7 Retinoid Myths Debunked!

by Gio
7 retinoid myths debunked

“You can’t use retinoids during the day! Are you crazy?! You’re gonna get wrinkles!”

“Of course you can use them during the day. Just pile on your sunscreen.”

“You don’t need to exfoliate if you use retinoids. They do that for you.”

“Since when do retinoids exfoliate skin? Nonsense!”

“I’d never use retinoids. They thin skin, you know.”

“I thought retinoids made skin thicker?…”

Argh. Retinoids are the gold standards of anti-aging. They kick wrinkles in the buttfade your dark spots away and even rid you of acne! You can’t do without them.

But doing with them ain’t easy either. With so many myths and misconceptions around retinoids, it’s hard to know what to believe and how to use them.

Fret not. I’ve done the research and debunked the craziest, most common retinoid myths for you:

the ordinary granactive retinoid 5% in squalane 01

1. Retinoic Acid, Retinol, Retinaldehyde, And Other “Retin” Ingredients Are All The Same Thing

All these “retin” ingredients have one thing in common: they’re all forms of Vitamin A. This means they all have the same properties BUT not the same potency.

Retinoid acid is the pure form of vitamin A. It’s the most powerful (and most irritating). That’s why you’ll find it only in prescription products, like Retin A.

All other OTC forms of retinoids (think retinol, retinaldehyde or retinyl palmitate) must be converted to retinoid acid to work their magic. The more steps this conversion takes, the weaker vitamin A is:

Retinyl palmitate > Retinol > Retinaldehyde > Retinoic acid

In other words, the further away a form is from retionoic acid, the less effective but more gentler it is. That’s why retinyl palmitate is recommended only to super sensitive skin that can’t tolerate any other form of vitamin A. It’ll take longer to see results but your skin won’t be irritated all the time.

peter thomas roth retinol infusion pm night serum 01

2. You Can’t Use Retinoids During The Day

I’m the first to recommend you use retinoids at night because they make skin more prone to sun damage during the initial few weeks of use. Plus, sunlight degrades retinoids, making them less effective.

But, if you prefer to use them in the morning, you still can. I’ve found a study that shows that, when used with sunscreen, retinoids are still both effective and safe.

The catch? You need to reapply that sunscreen regularly.

3. Retinoids Exfoliate Skin

Retinol are smart. They tell cells to speed up cellular turnover, i.e. the skin’s natural exfoliating process. But that’s not the same as exfoliating skin. They don’t dissolve the “glue” that holds skin cells togetherlike acids, or dislodge them manually like scrubs.

Another red herring? The redness and flaking retinoids cause when you first start using them. The flakiness can easily be mistake for exfoliation. But it’s not. It’s irritation.

If you’re experiencing it, cut back to two or three times a week and moisturise well afterwards.

medik8 retinol 6 TR 01

4. Retinoids Thin The Skin

If retinoids exfoliated skin, this myth may have some truth in it. But they don’t.

In fact, the opposite is true. Retinoids boost collagen production, which makes skin THICKER and firmer overtime.

5. You Shouldn’t Use Retinoids Around Your Eyes

Not only you should. You MUST!

It’s true the skin around the eyes is super delicate. But that’s why it get damaged more easily. If you want to keep those crow’s feet away, you do need retinoids’ help. 

If your undereye area gets all flaked and irritated, then use a lower concentration of retinoids or cut back to once or twice a week.

medik8 crystal retinal 6

6. Retinoids Work Immediately

I wish!

Listen, gorgeous. Retinoids are anti-ageing superstars but they take their sweet time to work. We’re talking months here. If you’ve been using retinol for a few weeks and see no improvement, it’s because it’s too early.

Stick with them for six months. At least. You’ll reap their benefits eventually. I promise.

7. You Can’t Apply Retinoids To Wet Skin

Do you ever bother to read the instructions on the box? If you do, you’ll know they usually say you need to wait until your skin is completely dry before applying retinoids.

I do. But if you’re the impatient type, you can go ahead and apply them on wet skin. Nothing bad will happen. 

What Are The Best Retinoid Products?

