Which Strength of Retinol Do I Need?

In this article:

How Much Retinol is Best?

Simply put, how much retinol your skin needs depends on your skin type, skin concerns, and your skin’s tolerance for this unique ingredient. The latter—your tolerance—is something you can find out only by experimenting with different strengths and application methods, and seeing how your skin responds.

In this article, we discuss not only what the different strengths of retinol can do, but also how much retinol is included in each of our Paula’s Choice products that contain it. We explain what results you can expect, whether you opt for a low-, moderate-, or high-strength retinol product, or if you should decide to alternate products with different strengths, which works great for lots of people.

Keep in mind, however, that no matter what strength of retinol you decide to use, skin care is never as simple as any one ingredient, no matter how good that ingredient may be! Just as one food (spinach, for example) isn’t enough to keep your body healthy, a single skin-care ingredient can’t do it all either. Instead, your skin-care routine should contain a range of beneficial ingredients, including antioxidants, skin-repairing ingredients, and cell-communicating ingredients. Paula’s Choice takes this approach with all of our products—including those containing retinol!

Low-Strength Retinol Treatments

Despite retinol’s reputation as an anti-aging workhorse, not everyone’s skin can tolerate it, or maybe can tolerate it only in low doses, especially if used daily. Think of it like adding an extra serving of vegetables to an already healthy diet!

What Results You Can Expect: Don’t think that low levels of retinol won’t be beneficial, because they are! Research published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology has shown that concentrations of 0.01% retinol and up are indeed effective for improving the health and appearance of the skin. The important thing to keep in mind is that this research does not include the additional benefits derived from combining retinol with antioxidants, skin-repairing ingredients, and cell-communicating ingredients.

Research has also shown that low amounts of retinol paired with other antioxidants helps protect the skin against UV damage when worn under a broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day. (Don’t forget about that daily SPF.)

Following are the Paula’s Choice low-strength retinol products; depending on your skin type and/or concern, you can easily alternate them with our high-strength retinol products:

These strengths of retinol are also ideal for combining with potent treatments. For example, our nighttime moisturizers with retinol in Resist Anti-Aging were designed for those who wish to layer them with stronger targeted formulas, or for those who can’t tolerate higher concentrations of retinol.

Moderate-Strength Retinol Treatments: The Next Step

If you’re dealing with stubborn concerns like brown spots, loss of firmness, deeper wrinkles, and/or stubborn red marks that linger after a breakout, you may want to consider adding a more potent retinol treatment to your routine, either as a nightly step or as something you apply only 2–3 evenings per week. As previously stated, this all depends on your skin’s tolerance to retinol.

What Results You Can Expect: Moderate levels of retinol (from 0.04% to 0.1%) often work more efficiently so you’ll see results more quickly than with low amounts. It’ll come as no surprise that these strengths of retinol treatments perform even better when combined with other beneficial ingredients, as discussed above.

Research published in Skin Pharmacology and Physiology demonstrated that retinol concentrations at 0.04% and up improve visible signs of photo aging (meaning sun damage), stimulate collagen production, and improve the strength of thinning skin. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology showed that over the course of 8 weeks, 0.1% retinol proved an impressive treatment for improving lines (“crow’s feet”), wrinkles, discolorations, and skin firmness.

Paula’s Choice offers a variety of retinol formulas in the moderate-strength range, for both face and body:

High-Strength Retinol: Not for Everyone—But it Can Deliver Prescription-Like Results!

For some, moderate levels of retinol may not provide the results they had hoped for—whether their concerns are treating advanced sun damage, enlarged pores, uneven skin tone, wrinkles, acne-prone skin, or all of the above. If your skin has tolerated moderate-strength retinol treatments, and you want to see if you can get even better results, it’s time to consider something stronger.

High-strength retinol treatments are products that contain 0.5% retinol and up, with the sweet spot in terms of effectiveness versus reduced potential for side effects (redness, flaking) being around 1%.

What Results You Can Expect: A study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology showed a significant increase in collagen synthesis with daily use of a 1% retinol formula—in just seven days. That means dramatic (and more rapid) results in addressing concerns that might not have responded to lower-strength formulas.

