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

Retinol and collagen are probably two of the most-cited examples when it comes to powerhouse skincare ingredients. Both collagen and retinol have been proven to offer real results in skin improvement, and have both been used for decades in the skincare and cosmetic industry. But when it comes to treating acne and other skin conditions, which is better? When it comes to retinol vs. collagen serum, it’s important to break down the facts – let’s take a look. 

What Is Collagen?

Collagen is one of the most important proteins in the body when it comes to the skin’s elasticity, suppleness, and overall condition. 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. 

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.

You can find store-bought collagen products in two forms: collagen serums and collagen supplements (also known as collagen peptides.) Collagen serums can help to give the skin a nourished glow and deep hydration, while collagen peptides (which are broken-down forms of collagen) are taken via dissolvable powders. Collagen injections can also be used to fill lines and loose skin, although in this article I’m mostly going to be discussing the benefits and drawbacks of topically applied collagen serum. 

Collagen Side Effects

Collagen is typically safe both to ingest and apply topically, and when it comes to collagen side effects, the risk of an adverse reaction is higher when taking collagen peptides rather than applying a collagen serum (which means ingesting your collagen through a drink supplement or shake.) These side effects can include:

  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Feeling “full” or bloated

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. As I mentioned before, collagen allergies can be common and 

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 Is Retinol?

Retinol is a pure, topical form of Vitamin A and an absolute staple in any anti-aging skincare routine. Retinol is one of the only topical skincare ingredients that most dermatologists can agree on when touting its anti-aging benefits – retinol really can penetrate into the skin’s dermis layer and stimulate collagen production, which in turn can reverse visible signs of aging.  

However, retinol is incredibly strong as far as topical products go – in the past, a retinol prescription and doctor’s note would be required if you wanted to get your hands on the stuff! That’s because when used incorrectly, retinol can irritate, inflame, and damage the skin. It’s important to be incredibly careful when applying retinol to your skin, and it’s equally important to choose the right retinol for your skin type. I’ll be explaining the various types of retinol, what retinol to use for your skin type, and how to safely apply retinol further on in this article. 

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 have different strengths and are best suited to different skin types:

Retinol Side Effects

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 that 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 simply inflame your breakout and delay your skin’s recovery.

Retinol vs. Collagen Serum: What’s The Difference?

Similarities of Retinol & Collagen

Retinol and collagen serum are similar in a number of ways, mostly due to the fact that they do similar jobs: 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 – in fact, retinol was first introduced onto the skincare market as an anti-acne treatment

So, when it comes to retinol vs. collagen serum, how are these two products different? We already know that both these products can benefit the skin and support the skin’s fight against premature aging, but what else do these two skincare ingredients have in common?

Retinol and Collagen Serum:

  • Can both be applied topically 
  • Both come in various forms (there are six different types of retinol and three different types of collagen)
  • Both help improve skin texture 
  • Both boast anti-acne properties

Differences Between Retinol & Collagen

While these two powerhouse skincare ingredients share one common theme, (the resistance to premature aging) retinol and collagen serum are markedly different products, both in terms of application and how each product works.  

Differences between retinol and collagen serum:

  • Retinol is applied topically in the form of cream, while collagen can either be applied topically, taken as a supplement, or even injected into the skin
  • 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 appearance of the skin, it is unable to go further into the epidermis and stimulate the regeneration of new skin cells 
  • There are no scientific studies supporting 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 showing an improvement on older wrinkles and lines
  • Unlike collagen, retinol comes in various concentrations, allowing you to begin with lower doses of retinol when you first add it into your skincare routine
  • Unlike collagen serum, retinol must be used progressively: put simply, it cannot be applied all over the face right away without a second thought. You have to give your skin the time to adjust to retinol, which means applying them carefully and progressively, increasing in concentration over time
  • 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
  • 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 all depends on your skin type and skin sensitivity: early use of retinol can cause various temporary side effects, which I’ll get onto further on.)

Major Distinguishing Factor

When it comes to comparing retinol vs collagen serum, the major distinguishing factor is the efficacy of each product when applied topically, and how far these two products can penetrate into 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 be able to penetrate the skin’s dermis layer and create cell turnover. However, retinol is able to penetrate the skin’s dermis layer and target the skin cells, resulting in increased cell turnover and skin cell regeneration. This means that the results will be markedly improved when it comes to 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.  

Retinol vs. Collagen Serum: Which Is Better For Your Skin?

When it comes to adding retinol or collagen serum into your skincare routine, there’s no objective “better” option – your skincare needs are subjective. Here’s when I’d recommend using each product:

When to Use Collagen 

While retinol is certainly the more powerful of the two products, collagen serum remains beneficial for the skin, especially if the serum uses other active ingredients in its formula. For example, 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.

I’d advise using collagen serums (such as the CLEARSTEM serum) instead of retinol, if the following applies to you:

  • If you have acne-prone skin and want a serum that isn’t going to flood your pores with comedogenic ingredients (remember to always check the label on any serum for comedogenic ingredients)
  • If your acne-prone skin is also prone to dryness and flakiness
  • If you suffer from hormonal acne and want a serum that combines collagen with skin-soothing, natural ingredients 
  • If you suffer from an inflammatory skin condition such as rosacea, psoriasis, or eczema
  • If you have youthful skin and simply want to add a nourishing serum into your skincare routine
  • If you have oily or acne-prone skin and you wish to control your skin’s sebum production for clearer skin
  • If you want a skincare product that’s going to give you instant results

CELLRENEW – Collagen Stem Cell Serum

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

What About Collagen For Acne?

If you have acne-prone skin, collagen serums can be great at offering 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.

When to Use Retinol

Retinol is made of strong stuff – it’s important to do your research before going off and buying your first retinol product. I’d recommend using retinol if the following categories apply to you:

  • If you have mature skin and want an anti-aging skincare product that actually works
  • If you have visible acne scars that you want to get rid of without lasering or micro-needling
  • If you’re happy to invest the time to see results (retinol takes several months to show visible improvement on the skin)
  • If you have oily or acne-prone skin under control (no recent breakouts)
  • 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)

What About Retinol For Acne?

As I mentioned earlier on, retinol was actually an anti-acne treatment before it became an anti-aging product! Retinol can be beneficial for acne, as 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. 

How To Use Collagen Serum 

Collagen serum is pretty 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. 

How To Use Retinol 

Using retinol is slightly more complicated, so I’m going to explain it in steps to make things safe and easy. If you choose to incorporate retinol into your skincare routine, it’s best to follow the following steps:

  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, my advice is simple: choose a product best suited to your skin type and current needs. 

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

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

For acne-prone skin, I would recommend using a collagen serum, 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 a retinol to help keep your breakouts at bay, I’d recommend using adapalene, a synthetic retinol. Adapalene helps unclog pores while also improving visible inflammation and redness, making it the perfect retinol for acne sufferers and those with oily skin types.

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Stephanie Nera (Pharmacist)
Analyzed by Stephanie Nera

I am a pharmacist who graduated cum laude in the Doctor of Pharmacy program at the University of Santo Tomas. I have worked as a writer for over 5 years, handling small time and multinational clients alike. Most notably, I have worked as an in-house writer and medical reviewer for Hello Doctor. I’m an Arizona native who has spent a good number of years in the Philippines. With that said, my health journey has gone through many extremes throughout my entire life. As a former “fat kid”, stressed-out medical student, and current PCOS warrior, I am passionate about sharing my professional and personal insights with those struggling with these problems and more. (Spoiler alert: you’re probably using way too many medications and products right now). Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn, anytime! Read more of Stephanie's articles.


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