping pores unclogged, thus reducing breakouts," Kikam says. Dr. Caren Campbell, a board-certified dermatologist based in San Francisco, calls retinol the mainstay acne-fighting topical because it also kills the acne-causing bacteria "C acnes" and is anti-inflammatory.

And when it comes to anti-aging products, retinoids are your secret weapon. "They hamper the breakdown of collagen, thicken the deeper layer of skin where wrinkles get their start and stimulate production of collagen and elastin," Hartman says.

Retinol Side Effects

woman with retinol on face
Jacob Lund/

Retinol boasts impressive benefits, but there are some side effects to be aware of. Mainly, irritation. "While your skin is getting used to the retinol and going through the 'retinization' process, expect to see mild flaking, dry patches, mild redness and perhaps a purge of acne lesions," Hartman says. "As the turnover of skin cells increases, the skin is more easily irritated and susceptible to variations in climate like temperature and lack of humidity."

Another environmental concern to be aware of is sun exposure. "Retinol can make you more sensitive in the sun, which is why it's important to always wear sunscreen when using a retinol," Garshick says.

Finally, there are two scenarios in which people should exercise caution when using retinol. Campbell advises anyone who is breastfeeding or pregnant to take a break from retinol (and retinoids as well). "It should not be used during breastfeeding or pregnancy, as oral versions of retinoids have been shown to cause birth defects and we worry about systemic absorption of the medication when applied topically." However it's perfectly safe to use if you're not breastfeeding or pregnant. And if you have eczema and rosacea, Kikam says you should be careful when using retinoids. Talk to your board-certified dermatologist to find out if you should be using retinol.

How to Use Retinol Before Your Wedding

Here's the good news: A lot of the irritation that comes with using retinol can be minimized with proper application. When it comes to retinol, you have to start low (meaning low concentration) and slow. "Using only a pea sized amount for the entire face and limiting use to one to two times per week and moisturizing on top can help prevent dryness," Campbell says. "Adding a night every two to three weeks and starting with the lowest potency and working your way up over six to 12 months is ideal."

Yes, you read that right. You should plan to use this product for months leading up to your wedding. "For acne, it takes six weeks to work, so there's no point in even starting it for acne if your wedding is less than six weeks away," Campbell says. "For anti-aging, retinoids take six or more months of use to start building collagen, so this is more of a long-term commitment—like marriage."

Using retinol right before your wedding will do more harm than good, as your skin won't have enough time to adjust to the product. "If you're one to two weeks before your wedding and you haven't started a retinoid yet, it's best to hold off until after your wedding as it can lead to dryness or irritation when first starting it," Garshick says.

If you've started using retinol and you're noticing irritation, it's OK to take a break. Give your skin a night or two off from the product to recover. Those struggling with redness or irritation can also use a technique called buffering. "Buffer the retinol over a slightly thick layer of moisturizer with oils for slow absorption of retinol to skin," Kikam advises.

Another pro tip? Don't introduce anything else new when you first start using a retinol. "It's also best to introduce new products prior to a wedding one at a time to ensure no reactions or interactions," Garshick says.

Bakuchiol vs. Retinol

woman with retinol on face

If you've looked into retinol, you've likely come across bakuchiol. Known as a less-irritating, plant-based alternative to retinol, the ingredient has recently become popular. "Bakuchiol is derived from the seeds of the Psoralea corylifolia, also known as the babchi plant, and has been found in Ayurveda and Eastern Medicine for centuries," Garshick explains.

The ingredient is often compared to retinol because it has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties similar to retinol. "This makes it a great alternative to treat signs of aging like fine lines, wrinkles and uneven skin tone," Hartman says. "It can also increase skin firmness and reduce the appearance of pores."

However, the proven similarities between retinol and bakuchiol stop there. "It has been studied for anti-aging, but not acne," Campbell explains. So if acne is a major concern for you leading up to your nuptials, this ingredient might not be for you.

But there are certain groups of people who may benefit from using this ingredient. "It's a gentle alternative to retinol, so I recommend it for patients who are new to retinol or have tried retinol in the past, but found their skin couldn't tolerate it," Hartman says. "I also recommend it to my patients who are pregnant or breastfeeding, since they cannot use retinol during that time." It's also a great option for someone looking for a natural alternative to retinol, Garshick adds.

However, it's important to note that bakuchiol isn't as effective as retinol. "Retinols are 20 times more potent than bakuchiol and have long-documented clinical efficacy in the treatment of acne, hyperpigmentation and stimulating collagen and elastin in the skin," Kikam says.

Viral Retinol Myths

woman with retinol on face
Beauty Agent Studio/

Time to get down to the nitty gritty. We asked our experts to break down every major retinol myth they've seen online. See what they have to say about the viral claims, below.

