Now more than ever, experts are talking about the skin-smoothing, wrinkle-reducing, brown spot-fading benefits of retinol and prescription retinoids (aka vitamin A). However, there’s a lot of talk about this ingredient’s effect on the skin, and more specifically, if it can cause the skin to become thinner like some people say it can. This is a big concern for vitamin A users and understandably so.
In this post, I’ll share what I know to be true. After all, I’m someone who has been working with this ingredient for over 30 years, both on my own skin and my clients’ skin. I even met the dermatologist who was instrumental in getting the prescription form approved by the FDA as the first topical preventative aging product. (Make sure you read that story—it’s a good one).
I’ll also share additional insight from Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a Board-Certifed Dermatologist and Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Keep reading to find out, once and for all, if retinol and prescription retinoids thin the skin!
Will Retinol and Prescription Retinoids Thin Out My Skin?
Let’s cut right to the chase. The answer is no, retinol and prescription retinoids won’t thin the skin as a whole. In fact, retinol and prescription retinoids can actually THICKEN the skin by promoting active collagen production. However, they can thin the stratum corneum or the outermost layer of the skin.
Here’s how it works, according to Dr. Zeichner. “Topical retinoids, whether they are over-the-counter or prescription, thin out the outer skin layer. That’s what gives the skin its dewy, glowing appearance. This also explains why topical retinoids make the skin more sensitive to the sun. However, topical retinoids also thicken the deeper skin layers by stimulating the production of collagen.”
Overall, Zeichner says that retinol and prescription retinoids actually help strengthen and build the skin to improve fine lines and wrinkles. “The thinning effect is very mild compared to the long-term thickening effect,” he says.
Will Retinol and Prescription Retinoids Damage My Moisture Barrier?
Even though vitamin A ingredients can strengthen and thicken the skin over time, they can compromise the skin’s natural protective barrier. This is because vitamin A is a very biologically active ingredient. As such, it can lead to unwanted side effects like dryness, dehydration, and irritation. This is much more common with prescription retinoids because they’re so potent. If used correctly, most non-prescription forms, like retinyl esters and retinol, are generally tolerated well.
The moisture barrier is most affected when people are just starting to use vitamin A. “In the first 2-4 weeks of starting a topical retinoid, the skin goes through an adjustment period known as retinization,” Zeichner says. “During this time, the skin often becomes red, dry, and peeling. Retinization is often associated with some degree of skin barrier dysfunction. To minimize this, I recommend using only a green pea-sized amount of the retinoid, applying it every other night, and combining it with a moisturizer. As the skin adjusts, the irritation goes away.”
What Type of Skin Will Experience the Most Sensitivity?
Generally speaking, the type of skin that will experience the most sensitivity is skin that already has a damaged moisture barrier or skin that is naturally on the thinner side (this is due to genetics). Naturally thin skin has the following characteristics:
- Fair in tone (think Irish, Swedish, Scottish and Scandinavian descent)
- Small pores
- Produces little to no oil
- Transparent look in which you can visibly see blue blood vessels beneath the surface
- Sensitivity (the skin gets easily irritated from skincare products, itchy fabrics, etc.)
Just because you have these characteristics doesn’t mean you have to avoid retinol altogether. In fact, many people with these characteristics use it successfully. It just means you should take extra care to start slow and be consistent. Remember, the goal shouldn’t necessarily be to work your way up to a prescription retinoid. The goal should be to find the product and the strength that works best for you and your skin. If that’s non-prescription retinol, that’s great!
It’s also important to focus on supporting your moisture barrier. There are many things you can do to make sure it’s in good shape so as to avoid damage from environmental factors (like sun exposure) and active ingredients (like vitamin A or exfoliating acids).
Is There Anyone Who Shouldn’t Use Retinol or Prescription Retinoids?
There are a few instances in which I recommend people avoid the use of retinol and prescription retinoids completely. Don’t use vitamin A ingredients if you:
- Spend time laying out in the sun to get a tan
- Skip out on daily sunscreen
- Won’t commit to using retinol or a prescription retinoid consistently
Vitamin A makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, so proper sun protection is critical. It will never be able to work efficiently if you’re leaving your skin unprotected from harmful UV rays. It also won’t work efficiently if you don’t use it consistently. Long-term use is how it creates long-lasting change. Occasional use isn’t going to show results.
If you have any of the above characteristics, avoid retinol and prescription retinoids and focus on other powerful anti-aging products, like sunscreen (it’s been shown to make the skin look 24% younger) and exfoliating acid and antioxidant serums.
The Bottom Line
Do your skin a favor and start using a vitamin A product. It’s backed by decades of scientific research, and it’s proven to address the visible signs of aging, like large pores, lines, wrinkles, brown spots, and hyperpigmentation. I’ve seen it with my own eyes!
The retinol product I use is the Advanced Resurfacing Serum. I formulated it with 0.4% microencapsulated retinol, retinyl palmitate, skin-firming peptides, and soothing extracts. I’ve used it for years, and it’s definitely given my skin major results.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”