Retinol refers to a compound derived from vitamin A and is available over-the-counter (OTC) at low strengths. (Retinol falls under the umbrella term “retinoids,” which includes all vitamin A derivatives—both OTC and prescription.) It has several key benefits that dermatologists note. For starters, it can encourage collagen production. “Retinol binds to retinoid receptors within skin cells,” says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. about retinol in our guide to the ingredient. This “activates genes that upregulate collagen production.”
It also stimulates cell turnover, making the appearance of the skin brighter and more youthful: “Besides stimulating production of new collagen, retinol enhances cell turnover,” says Zeichner. “This means it sheds dead and damaged cells that make the skin look dull.” And while retinol thickens the lower layers of the skin (a good thing), it thins out the top layer, which creates a dewy, clear-skin glow, he says.
These benefits are the same if applied north or south of the jawline. So a retinol body lotion may be enticing for those dealing with body acne, rougher overall texture, or signs of aging, such as crepey quality, sagging skin, or dark spots.
However, retinol does come with warnings. Notably, those with sensitive or reactive skin find it difficult to tolerate—if they’re even able to use it at all. So much like we give the advice to proceed with caution on the face, we encourage the same with this body care category. If you begin to experience inflammation flare-ups and extreme dryness that goes on for weeks without getting better, it may be an indication that it’s just not the ingredient for you. And that’s OK! There are plenty of healthy aging ingredients on the market that will help your skin look soft and supple—like coenzyme Q10, aloe vera, botanical oils, and targeted-biotic ingredients—that are also appropriate for sensitive skin.
Finally, there’s another group of individuals who will not be able to use retinol body lotions. In general, many derms agree that you should not use retinol if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. While the primary concern is ingesting oral retinoids, doctors and derms recommend ceasing topical use as well—as a precaution since we don’t yet know how much is absorbed into the bloodstream, especially when using it on a large surface area.