How to Tell If Retinol is Working for You

Medically reviewed by Anna H Chacon, M.D. FAAD
How to use Retinol for anti-aging

Retinol makes big promises. The cosmetic version of retinol (also known as vitamin A) is usually advertised as a treatment to reduce wrinkles and fine lines. Occasionally it’s also recommended for other concerns, like breakouts or dark spots. But how to tell if retinol is really working for you?

Maybe you’ve heard that retinol is working if your skin “purges” (i.e. breaks out or “gets worse before it gets better”), or perhaps you’re just hankering to see results.

In this guide, we’ll cover the timeline for what you can expect from using retinol and the key signs that it’s working for you. We’ll also provide some background on how this ingredient works, and discuss a few other factors that may influence whether your retinol will work or not.

There are a few kinds of retinoids out there with different levels of bioactivity, so we’ll also touch on what you can expect depending on the type of retinol you use.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this post:

How does retinol work?

Retinol works by ultimately telling the skin cells to multiply in a better way. It promotes new cell creation, which improves dead skin cells shedding and collagen production.

These changes in cell behavior create retinol’s very wide and well-documented range of effects, especially when it comes to improving skin texture, reducing visibility and depth of wrinkles, addressing signs of breakouts, and reducing the visibility of dark marks and hyperpigmentation.

To do this, it must first convert into retinoic acid, which binds and activates receptors that we have throughout our body, including in the skin cells.

Every form of retinol must convert to retinoic acid before it can impact the skin. Retinol has to convert twice — first to retinaldehyde and then to retinoic acid — while retinaldehyde only undergoes one conversion, so it’s more potent. Other forms that are commonly used in cosmetic retinol products, like hydroxypinacolone retinoate or retinyl palmitate, have a very hard time converting into retinoic acid at all.

Key signs that your retinol is working

Each person’s experience with retinol will be a little different.

The precise results and the timeline can skew quite a bit depending on a lot of factors, including your age, the starting condition of your skin, some genetic factors, your previous routine, and whether you’ve used retinol before. Some factors that have an impact are less easy to spot or predict, like the distribution of retinoic acid receptors in your skin.

Because retinol works gradually, we recommend taking a picture in natural lighting before you get started. That way, you can refer back to it at each stage and see how far your skin has come.

WIth all that out of the way, here are the milestones you can generally expect that will help you determine if retinol is working for you. 

The first week

It can be pretty tempting to start examining the mirror and looking for results just a week after starting a new skincare product. 

However, retinol doesn’t usually work that fast. Even if you don’t see any changes, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t working. Commonly, at this point, your skin may start showing subtle textural improvements. 

That said, with our Enzyme-Active Retinol Serum, some of our clients do experience dramatic improvements within the first 3-10 days, especially to the brightness and evenness of their complexion. In some cases, they even notice marked reduction in visibility of fine lines and crow’s feet. 

Reactions like irritation and peeling are pretty unusual this early on, especially if you introduce your retinol gradually.

After 2 to 6 weeks

The 2 to 6-week mark is when most users start to see visible effects on skin texture. The changes are subtle and gradual, so you may not notice if you don’t have a point of comparison.

In some cases, this is also the stage where you can see some temporary negative effects, depending on the type of retinol you’re using. For example, it’s common to see skin peeling or irritation with prescription retinoids. Your skin may also start “purging,” a type of temporary breakout that is caused as retinol begins clearing away impurities in the skin. This is usually different than normal breakouts and should only last a few days.

After 2 to 4 months

This is the point when retinol’s clarifying and wrinkle-fading effects get dramatic, and you will likely also notice clearer skin if breakouts were an issue.

The epidermis renews itself every one to two months, so by using retinol for a few months you give it enough time to impact the skin quite profoundly. At this point, if you ever experienced any irritation, it should be over and done with. 

Overall, expect to see an improvement in skin texture, with smoother-looking skin. If you have fine lines and surface wrinkles, they will likely appear to have faded somewhat. 

Blemishes, scarring, and dark marks may also appear to fade or be less prominent.

After 6 months to 1 year

At the 6-month mark, you’ll probably finish with your retinol “newbie gains.” While retinol never stops being beneficial to the skin, this is the point when it’ll have done its job to the fullest. Referring back to pictures you took at the start can really surprise you! 

Your skin should look more luminous, smoother and clearer. Some wrinkles will totally fade while others will appear significantly softer. You’ll probably also notice a positive impact on the look of more persistent skin concerns, like breakouts and dark marks. 

Expected Results With Protocol 

With our Enzyme-Active Retinol Serum, we guarantee some visible improvements with a single 60-day bottle. We generally outline results like this:

First week

3-6 weeks

2-4 months

6 months to a year

Improvements to skin tone/evenness

Fading of fine lines and reduction of visible breakouts

Fading of more significant wrinkles and sun spots or hyperpigmentation

Significant improvement to overall skin smoothness, evenness, and clarity

Reasons why your retinol isn’t working

There are a few other factors that may impact how your skin reacts to retinol or retinal, so here are a few questions you may want to consider.

Are you using the right retinol? 

Not all retinoids are created equal. Depending on the form of retinol used in your product, some retinoids work more slowly, and some may not show results at all. In terms of non-prescription retinol products, serums that contain retinal will work the fastest and show more significant results than other forms of retinol.

If you’ve been using a retinol serum for over 3 months and see absolutely no changes in your skin, the product you’ve selected is probably too weak for your skin. On the other hand, if your skin is still showing signs of irritation, the retinoid you selected might be too strong.

What was your starting condition? 

The starting condition of your skin will have a big impact on how retinol’s effects make themselves known.

If you start retinol when your skin is in good condition with minimal photodamage, the results will be subtle — there’s only so much for you to improve on! While retinol can still help refine your skin texture, most of its action will likely be preventative. 

What kind of skincare were you using previously?

If your skincare routine went beyond the essentials (i.e. sunscreen, moisturizer, and cleanser) and already included skin-renewing ingredients like glycolic acid and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), you may not notice results as quickly from retinol. Retinol has a slightly different mechanism of action than these ingredients — it impacts the skin on a deeper level––so those results show themselves in the long term.

What about purging?

Purging isn’t a scientific term. It’s the word used by the skincare community to refer to an initial breakout that may occur when you first start using skin resurfacing treatments. Even with prescription tretinoin, which is more irritating than cosmetic retinoids, purging only occurs in about 20% of users. In other words, you don’t have to purge to know that your retinol is working.

Bottom line

How to tell if retinol is working? To start, be patient — retinol needs time to work. With diligent use, most users see visible improvement to their skin tone, smoothness, and breakouts within the first few weeks.

Fine lines and small imperfections take several weeks to months to start to fade, while deeper lines and more significant hyperpigmentation may take several months.

The important thing is to use your retinol consistently, and make sure to have a reference photo to remind you where you started!

Medically reviewed by Anna H Chacon, M.D. FAAD