Here’s *Exactly* How Long it Takes to See Results with Retinol, Month by Month
Main image – Hannahcriswell/Stocksy
Ever thought about using retinol but unsure of how, when or even why to use it? For such a popular anti-aging ingredient it doesn’t half come with a lot of questions.
The main ones being, what does it *actually* do? What are the different types? And how long does it take to work?
Here, dermatologist Dr Geeta Yadav and Jody A Levine, MD, director of dermatology at Plastic Surgery & Dermatology of NYC, and I discuss the effects retinol can have on the skin.
Plus, I look at the science to help break down the retinol timeline, giving you an idea of exactly when you can expect to see some of this famous ingredient’s results.
Spoiler alert: It might get to work on your skin sooner than you think.
What does retinol do?
Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A which is a strong, yet effective ingredient for anti-ageing. Put simply, it sends a message to your skin cells to behave more healthily.
- Speeding up cell turnover
- Tackling acne by unclogging pores
- Reducing hyperpigmentation
- Reducing fine lines and wrinkles
- Firming skin
Basically, everything you’d want from a product!
There is a caveat though. Not only does retinol take some time for skin to get used to (think possible peeling, dryness and redness for the first few weeks), but it also needs to be used alongside daily SPF use.
How long does it take to see results with retinol?
“It takes at least six to twelve weeks to see true results,” explains Dr Yadav. “Though you may see some improvement to your skin’s texture and tone within a few weeks.”
“Significant changes, such as reduction in fine lines and wrinkles can take several months of consistent use,” adds Levine.
I personally noticed a difference in the texture of my skin within one week of using Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum (£86 on the Murad UK website/$92 on the Murad US website). It looked and felt firmer and it is the only product to have given me such fast results.
The retinol timeline
If you’re impatient like me though and want to know *exactly* what you can expect to see and when on your retinol journey, we’ve sifted through the evidence to break down a more detailed timeline.
Let’s see what should be happening to your skin at each stage of using retinol.
Retinol results: In the first few weeks
In as little as 1 to 4 weeks, you might notice changes for the better in the texture and tone of your skin. According to one study, skin cell health is quickly improved.
“The authors observed that retinol application for 7 days reduced MMP (matrix metalloproteinase), collagenase, and gelatinase expression with concomitant increase in fibroblast growth and collagen synthesis in the studied tissue specimens,” it said.
You can also expect to see some irritation, flaking or redness as your skin adapts to retinol use during this time though. Take a look at exactly how and where to add retinol into your skincare routine, and how to minimise negative reactions, in our guide here.
Retinol results: at the 2 month mark
While 2 months is less than the time our experts recommend to see the best results from retinol, one 2023 study found a “depth decrease,” in facial lines at this point, as well as improvement in their length.
Retinol results: 3 months in
From 3 months in, your skin will likely now be comfortable with regular retinol use and you should notice fewer unwanted side effects.
You can also expect to see some real skin benefits at this point too.
A medical study found, “significant improvement in fine wrinkles after 12 weeks of treatment,” as well as a general thickening of the facial skin.
Scientists also noted a “rosy glow” within the group using retinol at the 12 week point.
Retinol results: 4 months in
From 4 months onwards, retinol gets to work not only on deeper wrinkles but other signs of ageing.
One 16-week study found improvement in “coarse wrinkles, tactile roughness, sallowness,” by the end of this period, meaning not just improved lines and wrinkles but smoother skin and fewer sallow undertones.
Retinol results: 6 months onwards
As if smoother, brighter, more line-free skin wasn’t enough, by the 6-month mark you can expect to see “significant improvement” in “mottled hyperpigmentation” and “laxity,” according to a study of the effects of tretinoin on 89 people.
That means you can look forward to fewer spots of pigmentation as well as firmer skin.
How to pick the right retinol for you
You may have heard of the term ‘retinoid’ which can often be confused with retinol. ‘Retinoid’ is just the collective, umbrella term for lots of different vitamin A ingredients, including retinol.
You can get either prescription products or over-the-counter retinol of varied strengths in the form of serums, lotions and moisturisers. There are also natural, plant-based retinol alternatives that you can buy from the shelf too. This can sometimes make it fairly confusing when it comes to picking the right product.
Here, we break down the different types and how effective they are.
Prescription-only retinoids like Tretinoin (also known as Retin-A) are a more concentrated version of retinol, meaning it is stronger (and hence why only a professional can prescribe it).
Meanwhile, over-the-counter retinols are applied as part of your daily skincare regime.
You can learn more about how to choose between retinol and tretinoin here
These retinols – like the kind you’d buy from The Ordinary etc – are possibly the easiest to use as they typically combine with other skin-friendly ingredients to make them more moisturising and cut irritation. And recent studies have even shown equal results between tretinoin (prescription retinoid) and retinol serums after just 12 weeks. And with fewer side effects coming from the serum too.
“Retinol serum subjects showed significant week 4 improvement in visual skin smoothness compared to tretinoin subjects,” said one study. “There was highly significant improvement in skin dryness with the retinol serum not seen in the tretinoin group.”
It concluded, “retinol serum (0.25%, 0.5%, 1.0%) was safe and effective with equivalent/or better performance and tolerability than tretinoin creams.”
They aren’t the real thing but work similarly to the real thing. Bakuchiol, for example – known as ‘nature’s retinol’ – has been proven to replicate retinol almost to the letter. In fact, one study found that after 8 weeks plant-based retinols have “similar functional properties to retinol, reducing the severity of ageing signs while offering a new natural alternative.”
If you weren’t sure that retinol was effective for the skin before, you should hopefully be sure now!
Whilst it’s a pretty strong ingredient that you should introduce to your regime slowly, it could be the answer to many of your skin woes, and as our timeline shows; the results get better with time.
Just remember though; slow down use if skin becomes irritated, always wear an SPF, and don’t be afraid to visit a dermatologist if you want more personalised retinol advice.
Meet the experts
Dr Geeta Yadav is a world-renowned board-certified dermatologist and the founder of FACET Dermatology in Toronto, Canada. She is regularly featured for her expert advice in the likes of Byrdie, Allure and Vanity Fair.
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.