Do you know of any other retinoid myths that needs debunking? Share them in the comments below.



Ana August 25, 2015 - 6:25 pm

Gah, I wish I could find a proper retionid around here – when I go to the derm’s or to a pharmacy, they look at me and have no idea what I’m talking about 😐 .

And after a lifetime of oily skin, all the wrinkles have appeared in just a few months, bah!

Gio August 25, 2015 - 6:41 pm

Ana, oh dear, not even derms?! What are they recommending to their patients?! Order some Paula’s Choice’s serums online. I believe they ship worldwide, and they’re really good. 🙂

LAura August 26, 2015 - 12:15 am

Retinoids with vitamin C – yes or no?

Gio August 26, 2015 - 5:52 am

Laura, yes. Studies have shown this combination works: http://www.mdpi.com/1420-3049/17/2/2219

Vivella August 26, 2015 - 11:56 am

I wonder what your thoughts are on Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum? I am 61 and dont really have wrinkles, but bought the Neutrogena one to start with something, as I have some lines starting to show slightly on one corner of my mouth and outer edge of one eye, so thought this may help. I imagine Neutrogena would be a weaker version than Paula’s Choice. I have sometimes used moisturizers with Vitamin A in them, as well as rosehip oil. Thanks for another great article!

Gio August 26, 2015 - 2:29 pm

Vivella, I so envy you for not having wrinkles! I’m in my early 30s, and some have already started to appear around the corners of my eyes.

The Neutrogena serum is good. I wish it contained more antioxidants, but it has enough retinol to work. As a first treatment, it’ll do nicely.

You’re welcome. Glad you enjoyed it.

lidia August 28, 2015 - 11:57 am

Very informative post, thanks.
Retinoids with Glycolic Acid – yes or no?

Gio August 28, 2015 - 8:43 pm

Lidia, it’s not ideal, but can be done. I don’t like it though. Both ingredients are pretty powerful, and when used together, may irritate skin, especially if it is sensitive. That’s why I use glycolic in the morning and retinol at night, just to be on the safe side.

lidia September 1, 2015 - 5:50 pm

That’s exactly what I do, I use glycolic acid (as a serum of Dr. Murad) in the morning and retinol at night 🙂
What about salicylic acid in the morning (of course with an SPF lotion on top) and retinol at night?

Gio September 2, 2015 - 9:45 am

Lidia, that works fine too. It just depends on your skin type. Salicylic acid is best for oily skin, as it helps reduce excess oil and prevent/treat breakouts. Glycolic acid is better for dry and sun-damaged skin because it’s hydrating and can boost collagen production.

lidia September 6, 2015 - 10:40 am

Thanks Gio 🙂

Gio September 6, 2015 - 12:52 pm

My pleasure! 🙂

Vj August 28, 2015 - 12:24 pm

I use a Vitamin A cream, but think I need to add a serum. Great info❤?Thank you!

Gio August 28, 2015 - 8:44 pm

VJ, you’re welcome. Oh yes, use a serum. They work much faster than moisturizers.

H June 15, 2016 - 6:08 am

I mostly agree.In the end, retinol may thicken out the skin,but at least for the first couple weeks- months it thins the skin,so technically it’s true it thins it out. ‘Till your skin thickens out that’s one reason dermatologists tell teens like me to wear sunscreen when you’re on retinol, ’cause skin is temporarily compromised from being thinned,other than that retinol degrades in sunlight.

Gio June 16, 2016 - 10:24 pm

H, that’s so true. But I think it’s a small price to pay, as the benefits are so great,

cagirl August 24, 2016 - 9:31 pm

Great post! Some estheticians say retinoids do thin the skin eventually especially if you have fair, sensitive skin. My face was originally plump and oily but became dry/dehydrated/tight and looked thinner and ashy after a couple years on a retinoid. At first it gave me great results. Maybe certain skin types shouldn’t use the “big guns” too often.

Gio August 29, 2016 - 10:43 pm

Cagirl, that’s strange. Retinoids thin the skin at the beginning, but they boost the production of collagen and that makes skin thicker in the long run.

