Retinol And Prescription Retinoids: Do They Make The Skin Get Thinner?

Now more than ever, estheticians like me and most every dermatologist on the planet are preaching the miraculous skin-smoothing benefits of using a skin care product with retinol or a topical prescription retinoid (aka vitamin A). Using a product with these ingredients will most definitely give you a powerful anti-aging boost but does it thin out the skin and ultimately make the skin appear crepey and wrinkles more pronounced when used for long periods of time? Can it make it more sensitive and reactive? How can someone know if they are a good candidate for using it? This is all a huge discussion among skincare professionals and everyone seems to have their own take on how retinol affects the skin, so I’m here to offer my thoughts and what I know to be true.

For starters, I know A LOT about the long term results that a vitamin A product can give. Not only have I been working with clients for 25 years and have seen the improved results in their skin (and mine, for that matter), but I also personally knew a dermatologist back in the late 1980s who was instrumental in getting the prescription called Retin-A, approved as the first ever wrinkle-reducing product. (I have an incredible story that I share in this video about the crazy way that he discovered it reduced wrinkles on his own skin. If you’re someone who wants to be educated in skin care and how to prevent lines and wrinkles, you really should take the time out to watch it.)

So, back on to the questions at hand.

Does it thin out the skin? Yes.

Does it make the skin appear more crepey and wrinkled?
No, not if you’re using it correctly for your skin type. In fact, it will actually thicken the skin by promoting active collagen production.

Can it make the skin more sensitive and reactive? Yes.

Are there some types of skin that shouldn’t use it at all? Yes.

You SHOULD NOT use retinol if:

  • you spend a lot of time outdoors in the sun and like to get a tan.
  • you don’t protect your skin with a generous application of sunscreen daily.
  • you are not going to commit to using it regularly.

Retinol will never be able work its miracles if you’re exposing your skin to damage from the sun and only using it occasionally. Long-term, consistent use of retinol is how it will create change in your skin, so if you can’t commit, don’t waste your time because it won’t be effective and you’ll be wasting your money. Instead, focus on other powerful anti-aging products like sunscreen (it’s been shown to make the skin look 24% younger) and serums with exfoliating acids and antioxidants.

If you’re someone who wants to use it regularly and you’re serious about protecting your skin from daily UV light, then read on for how to best use it.

It’s important to know that the thinning of the skin and increase of sensitivity is more problematic for people whose skin is already genetically on the thinner side. A thin skin has the following characteristics:

  • fair in color (think Irish, Swedish, Scottish and Scandinavian descent)
  • small or invisible pores
  • produces little to no oil
  • a transparent look where you can visibly see blue blood vessels underneath the skin’s surface. (Red, dilated capillaries can be seen in all types of skin, not just thin ones)
  • sensitivity where the skin can get easily uncomfortable and irritated with a stinging sensation from products or when itchy fabrics touch the skin. (This is due to the nerve endings being closer to the surface)

If you have these characteristics, it doesn’t mean you can’t use it, it just means you need to use it less often than most people. This type of skin has less surface protection and is prone to having a  fragile moisture barrier, so it is more easily damaged from the sun and environment and to aggressive (but beneficial) ingredients like retinol, retinoids and exfoliating acids. If you use these products too often and don’t balance it with soothing hydrators and barrier-repair ingredients, you will run into problems. The skin CAN appear thinner with blue blood vessels becoming more visibly prominent and due to the irritation and dryness that these ingredients can cause, lines and wrinkles may appear more pronounced. It’s important to note that even if you’re introducing it slowly to your skin and not using it more than twice a week, it is considered perfectly normal to get dryness and irritation (more so with prescriptions) but that should go away within 4-8 weeks once your skin gets used to it. But if you’re someone who just can’t ever get past the irritation, then it may not be best for you to use it at all. You’ll only get the true benefits if your skin can eventually tolerate it. However, I know plenty of people with thin skin who were able to get past the initial irritation but still used it too often and long-term, their skin took on a waxy appearance, almost like a plastic Barbie doll has. I don’t believe it’s a good look and honestly, when I go to skin care trade shows, I see so many professionals looking like this. They have super thin, transparent skin like tissue paper that is overly peeled, looks really shiny and just not natural-looking.

How often should someone with a thin skin be using a product with vitamin A? If it’s a prescription, then no more than twice a week should be sufficient. Of course, you’ll want to use it sparingly and apply a well-formulated moisturizer over it. If you’re using a non-prescription retinol which is gentler in nature, then you can use it three nights a week. Regardless of the type you use, alternating it with a gentle exfoliating serum and a soothing serum on alternate nights will allow your skin to get multiple benefits to get smooth, younger-looking skin. Read more about how to use retinol along with other serums. Be sure not to over-exfoliate with acids, cleansing brushes and at-home peels as these all can weaken the skins protective barrier and continue a cycle off irritation—for all types of skin, not just thin! This is why it’s very important to have a skin care professional help you create your perfect skin routine.)

If you don’t consider yourself having a thin type of skin, then you can use a prescription 3-4 nights a week or a non-prescription retinol 4-5 nights a week. My favorite retinol product and the one I recommend to all my clients is Advanced Resurfacing Serum. It’s powerful but time-released so there is little to no irritation.

How to know if you should use a prescription retinoid versus a non-prescription retinol? This post will answer all of that.

In summary, do your skin a favor and start using a vitamin A product because honestly, it’s one of the best biologically active ingredients (backed by decades of scientific proof) for its ability to make pores appear smaller, fade sun spots and hyperpigmentation, as well as plumping lines and wrinkles. However, go easy and always consult with a trusted skin care professional who can develop the perfect routine for your unique type of skin so you can get the very best results. Take my Skin Type Quiz to learn more about your skin and which products from my line are best for you.

I’m new to retinol and retinoids. How do I get started? Read this post.

Read: Five Skin Care Mistakes Almost EVERYONE Makes
Read: Pillows: How They Can Be Harming (And Helping!) Your Skin
Read: I Share My Favorite Skin Care Ingredients On The Dr. Oz Show

Which skin care products are best for you? See our nine skin types or take the Skin Type Quiz and get products recommended.

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