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Collagen vs. retinol: A comprehensive guide for a youthful complexion

Topical collagen and retinol offer distinct benefits in skincare, with collagen promoting skin elasticity and retinol reducing signs of aging. Here’s what you should know about each.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Dec 11, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Kristen Jokela, NP-C
A Woman After Finishing her Skincare Routine
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Dec 11, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Kristen Jokela, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

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Are you on a quest to achieve younger-looking skin? Collagen and retinol are two skincare ingredients that may be just what you’re looking for. You’ve likely heard of these buzzy ingredients before—and while they both play a role in fighting signs of aging in the skin, they aren’t interchangeable.

So what exactly are collagen and retinol, and how do they differ in their impact on skin? Here, Curology’s licensed dermatology providers chime into the collagen vs. retinol skincare debate to help you grasp the benefits of both. 

Collagen vs. retinol: Similarities and differences

Collagen and retinol can both be beneficial in helping to maintain healthy skin, yet they have distinct characteristics and benefits. When evaluating each ingredient individually, consider these differences and how they can contribute to your skincare goals.

Similarity between collagen and retinol

  • Sun damage protection: Both collagen and retinol can help to protect the skin from sun damage. Collagen peptides have been shown to boost collagen levels in the skin, maintain a healthy balance between different collagen types, and reduce skin damage caused by UV exposure.¹ Retinol has been shown to protect the skin from DNA damage caused by UV radiation.²

Differences between collagen and retinol

  • Source: Collagen is one of the most abundant proteins in our body,³ while retinol is a form of vitamin A.⁴

  • Mechanism of action: Collagen peptides are used to restore the skin’s natural collagen levels, and has been shown to increase the firmness of connective tissue, which may result in an improvement in skin elasticity and firmness.⁵ Retinol, on the other hand, protects collagen against degradation.⁶

  • Safety: Oral collagen supplementation is generally regarded as safe with no side effects reported,⁷ however, there is limited research on the safety of topically applied collagen. Retinol may cause irritant reactions in some people, such as burning, itchiness, peeling, or redness.⁸

  • Formulations: Both collagen and retinol can be found in over-the-counter creams and serums.

Whether you adopt one or both products ultimately depends on your specific skincare needs. While collagen and retinol may enhance your skincare routine, your dermatology provider can help you determine which is most suitable for your skin type and concerns. 

Collagen benefits for the skin

Collagen is a naturally occurring protein within the human body, found primarily in connective tissues like tendons and ligaments. It is crucial for maintaining healthy skin and helps to keep the skin strong, supple, and firm by providing elasticity and structure.⁹

A form of collagen called hydrolyzed collagen tripeptide is frequently used in skincare for its antioxidant and anti-aging properties. This form is considered less allergenic, more soluble, and easily absorbed by the body. It can provide additional benefits in moisturizing the outer layer of the skin, thereby helping to minimize dryness and other signs of aging like wrinkles.¹⁰ 

Retinol benefits for the skin

Retinol is a form of vitamin A found in many skincare products. It has been shown to help reduce the signs of aging and improve skin health, tone, and appearance.¹¹

Additionally, this active ingredient protects collagen against degradation, resulting in smoother wrinkles and lines and improved texture and clarity of complexion over time.¹²

In a clinical study with a physician-strength superficial peel containing 3% retinol, patients with photodamage, acne, hyperpigmentation, and melasma experienced significant improvements with fine lines, wrinkles, pore size, lack of radiance, laxity, spotted pigmentation, and overall photodamage. While most subjects experienced some skin peeling by the third day, they were resolved by the 7th day, and the peel was well-tolerated.¹³

How to incorporate collagen and retinol into your daily skincare routine

Consult a dermatology provider before beginning any new skincare product involving either ingredient since they can provide personalized advice tailored to your needs; this will ensure optimal results while avoiding any potentially harmful side effects. However, in general, when incorporating new products into your skincare routine, start one at a time, go slow, and increase use as tolerated. 

Incorporating collagen into your skincare routine

Here are some tips on how to incorporate collagen into your skincare routine:

  • Consider a collagen-rich serum. Serums are one option to deliver the benefits of collagen directly to the skin. Use a serum after cleansing your face, but before moisturizing.

  • Use a jade roller. Although not necessary, for an enhanced experience, you may consider a jade roller to gently roll the serum onto your skin.

  • Use sunscreen. Sun exposure can break down collagen in your skin,¹⁴ so using broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day is essential to protect your skin from UV radiation. Our Everyday Sunscreen is a specially formulated product designed by dermatologists to protect against UVA and UVB radiation. It is free from pore-clogging ingredients, reducing the risk of breakouts.