Did something else in your skin or lifestyle change? For example, when I moved to London, the cold weather caused havoc on my skin. It made it really dry. I was using 0.5 retinol almost every day in Italy and it worked well but in London, I had to switch back to a lower dose and use it less frequently until I found a skincare regime that keeps my skin well-hydrated in this climate too. Now I can use a higher dose again. Maybe something similar is happening to you?

Cagirl September 16, 2016 - 4:07 am

It is strange but my experience. Yeah, climate could be a contributor. Last winter my skin became super dry & is still like that. My skin barrier is all messed up. And I think the air is also kind of dry here but not extremely dry.
Any recommendations on a good moisturizer? haha My Cerave lotion doesn’t work anymore. Nothing seems to work. And sunscreen… Was considering trying the Sunumbra you posted about. I’ve never found a sunscreen that felt good & now they’re all too drying now because of the dry skin. The sunscreen was the hassle with the retin a. lol I wore it, but it always felt gross.
My face looked amazing the first few months on retin-a but then my face suddenly got inflamed looking and older looking. So I cut back a lot, but a few months ago I stopped using it completely. My face looked better before I ever used it and just used cheap sulfur for my acne. I mean at least I had a face that looked healthy and alive….smooth skin, plump face and didn’t need to slather on moisturizer all the time.

Gio September 17, 2016 - 7:28 pm

I feel your pain! When I moved to London last year, the harsh winter here messed up my skin barrier and dried up my skin too. Everything suddenly stopped working and it took me months to figure out how to fix it.

One of the things that helped me the most was a serum with hyaluronic acid, which is super hydrating. I used Bakel Jualuronic and Skinceuticals Hydra B5 but there are plenty of cheaper options around. I used one both in the morning and at night and then followed up with one of Paula’s Choice moisturizers for dry skin. Using a facial oil at night helped to lock in moisture too. I prefer products like Beauti Skincare Beauty Sleep Elixir because it contains several types of oils. But you can also use one oil, such as argan or evening primrose. Just experiment to find out what your skin likes best.

Hope this helps.

Lesley Goodson February 22, 2017 - 9:14 pm

I love your articles but you aren’t correct about retinaldehyde. Retinol takes 2 conversions to become retinoic acid which is retin A. Retinaldehyde takes only 1 conversion to become retinoic acid. Only retinaldehyde has tested in a peer reviewed journal, double dummy as equally effective as retin a. Retinol has tested inferior to retin a. In a peer reviewed review article, it states that retinol is 1/20th the efficacy of retin a. I can refer you to the review study if you wish.

Gio February 28, 2017 - 8:32 pm

Lesley, thank you for your comment. Yes, I would love to see the study, thank you. I will do some more research and update this article accordingly.

Lynn June 29, 2018 - 8:18 pm

I’ve been using 1% retinol for just over 4 months. I didn’t experience the flakiness or irritation when I started using it – about 3 times a week. I went up to every day after about a month. And only in the past month or so, when I apply my moisturizer at night and moisturizer and sunscreen in the morning, my skin burns. It doesn’t get that red – a bit, but it’s like I’ve applied hot sun to it. It goes away after about 5 minutes. I’m assuming it’s the retinol so do you suggest I go back to using it less? I also use SkinCeuticals Vitamin C + E serum and PC’s 2% BHA in the morning. Thanks!

Gio July 6, 2018 - 7:51 pm

Lynn, yes. If you experience any side effects, it’s always best to cut back.

Laure January 23, 2020 - 6:46 pm

Hi Gio !
Your articles about retinoids make me want to try them again. I tried The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% in squalane, but I couldn’t stand more than one drop with a lot of moisturizer and I wasn’t very consistent, I used only it once a week or once every 2 weeks, and the PAO is just 3 months. In the end, I used only a very tiny little bit of the bottle and thought it was a waste, so I gave up… But I’m thinking about trying the Mad Hippy serum, it looks it would suit better my sensitive dry skin.
Also, I now realize the importance of antioxydants, I think my skin doesn’t like vitamine C but your article about Niod Survival make me want to try it.

PS : your blog is fantastic !

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