Retinol on Acne: Proper Usage and Precautions

You may have started using old treatments, such as benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, to fight it. However, you may want to consider using retinol on acne to reduce acne breakout and to reduce the appearance of acne scars on your skin.

Retinol has been an effective acne treatment and it is quite popular amongst dermatologists and skincare experts. This is definitely because it is an active ingredient that helps to treat several skin concerns, and acne is one of them.

Although it is most popular for its anti-aging benefits, it does other things like clearing and preventing acne breakouts. If you have been battling persistent breakout, it’s time to consider adding retinol to your routine. 

Using retinol on acne is a faster way of getting rid of acne and acne scars, compared to regular acids. This article contains all the information you need regarding using retinol as an acne treatment.

Is Retinol for Acne or Wrinkles?

According to Dr. Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, “Retinol is vitamin A derivative that converts to retinoic acid when it is applied to the skin. It works for aging signs such as wrinkles and fine lines; retinol helps to control turnover in the skin.”

It also helps with boosting collagen production in the skin, and this results in a reduction of aging signs, plus improvement in the tone and texture of the skin.

However, using retinol on your skin does more than just solve your aging skin problems, it also helps in the treatment of acne breakout and acne scars. As a result, retinol works for wrinkles and acne along with acne scars. 

However, a retinol product formulated for anti-aging might not help acne, as anti-aging formulas might contain oils and fragrances that can clog your pores more.

SEE: How to Remove That Pesky Acne Scar Starting With These Helpful Hacks

Is Retinol Good for Acne?

“Retinol is a natural form of vitamin A that is more gentle compared to other retinoids and is often used in over-the-counter skincare products,” says Dr. Garshick.

This means that; unlike other retinoids, retinol is less irritating. This makes it a good choice for you if you are hoping to clear your acne without irritating your face. If you have mild or persistent acne, using retinol might help to treat and rid your skin of it.

SEE: Retinol For Dark Skin: Is It Safe? [Expert Guide]

Can Retinol Remove Acne Scars?

Yes, it can. It helps to slough off old skin cells to give room for newer ones, as well as boost the production of collagen and elastin in the skin. This way, the dead skin on the skin seen as acne scars will reduce. 

With the production of collagen, the skin will be firm and evenly tone. This thereby leads to a reduction in the appearance of acne scars. 

SEE: Retinol for Skincare: Benefits, Side Effects, and Correct Application

How Does Retinol Work on Acne and Acne Scars?

Acne occurs when bacteria mix with the buildup of oil and dead skin that is clogging the skin pores. What retinol does to stop acne break out by removing the buildup of dirt from your skin. This reduces the swelling of acne and also smoothens the skin. 

A study shows that retinol and other topical retinoids can help to treat inflammatory and noninflammatory acne. 

Another study reveals that retinoids can help to regulate sebum(oil) production in the skin. This reduces the rate at which oil is being produced in the skin; this prevents excess oil from clogging the pores. This also means that it prevents acne breakouts from occurring.

To reduce the appearance of acne scars, retinol penetrates the middle layer of your skin to enhance collagen production. This helps in the reduction of acne scars.

How to Use Retinol as Acne Treatment

As effective as retinol is in treating skin concerns like acne and aging, it has serious side effects when it is used incorrectly. You need to learn to use the compound correctly on your skin to avoid side effects such as dryness, peeling, flaking, and discoloration of the skin.

Below is a list to help you use the compound correctly on your face to treat acne and eliminate acne scars.

1. Choose the right percentage

Over-the-counter retinol forms like cream, lotion, and gel, often contain between 0.25 to 1.5 percent of the compound. Now, before you pick a product, you need to consider your skin type and how much percentage it can tolerate. 

If you have sensitive skin or you are a newbie to the ingredient, start with a low concentration. If you do not experience any side effects, you can upgrade to a product that contains a higher percentage of the compound.

As you pick your retinol product, try as much as possible to avoid ones that are not formulated for acne, and ones that contain fragrances and oils. 

SEE: How to Treat Retinol Burn

2. Start slow and gentle

Be sure to not rush into using too much when you begin to use retinol on your skin. Start slowly by limiting your usage to two times weekly for the first month of using it. 

Dr. Garshick suggests two to three times usage until your skin can tolerate a more frequent usage of the product on your skin. Also, start with a low concentration of retinol, as using a high concentration on your skin can cause your skin to overreact and get irritated.

Although the product may cause mild irritation on your skin for the first week of using it, you will no longer experience such after the first week or at most after the first month.

