Retinol Overdose?

Patient Expert

Each week, Health and Beauty Expert Sue Chung will discuss skin health topics suggested by members of the HealthCentral community. To ask Sue a question, send an email to

Reader's Question: I hear that retinol will help reduce wrinkles and reverse sun damage. How does it work? Can I use it both during the day and night, or is that too much?

Sue's Response: Your mother was on the right track when she used to make you take your vitamins. According to a recent New York Times article, there's only one skin care ingredient that will really make a difference to your wrinkles-and it's the same one doctors have been touting for years. Despite the ever-increasing array of new "hope-in-a-bottle" ingredients, retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, is still the only ingredient that can back its wrinkle-reducing claims with research.

A simple sunscreen will help prevent sun damage, but by the time most of us get preoccupied with the little crow's feet around our eyes, it's not enough to focus solely on prevention. Retinol has been proven to increase cell turnover in the deeper layers of the skin. Not only does it act to prevent further loss of collagen, it also helps your skin create more and reverse some of the signs of aging.

Unfortunately, retinol does not come without side effects. People react differently, but most doctors recommend easing yourself into using retinol by using it once in case you experience irritation. Especially during the winter months, when dry skin runs rampant, some people find retinol hard to tolerate, says Jeffrey Dover, a dermatologist in the Boston area. If you find that retinol causes redness or itching, use sparingly and only every third night. Once your skin builds up its tolerance to the product, you can begin to apply it every night.

Even if you tolerate retinol well, it's best not to use it during the day. Retinol is both photosensitizing and photodegradable. Applying it before you walk out into the sun can increase skin irritation. In addition, retinol breaks down in the presence of sunlight, causing it to become less effective as an ingredient. If you do use a retinol product during the day, remember to wear it with a good dose of sunscreen to minimize sun damage.

Affordable Options for Dry and Oily Skin In the end, most doctors recommend that you save your money. Retinol products tend to be expensive (even the over-the-counter ones can cost upwards of $20 for a one-ounce tube) and using them more frequently does not significantly increase the benefits to your skin. Instead, stick to using it at night. If you have drier skin, use one with rich moisturizers like RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream, a drugstore staple that consistently wins reader's choice beauty awards. If your skin is on the oilier side, stick with a lighter formula such as Neutrogena Anti-Wrinkle Intensive Serum. Above all, be patient. It may take a few weeks, but any short-term skin irritation you experience will eventually give way to smoother, healthier skin.