Can Retinol Really Make Your Skin Thinner?

Skincare is a vast and complicated arena. Too many skincare products are placeholders birthed out of untested trends, while only a few are true game-changers. And retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, is a game-changer. Boasting significant anti-inflammatory effects, retinol is often used in topical forms such as creams, serums, and lotions for the treatment of acne, hyperpigmentation, and aging lines. Moreover, retinol increases skin cell turnover, exfoliates the skin, stimulates collagen formation, and keeps pores clear. As a result, acne breakouts are reduced, wrinkles and fine lines are diminished, and the skin appears brighter and smoother.

While retinol has been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), it's not without drawbacks. New users of retinol frequently experience skin irritation, dryness, and peeling — also known as retinol burn — after the first use. Since retinol boasts rapid cell turnover and easily causes a skin reaction, it has led people to believe that retinol can make the skin thinner. When the skin is extra delicate, it gets crepey, bruises easily, and loses sensitivity to touch over time. Naturally, this reaction can be worrying. So, can retinol really thin your skin? Here's some insight.

Retinol doesn make your skin thinner

Despite its peeling side effects, retinol doesn't make your whole skin thinner but rather does the opposite. "Topical retinoids, whether they are over-the-counter or prescription, thin out the outer skin layer," dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner explains (via Renée Rouleau Skin Care). This is the reason why topical retinoids increase the skin's sensitivity to UV rays. However, topical retinoids, according to Dr. Zeichner, actually thicken and strengthen the deeper skin layers, reducing fine lines and wrinkles by increasing collagen synthesis.

Echoing the sentiment, dermatologist Dr. Devika Icecreamwala asserts that there's no danger in using retinol if you use it in an appropriate amount. "Because retinol is collagen and elastin-boosting, it can actually help thicken the skin over time if used appropriately," Dr. Icecreamwala tells InStyle. If retinol irritates your skin barrier, it's a sign you're overusing it or using a dose that's too strong for your skin. Retinol products vary in strength. Higher retinol concentrations are available, but they must be bought in a clinic after consulting a dermatologist. For retinol to really work for you, it's essential to get a dermatologist's help in finding a dose that's right for you. Retinol should only irritate your skin for the first few weeks as it adjusts, which isn't long enough for skin thinning to occur, Dr. Icecreamwala explains. If irritation persists, use a retinol product with lower strength, and reduce the frequency of use.

How to avoid irritation when using retinol

Now, if you're concerned about skin sensitivity from retinol use, here's how to apply retinol to achieve the most optimal results for your skin. If you're new to retinoids in general, it's best to consult a dermatologist before incorporating retinol into your skincare regimen so you know which concentration is right for you. Dermatologist Dr. Loretta Ciraldo (via advises beginners to start with a retinol concentration of 0.25% to 1%, cautioning that starting with anything higher or a very concentrated dose is likely to cause side effects. For dermatologist Dr. Simran Sethi, a 0.5% formulation is the ideal baseline that she starts her patients on as it is suitable for most skin types. In general, the higher the concentration of retinol, the greater the risks of sensitive skin flare-ups.

Since sunlight can compromise the efficacy of retinol and predispose your skin to sun damage, it's better to use the product at night and always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above during the day. Besides, you don't want to begin using retinol every day. If you're new to retinol, take it slow and start every other day or every third day, according to dermatologist Ranella Hirsch (via Well + Good). If your skin can handle the concentration, slowly increase the frequency so your skin has time to ease into the product.