What happens when you stop using retinol or retinoids?
Retinol is in the retinoid family of skincare ingredients and are used to treat mature aging skin and acne. Many studies show that retinoids improve acne and wrinkles- but what happens to the skin when you stop using retinol?
The short answer is- you will get a short-term benefit after stopping retinol but eventually your skin will return back to baseline (how it was before you began retinol). There is no downside to using retinol and it does not injure your skin in any way.
What Happens When You Stop Using Retinol for Acne?
Retinol is not FDA approved for acne, but it is often used to treat acne as a lower strength retinoid that is slowly increased to a prescription-strength retinoid. If you stop retinol and do not begin a prescription retinoid, the benefit of preventing acne will go away.
The skin cycle of cells being “born” at the base of the skin and moving to the top, dying and desquamating into the surrounding environment takes about 4-6 weeks. This means that it can take about 4-6 weeks until you lose the benefit of retinol preventing acne.
We see that our patients will stop their retinoids when their skin clears and it may take 4-6 weeks till new pimples occur. However, this is not a good practice because it takes 4-6 weeks for retinoids to work on acne. So- stopping and starting retinol will make acne come and go.
It is important to remember- retinoids prevent future acne but don’t treat acne that you currently have. It is always best to get on a retinoid and stay on it because there are long term benefits of using retinol.
What happens when you stop using retinol for wrinkles?
If you stop using retinol, will your wrinkles come back?
Yes the wrinkles will come back, but not right away. When you stop using retinol for wrinkles, your skin will eventually go back to the way it was before you began retinol. But- the good news is- you will get a sustained benefit for months after stopping retinol.
Studies That Show What Happens When You Stop Retinol on The Face
In 1990, a study (2) published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology looked at subjects who had seen improvement of wrinkles when treated with 0.1% tretinoin nightly. The subjects were changed to two different skin care regimens: one group used 0.1% every other night and the second group used the lower dose of 0.05% every night. The study showed that both of these skin care regimens sustained improvement of wrinkles. The investigators wanted to know how long it would take the skin to go back to the way it was before beginning the retinoid. When stopping the retinoid completely, the skin benefits remained at least 2 months.
In 1997, a study (3) looked at 126 subjects who had use tretinoin 0.05% emollient cream for 48-weeks. They divided subjects into 3 groups. Group 1 used no retinoid, group 2 used tretinoin 0.05% emollient cream one night a week, and group 3 used tretinoin 0.05% emollient cream three times a week. Group 1 that used no retinoid lost some of the retinoid benefits by six months. Group 2 continued to have some improvement on the 1 night a week regimen. Group 3 maintained the improvement using the 3 times per week regimen. This tells us that in order to maintain the benefit of retinoids, you need to use them at least 3 times a week after completing a one night a week cycle for 48 weeks. (Remember this study was with tretinoin which is a stronger strength than many retinols.)
Retinol works best when you use it- obviously.
But it is nice to know that if you stop for a few weeks or decrease application to 3 times a week- you get a sustained benefit. We advise you to stay on your retinoids veery night if possible to get the best results.
Will my skin go back to normal after stopping retinol?
Yes your skin will return to baseline. How long it takes for the skin to return to normal depend supon:
Do I have to use retinol forever?
Retinol is one of the best antiaging ingredients in skin care.
You do not have to use it forever, but you should if you want to slow skin aging.
Find the best retinoids and skin care routine steps for your skin type!
References and peer reviewed publications on how long the results of retinoids last:
- Baumann L. Ch. 45 Retinoids in Baumann's Cosmetic Dermatology 3rd Edition (McGraw Hill 2022)
- Ellis CN, Weiss JS, Hamilton TA, Headington JT, Zelickson AS, Voorhees JJ. Sustained improvement with prolonged topical tretinoin (retinoic acid) for photoaged skin. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1990;23(4 Pt 1):629-37.
- Olsen EA, Katz HI, Levine N, Nigra TP, Pochi PE, Savin RC, et al. Sustained improvement in photodamaged skin with reduced tretinoin emollient cream treatment regimen: effect of once-weekly and three-times-weekly applications. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1997;37(2 Pt 1):227-30.
- Kang S, Leyden JJ, Lowe NJ, Ortonne JP, Phillips TJ, Weinstein GD, et al. Tazarotene cream for the treatment of facial photodamage: a multicenter, investigator-masked, randomized, vehicle-controlled, parallel comparison of 0.01%, 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1% tazarotene creams with 0.05% tretinoin emollient cream applied once daily for 24 weeks. Arch Dermatol. 2001;137(12):1597-604.
Rosenthal DS, Griffiths CE, Yuspa SH, Roop DR, Voorhees JJ. Acute or chronic topical retinoic acid treatment of human skin in vivo alters the expression of epidermal transglutaminase, loricrin, involucrin, filaggrin, and keratins 6 and 13 but not keratins 1, 10, and 14. J Invest Dermatol. 1992;98(3):343-50.