And while it’s not directly related to your skincare routine, smoking can also damage collagen in your skin. By quitting smoking, you can help to preserve your collagen levels and, in turn, help to improve your skin’s overall appearance.¹⁵ 

Incorporating retinol into your skincare routine

Here are some tips on how to incorporate retinol into your skincare routine:

  • Choose the right concentration of retinol for your skincare goals: It is generally advisable to start with a low concentration when you’re starting out a new skincare product to monitor for tolerance and irritation. In particular, there are differences in how retinol may act on your skin depending on its concentration. A study has shown that lower concentrations of retinol had a more significant effect on skin color, brightness, and elasticity, whereas the higher concentrations had a more potent effect for wrinkles, pores, skin density, and shedding of the skin.¹⁶

  • Start slowly. Retinol may cause skin sensitivity and peeling as you get started. Start with a lower concentration a few nights a week, increasing as tolerated.¹⁷

  • Apply at night to avoid sensitivity to sunlight and because UV light makes retinol less effective. Retinol can be broken down by UVA radiation,¹⁸ and some may experience sensitive skin. So apply retinol at night and use a broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day to protect your skin from UV radiation. 

For personalized skincare, join Curology and trust the experts 

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FAQs

How long does it take to see results from using collagen or retinol in a skincare routine?

Results from using collagen or retinol in a skincare routine can vary from person to person. With any skincare product, it can take several weeks to months to see noticeable improvements in the skin’s appearance.

What are the potential side effects of using retinol in a skincare routine?

Retinol can cause some irritation and sensitivity, particularly if used in high concentrations or if the skin is already sensitive.¹⁹ To reduce these symptoms, start using retinol gradually, as this will help your body adjust to the change. Additionally, gentle cleansers and moisturizers can help alleviate any discomfort caused by the product’s active ingredients.

Can collagen and retinol be used together?

Collagen and retinols work in different ways and both may be incorporated into a skincare routine. However, it is always best to start with one product at a time to see how your skin responds. Start slow and increase as tolerated. It is always best to consult a dermatology provider before adding new products to your skincare routine, especially if you have sensitive skin conditions.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Li, G., et al. Recent Progress in Preventive Effect of Collagen Peptides on Photoaging Skin and Action Mechanism. Food Science and Human Wellness. (March 2022).

  2. Antille, C., et al. Vitamin A Exerts a Photoprotective Action in Skin by Absorbing Ultraviolet B Radiation. Journal of Investigative Dermatology. (November 2003).

  3. Khatri, M., et al. The Effects of Collagen Peptide Supplementation on Body Composition, Collagen Synthesis, and Recovery from Joint Injury and Exercise: A Systematic ReviewAmino Acids. (2021, September 7).

  4. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin INterv Aging. (December 2006).

  5. Khatri, M., et al. The Effects of Collagen Peptide Supplementation on Body Composition, Collagen Synthesis, and Recovery from Joint Injury and Exercise: A Systematic Review. Amino Acids. (2021, September 7).

  6. Zasada, M. and Budzisz E. Retinoids: Active Molecules Influencing Skin Structure Formation in Cosmetic and Dermatological TreatmentsAdvances in Dermatology and Allergology. (2019, August 30).

  7. Choi, F. D., et al. Oral Collagen Supplementation: A Systematic Review of Dermatological Applications. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (2019, January 1).

  8. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the Treatment of Skin Aging: An Overview of Clinical Efficacy and Safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

  9. Bolke, L., et al. A Collagen Supplement Improves Skin Hydration, Elasticity, Roughness, and Density: Results of a Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Blind Study. Nutrients. (October 2019).

  10. Lee, Y.I., et al. Effect of a Topical Collagen Tripeptide on Antiaging and Inhibition of Glycation of the Skin: A Pilot Study. Int J Mol Sci. (February 2022).

  11. Kong, R., et al. A Comparative Study of the Effects of Retinol and Retinoic Acid on Histological, Molecular, and Clinical Properties of Human Skin. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. (2015, November 18).

  12. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: Active Molecules Influencing Skin Structure Formation in Cosmetic and Dermatological Treatments. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology. Ibid.

  13. Sadick, N., et al. An Advanced, Physician-Strength Retinol Peel Improves Signs of Aging and Acne Across a Range of Skin Types Including Melasma and Skin of Color. J Drugs Dermatol. (2019, September 1).

  14. Rittié, L. and Fisher, G.J. Natural and Sun-Induced Aging of Human Skin. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. (January 2015).

  15. Knuutinen, A., et al. Smoking Affects Collagen Synthesis and Extracellular Matrix Turnover in Human Skin. The British Journal of Dermatology. (April 2002).

  16. Jang, S.I., et al. A long term study of the difference in efficacy and effect rate of various concentrations of retinol (1500-6600 IU) in middle aged women. Arch Dermatol Res. (July 2023).

  17. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. (2021, May 25).

  18. Tolleson, W.H., et al. Photodecomposition and Phototoxicity of Natural Retinoids. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. (2005, April 30).

  19. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the Treatment of Skin Aging: An Overview of Clinical Efficacy and Safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

Kristen Jokela is a certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL.

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• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

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