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Retinol vs. Collagen Serum: What’s Better For Acne, Wrinkles, & Overall Skin Health?

While retinol and collagen can be used as an effective part of an acne skin care regimen, it’s important to understand their unique effects on the skin barrier. 

Retinol is a topical vitamin A derivative that increases cell turnover, unclogs pores, and reduces inflammation, making it one of the most powerful topical or oral products for slowing down acne breakouts.

Collagen can be taken in many forms, including oral supplements, topical creams, or serums. These products are primarily aimed at improving skin elasticity and reducing the appearance of acne scars, making them a great option for post-acne recovery. 

The choice between retinol and collagen serum ultimately depends on personal factors such as your skin type, sensitivities, needs, and goals.

Retinol is ideal for active acne and prevention, while collagen should be considered for skin repair and maintenance (as well as hair and nail growth). 

Because an individual’s genetics, diet, and lifestyle play a huge role in the efficacy of these types of products, it’s important to consult with a dermatologist before incorporating these ingredients into your skincare routine, as they can help determine what makes sense for your specific skin type and concerns.

In this article, we will cover what collagen and retinol are, their differences and similarities, which is better for your skin, and the best product to use.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a pure, topical form of Vitamin A that can penetrate the skin’s dermis layer and stimulate collagen and elastin production. Collagen and elastin are proteins that are vital for maintaining skin structure and elasticity.

What are the types of retinol?

There are several different types of retinol, some of the most common being retinol, retin-A, isotretinoin, retinyl palmitate, and adapalene. Each of these retinoids has different strengths and is best suited to different skin types:


How does using retinol impact your skin?

Retinol is one of the only topical skincare ingredients that most dermatologists can agree on when touting its anti-aging benefits – retinol can penetrate into the skin’s dermis layer and stimulate collagen production, which can reverse visible signs of aging. 

Are there side effects to using retinol?

When beginning the use of retinol, you’ll probably find that your skin will go through an “adjustment” period – this means that your skin will react to the retinol, and you might have a couple of irritating – but temporary – side effects. Retinol side effects include:

  • Skin dryness
  • Redness
  • Swollen skin
  • Irritation and itching
  • Flaky skin
  • Acne breakouts (while this can happen, it’s much rarer as far as retinol side effects go)
  • Burning or “stinging” sensations (it’s always important to check the retinol strength and begin with the smallest concentration – skin burning tends to occur if you use a high concentration of retinol and apply it too liberally)

If you have severe skin sensitivity or skin conditions such as rosacea, psoriasis, or eczema, I would advise holding off on the retinol for now. Your skin will probably have a stronger negative reaction, which might delay or impact any treatments you are currently undergoing to treat your skin.

I would also advise not to use retinol if you have severe, inflamed cystic acne or recurring breakouts. Retinol – especially in higher concentrations – will inflame your breakout and delay your skin’s recovery.

What is collagen?

Collagen is a protein that plays a vital role in the skin’s elasticity, suppleness, and overall condition and is naturally present in the body. Collagen can be found throughout the body in the skin, bones, and ligaments.

Collagen is made up of the amino acids: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline.

How does using collagen impact skin?

Collagen prevents the skin from becoming loose, wrinkled, and aged – so having a healthy production of collagen in the body is essential to prevent premature aging, fine lines, and other skin damage.

Skincare products and supplements include collagen to help improve skin elasticity and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

The bad news is the skin’s natural production of collagen ceases and decreases over time – as early as your mid-twenties! Even worse, your collagen production decreases year after year, so it becomes harder to conceal those fine lines, small wrinkles, and laugh lines. This is why many people turn to vitamin A derivatives like Tretinoin in order to try to increase skin cell turnover and boost their decreasing supply of collagen to help clear the skin faster and decrease inflammation and scarring. 

What are the types of collagen?

You can find store-bought collagen products in two forms: collagen serums and collagen supplements (also known as collagen peptides.)

  • Collagen serums: Applied directly to the skin.
  • Collagen peptides: Broken-down collagen forms taken via dissolvable powders.

Are there side effects to using collagen?

