How Does Retinol or Retinoid Work to Treat Photoaging?

How Does Retinol or Retinoid Work to Treat Photoaging?

If you’re obsessed with skincare, you’ve probably heard of retinols and retinoids, but do you actually know what they do and how they work? To learn more about your new favorite skincare ingredient, keep on reading. 

What is a retinoid?

Retinoids are compounds that include Vitamin A and its derivatives. Vitamin A is used by the body in many ways beyond skincare: to improve vision, regulate cell proliferation and differentiation, grow bone tissue, and activate immune function and tumor suppressor genes. In the context of skin, retinoids stimulate collagen production, normalize melanocyte function, and regulate skin cell turnover.

When dermatologists refer to “retinoids,” they refer to prescription-grade retinoids, which contain the active ingredient, retinoic acid. Upon direct contact with your skin, retinoic acid is converted by your skin to boost collagen. As such, it improves pigmentation, skin texture and roughness, fine lines and wrinkles, and acne. It also has protective effects against precancerous skin lesions.

How about retinol?  Is there a difference?

Retinols can be found over the counter and are 20 times less potent than retinoids, because they contain a lower concentration of the active retinoic acid after undergoing several conversion steps. Although the skin tolerates it well and doesn’t generally dry out, retinol may not offer enough benefits to the skin. Retinols work more gradually than retinoids and can take a longer time for your skin to see results.

What is Photoaging?

There are two types of skin aging: intrinsic or chronological and photoaging. There are so many different factors that contribute to our skin aging, but the most responsible factor would be UV radiation.

It makes sense that our skin changes with age. There is a decrease in elasticity that leads to increased fragility of the skin. Photoaging is premature aging of the skin due to excess exposure to UV light. During photoaging, your skin first becomes thick and coarse and then it becomes thin leading to wrinkles and enlarged pores are enlarged. It lacks hydration so it becomes dull and leather-like.

Collagen Degradation

Collagen gives your face a fresh and volumized look and is a key component of healthy skin. The skin comprises close to 80% of collagen! It is a protein that is woven together with vitamin C to create a flexible, supple network.

During photoaging, UVA rays damage the collagen fibers in the skin, resulting in an increased production of abnormal elastin. These high amounts of elastin create enzymes called metalloproteinases. These enzymes end up degrading the collagen, causing leathery skin, wrinkles, as well as a yellow discoloration to the skin. When skin loses collagen, there is a gradual but noticeable loss of volume and tightness.

How retinoid functions in skin 

A retinoid halts the breakdown of collagen, boosts its production, and encourages skin cells to turn over faster. You can consider it a triple threat when it comes to keeping skin healthy.

In the first couple of weeks, you might experience some temporary irritation or existing acne coming to the surface faster. Fear not, you’ll start to see noticeable results after 6 weeks of consistent use, but don’t stop there. After 6+ months of retinoid use, long-term benefits include tightening and thickening of the skin. This results in a major reduction of fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, enlarged pores, and uneven skin tone.

2-4 Weeks

It’s not uncommon to experience slight irritation or sensitivity as your skin adjusts. If you’re prone to acne, you may also experience “purging”, which is when existing acne buildup surfaces faster due to increased cell turnover. All of this means your skin is going through a process called “retinization.” These side effects of tretinoin are often totally temporary and can be greatly minimized with proper care.

4-6 Weeks

Now that your skin has adapted to its new routine for the past few weeks, you can increase the frequency of application. Your skin should be clearer, more even, and have a smoother texture at this point. You may even notice a decrease in discoloration. Enjoy these changes, but keep the retinoid party going because the retinoids never stop working.

8-12 Weeks 

By the 3-month milestone, you should see major changes in your skin’s texture from when you first started. In addition to the changes you can see, the deeper layers of skin are starting to thicken below the surface, resulting in a smoother, brighter, and clearer complexion. By this time your photodamage is lightening up and the appearance of big pores and fine lines are diminishing. Again, the benefits don’t stop there, so don’t quit while you’re ahead!

6+ Months and Beyond

By the time you’ve used your retinoid beyond six months, you’ll notice tightening and thickening of the skin and a significant reduction in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles as well as hyperpigmentation. Even if you don’t see those initial side effects anymore, retinoids work forever and keeping at it will help in the prevention of photoaging. Over time, retinoids continue to boost your skin’s collagen production to give you a natural brightening effect. They also thicken the deepest layer of skin, where wrinkles begin to form.

