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    How do retinoids and retinol help with acne?

    On this page
    1. What are topical retinoids? 
    2. What is retinol? 
    3. Where can I get topical retinoids for my acne?
    4. Are topical retinoids available over the counter?
    5. How should I use retinoids for my acne?
    6. Can I use retinol for my acne? 
    7. Are retinoids the same as isotretinoin? 

    Reviewed by our clinical team

    Pot of retinol cream

    Acne is a really common skin condition that most of us have experienced to some extent – whether it’s the odd breakout during our teen years, or consistent spots and oily skin well into adulthood.

    If you live with acne, and you’re finding it difficult to manage your symptoms, you’re not alone. Despite the common misconception, acne is not something that can be cured overnight simply by washing your face or wearing less makeup! 

    For people with moderate or severe acne, treatment is complex and usually involves a combination of oral and topical medications, including retinoids.

    What are topical retinoids? 

    If you’ve got moderate to severe acne that can’t be managed with normal pharmacy treatments, your GP might prescribe topical retinoids. This is a type of treatment applied directly to the skin – it’s normally only available with a prescription.

    Retinoids work by increasing the turnover of skin cells, removing dead cells from the surface of the skin, and reducing inflammation. All of this helps to prevent the formation of spots.

    There are a few different retinoids that can be prescribed for acne in the UK, including adapalene (Differin) and tretinoin. Sometimes these might be combined with other active ingredients like an antibiotic or benzoyl peroxide.

    What is retinol? 

    Retinol is a type of retinoid that is weak enough to be sold and used without a prescription. It’s a popular anti-ageing product, because it helps boost skin cell turnover, which means it can combat signs of ageing like fine lines. 

    Where can I get topical retinoids for my acne?

    The first step in getting treatment for your acne is visiting your GP. This is only necessary if you have tried pharmacy treatments and they haven’t worked, or if your acne is considered moderate to severe. There are lots of different things your GP can prescribe to help with your acne, including antibiotic tablets and topical retinoids like adapalene and tretinoin.

    An alternative to seeing your GP is to use Online Doctor’s acne clinic. To use our service, select the retinoid of your choice then fill out our short, confidential questionnaire and securely upload two photos of your acne. Our in-house clinicians will use this information to decide whether your chosen treatment is suitable, or whether you could benefit from something different. 

    Once treatment has been approved, we can deliver your medication directly to your home, or make it available for collection at your local ParcelShop.

    Are topical retinoids available over the counter?

    Prescription-strength retinoids aren’t available over the counter, because they need to be used with the supervision of a GP or dermatologist. This includes Differin, a branded gel containing adapalene, which is available over the counter in the US, but not in the UK. 

    How should I use retinoids for my acne?

    Topical retinoids come in cream or gel form and are usually applied directly to the skin once a day, before you go to bed.  

    Before using retinoids you should wash your face and wait for 20 minutes, then apply the cream or gel to affected areas e.g. the bits where you have spots! It’s important not to use too much. 

    Retinoids can make your skin more sensitive to UV light, so it’s important to wear sunscreen on your face during the day, and to avoid very strong or excessive sunlight. 

    Can I use retinol for my acne? 

    Retinol is essential a weaker version of a prescription retinoid. If you have mild acne, you might find that retinol works for your skin. If your acne is more severe, it’s likely you’ll need a prescription-strength product.  

    If you’re interested in trying retinol, you can browse a variety of skincare products at the LloydsPharmacy website, including the Olay Retinol24 collection

    Are retinoids the same as isotretinoin? 

    Isotretinoin is a type of retinoid that comes in capsule form. It is best known under the brand name Roaccutane.  

    Isotretinoin can be a really effective treatment for severe acne, but it’s associated with some serious side effects, and won’t be right for everyone. If you want to try this treatment, you first need to see a dermatologist who can assess your suitability. 

    In the past, isotretinoin was offered as a topical gel, but this has now been discontinued in the UK. 


    Authors and editors

    • Reviewed and updated by

      Dr Mitra Dutt
      GMC number: 4569536
      Date reviewed: 26th October 2021

    • Reviewed and updated by

      Our clinical team
      Date reviewed: 3rd October 2023

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