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 • Skincare  • Skincare Guides  • We Asked the Experts Whether Retinol Can Really Firm Your Skin
Woman using retinol to firm her skin

We Asked the Experts Whether Retinol Can Really Firm Your Skin

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Main image – Leirecavia/Stocksy

You’ve probably heard the word ‘retinol’ being banded around but like many, might still be none the wiser about what it actually does for the skin.  

As a beauty editor and personal beauty consultant, I often mention retinol to my clients. Even though most of them vaguely recognise it to be an effective ingredient for anti-ageing, beyond that, it’s a bit of a blur.

So, with the help of skincare experts Dr Jody A. Levine, Dr Sebastian Bejma and Dr Patrick Davis, we’re going to breakdown what retinol actually is, whether it can actually firm the skin and, most importantly for the impatient among us, how long it will take to see results. 

Our pros will also be advising on the best firming alternatives and I’ll be sharing my experience with retinol too. 


Retinol product

Image – Adobe


What is retinol?

Ok, first up the basics. Retinol is an ingredient used to slow down ageing and treat other skin issues like acne. “Anyone who wants to get rid of their fine lines and wrinkles or alleviate acne problems will be familiar with retinol, which is a derivative of vitamin A,” explains Dr Davis

“It’s available over the counter, or for a more potent version, via prescription.”

The umbrella term for all types of retinol is “retinoid”, and there are lots of different forms, including tretinoin (a prescription retinol), retinal, and retinyl palmitate.  Just know that they’re all vitamin A derivatives, just in slightly different formulas and strengths, and that you can find retinoids in everything from serums to moisturisers and eye creams.

You can learn more about the differences between retinol and tretinoin here.


Can retinol firm the skin?

Dr Davis says yes but that there are limits to how much retinol can firm skin. 

“It works by penetrating deep beneath the outer layer of the skin and neutralising free radicals which helps boost the production of elastin and collagen and gives the skin a younger, more supple appearance,” he explains.

Dr Bejma confirms, “Because retinol can help the body make more collagen, it can help to create firmer skin.”

This doesn’t mean that retinol will be able to firm loose skin though.  Dr Davis explains, “You have to keep in mind that it is only a topical solution and cannot reverse sagging skin that comes with getting older.”

Tempting huh?

And in case you need further convincing, a medical study which tested the effectiveness of tretinoin on things like laxity and skin thinning found an improvement too in 95.8% of patients


Retinol showing that retinol can firm skin

Image – Julaisaeva/Adobe


How long does retinol take to firm skin?

“It can take several months of consistent retinol use to notice enhanced skin firmness and elasticity,” Dr Levine explains. 

Need more specifics? “For most people, regularly applying OTC [over the counter] retinol each night (or if you have sensitive skin, every other night) for 3-6 months will noticeably improve your skin,” adds Dr Davis. “If you are under a doctor’s care and using the prescription version, results may come earlier.” 

A medical study, testing up to 0.05% of topical tretinoin on those with slightly photodamaged skin backs this up, finding that after six months, “significant reductions were found in fine wrinkling, mottled hyperpigmentation, roughness, and laxity.”

Dr Bejma says that how long it takes retinol to firm skin will depend on how your skin behaves and how much retinol you’re using however. “The amount of time it will take to firm skin will depend on a number of factors, including the potency of the formula and the individual’s skin type.”

I used Murad Resurgence Retinol Youth Renewal Serum (£86 from Murad UK /$92 from Murad US) and noticed an improvement to the firmness of my skin after around a 8 weeks of use. I then had to turn to a cheaper alternative as I couldn’t maintain spending £86 on regular top ups and my skin became noticeably looser. 


Retinol cream

Image – Pimankhrutmuang/Adobe


PRO TIP: Dr Levine adds that it’s what you team your retinol use with that also makes a difference to the time frame. “Combining retinol with a healthy lifestyle, including proper hydration, a balanced diet and sun protection can further support skin firmness,” she says. Always use an SPF after applying retinol since it can skin slightly more sensitive to the sun.


What other ways can you firm skin?

Dr Levine says there are alternative product ingredients like peptides that can also help to firm the skin. With guidance from a dermatologist or skincare professional, “non-invasive treatments like radiofrequency, ultrasound and laser therapies can also help improve skin firmness,” she says.   

Dr Bejma recommends radio frequency with micro-needling. “Morpheus8 combines radio frequency energy with micro-needling to improve the skin’s complexion and texture for a more radiant and youthful appearance. It increases collagen production which leads to a number of benefits, including firmer skin,” he explains.

“Results can be seen as quickly as one treatment although a series of at least 2-3 treatments conducted 1-2 months apart is recommended for maximum results.”

Dr Bejma also suggests FaceTite. “The most advanced non-surgical face contouring and skin tightening treatment available, this combines a fine cannula under the skin with radio frequency to heat underneath the skin and into the skin fatty tissue, resulting in fat contraction and tightening of the skin.”

It seems this medical study agrees that radio frequency is the way to go for firmer skin. “Monopolar RF is a noninvasive way to obtain skin tightening and immediate collagen contraction with a single treatment,” it explained. 


PRO TIP: If clinical procedures aren’t your thing, I always find that a consistent dose of skin hydration keeps saggy skin at bay, even if temporarily. A decent hyaluronic acid serum like La Roche Posay Hyalu B5 Serum (£45 from La Roche Posay UK /$39.99 from La Roche Posay US) keeps on top of making my skin look bouncier and firmer. 


The takeaway

So, as long as you keep in mind that retinol is only a topical treatment and not something we can wave a magic wand at to quickly stop the ageing process in its tracks, evidence shows that it can help to firm the skin.

It boosts collagen production, therefore slows down the appearance of skin sagging. We’ll take that! 

There are retinol alternatives, radio frequency being the most popular one amongst the experts to improve on what a retinol topical cream or serum can do for your skin at home. Or you can try other home product ingredients like peptides if retinol is too over-powering for your skin.


Meet the experts

Dr Jody A. Levine, MD is a one of America’s top dermatologists and the Director of Dermatology at Plastic Surgery & Dermatology of NYC, a leading medical and aesthetic practice in New York City.


Dr Sebastian Bejma is known as a trailblazer in Skin Tech and the owner of Bejma Medical Clinic in Leeds. Harnessing 15 years of experience as a doctor, he utilises his impeccable knowledge of innovative technology to revolutionise skincare, anti-ageing, pre-juvenation and rejuvenation.


Dr. Patrick K. Davis is a renowned facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon delivering a highly personalised treatment experience in Beverly Hills, California.


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Beauty Editor

The former Beauty Editor of Glamour UK, Philippa has been a beauty and lifestyle journalist for over 16 years, picking up countless tips and tricks from makeup artists, hair stylists, dermatologists and celebrities. In that time she’s written for names like Cosmopolitan, The Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, Grazia, Refinery 29 and Byrdie. Philippa lives in the UK with her husband, two children and their hyperactive cockapoo, Paddy.

Expertise: Makeup, hair care
Education: Oxford Brookes University

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