3. Use retinol in your nighttime routine

The best time to apply your retinol product as an acne treatment is at night. This is because retinol and all other vitamin A derivatives make the skin sensitive to the sun. This causes the body to be prone to get damaged by sun and ultraviolet radiation. 

Besides that, exposing your body to the sun after using retinol in your morning skincare routine will render your retinol useless. This is because the sun deactivates retinol and makes it not affect the skin. 

4. Wash your face before applying retinol 

It is important to cleanse your face with soap or cleanser first, however, do not apply the product immediately after washing your face. 

Wash your face or the affected area of your skin 30 minutes before you apply your retinol product to it. Do this using a gentle cleanser or soap that does not contain any acid or exfoliant that can irritate your skin. 

Using a cleanser that contains exfoliants and acids such as benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid along with a retinol product can irritate your skin. It may also lessen the effectiveness of your retinol product.

5. Always moisturize after

Dr. Garshick suggests using a moisturizer after applying your retinol product as this will prevent your skin from drying up due to the retinol. 

The best way to avoid the side effects of using retinol on the skin is to moisturize your skin after using retinol on it. It helps to seal hydration into the skin to keep the skin moisturized throughout the day. 

Use a basic hypoallergenic moisturizer that will not irritate your skin to help you hydrate your skin.

SEE: Retinol Serum: The Holy Grail of Skincare Products

6. Use sunscreen for protection

Even as you apply your retinol in your skincare routine, ensure that you apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher in your morning skincare routine. This is important to protect your skin from damage, as retinol increases the sensitivity of the skin to the sun.

What Can You Use With Retinol for Acne?

You can use retinol with other acne treatments such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and benzoyl peroxide. However, you have to thread with maximum caution. The best way to combine these ingredients with retinol is by using them separately in your routine. 

You can use any of the acids in your morning routine and retinol at night. If your skin is sensitive, you can use retinol one night and any of the acids the next night. 

The best product to use with your retinol product to tackle acne and acne scars is one that contains hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid is very effective in hydrating the skin deeply and nourishing the skin with necessary nutrients to make the skin smooth and plump. 

Using hyaluronic acid after using retinol will help to keep the body moisturized throughout the day. It will also help to reduce the risk of experiencing side effects from using retinol on your skin.

How Long Does It Take Retinol to Work on Acne?

It takes a few weeks for retinol to help stop acne breakouts on the skin. Depending on the potency of the retinol product you use on your acne, it may take up to 2 to three months to see tangible improvement in the eradication of your acne. 

You should keep using your retinol product till your skin is completely free from acne and acne scars. Do not stop when you start seeing improvement or give up halfway. 

Can Retinol Make Acne Worse?

Yes, it can. This happens during the purge phase, where retinol worsens your acne by causing a severe breakout. This phase lasts for a duration of two to six weeks. This doesn’t happen to everyone. 

However, retinol does not cause the development of acne, it only purges out existing acne that is yet to appear on the skin. The acne must have developed already in your skin, retinol just helps in pushing it out to appear on the skin.

This is part of the healing process to rid your skin completely of acne. During this phase, try as much as possible to keep your skin hydrated, and avoid exposing your skin to the sun.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does retinol prevent acne breakouts?

Yes, it does. It does this by ridding the skin of any buildup of dirt and oil clustering together to block your pores.

It also regulates sebum production in the skin, to prevent excess oil from clogging up the pores. Likewise, it sloughs off dead skin cells from the skin. When there is no dead skin cell and oil to clog the pores, there is no acne formation.

Can you use retinol on open acne?

No, you can’t. You shouldn’t apply retinol on open wounds such as open acne. 

Not only will it burn your skin, doing that will irritate the skin and cause retinol burn and side effects to appear on your skin.

Should you use retinol before moisturizing your skin?

Yes, you should. Be sure to use your retinol product before applying moisturizer to your skin, as this will help to keep your skin hydrated. 

Apply your moisturizer 30 minutes after using your retinol product on your skin, as this will allow your skin to absorb into your skin without interruption.


Retinol is a gold standard ingredient in the skincare world, as it helps to treat different skin concerns such as acne and aging. Using retinol on acne is a good way to rid your skin of acne, as it helps to remove the dirt clogging your skin pores.

It also helps to remove dead skin cells before it clogs the skin cells. Additionally, 

It stops the skin from producing too much oil. With these, there will be no mixture of dead skin cells and oil to clog up your pores.

Thanks for reading.

Liked this guide? Visit Africana Fashion for more enlightening guides to get you familiar with your skincare products.