When using retinoids to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, the more consistent you are, the better the results will be. Any side effects you experience are temporary. Long-term use of Tretinoin achieves and maintains your healthy, naturally glowing skin.

Side effects and how to prevent them

Side effects can be prevented or greatly minimized with great instructions and proper use, which is why we provide our members with detailed instructions when they order from Dear Brightly. Here are some common side effects associated with retinoid use:

  • Redness and irritation – If you’re using a strength that is too high for your skin type, redness or irritation can occur. Make sure to use a strength that makes sense for your skin type. (Dear Brightly does this for you.) And of course, moisturize!
  • Increased sensitivity to the sun – Retinoids can initially make your skin more sensitive to the sun, but after a few months of use, your skin’s response to UV rays returns to normal. To avoid sensitivity, use sunscreen (but you should already be using one anyway…) And note, it’s still important to use a retinoid, even during the summer!
  • Acne “purging” – For those prone to acne, there may be a two- to four-week “purging” period where you experience acne breakouts before your skin clears up. That’s because you have hidden acne underneath the surface. This acne was going to appear sooner or later and retinoids force them to come out whether they like it or not. Patience is key. The results are worth it. There’s a reason millions of people use retinoids.

Important note: Over the past 50+ years, no systemic side effects or risks on the long-term treatment of topical retinoids have been observed. It’s why they’re widely prescribed.

Minimizing Side Effects

Be sure to use only a pea-sized amount of the retinoid recommended by your provider and don’t skimp on moisturizer afterward. As for breakouts, the acne under the surface was going to appear one way or another, but retinoids help get it out of the way quicker leaving your skin clearer than ever. Be patient and consistent—as your skin clears up, it’ll be worth it. Finally, retinoids can temporarily make your skin more sensitive to the sun (normalizing again after a few months) so don’t skip sunscreen when going outdoors. This is a great practice anyway as harmful UV rays are the number one cause of photoaging. Protecting your skin from further damage is integral to getting your best results, so just think of SPF as a continuation of your skincare routine.

How retinoid benefits the skin

The benefits of retinoids are vast (think clearer, brighter, and smoother skin) and long-term use and consistency are key.  


Retinoid works to stimulate collagen production and increase cell turnover. This, in turn, improves fine lines and wrinkles.


Freckles, melasma, and dark spots occur because of the overproduction of pigment on our skin. Sun exposure, age, hormonal influences, skin injuries, or inflammation often cause this. Retinoids to the rescue again. They improve these forms of pigmentation on the skin by dispersing and exfoliating melanin granules, which protect skin from sun damage—in the deepest layer of our skin.


Enlarged facial pores are caused by sebum production, photodamage, and hair follicle sizes. Retinoids can help reduce the appearance of enlarged pores by clearing the cellular debris around the pores making their appearance seem smaller.

Uneven skin tone

Rough skin is caused when there’s a buildup of dead skin cells and lack of glycosoaminoglycan (GAG) content in the outermost layer of the epidermis. What happens is collagen and elastin fibers retain moisture, giving you a rough and uneven skin tone you don’t want. Retinoids can improve rough skin by reducing the outer layer of dead skin cells and increasing the presence of GAG.


Acne can be classified into 2 types: noninflammatory—which is characterized by comedones, and inflammatory—which predominantly consists of papules and pustules. Microcomedones are the precursors of both inflammatory and noninflammatory acne. Retinoids work by decreasing microcomedones and comedones, thereby primarily decreasing noninflammatory acne and causing some reduction of inflammatory acne.

Prevent skin cancer

Retinoids work by thickening the skin and reducing oil production to produce brighter and smoother skin. More importantly, retinoids also help to increase cell turnover. This not only rids your skin of old cells but also prevents damaged cells from multiplying, which can reduce skin cancer.

What you shouldn’t use with retinol


Avoid unnecessarily abrasive cleansers (e.g., face wash with glycolic or AHA/BHA acids). They can make the skin more sensitive by damaging the epidermal barrier.

You want to be careful to not over-exfoliate your skin. AHA (or alpha-hydroxy acid) and BHAs (Beta-hydroxy acid) are powerful exfoliants and since retinoids already exfoliate your skin, you don’t want to go overboard.

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is known to decrease the stability of your retinoid. If you use it, benzoyl peroxide and other topical antibiotics should be applied in the AM and your retinoid applied in the PM.

Other drying agents

Retinoids tend to dry out your skin—so the last thing you want to do is deprive it of moisture further. Try to avoid products with drying agents such as toners, astringents, and medicated cleansers.