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What is retinol and where does it come from?

Retinol is a skincare game-changer. Here’s what it is, where it comes from, and how you can use it in your skincare routine.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 6, 2023 • 7 min read
Medically reviewed by Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C
Skincare cosmetic cream lotion
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 6, 2023 • 7 min read
Medically reviewed by Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-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.

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A that plays a crucial role in nutrition, body growth, vision, the immune system,¹ and—you guessed it— skincare. Commonly used as both a dietary supplement and to treat skin conditions, it’s one of today’s most popular and powerful anti-aging and anti-acne ingredients. But where does retinol come from? Let’s dive in to learn more about how it’s sourced, its health benefits, the benefits of topical retinol, and more. 

What is retinol made of? 

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, a highly potent antioxidant. Vitamin A plays a vital role in bodily functions like the growth of bones, vision, and protection against infection.² 

Topical retinol boosts skin firmness and and reduces the signs of aging by boosting collagen production and skin cell turnover. 

Also known as vitamin A1 and one of the forms of vitamin A, alongside others including retinal and retinoic acid,³ retinol is a retinoid compound that’s fat-soluble. That means it can dissolve and store itself in the body’s fat. This is unique, as many vitamins dissolve only in water. 

Sources of retinol

Getting your retinol in food is an easy, delicious way to benefit your body. Retinol is found naturally in foods derived from animas high in vitamin A:⁴,⁵

  • Beef and chicken liver

  • Eggs

  • Fish 

  • Whole milk  

On the other hand, provitamin A—a carotenoid, not a retinoid—is found naturally in foods like green vegetables, fruits, and tomatoes. 

While a healthy, balanced diet is great for your body and mind, most dermatology providers recommend using a topical retinoid for the best skin results. 

Retinol in topical dermatology 

Retinol is typically synthetically produced to ensure its consistent quality and optimize its stability. Synthetic retinol mimics the compound found in nature. The development of these synthetic analogs, also called retinoids, has made it possible to use retinol to treat a variety of skin conditions related to aging. Today, there are many different chemicals that are vitamin Aderivatives with varying effects on the skin, depending on their strength.

Smiling woman applying cream on her face

What does retinol do for your skin?

You’ve likely heard some of the many topical retinol benefits for the skin, but we’ll go over them again here.

  • It treats the signs of aging:⁶ Retinol’s claim to fame is that it strengthens the skin’s foundation to effectively reduce the signs of aging. It boosts collagen production, which reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.⁷

  • It treats hyperpigmentation: Retinol improves the turnover rate of skin cells, which removes dry, dull skin and helps to fade dark spots.⁸ 

  • It improves skin texture and firmness: Retinol's exfoliating properties reduce rough skin for improved texture and boost collagen production for skin that feels firmer.

If you've tried retinol and haven't seen results, you may want to consider upgrading to tretinoin. This powerful prescription retinoid is the gold standard in anti-aging skincare for its ability to boost collagen production, decrease inflammation, reduce dark spots, and smooth the look of lines and wrinkles.⁹ Here at Curology, it’s also one of our favorites!

Side effects of topical retinol

Retinol is a powerful ingredient, so it’s important to incorporate it into your skincare routine slowly. Some side effects are common, especially when you first start using it. Giving your skin time to adjust to retinol will help reduce the length and potential severity of the side effects. 

The common side effects of topical retinol, which are temporary, include the following: 


Retinol increases the speed of your skin’s cell turnover, making dry skin possible. This is most common when introducing the ingredient to your skincare routine and often corrects itself over time. If your skin is persistently dry, consider a product with a lower concentration of retinol.  


Redness is a sign of skin irritation that, like dryness, is common when starting your retinol journey. Redness may also signify sunburn, as retinol can increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun.¹⁰ Remember to moisturize regularly, and always use broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher


With dryness and redness can come—unfortunately—itchiness. You may feel discomfort as your skin adjusts to its new cell turnover rate, which is totally normal. Try something gentler if you’re still uncomfortable after the initial adjustment period. 

More serious side effects, which are less likely to occur, include the following: 

  • Skin discoloration

  • Stinging

  • Swelling

Health benefits of retinol

When consumed directly from animal food sources or dietary supplements, retinol, or vitamin A1, has additional health benefits.  

