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Retinol and Acne-Prone Skin: What's the Deal?

  • Olivia Golan
  • 16/06/2023
Retinol and Acne-Prone Skin: What's the Deal?

If you're struggling with acne, you've probably tried every product under the sun to fight the breakouts and bring your skin back to its healthiest state. You might have tried everything from benzoyl peroxide to salicylic acid, but still haven’t found your dream product on your journey to healthier skin.

We're here to tell you that all is not lost. If you've not yet tried retinol or vitamin A derivatives to treat acne, then you might be shocked by what these acne-fighting skincare ingredients can do for your skin.

What is retinol?

Retinol, or vitamin A, comes in many forms, from classic retinol products like serums and creams to prescription treatments that a board-certified dermatologist may recommend.

You probably already know all about its ability to increase skin cell turnover, combat fine lines and wrinkles, and brighten skin, but we'll let you in on a little secret: you can use retinol on acne, too! We're about to get to the bottom of retinol’s role in the acne-fighting skincare game, but for a more in-depth analysis of this ingredient, check out our blog post on all things retinol.

Can retinol be used on skin with active acne?

Retinol for acne: what's the deal? If you know anything about retinol, you’ll be aware that it's one of those skincare actives that's likely to cause redness and irritation if used incorrectly or without care, even if you don't usually have a sensitive skin type.

Knowing this, those of us who suffer with acne probably question whether it's actually a good idea to use retinol to treat the issue. After all, there's nothing worse than an acne flareup to set back weeks of progress when it comes to clearing breakouts.

The important thing to know is that you can use retinol on acne-prone skin, even when you have active breakouts, but there are a few important things to keep in mind when approaching this powerful skincare active. Read on to find out more.

How it works

Now that you've learned that retinol is one of the best products for acne (if used correctly), it's time to explore exactly how this acne treatment works. To get a bit sciencey, retinol works on different layers of the skin, specifically in the dermis and on the epidermis, to produce different effects.

For those not familiar, the epidermis is the skin's outermost layer, where we see active acne and breakouts. The dermis is the skin's middle layer (not to be confused with the lowest skin layer, the hypodermis), and this is where most active ingredients penetrate to produce results that aren't immediately visible, but that can have a positive impact on skin in the long term.

How topical retinoids work on the epidermis

As discussed above, retinol products work two-fold—both on the skin's surface and beneath it. On the epidermis, retinol's standout benefit when it comes to treating acne is its ability to exfoliate away dead skin cells. The most common causes of acne are excessive oil production and the clogged pores that result from too much sebum.

Retinol is a chemical exfoliant that removes built-up dirt, grime, dead skin cells, and oil that daily cleansers and more "mild" skincare products can't fully remove. It's basically a heavy-hitting exfoliator that ranks above your favorite scrub or exfoliant. By clearing out acne triggers, it encourages the production of new, healthy skin cells to set you on your journey to healthier skin.

Along with removing breakout triggers and bad bacteria, retinoid products work as powerful acne treatments to unclog pores, reduce the appearance of fine lines, and fade hyperpigmentation and dark spots.

Using retinol products to treat acne from deep within

It's clear that retinol has some pretty impressive benefits when it comes to tackling the visible signs of acne, but what about breakouts that occur under the skin's surface? Among the many types of acne are those that occur way under the skin, sometimes called cystic or blind acne.

Cystic acne occurs when spots form under the skin. These zits can be more painful than "regular" acne flare-ups, and they often result in scarring once the active breakout has cleared up. What's worse, they are harder to treat as they never come to a head on the skin's surface.

Not to worry, as retinoid products work just as well under the skin as they do on it. Retinol has pretttty small molecules (like, tiny tiny) that are able to penetrate the epidermis, reach the dermis, and fight the bacteria that causes cystic acne.

With consistent and careful use, retinol can balance sebum production and oiliness under the skin as well as above it. It also encourages cell turnover. All of this results in clearer, less irritated skin that's not as prone to breakouts and clogging.

There are some added pluses, like anti-aging benefits, that really make this acne treatment an all-around skin superstar. Since it's able to work under the skin's surface, it can stimulate collagen and elastin production for smoother, less lined skin. That's why retinol is commonly used to treat fine lines and wrinkles and general signs of aging.

One thing's for sure, if you use retinol (or any type of topical retinoid) as an acne treatment, you'll enjoy not only clearer, healthier skin and a stronger barrier, but you're sure to see fewer fine lines cropping up over time too. Win-win!