There are no known side effects to applying collagen serum to the skin. If you have sensitive skin or known allergies, make sure to check the product’s label to ensure that there are no added ingredients that might be inflammatory for your skin type.

If you have acne-prone skin, always check the label for comedogenic ingredients: comedogenic ingredients can clog the pores and lead to irritating breakouts.

What are the differences between retinol and collagen serum?

The main difference between retinol and collagen serum is how deep these two products can penetrate the skin to create visible improvement.

Many dermatologists remain skeptical about the benefits of collagen serum, as the collagen protein is far too large to penetrate the skin’s dermis layer and create cell turnover. 

However, retinol can penetrate the skin’s dermis layer and target the skin cells, increasing cell turnover and regeneration. This means that the results will be markedly improved regarding anti-aging and improving the appearance of scars, lines, and wrinkles. 

While collagen serum can certainly give your skin deep hydration and visibly improved skin texture, it simply doesn’t have the same potent anti-aging benefits as retinol.

Application Methods

Retinol is applied topically in the form of cream, while collagen can be applied topically, taken as a supplement, or even injected into the skin.

Skin Penetration And Regeneration

Retinol works to penetrate the dermis layer of the skin and trigger skin cell renewal and turnover: however, when collagen serum is applied to the skin, the collagen molecule is far too large to penetrate the skin. Collagen serum sits on the skin, and while it can hydrate, nourish, and improve the skin’s appearance, it cannot go further into the epidermis and stimulate the regeneration of new skin cells.

Scientific Evidence

No scientific studies support the anti-aging benefits of topical-applied collagen on the skin. on the other hand, Vitamin A Retinoids are scientifically proven to reduce visible signs of aging on the skin – even improving older wrinkles and lines.

Concentrations

Unlike collagen, retinol comes in various concentrations, allowing you to begin with lower doses of retinol when you first add it to your skincare routine.

Phased Adjustment Period

Unlike collagen serum, when using retinol, you have to give your skin time to adjust to retinol, which means applying them carefully and progressively, increasing concentration over time.

Initial Phases of Use

Retinol must be applied to dry skin and typically “buffered” – this means adding some retinol cream to your existing moisturizer so that your skin has the time to adjust and minimize any adverse skin reactions such as redness, dryness, or inflammation.

Contrasting Application Frequency

While most collagen serums can be applied every day and even several times a day, dermatologists recommend using retinol just once a week, to begin with, before working your way up to 3-4 times a week once your skin is habituated, depending on your age. (How long it takes for your skin to get used to retinol depends on your skin type and sensitivity: early use of retinol can cause various temporary side effects, which I’ll get onto further on.)

What are the similarities between retinol and collagen serum?

Both retinol and collage work to support the skin’s natural elasticity and help the skin resist and reverse signs of aging. Both products have also been known to treat acne.

Retinol and collagen serum are both:

  • Applied topically
  • Come in various forms (there are six different types of retinol and three different types of collagen)
  • Help improve skin texture 
  • Boast anti-acne properties

Is retinol or collagen serum better for your skin?

The choice between retinol and collagen serum depends on personal factors such as your skin type, sensitivities, needs, and goals, as retinol and collagen work differently.

Retinol is a more suitable option if your main goal is to reduce wrinkles, improve skin texture, and address signs of aging.

Collagen serum is a viable choice if your focus is to enhance your skin’s hydration levels and temporary plumping.

When to consider using collagen?

It is recommended to use collagen serums (such as the CLEARSTEM serum) instead of retinol if the following is a concern to you:

  • Acne-prone skin: If you are concerned about acne and want a serum that isn’t going to flood your pores with comedogenic ingredients (always remember to check the label on any serum for comedogenic ingredients)
  • Dry and flaky skin: Collagen serums can hydrate and nourish the skin
  • Hormonal Acne: Collagen serums can be helpful
  • Inflammatory skin conditions: Soothing properties of collagen serums can provide relief
  • Youthful skin maintenance: Nourishing serums can help maintain skin health and vitality
  • Oily or acne-prone skin: Helps control your skin’s sebum production for clearer skin
  • Instant results: Collagen serums can provide faster results than retinol

I’ve been using CELLRENEW’s Collagen Infusion Serum for a couple of months now, and I’ve noticed a marked improvement when it comes to helping fade my old acne scars. That’s because this collagen serum combines the hydrating benefits of hyaluronic acid with collagen, which provides a double-strength nutrient impact for my skin. My acne scars feel less visible, and my skin overall feels more uniform to the touch – this is thanks to the serum’s inclusion of palmetto, which contains several fatty acids and helps nourish the skin.

