I've Tried 'Em All: Why Doesn't Retinol Work for Me?

Hallie Gould


For years I've heard my co-workers rave about certain cult-favourite retinol products: Shani Darden's Resurface Retinol Reform ($120) is a favourite of our wellness editor, Victoria, Sunday Riley's Luna Sleeping Night Oil ($154) is beloved by our writer, Emily, and The Ordinary's Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane ($20) is huge for our readers.

I've tried all of them. And nothing. I'll apply it as directed on the packaging, drift off to sleep with dreams of tight, glowing skin, and wake up to find my face looking… duller than when I use my usual vitamin C. So what gives? "You are absolutely right about seeing more immediate results when using a vitamin C product as compared to a retinol," Renée Rouleau, a celebrity aesthetician, told me when I complained to her about my retinol woes. "But don't give up on retinol or retinoids just yet."

First things first, let's go over the definition of retinol. "When applied, retinol converts slowly within the skin to retinoic acid. It then binds to the receptors and activates the cell maturation process in the skin. This means it's delivered into the skin slowly, over a period of hours, instead of all at once upon application," explains Rouleau. "With continued use, vitamin A slowly improves the skin's appearance. It smoothes the skin's texture by lessening visible wrinkles, lines, acne scar indents, large pores, scarring, and brown spots," notes Rouleau. That being said, "The potential side effects of retinol will vary greatly across users, depending on what else they have going on with their skin."

But here's the thing: "Most people won't notice an improvement for about two months—this is why you have to stick with the program. The product is doing something for your skin, whether you are seeing the results right away or not," says Rouleau.

"Retinol works overtime to retexturise and resurface your skin," adds Christine Chang, the co-CEO and co-founder of Glow Recipe. "Certain vitamin C formulations leave the skin immediately brighter and more even-toned due to the unique delivery system." Rouleau notes, "Brightness has a lot to do with pigmentation, which can be caused by brown spots and post-acne marks. That's the reason your skin will look more even-toned and 'bright.' But even though those results are immediate, you have to continually use the products to keep them. Cells will build up again quickly after using an acid, so the results are short-term unless you continue with regular use."

"Ultimately, don't give up on your retinols," Rouleau told me. "Your skin will get there. You just have to keep using the product (at least three to four times a week) to have maximum results." So when it comes down to it, retinol will work for me. I just have to be more patient and realise instant gratification is everything. Le sigh.

Explore: Skin, Anti-aging, retinol

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