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Is Retinol an Exfoliant?

Can you use retinol to exfoliate? Bust all the retinol myths and discover how to exfoliate your skin!

Did you know that a single skin care step may help clear your skin? Yes! Exfoliation is a crucial step to achieve that smooth, healthy skin. However, retinol itself is not an exfoliant but is a key ingredient that can be used in conjunction with a healthy exfoliation routine.

Why is Exfoliation Important?

Every two to four weeks, your skin sheds dead cells to create a place for new ones. But, dead cells are not always removed, leading to dry, flaky skin and blocked pores. 

This is where exfoliation comes in. It is a necessary step toward healthier, younger-looking skin. When old skin cells accumulate, the skin can appear dull, rough, and uneven.

Exfoliating will get rid of dead skin cells through chemical or physical methods.

Acne Prevention

Exfoliants unclog pores and help minimize acne outbreaks by clearing the skin of dead skin and other debris and impurities during the exfoliation process.

Enhances Product Absorption

Exfoliants boost the efficiency of skincare products when it removes the additional layer of debris and dead skin cells. This enables your holy grail to penetrate the skin layers further and help you achieve the best your skin can be.

Good for Skin Tone

Exfoliators help with cell turnover, which aids in the smoothing of rough regions and the treatment of acne scars and dark spots.

Promotes the Production of Elastin and Collagen

Exfoliating products increase the suppleness of the skin, making it plumper and tighter. They also help the skin seem younger as they boost the production of elastin and collagen. In effect, the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles are reduced.

Reduces Ingrown Hair

For a healthy skin appearance, ingrown hair must be prevented from going beyond your epidermis. Ingrown hair must also be prevented from reoccurring.

Defy Aging with your Skin Care Routine: Should You Use Retinoids?

Retinoids are one of the most well-known, well-researched, and dermatologist-recommended skin care compounds – it’s practically an A-lister in beauty and aesthetics!

Despite being misunderstood as an exfoliator, retinol cannot dissolve the glue that keeps dead skin cells on the surface of our skin. Therefore, it is not an exfoliant! 

It is an anti-oxidant and an important skin-restoring component that can influence the maturation of skin cells. It can make your skin appear healthier, smoother, and more vibrant.

Why do you Need to Use Retinoids?

Aging is inevitable. With products like retinol, we can magically pause time and enjoy our best years without ever thinking of wrinkles and fine lines!

This has a loyal and enormous audience for a reason, after all. It has been shown to help treat acne, wrinkles, and dark spots, all while improving skin texture and increasing collagen formation.

But that’s not all. Vitamin A derivatives such as retinoids are good for our immunity as well. This is the sign you’re looking for to start using retinol on your face.

Thinking of Starting Retinol? Heed these Precautions! 

Despite having many positive effects on the skin, they should be used with caution. While mild irritation is normal as your skin adjusts to the active ingredient, intense flaking, redness, and burning are not—and those with especially sensitive skin, or who suffer from conditions like rosacea or eczema, should be cautious of retinol or avoid it entirely.

What is the Difference between All-Trans Retinoic Acid, Retinol, and Retinal?

Retinoids can confuse regular hoomans like us, especially if Google is your only source! 

But don’t worry, here’s a brief breakdown of these vitamin A derivatives for your skincare 101 lessons:

All-Trans Retinoic Acid

Retinoic acid, also known as tretinoin, is your body’s physiologically active version of retinol.

Tretinoin is more potent than over-the-counter medications since it does not need to be converted to be active.

As a result, you may notice an increased flaking reaction for some people, peeling, and irritation as your skin adjusts to such a potent active ingredient. Start with one product, at a low dose, to reduce the risk of irritation.

Retinol

Arguably the most common retinoid on the market, retinol may be the most well-studied topical alternative for skin concerns.

Retinal 

This may be one of the most challenging names to distinguish in the skincare industry since it appears to be “retinol” but with a spelling mistake at first glance. 

Retinal has been shown in studies to work up to 11 times quicker than retinol. Furthermore, retinal does the job at a far higher rate than retinol, which adds to even-toned, luminous skin.

Exfoliate or Retinol: Which comes first?

Having the best skin isn’t only a question of genetics. Your everyday activities significantly influence what you see in the mirror.

Creating a skincare routine doesn’t need to involve 21 (or more!) steps. You only need to remember these three essential things:

  1. Cleanse
  2. Tone
  3. Moisturize

Most experts recommend exfoliating twice a week as long as you can tolerate it.

However, you may feel discomfort if you’re using retinol and exfoliating in the same skincare regimen. This is especially so when both are applied on the face immediately after the other. 

If you wish to use both, you can use them alternately. For example, use an exfoliating product in the morning and apply retinol products at night. 

The purpose of any skincare program is to fine-tune your complexion. It can also target any areas you wish to focus on. During your quest to achieve that glow up, you will discover different products that will help you see results.

Are Retinoids Compatible with Your Skin?

Any skincare product should be taken with great caution and awareness. Since retinoids may cause a flaking reaction and skin irritation, proper usage is highly recommended. 

