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Over-the-Counter Retinol for Acne

author image Sandy Keefe
Sandy Keefe, M.S.N., R.N., has been a freelance writer for over five years. Her articles have appeared in numerous health-related magazines, including "Advance for Nurses" and "Advance for Long-Term Care Management." She has written short stories in anthologies such as "A Cup of Comfort for Parents of Children with Special Needs."
Over-the-Counter Retinol for Acne
A woman applies retinol cream to her face. Photo Credit: andresrimaging/iStock/Getty Images

"Retinol is vitamin A in its purest and most active form," according to the Retinol Resource Center. Retinol often is an ingredient in aging products because it helps smooth wrinkles while adding elasticity. However, you also can use over-the-counter retinol products to treat acne. Retinol is more gentle on your skin than such acne treatments as retinoic acid, which you cannot buy without a prescription.

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How It Works

Retinol fights acne by unclogging blocked pores, exfoliating your skin to remove dead cells and promoting the growth of healthy skin, according to the Retinol Resource Center, or RRC. Retinol is one of the few products whose molecules are tiny enough to penetrate the outer layer of your skin. Once it reaches your lower skin layers, retinol begins repairing elastin, the protein that lets your skin stretch and contract, as well as collagen, the protein that creates the normal contours of your face. These repairs can make acne scars less noticeable.


It’s easy to get confused by the terminology used for vitamin A derivatives, or retinoids. Such derivatives as tretinoin are pharmaceuticals that are available by prescription to treat acne. You can buy an over-the-counter retinol without a prescription, according to Look for retinol products that are formulated with at least 0.1 percent of retinol.


Retinol is commercially available as a cream, lotion, serum or oil to treat acne, wrinkles and other effects of aging, according to the RRC. You also can buy over-the-counter retinol products to target specific areas of your body, such as your lips, hands and eyes.

Side Effects

When you first start applying retinol to your acne blemishes, you may experience the retinoid effect, according to the RRC. You may notice skin dryness and irritation, and perhaps even mild peeling. This effect is especially noticeable if you typically have dry skin. However, your symptoms should subside as your skin acclimates to the retinol. Notify your doctor if your skin irritation is severe, if it gets worse rather than better or if you have significant discomfort.


Minimize the retinoid effect by applying retinol every other night, according to RRC. Retinol also can cause sun sensitivity. Use a sunscreen product with an SPF rating of 15 or higher to eliminate further skin irritation.


Read cosmeceutical labels carefully. Avoid using more than one retinol product at a time, recommends the RRC. While you can use an alpha hydroxy acid, or AHA, product at the same time, avoid applying them at the same time. For instance, use the AHA treatment in the morning. Apply the retinol product before going to bed. However, if the AHA product is strong, "you might temporarily avoid retinol products until your skin has adjusted, to avoid any chance of irritation," according to the RRC. Stop using retinol if you decide to have a chemical peel. Resume using retinol after your skin adjusts.

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