What is Retinol?

A guide to the golden child of skincare ingredients.

Dylan Mustapich

Esthetician at Atolla

Dylan Mustapich

Dylan Mustapich is a NYC-based lead esthetician who has been featured in New Beauty, Teen Vogue, Wired, and The Huffington Post. With a lifelong love of all things skin, he is incredibly knowledgeable about skincare ingredients, routine refinement, and personalized skincare, and follows emerging technology closely.



Ask any esthetician or dermatologist what their favorite skincare ingredients are, and you can be almost certain that retinol will be in the top three. This ingredient has been the golden child of the skincare industry for at least 40 years now, and for good reason. Vitamin A has been exhaustively studied, proving its undeniable benefits to a myriad of skin concerns. It’s considered by many to be the keystone of any routine focused on improving the overall health of your skin.

What is retinol?

Retinol is in the family of vitamin A, and is part of the larger retinoid class of ingredients which includes stronger prescription strength (Rx) products like the acne treatment Retin-A, or Tretinoin. While Rx retinoids are stronger and frequently used for clinical acne (as well as moderate to severe photoaging), retinol is a gentler over-the-counter (OTC) version that can safely treat numerous skin concerns. Other types of OTC retinoids include retinal, retinyl palmitate, and retinaldehyde.  

What can retinol do for my skin?

Regularly using a product with retinol coaxes our skin into performing as it did when we were younger. When applied to the skin, retinol helps speed up the rate at which our old skin cells are shed and replaced with fresh new ones. This is referred to as our cell turnover rate. When we’re born, this process happens approximately every two weeks, and progressively slows down as we get older. By middle-age, our cell turnover rate is around 50 to 60 days.

Many confuse retinol as being just another type of exfoliant, but these ingredients work in completely different ways. Exfoliants such as glycolic acid and physical scrubs help remove the dead skin cells that make up the top layer of our skin (the stratum corneum), while retinol revs up the entire process by which new skin cells are formed, move up through the skin, and are shed. Exfoliation actively removes the top layer of dead skin cells, while retinol helps this process happen naturally in a quicker more efficient manner. Both are beneficial for overall skin health, but they should not be confused as doing the same exact thing.

How do I begin to use retinol?

The key to bringing a retinol product into your existing skincare routine is easing into it so your skin can acclimate. It’s important to use a retinol product that your skin can tolerate on a regular basis, and to not use too much or apply too many times throughout the day.

When overused or in high percentages, retinol can lead to skin irritation and dryness. This is why some people claim they can’t tolerate it, when in reality they just selected or overused a product that was probably too strong for their skin.

Generally, it’s recommended to not use skin sensitizing ingredients within a day of applying retinol. This includes exfoliating scrubs or acids, strong vitamin C products, and astringent (alcohol/witch hazel based) toners. While a gentle daily-use retinol should not cause a lot of irritation on its own, problems may arise when combined with these strong active ingredients. If you’re an Atolla user, the Routine section of your profile can let you know specifically what products you’ll need to pause or alternate while using your retinol.

Sunscreen is always a must in the morning, but it’s especially important when using retinol. As with other potent skincare ingredients, retinol may leave you more sensitive to the sun. This is particularly true when first incorporating it into your nightly routine. To avoid potential sun damage and burning, apply a broad spectrum facial sunscreen with an SPF of at least 50 everyday. Don’t forget to reapply as well every two hours.

When do I use retinol in my routine?

Before you apply your retinol:

  • If you currently use a hydrating toner, apply that first.
  • If you’re initially sensitive to retinol, you can use a moisturizer to create a buffer until the skin eventually acclimates.

Atolla serums formulated with retinol are designed to be used once or twice a day on dry skin after cleansing. The Routine section of your profile will inform you of any potential interactions with the products you’re already using, and advise on whether it’s best to use your serum in the AM or PM.

Simplify your skincare with a custom, complementary routine.