Retinol Thins the Skin

One of the most common misconceptions about retinol is that it thins your skin. "This couldn't be further from the truth," Hartman says. "It actually thickens your skin by increasing production of glycosaminoglycans to keep the skin firm, taut and smooth." Read: By building collagen, retinol thickens your skin, which prevents wrinkles and fine lines.

Retinol is Toxic

Recently, there have been claims that if retinol isn't safe to use while pregnant, it's not safe to use at all. "Retinols are derivatives of vitamin A, and we recommend avoiding the use of topical retinols in pregnancy based on the fact that oral forms have been associated with fetal abnormalities," Garshick explains. "While this isn't expected to be the case with most over-the-counter retinols based on concentration and degree of absorption, it's still recommended to avoid this ingredient during pregnancy."

Retinol Can Worsen Depression

One of the myths taking the internet by storm is that retinol can worsen depression. "Although depression has an association with oral form of retinol (known as accutane or isotretinoin), it doesn't have this effect with the topical form," Sarkar says. "In addition, there were many confounding effects with the oral studies."

In fact, Campbell adds that improving your skin's appearance can actually improve your mood. "Acne has been linked to depression, so treating acne may result in an improved mood for some patients," she says. Even more of a reason to consider adding retinol to your pre-wedding beauty routine.

You Can't Use Retinol in the Summer

Think you can't use retinol in the summer because of all the sunlight? Think again. "You can still use retinol in the summer months, but it's important to remember to wear sun protection—which you should do even if not using a retinol," Garshick says. "It's especially important to wear sun protection when using a retinol, as retinols can increase the skin's sensitivity to the sun."

Retinol Can Only be Applied at Night

"Although it's a widely held theory that retinols should only be applied at night, this is due to the misconception that the product is broken down in the skin if applied and then exposed to ultraviolet light," Hartman explains. "The original tretinoin was susceptible to degradation and lack of potency if exposed to light in the package—not after it was applied to the skin."

But more recent formulations of retinoids were developed to eliminate this concern. "Other retinoids like adapalene and tazarotene never carried such a stigma, but are lumped in with all retinoids," he says. "You'll see this belief about retinols all over social media, but if you check the research, it does not support these claims."

Feel free to use retinol whenever you want—just make sure you're using sunscreen during the day to protect your complexion.

AHA, BHA and Vitamin C Deactivate Retinol

If you've been scrolling through social media, you may have come across the myth that hydroxy acids will render retinol useless when combined. "No research has ever demonstrated or concluded that alpha or beta hydroxy acid make retinol any less effective when used in the same skincare routine," Hartman says. When retinol and hydroxy acids are combined in the same cream, the retinol component is simply destabilized, not deactivated. "You can safely layer your favorite products containing retinol and hydroxy acids or Vitamin C in a skin care regimen, just steer clear of products that combine retinols and other active ingredients."

You Can't Use Retinol if You Have Dry or Sensitive Skin

If you have dry or sensitive skin, don't count yourself out on all that retinol has to offer. "It is often okay for those with dry or sensitive skin to still use a retinol," Garshick says."It's just important to start slowly and ease into it and be sure to apply alongside a moisturizer to ensure the skin doesn't dry out too much."

Best Retinol Products

Ready to add retinol to your pre-wedding skincare routine? Check out our experts' top picks, below.

retinol skinbetter

This retinol is formulated with lactic acid, making it a powerhouse product. "This nighttime serum is formulated in a moisturizing base that provides all of the benefits of a retinol with virtually none of the irritation," Hartman says. "It's a great retinol option for those who have had difficulty tolerating other retinols and exfoliates in a gentle way."

SkinBetter AlphaRet overnight cream, $125,

retinol avene

This is one of Sarkar's top choices for a number of reasons. "It's easily available, has a retinaldehyde in it (so it's more easily converted to a retinoic acid), and it isn't as irritating as many other over the counter retinols," she says.

Avène RetinAL .1 Intensive Cream, $70, Avè

retinol eye cream

Campbell recommends this retinol-infused cream because it's gentle enough to use on the sensitive skin around your eyes.

Caren Campbell MD CCMD eye cream, $100,

replenix retinol

Campbell likes this dry serum because it's non-greasy and full of skin-loving antioxidants.

Replenix Retinol 5x Regenerate dry serum, $84,

neutrogena retinol

"This cream is a particularly great option for those just starting out with a retinol or those with dry or sensitive skin, as the hyaluronic acid helps to boost moisture and reduce irritation" Garshick says. "Together, the retinol and hyaluronic acid help to improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles."

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Anti-Wrinkle Retinol Cream, $24,

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