Although you can purchase OTC products with this ingredient, it is better to talk with a dermatologist having retinol work on your face.

Pregnancy and Retinoids

Avoid using this chemical when you have plans to be pregnant, or you are currently pregnant. This may contribute to elevated vitamin A levels in the body. This can be dangerous to a fetus during pregnancy.

Alternatives to Retinol

If you have sensitive skin, are pregnant or breastfeeding, here are some alternatives that are safe to use:

Vitamin C + Hyaluronic Acid

One of retinol’s most significant anti-aging effects is its ability to lighten the appearance of dark spots.

In addition, natural elements like Vitamin C products and Hyaluronic Acid demonstrate a plumping effect while protecting your face. They help lighten dark spots as well.

Vitamin B3

Vitamin B3, also known as Niacinamide, is supposed to enhance the look of acne-prone skin types and obvious symptoms of age. To see results though, this vitamin might need to be used for a long time.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids & Beta Hydroxy Acids

AHAs and BHAs, such as lactic acid and glycolic acid, work together to offer the skin a double dose of acne-clearing and texture-refining power. 

By eliminating dead cells and pollution collected on the skin’s surface as grime, the skin transforms and appears cleaner, softer, and more radiant.

However, sometimes, AHA or BHA products may not be that life-changing. What works for someone else may not work for you, and that’s life!

If your condition remains the same or worsens, consult your doctor immediately.

Conclusion

Retinol is not an exfoliant. Instead, it is an anti-oxidant that helps the skin in many ways. Exfoliants and retinol can help fade dark spots, unclog pores, and soften the skin for a more youthful glow. 

You can exfoliate the skin and use products with retinol so long as you can tolerate its side effects. However, a healthy diet and avoiding being under the sun for too long are still the key to a bright complexion.

If you suffer from acne, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation, this highly informative eBook can help address your skin needs

FAQs

Q: What is the difference between retinol and exfoliant?

A: Exfoliants help remove dead skin cells, while retinol helps restore the skin’s renewal as an antioxidant.

Q: Do you need to exfoliate while using retinol?

A: Doing both simultaneously might cause dry and irritated skin, especially if done simultaneously. Use an exfoliating product in the morning and apply retinol at night. Start with a low dose to avoid adverse reaction

Q: Can you exfoliate in the morning and use retinol at night?

A: Yes. Watch out for unwanted side effects such as peeling, irritation, or itchiness. Wear sunscreen in the morning since retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.

Q: Should you put retinol or exfoliant first?

A: Introduce one product at a time. Use an exfoliant in the morning and use a retinol product at night.

Q: What is the best exfoliator to use with retinol?

A: It depends on what your skin can tolerate. Physical and chemical exfoliation have varying effects on different people.

Sources:

“5 Ways to Exfoliate Your Skin Without Irritation.” Cleveland Clinic, 12 Feb. 2020, health.clevelandclinic.org/5-ways-to-exfoliate-your-skin-without-irritation.

“Epidermal Effects of Retinoids: In Vitro Studies.” Epidermal Effects of Retinoids: In Vitro Studies – ScienceDirect, 6 Aug. 2008, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0190962286702351.

“Ingrown Hairs.” Ingrown Hairs | Johns Hopkins Medicine, 19 Nov. 2019, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/ingrown-hairs.

“Is Vitamin A an Antioxidant or a Pro-oxidant? – PubMed.” PubMed, 12 Oct. 2017, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28937764.

“Pregnancy Outcome Following Exposure to Topical Retinoids: A Multicenter Prospective Study – PubMed.” PubMed, 1 Dec. 2012, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22174426.

Alberts, Bruce, et al. “Epidermis and Its Renewal by Stem Cells – Molecular Biology of the Cell – NCBI Bookshelf.” Epidermis and Its Renewal by Stem Cells – Molecular Biology of the Cell – NCBI Bookshelf, 1 Jan. 2002, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26865.

Cooper, Beth. “AHA Vs. BHA Exfoliating Acid: Which Is Better for You?” GoodGlow, 16 Nov. 2022, goodglow.co/aha-vs-bha.

Kraft, John, and Anatoli Freiman. “Management of Acne.” PubMed Central (PMC), www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3080563. Accessed 25 Nov.
2022.

Leyden, James, et al. “Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne.” PubMed Central (PMC), 5 June 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5574737.

Makrantonaki, Evgenia, et al. “Genetics and Skin Aging.” PubMed Central (PMC), www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3583889. Accessed 25 Nov. 2022.

Mukherjee, Siddharth, et al. “Retinoids in the Treatment of Skin Aging: An Overview of Clinical Efficacy and Safety.” PubMed Central (PMC), 1 Dec. 2006, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2699641.

Mukherjee, Siddharth, et al. “Retinoids in the Treatment of Skin Aging: An Overview of Clinical Efficacy and Safety.” PubMed Central (PMC), 1 Dec. 2006, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2699641.

Nera, Stephanie. “Collagen Serum Vs Hyaluronic Acid: What’s Best for Your Skin?- GoodGlow.” GoodGlow, 7 Feb. 2022, goodglow.co/collagen-serum-vs-hyaluronic-acid.

