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To generate new skin cells whilst shedding old, acne affected skin cells

Side Effects

Skin irritation, dryness, redness, peeling and skin sensitivity to sunlight. See product packaging and leaflet for full details


Causes skin sensitivity to sunlight. See product packaging and leaflet for full details and other warnings

The information on this website is intended for general educational purposes. You should talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist before you start using any kind of treatment.


What are retinols?

Retinols are a form of acne treatment that is derived from vitamin A and is available over the counter, without having to see a doctor or nurse. They are often labelled in products as retinaldehyde or retinyl palmitate.

Retinols are not the same as retinoids, which are stronger treatments. You can learn about retinoids here.

Retinols come in topical treatments, which are applied directly to the skin, are often available as creams and gels in 0.1% to 1% concentrations.

How do retinols work?

Retinols work to promote the growth of new skin cells whilst breaking down dead skin cells and other debris that may be trapped in the hair follicle. They also work to regulate the amount of keratin being produced by your skin and prevent dead skin cells from sticking together and forming acne-causing blockages.

In addition, retinols can regulate skin tone and reduce the red, purple and brown colouring that acne can leave on the skin.

What are some of the side effects of retinols?

Retinols can cause irritation to the skin, to reduce this risk you should gradually introduce retinols to your skin by using the treatment a few days a week before slowly increasing to daily use. Retinols can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun, meaning that they should be applied at night and that a non-oily sunscreen should be used during the day whilst treatment is ongoing. Further side effects of retinols include skin redness, dryness and peeling. Please see your product details for full instructions and warnings.

General guidance on using retinols?

As with most acne treatments, retinols take time to work and you should allow for twelve weeks of use before determining whether or not the product has worked for you. It can be advisable to continue to use retinols (if they have proven effective) even after your acne symptoms have improved. The skin sheds its top layer every twenty-eight days and acne problems may reoccur if the treatment has been stopped. You should speak to your healthcare provider before you decide to keep using retinols after your acne has healed.

Example of an acne treatment regime

Treatments that contain retinols are often used as part of a wider acne treatment regime. These regimes involve using acne treatments and sometimes other products in an organised way with the aim of maximising the treatment’s effectiveness. It is important to remember that not all acne treatments can be used safely together and that you should seek the advice of your pharmacist or healthcare provider before starting or combining any treatments. Click here for an example of an acne treatment regime.

Please note that over-the-counter treatments are unlikely to be effective against severe acne. That is acne that consists of many lesions covering an area, with cysts and nodules being present, and is often scarring. If you have acne that has lasted for several weeks and is getting worse, is leaving scars or is affecting your mental health then you should arrange to visit your GP.