  • Eyesight: It promotes good night vision. Deficiency can lead to impaired vision.

  • Body growth: Retinol contributes to healthy development by playing a critical role in cell growth and reproduction, a process called cellular differentiation. 

  • Immune system: Want to strengthen your immune system? Retinol helps regulate a wide variety of immune processes, which can help you stave off sickness.¹¹ 

Is retinol safe?

Retinol is a highly effective skincare ingredient that’s also an important nutrient in the human diet. It’s essential to the normal functioning and development of many organs in the body, and a great way to get your vitamin A is through animal products and dairy. That said, it’s important to note that too much can be harmful if you overdo it (especially with vitamin A supplements). Talk to your in-person medical provider to determine what amount of vitamin A is right for you. While topical retinol has several associated side effects and should be used under the care of your dermatology provider, it’s widely considered highly effective and safe to use. 


How long does it take to see results from topical retinol?

Many people who use retinol see significant improvements in their skin in 8-12 weeks.¹²,¹³ The results of a 24-week study showed that skin treated with retinol showed substantial reductions in the fine wrinkles associated with natural aging.¹⁴ 

Can you put moisturizer over topical retinol?

Dermatology providers recommend using a rich, soothing moisturizer after applying topical retinol, as this can help reduce potential side effects. Wash your face, dry your face (completely!), apply your retinol, wait a few minutes, and then apply your moisturizer. 

What topical retinol should I use?

Topical retinol products are typically available over the counter, and it isn't easy to narrow them down. Trust us, we know. Curology’s dermatology providers have a few suggestions:

Tretinoin and retinol: what’s the difference? 

Tretinoin is a potent retinoid that is significantly stronger than retinol and is only available by prescription. Offered by Curology as the gold standard in anti-aging and acne treatment, it reduces skin damage while stimulating the growth of healthy cells. Sold under brand names like Retin-A, Refissa, and Tretin-X, it works on your skin immediately, while retinol does not.¹⁵

Get tretinoin easily with Curology 

Curology offers tretinoin, a potent prescription retinoid, in customized formulas designed to meet to your skin’s needs regarding acne, signs of aging, and hyperpigmentation. Founded by dermatologists in 2014, Curology helps take the guesswork out of your skincare routine—licensed dermatology providers work with you to examine your skin, assess your skincare goals, and provide custom treatment options.

Getting started is easy. Just answer a few questions and snap a few selfies to help us get to know your skin. If Curology is right for you, we’ll pair you with one of our licensed dermatology providers who will create a personalized prescription formula to help meet your specific skin goals. They’ll also be available to provide expert guidance throughout your skincare journey (because that’s what skincare is—a journey!).

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Your first month is free—just pay $4.95 (plus tax)* to cover shipping and handling. You’ll receive your personalized formula along with any other Curology products to complement it, like the Curology acne body wash and lip balm at no additional cost. 

• • •

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

  1.  Vitamin A and Carotenoids. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. (2022).  

  2.  MedlinePlus. Vitamin A. (n.d.).

  3.  Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. (2019).

  4.  Vitamin A and Carotenoids. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Ibid. 

  5.  MedlinePlus. Vitamin A. Ibid.

  6.  Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. Ibid.

  7.  Mukherjee S, Date A, Patravale V, Korting HC, Roeder A, Weindl G. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid.

  8.  Ortonne, J.P., Retinoid therapy of pigmentary disorders. Dermatologic Therapy. (2006).

  9.  Baldwin, H.E., et al. 40 Years of topical tretinoin use in review.Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (2013).

  10.  Retinoid or retinol?American Academy of Dermatology Association. Ibid.

  11.  McEldrew EP, Lopez MJ, Milstein H. Vitamin A. StatPearls. (2022 July 11).

  12.  Ota, M., et al. 182 Retinol remarkably effective in reducing neck wrinkles.Journal of Investigative Dermatology. (2019, September 1). 

  13.  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). 

  14.  Kafi, R., et a. Improvement of naturally aged skin with vitamin A (retinol). Arch Dermatol. (2007).

  15.  Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid. 

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary. Trial is 30 days.

Nicole Hangsterfer is a licensed physician assistant at Curology. She obtained her masters in physician assistant studies at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern in Chicago, IL.

• • •
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

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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