Nera, Stephanie. “Does Collagen Help Acne? – GoodGlow.” GoodGlow, 21 Feb. 2022, goodglow.co/does-collagen-help-acne.

Nera, Stephanie. “Top 3 Side Effects of Collagen Supplementation.” GoodGlow, 7 Feb. 2022, goodglow.co/collagen-allergy-symptoms.

Pullar, Juliet M., et al. “The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health.” PubMed Central (PMC), 12 Aug. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579659.

Rodan, Katie, et al. “Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare.” PubMed Central (PMC), 14 Dec. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5172479.

Rodan, Katie, et al. “Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare.” PubMed Central (PMC), 14 Dec. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5172479.

Soleymani, Teo, et al. “A Practical Approach to Chemical Peels: A Review of Fundamentals and Step-by-step Algorithmic Protocol for Treatment.” PubMed Central (PMC), 1 Aug. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6122508.

Sydel, Simone. “The 7 Best Face Washes for Hyperpigmentation in 2022.” GoodGlow, 7 June 2022, goodglow.co/best-face-washes-for-hyperpigmentation.

Sydel, Simone. “The Key Differences: Acne Marks Vs. Acne Scars.” GoodGlow, 19 Nov. 2022, goodglow.co/acne-marks-vs-acne-scars.

Tang, Sheau-Chung, and Jen-Hung Yang. “Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin.” PubMed Central (PMC), 10 Apr. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6017965.

Wood, Sam. “7 Best Chemical Peels for Acne Scars.” GoodGlow, 20 Oct. 2022, goodglow.co/best-chemical-peels-acne-scars.

Wood, Sam. “Bakuchiol Vs Retinol: What’s Better for Acne?” GoodGlow,
13 Oct. 2022, goodglow.co/bakuchiol-vs-retinol-whats-better-acne.

Wood, Sam. “Does Retinol Help Acne? (It Depends)” GoodGlow, 24 Jan. 2022, goodglow.co/does-retinol-help-acne.

Need more help? Ask our team!

I’ve helped over 2,500 people clear their acne naturally. If you cannot easily find an answer to your question on the website, please reach out to me by email ([email protected]) or send me a message on Instagram or Twitter. I will reply within 24 hours.

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sam wood is GoodGlow's Chief Editor
Analyzed by Sam Wood

Hi I’m Sam Wood. I’m the chief editor, lead acne expert, and health coach behind GoodGlow. I’m also an author of one of the top selling acne books on Amazon, a husband, father of two, and a pretty good cook!

I’m so glad you found GoodGlow and hope the information I have spent the last 10 years cultivating will help you clear your skin and improve your overall health.

I began experiencing acne breakotus as a sophomore in high school, but unlike most of my friends, my acne actually got worse as I got into my 20s. I exercised regularly, ate healthy (or so I thought) and spent hundreds of dollars a month on high end skincare products and supplements to help clear my skin. Despite these measures my acne breakouts and scarring only got worse as the years wore on.

This greatly wore on my self confidence and mental health. Simple things like taking pictures or going out with a large group made me feel self conscious. So I avoided these situations whenever I could help it.

As a last ditch effort I decided to try an extremely restrictive diet recommended by a close friend with an autoimmune disease. After following this diet for about two months my skin started to clear for the first time in over 8 years. The good news is that this restrictive diet is not actually necessary for 99% of people to permanently clear their skin, and over the course of a few months I was able to add back about 90% of my “normal diet”.

After clearing my skin I spent the next 4 years self experimenting on myself with different diets, supplements, skincare products to try and find a pattern for what was triggering my acne breakouts. I even tried different meditation, ice baths, and accupuncture to try and isolate the root cause of the breakouts.

In the end I realized that an extremely restrictive diet was not necessary for clear skin. The most important thing to do is to avoid inflammatory foods in your diet. Some common examples of this are fried foods, alcohol, sugar, and dairy.

Most impoirtantly I stopped reading trendy websites for skincare advice and began reading medical journals authored by dermatologists and nutritionists. Although the information in the articles was great the information was not easily understandable to most readers (including me). I spent hours dissecting individual posts and looking up terms I did not understand. Over the next 6 months I gradually began to understand these journals and started self experiemting some of the research on myself.

After experiencing quite a bit of success personally, I started sharing my research on forums and with close friends struggling with acne. When I shared the research it was in easy to understand, plain English. Everyone I talked to loved what I had to say and kept asking more and more questions. So I decided to start a blog so I could just send someone a link when they asked a question instead of rewriting something I had sent 100 times before 😅

While the same directional principles apply to everyone, acne is very personal and should be treated on an individual basis. That’s ultimately why I created GoodGlow. To help everyone reverse engineer the root cause of their acne and clear their skin permanently.

To date I’ve helped over 2,500 people clear their skin using a natural, holistic approach. If you are unable to find an answer to your question in any of the articles my team has written please reach out and I will do my best to guide you to the proper information and resources so you can make a thoughtful, informed decision.

Read more of Sam's articles.

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