It’s important to note that as you gradually increase the concentration of retinol, you might see your skin’s tolerance level dropping—meaning you should stick with (and can absolutely benefit from) products with low to moderate concentrations of retinol. Paula’s Choice offers one high-strength retinol product:

  • Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment—A powerhouse dose of 1% retinol combined with vitamin C, peptides, antioxidants, and plant-based anti-irritants. This sheer lotion formula tackles your toughest aging concerns. In fact, 1% retinol is essentially equivalent to a prescription retinoid product that contains 0.02% tretinoin, the most potent retinoid. (Retinoid is the name for all forms of vitamin A.)

How Retinol Improves Pore Size and Breakouts

Along with retinol's proven anti-aging benefits, topical application also can improve the appearance of enlarged pores and breakouts! It cannot change the pore size you have based on your genetics, but it can reduce the size of pores that have enlarged due to breakouts or sun damage.

When the pore lining doesn’t shed skin cells efficiently, the pore can stretch, leading to the formation of a blackhead or blemish. Retinol is a proven “cell-communicating” ingredient. There are receptor sites on skin cells that can "receive" a message from retinol, and when the pore lining isn’t “shedding” skin cells properly, retinol can step in and "tell" these lazy-acting cells to get back to work, to do what they should have been doing before they were damaged by UV exposure or other forms of free-radical damage.

The result can be improved pore function, which, in time, will lead to enlarged pores going back to their normal size as well as to a reduction in breakouts for acne-prone skin. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Science found that 0.2% retinol worked alone (as well as paired with vitamin C) to help treat acne breakouts. That’s exciting news!

The Issue of Retinol and Thinning Skin

As we age, sun damage and other environmental factors take their toll, which results in thinner skin, dryness, and loss of firmness—but does retinol make thinning skin worse, as you may have read? Absolutely not!

Ample research has demonstrated that retinol, in low to high strengths, is capable of inducing repair, collagen production, and thickening of thin, unhealthy skin (much of which we’ve cited above). Here is one more to add—a 1995 study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology demonstrated that retinol, even at low levels, increased the health and thickness of the skin in a way that was comparable to prescription tretinoin. The best part? In this study, retinol didn’t produce the redness and/or flaking that is common among those using the prescription version!

Can You Use AHAs or BHA with Retinol?

Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, the benefits of retinol in treating sun-damaged skin are boosted when an AHA (glycolic acid) or BHA (salicylic acid) exfoliant is used. A 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology demonstrated this by pairing 0.1% retinol with 8% glycolic acid. Dermatologists around the world often prescribe retinoids, such as tretinoin, in combination with AHAs and BHA.

If you’d like to read the detailed reasons why retinol works so beautifully with AHAs, BHAs, and vitamin C, check out our article, 6 Retinol Myths, Busted.

Note: When using moderate- to high-strength retinol treatments, pay attention to how your skin responds when pairing it with your AHA or BHA exfoliant. If you experience drying, redness, or sensitivity, consider alternating your retinol product with your AHA or BHA exfoliant to find the right balance for your skin.

Not all Retinol Products are Created Equal

The secret to buying retinol products of any strength is to find those that are packaged to keep the ingredients stable (i.e., no jars or clear bottles), that combine retinol with other skin-beneficial ingredients, and that do NOT contain any irritating ingredients.

Of the dozens of retinol-containing serums and moisturizers on the market, you would be shocked to learn how many contain fragrance and/or large amounts of alcohol or problematic plant extracts. These ingredients not only increase the risk of irritation, but also cause other problems as well, such as collagen breakdown and free-radical damage.

Choose the Right Retinol for Your Needs

Now that you have a better understanding of how to find the strength of retinol that’s right for your skin-care concerns, there isn’t anything stopping you from getting the results you’ve always wanted! Remember, no matter which strength you choose, it’s critical to look for a formula that combines retinol with a range of anti-aging ingredients. And, please, don’t forget to protect your skin from UV damage with a sunscreen rated SPF 25 or greater, every day, even if the sun isn’t shining.

Whether you’re shopping from Paula’s Choice or another brand, you can check out the well-formulated retinol treatments we recommend on our list of Best Retinol Products.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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