We don’t need to tell you about retinol and all its brightening, line-smoothing magic. You’ve heard about it, you’ve read about it, you’ve probably even shared a TikTok about it. Now, retinol is making its way off the face and being used more on the body, too, thanks to genius new formulas.
Changes to the skin on your arms, legs, torso, and elsewhere become more noticeable around age 40, which is why dermatologists and skin care experts recommend retinol as part of a regular body skin care routine. Board-certified dermatologist Corey Hartman, founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama, is happy that the body is starting to get the love it deserves. “Most people only pay attention to protecting and hydrating the skin on their bodies. But if we can get in the habit of using multipurpose products, like body retinol lotions, then it’s a step in the right direction,” he says.
The Backstory on Body Retinol
Retinol is nothing new: The vitamin A derivative aids cell turnover and stimulates new collagen for firmer skin. It’s one of the most well-known and well-studied skincare ingredients, and has the scientific data to back up the brightening, plumping, smoothing claims.
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Retinol use on the face has pretty much been mastered. “In general, skincare for the body has lagged way behind skincare for the face,” medical aesthetician Amy Peterson, and the founder of Skincare by Amy Peterson, in Miami says. She credits the recent uptick in the use of retinol on the body to an increase in well-formulated, more practical body products that are less irritating. For example, formulation advancements, like time-released stabilized and encapsulated options, help reduce irritation and dryness, typical side effects of retinol.
Besides just hydrating the skin on the body, there are aesthetic reasons to care for it, like improving pigmentation, tone, texture, wrinkles, scars, and more. Saggy skin below the neck, which occurs from a slow yet steady loss of collagen, resulting in a decrease in elasticity, is a big aging concern. “We know retinol works well on the face for those concerns, so why not use it on the body?” board-certified dermatologist Purvisha Patel, also the founder of Visha Skincare, says.
The Benefits of Body Retinol
Retinol does a lot for the skin. First, it increases the rate at which dead skin cells turn over, so it exfoliates. It’s also the go-to ingredient for clearing up body acne, lightening hyperpigmentation and discoloration, and reducing the effects of environmental damage. “It also stimulates collagen to firm up saggy areas, like around the knees and the arms, and gets rid of dullness,” Hartman says.
Although the skin on the body is thicker than the face, retinol functions the same no matter where you apply it. The greatest improvements are seen in areas of the body where the skin is crepey, wrinkled, and less taut, including the thighs, chest, elbows, and backsides of the arms. But retinol lotions also work well as spot treatments. Peterson says to apply a thin layer of retinol lotion over the area you want to treat.
You can also double down on retinol’s benefits by pairing it with professional treatments (of course, following your doctor’s instructions). For example, Hartman says combining body retinol and laser treatments or microneedling helps improve stretch marks. This one-two punch creates more robust collagen and thickens the skin to soften the appearance of stretch marks.
What Not to Do
It isn’t the end of the world if you use the same retinol on your face and body (you’ll survive), but there’s a reason why most dermatologists caution against it. The skin on the face is entirely different from the body. “There are fewer oil glands on the body, and the skin is thicker in some areas, so the concentration of retinol has to be different and stronger,” Patel says. Plus, retinol products for the face can be expensive and are packaged in smaller containers, which means less cream. “If you use that product on the body, you’ll go through it pretty fast,” Hartman adds. However, various prescription-strength retinoids, including tretinoin, have yet to enter the body care arena.
Unlike retinol for the face, which can sometimes (but not always) be void of hydrating ingredients, body versions always incorporate them. “Most body retinol products contain between .05 and 1 percent of the active ingredient, and are formulated as hydrating creams, serums, and lotions,” Hartman says. His favorite is Topicals’ Slather. “Retinol body lotions often contain added moisture via ceramides, glycerin, or squalene, which makes it more tolerable for use.”
Some creams and lotions are available in lower concentrations of 0.25 percent, benefiting those with more sensitive or easily irritated skin. There are also body oils with retinol, like Environ’s Vitamin A, C & E Body Oil, and formulations for specific body parts like Soft Services Theraplush Overnight Repair Treatment, a hand cream infused with retinol. Olay even makes a body wash with retinol that promises smoother, brighter skin in 24 hours and visible results in a month.
How to Use Body Retinol
Using retinol on your body follows most of the same guidelines as the face. It’s best to start slow, and as the skin acclimates to retinol, work up to using it every other day and then daily. Newbies should pick a gentle, hydrating formula, like Lendava Body Care, which is jam-packed with hyaluronic acid, jojoba oil, and handpicked shea butter, or Versed Press Restart with microencapsulated retinol.
Does the pea-sized application rule that applies to the face also hold true for the body? It doesn’t. But there’s no need to overdo it and slather your body in copious amounts of cream. Instead, Patel suggests using a tablespoon per appendage and two to three tablespoons for the trunk, depending on the concentration of the product. She also says to apply retinol creams after bathing “just like a regular moisturizer.”
Unfortunately, retinol has its downsides, like redness, dryness, irritation, and flaking. If your skin veers on the dry side, try buffering the retinol (in the palm of your hand, mix retinol lotion with regular lotion) or sandwich it (apply a moisturizer, then a retinol cream, and finish off with another layer of moisturizer). Peterson says both techniques allow the moisturizer to act as a barrier against retinol.
No matter where on the body retinol is applied, the sun can make the treated skin more sensitive and cause the ingredient to be less effective. So daily use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 is nonnegotiable. “There are even some brands trying to put sunscreen into their formulations too,” Hartman says.
Retinol isn’t off-limits for specific skin colors; everyone can benefit from it. But there are a few things to take note of. For example, Hartman says, “Extremely fair skin may be more prone to irritation and redness on the body when using retinol.” And the same goes for darker skin tones, which Peterson cautions can become irritated, especially when getting accustomed to retinol. “Darker skin is also more prone to hyperpigmentation due to inflammation or irritation. Therefore, it is best to seek professional guidance before using retinol products.”
For the most part, it’s safe to use retinol body products year-round, but you may need to switch up the lotions seasonally—go with something more hydrating and balm-like in the winter and lighter in the summer. There are, however, a few occasions when bypassing retinol is a good idea, like if there’s an occurrence of psoriasis or eczema on the body or the skin is inflamed or sunburned. It’s also best to lay off retinol if you plan to be in the sun. When that’s the case, Peterson advises discontinuing retinol at least a few days prior. “Even laser treatments, including laser hair removal, require you to stop using retinol,” she adds. Pregnant and breastfeeding women must also put body retinol (and all retinol and retinoids) on the back burner, since the ingredient can potentially cause congenital disabilities.
Patience is key; it can take several weeks to up to six months to see visible results from a body retinol routine. Patel says acne-related conditions on the body may surface faster than the improvement of hyperpigmentation and textural changes.
Firmer, smoother skin won’t happen overnight. And there may even be a few bumps along the way, like dryness and irritation, which Peterson says are more likely to occur when introducing retinol to the body. Also, a purging effect that results in breakouts (typical of strong retinol and retinoids used on the face) isn’t likely to occur, but it can happen.
Consistency is critical over the long term, and the more you can safely use retinol on the body—without instigating unnecessary irritations, dryness, or sensitivity—the better.