How to use retinol to treat acne

Using retinol for acne isn't as straightforward as it seems, and it comes with some caveats (and side effects). Firstly, it can be very harsh on sensitive skin. This is why most hard-hitting retinol treatments like prescription retinoids and topical retinoids require approval from a certified dermatologist.

Some of the best acne-fighting retinoids require a prescription, so if you're after Adapalene gel or Tretinoin, speaking to a board-certified dermatologist should be your first port of call. As the side effects of prescription retinoid products are harsher than regular retinol treatments (think peeling, burning, itching, and overall discomfort), use of these topicals is usually closely monitored by a dermatologist, who will adapt their patient's prescription strength as needed during the treatment period.

For a non-prescription strength retinol product—like retinol serums and creams—the rules aren't as strict. But there are still some key factors to remember when using retinol products without professional guidance! We've compiled some of the most important rules to follow when it comes to using retinol in your acne-fighting routine:

  • Never mix and match retinoids or exfoliants: When using a powerful active like retinol, that should be the only active exfoliator in your skincare routine. Using too many active ingredients can result in a damaged skin barrier, and your skin may take a while to recover (ouch!). It can even make acne worse if you're not careful. You should also be avoiding other acne treatments powered by potent ingredients like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide.
  • Don't expect overnight results: While some skincare products give results faster than others, retinol definitely requires a longer period of use before its results become clear (but it's so worth the wait).
  • Avoid other active ingredients: Vitamin C is a staple in many people’s skincare routines to brighten skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines. However, this ingredient should not be mixed with retinol treatments, especially prescription-only formulas. That's not to say that you can't use retinol and vitamin C, but they need to be carefully curated to your routine. This, for example, might mean using a retinol serum at night one day, then using a vitamin C serum the following night. They should never be used on the same nights. Some acne-prone peeps like to use vitamin C in the mornings and retinol at night, which is fine, but it's important to build up your tolerance to this combination slowly (especially if you have sensitive skin). You risk irritating your skin otherwise.
  • Always use sunblock during the day: Retinol makes your skin more susceptible to sun damage and over-exposure to UV rays, so it's super important that you wear sunscreen every. single. day. while using a retinol product. Yes, even if it's cloudy or you're not leaving the house, put on that sunscreen! Why not try Éclat Mineral Sunscreen? It has two mineral filters to protect against UVA and UVB rays, and it doesn't leave a pesky white cast behind.
  • Start low and go slow: With any active ingredient, it's important to let skin get acclimated to new treatments. Starting out with a high-strength topical retinoid and using it too often will surely result in irritation. We recommended starting low—as in, using a product with a lower concentration of retinol. You can always up the retinol concentration once you've ruled out any irritation. You should also go slow, meaning that when you start out, pay careful attention to how your skin reacts and adjust from there. Once skin is acclimated, we recommend using retinol every other day—or every day if you don't have particularly sensitive skin—for best results.

Finding your perfect retinol product

If you're ready to start fighting breakouts and getting your acne under control, odds are you're now trying to navigate the many, many retinol products out there. If you're still searching for your perfect fit, we have some tips to share.

You'll want to find a product that has a lower concentration of retinol, then build from there once you start to see results. It's also best to find a "gentler" format for your skin: Think a serum or cream, or even a retinol cleanser.

The best retinol cream for dry, stressed-out, or sensitive skin

For dry skin, a cream is your best bet for fighting skin fatigue and dehydration, as well as combatting pimples. Why not give Éclat Retinol Cream a go? It features a gentle 2.5% pure retinol concentration to treat acne, and we've added soothing extracts like sea oak and centella asiatica to calm your complexion while it gets to work. If that's not enough to convince you, our addition of hydrating hyaluronic acid helps to keep your skin barrier healthy, happy and hydrated, even if you have sensitive skin.

Our favorite retinol serum to unclog pores and regenerate oily skin

If your skin is oily and congested, a retinol serum will do wonders to regulate oil and sebum production for clearer, spot-free skin. Éclat Retinol Serum is ideal if you're just starting your journey to an acne-free complexion. Like its cream counterpart, it features a gentle yet effective 2.5% pure retinol concentration, so if you prefer thinner textures over a heavier feel, you'll love this quick-absorbing serum to target blemishes and treat acne. We've also added botanical extracts like green tea to keep skin matte and oil-free.

Here's to many clear-skin days ahead!