About a month ago when I got home from work, I ran into the bathroom and stared at the mirror as it confirmed my suspicions: Yes, I did in fact have one hell of a pimple forming on my forehead, and yes, it did look as red and painful as it felt. Happy Monday, everyone!
After washing my face, I sifted through my makeup bag and realized I left my go-to pimple kit—Mario Badescu Drying Lotion, Clean & Clear Advantage, and Cortisone—at my sister’s house, which was an entire state away. After a bout of panicking (and Googling Amazon delivery times), I grabbed my retinol.
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Before you think I’m crazy, hear me out: I started using retinol regularly—every other or third night—last winter to keep any fine lines and wrinkles that had started to creep up from getting any worse—and ever since then, my sometimes-testy skin has been relatively clear. (Not a bad side-effect if you ask me.) Any time it starts acting up, I slather on my retinol all over and any sign of a pimple is usually gone by morning—so it should double as a spot treatment too then, right?
Well. sort of: Though the retinol mostly dried it out my pimple by morning, it didn’t really eradicate it the way I’d hoped, so I emailed my go-to derms to find out if they actually recommend using retinol as a treatment for breakouts.
“The great thing about retinols, whether over-the-counter or prescription-strength, is that they do have this dual effect of being both anti-aging and helping clear up acne,” says dermatologist Annie Chiu. “Retinols are well known to reverse photo damage, decrease fine lines, and boost collagen, but its more rapid effects are actually anti-acne.”
But how, exactly, does something that’s supposed to stave off wrinkles also stave off bacteria?
“Retinols reduce oil production by oil glands, promote dead cellular turnover, thus ‘declogging’ the skin, reduce inflammation associated with acne, and decrease the growth of P. acnes, a bacteria that’s sometimes associated with increased acne.”
So in theory, if retinol is part of your regular regimen, your skin should be clear for the most part. But when it comes to using retinol as a spot treatment for a breakout? Chiu says it’s not your best option, and dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD and Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research at the Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, agrees.
“The effect of retinol takes several weeks to start kicking in, so it is best to use it over long periods of time, like weeks to months, for optimal improvement,” says Zeichner, who also recommends a prescription retinoid like tretinoin, tazarotene, or adapalene if you’re looking to treat severe acne. “The benefit you may be experiencing as a spot treatment likely comes from a drying effect it may have on the pimple.”
Instead, if you’ve got a hell of a breakout, don’t reach for the vitamin A. “The best way to treat it is to combine an anti-inflammatory over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream with acne fighting benzoyl peroxide and pimple drying salicylic acid,” says Zeicher, who recommends Cortaid, Neutrogena On the Spot Acne Treatment, and Clean & Clear Advantage spot treatment. respectively.” Just don’t overdo it, lest you want dry, peeling skin and a huge cystic breakout.
In the same vein, Chiu likes Murad’s Advanced Acne and Wrinkle Reducer, which “uses retinol in combination with glycolic acid to promote collagen boosting as well as decreasing breakouts.” She also recommends PCA Skin Intensive Clarity Treatment that pairs retinol with salicylic acid. So in short, yes, retinol can help with acne, but maybe skip it as a spot treatment unless you’re truly desperate.