Best Overall
CLEARSTEM – Cellrenew Collagen Stem Cell Serum

  • Ingredients That Target Breakouts & Wrinkles
  • Reduce active breakouts
  • Reduce redness and inflammation while simultaneously increasing collagen and skin elasticity

GoodGlow Score

4.9 /5 5/5 Product Rating
Benefit

Stimulates Collagen

Collagen stem cells increase collagen production and boost elasticity.

Effective

Effective

Saw palmetto, green tea, and reishi mushroom, which work together to balance oil production & regulate hormonal acne

Natural

Clean Ingredients

No hormone disruptors, no toxins, cruelty free, gluten free, vegan, and silicon free

Skin Type

For all skin types

Including dry, mature, sensitive, acne-prone, combination, and normal

  • Collagen Stem Cells – CLEARSTEM’s proprietary blend of stem cells is the main key ingredient that helps stimulate the skin’s collagen production. However the stem cells require activation in order for their collagen-stimulating effects to turn on. The green tea in CELLRENEW helps activate the stem cells.
  • Reishi Mushroom – Reishi mushroom is one of the most healing ingredients – both to consume and to apply topically. It works with your body to activate your skin’s natural healing process. It’s deeply hydrating, detoxifying, and helps improve skin firmness and texture.
  • Aloe Vera – Aloe vera is another powerhouse skincare ingredient! It’s known for its cooling, anti-inflammatory properties, which are key for relieving the skin redness and irritation caused by acne.

Water/Aqua, Hyaluronic Acid, Isopentyldiol Epilobium Angustifolium (Willowherb) Extract, Proprietary Collagen Stem Cell Formula, Proprietary Enzymes, Ganoderma Lucidum (Reishi Mushroom) Extract, Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) Extract*, Serenoa Serrulata (Saw Palmetto/Palm Fruit) Extract, Trifolium Pratense (Clover Flower) Extract, Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea Leaf) Extract*, Citrus Grandis (Pink Grapefruit Peel) Oil, Frankincense Extract, Tasmannia Lanceolata (Mountain Pepper), Kunzea Pomifera (Emu Apple/Native Cranberry Fruit) Extract, Syzygium Luehmannii (Riberry Fruit) Extract, Curcuma Kwangsiensis/Curcuma Wenyujin Rhizome (Turmeric) Extract, Panthenol (Vitamin B5). Certified Organic*

Is collagen effective for acne-prone skin?

If you have acne-prone skin, collagen serums can offer nourishing hydration without the accompanying pore-clogging that often comes with any heavy moisturizer – just make sure to check the ingredients label beforehand for any red-flag ingredients. I’d also advise you to opt for a serum that combines collagen with other anti-acne properties, such as hyaluronic acid or salicylic acid.

What is the proper way to use collagen serum?

Collagen serum is simple to use and can be applied morning or night under any moisturizer or face oil. You can use collagen serum after cleansing or toning before following up with a moisturizer.

To use collagen serum, apply a small amount to your fingertips to use collagen serum and gently rub it into your face until fully absorbed.

When to consider using retinol?

Retinol is a great option if you’re looking to address specific skin concerns, such as aging, reversing wrinkles, fine lines, and age spots.

Retinol can irritate, inflame, and damage the skin. It’s important to be incredibly careful when applying retinol to your skin, and choosing the right retinol for your skin type is equally important.

