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7 Myths About Retinol It’s Time To Stop Believing

By Melissa Epifano

Say the word retinol and everyone and their mother will start talking. The ingredient saw a resurgence in 2016 and still hasn’t slowed down as everyone’s favorite component to rave about, complain about, or ponder over. But retinol (aka a derivative of vitamin A) has a much longer history than that. According to a study reported in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging, people found out how fabulous retinol was back during World War I — and there’s even evidence of this kind of ingredient helping people out in ancient Egypt.

No wonder we’re so obsessed with it. Nowadays it’s placed on a pedestal for its abilities to turn over cells, reduce the appearance of aging, and clear up acne, among plenty of other benefits. But with this many years of popularity, it’s going to lead to plenty of misconceptions and myths. You’ve probably heard them all —

“retinol and sun are a disastrous duo”

“retinol can burn your skin”

“retinol can cause cancer”

While there’s some validity to a few claims floating around, many of the myths we assumed as facts are actually false. We spoke to several dermatologists, skin experts, and scientists to debunk what your skin expert bestie may have gotten wrong (still love you, girl!).

So slather that retinol on, and to help you sleep better tonight, here are seven retinol myths you can stop believing. 


Retinol Myth 1:

“Retinol thins your skin”

While irritation from retinoids may cause a bit of flaking, it’s not actually thinning out your skin, and you don’t need to worry about losing that plump dewy glow you’ve been maintaining. According to Lina Kennedy, MD, FAAD, “This is false, they actually thicken the skin. They stimulate collagen and elastin production.” Woo! A win-win all around.

Retinol Myth 2:

“Retinol products cause you to sunburn more easily”

This is one of the biggest myths out there. While you should obviously be wearing SPF every day, retinol doesn’t lessen the effects of sunscreen and it most certainly doesn’t make you more susceptible to burns. “This is not true. Studies have shown that retinoids do not burn you faster,” says Dr. Kennedy. “Newer forms are even better than older ones. You will have to wear sunscreen, but not because of the risk for sunburn.”

Retinol Myth 3:

“You have to use retinol every day”

This myth is a little more substantial. Yes, using it every day can be helpful, but if you’re finding that your skin is sensitive or easily irritated by it, go easy on yourself. Dr. Kennedy says, “If your skin can’t handle this, then definitely don’t use it daily. It’s ok to use it every other night or every third night. This helps you slowly build up to nightly use.”

Nicole Caroline, a master esthetician at her eponymously named studio with nearly 20 years under her belt offers a tip for those who need to ease in: “If you wish to use a retinol product but always seem to get irritated, apply them after your serum and moisturizer. You can gently and gradually build up from there, but the products will act as a barrier preventing full absorption therefore lessening the irritation!”

Retinol Myth 4:

“Retinol is carcinogenic”

This seems to happen with many skincare and beauty ingredients, even if there’s nothing backing it. We’ve heard it about everything from AHAs to C serums, and while there are some super toxic formulas on the market, Dr. Kennedy puts it simply when it comes to retinol, stating that there’s no evidence behind this claim. Phew.

Retinol Myth 5:

“You need a super-strong retinol for it to be effective”

Cheryl Woodman MChem Scientist, skin expert, award-winning skincare formulator over at Honesty for Your Skin says this isn’t true. “Many people believe if you see retinol on the bottom of an ingredients list or low down, there’s not a significant amount in the formula and therefore you won’t see results. Fact is you don’t need a high percentage of retinol to start seeing results.” She explains that some studies have even shown concentrations as low as 0.01% have been effective.

Retinol Myth 6:

“Don’t even THINK about putting retinol around your eyes”

Please cue the happy dance. You’ve most likely been searching for an anti-aging powerhouse equally as competent as retinol that you could use around your eyes. Luckily, you can give it up — retinoids can be used near this area. 

Caroline says, “Retinol (in specific strengths) is wonderful for fighting and reducing fine lines around the eyes and under-eye!” But don’t just dive into dabbing your prescription strength around your eyes. “I do recommend going a little bit slower than you do with the rest of the face, and using a retinol product designed for the under-eye so you know the strength is going to be tolerated well.”

Retinol Myth 7:

“Retinol is an exfoliant”

Yeah, not quite. “Retinol is actually a form of antioxidant and works deeply on a cellular level to communicate with other cells to regenerate…this is how the magic happens,” says Caroline. “The peeling or flaking that can occur from using certain retinols/retinoids comes from irritation, not exfoliation!” So, if you’ve been using it like one of your peels or scrubs, it’s time to rethink it.

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