I’d recommend using retinol if the following categories apply to you:

  • Mature Skin: Desire an effective anti-aging skincare product
  • Acne Scarring: If you want to get rid of visible acne scars with a non-invasive solution
  • Patience for Results: Retinol can take several months to show visible improvement on the skin
  • Controlled Oily or Acne-Prone Skin: If you have oily or acne-prone skin under control (no recent breakouts)
  • Non-Sensitive Skin: If you don’t have sensitive skin (for example, you’ve already used various skincare acids, peels, or serums on your skin without any adverse reaction)

Does Retinol help acne breakouts?

Retinol can benefit acne; it can get under the skin to unclog the pores and speed up skin cell turnover. However, it’s best to use retinol to keep breakouts at bay rather than as a direct acne treatment. If you’re currently suffering an angry, red acne breakout, wait until it calms down before using any retinol product.

Retinol was actually an anti-acne treatment before it became an anti-aging product!

What is the recommended way to use retinol?

  1. Begin by using retinol just once per week, ideally before bedtime. 
  2. Use a low concentration retinol (0.2-0.5%) and “buffer” the retinol by mixing it into your nighttime moisturizer. DON’T apply it after moisturizing – the retinol will sit on top of the moisturizer, unable to penetrate into the skin and do its job.
  3. Gradually increase your concentration of retinol. Once you’ve finished a full-sized tub or tube of your first retinol, you can move up to a higher concentration. Always move up progressively – for example from 0.2% to 0.5%, not 0.2% – 1.5%.

You can refer to our guide below for tips on safely applying retinol:

Retinol vs. Collagen: Final Verdict

When choosing between retinol vs. collagen serum, it’s recommended to choose a product best suited to your skin type and current needs.

If you have mature skin, retinol will be useful in undoing visible signs of aging and will show results after just a couple of months of use. Simply ensure that your skin can handle the “adjustment” period – be prepared for dryness and irritation, and keep your skin healthy to support the retinol while it gets to work.

If you have youthful or teen skin, it is recommended to avoid staying away from retinol until you’re in your 20s. Your skin is still developing and susceptible to hormonal breakouts, so a collagen serum might be better for controlling your oil production with minimal side effects. 

I recommend using a collagen serum for acne-prone skin, especially if you have hormonal acne or frequent, recurring breakouts. However, if your skin has a high tolerance for skincare ingredients and you want to use retinol to help keep your breakouts at bay, I’d recommend using adapalene, a synthetic retinol. Adapalene helps unclog pores while improving visible inflammation and redness, making it the perfect retinol for acne sufferers and those with oily skin types.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can retinol and collagen be used together?

Yes, retinol and collagen can be safely used together. There are many supplements and skincare serums that combine both ingredients for treating acne and aging skin.

Does retinol tighten the skin?

Retinol plays a vital role in producing collagen, which tightens the skin and prevents wrinkles and signs of aging.

Does Retinol exfoliate the skin?

Technically speaking, retinol is an antioxidant, not an exfoliant. However, it can help increase cell turnover, which pairs well with exfoliation for those who do not have sensitive skin.

Originally Published: June 26, 2023

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Stephanie Nera (Pharmacist)
Analyzed by Stephanie Nera

Hi, I’m Stephanie, a licensed pharmacist, biohacker, and self-proclaimed skincare nerd with a strong background in science and health. I hold a Bachelor of Science in Medical Anthropology from the University of Arizona, followed by extensive experience in medical research and content creation in the supplement industry. My journey took me around the world, from the United States to South America and Asia, enriching my understanding of different cultures and health practices. I graduated cum laude with a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Santo Tomas in 2021. Passionate about blending western medicine with holistic approaches, especially in managing conditions like acne and PCOS, I’m passionate about helping others find balanced, informed healthcare paths. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or send a message to GoodGlow!

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3 thoughts on “Retinol vs. Collagen Serum: What’s Better For Acne, Wrinkles, & Overall Skin Health?”

  1. Hi, thanks for this information. Why can we not use retinol on the neck? Many articles say it is key to helping with sagging neck wrinkles. Also, what is the best strength of retinol to use for 65+ facial skin to minimize wrinkles, and once adjusted, is it daily?
    Thank you!

    Reply

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