The Complete Guide to Retinol: The Anti-Aging (and Anti-Acne) Hero
Probably one of the most researched and proven anti-aging ingredient, Retinol – the pure form of Vitamin A, along with its derivatives (collectively called Retinoids), stars in many skin care products.
While Vitamin A is known to play a vital role in our bodily functions such as eye health, cell regulation, and bone growth; topical and oral use of Retinoids has over 125 identified cosmetical uses!
- Minimizing the appearance of wrinkles
- Improving uneven skin tone and skin firmness
- Shrinking enlarged pores
- Treatment of Psoriasis and Keratosis Pilaris
- Fighting against sun damage
- Promoting overall skin radiance and health
Retinol is classified as a Cell-Communicating Ingredient, which means that it can tell a skin cell how to behave. Retinol ‘tells’ developing skin cell in the lower layers of the skin – called the dermis, to develop normally, instead of a sun-damaged or genetically malformed skin cell. This is how, over time, Retinol can address multiple skin concerns.
Another way to how Retinol works is also by telling the older cells in the upper layer of skin to die quicker which in turn allows the newer, healthier skin to surface faster. This quicker skin cell turnover rate, paired with cell communicating abilities is what makes Retinol such a superstar!
Before jumping into using Retinoids, it’s prudent that users are aware of the potential risks.
Dryness, Flakiness, Redness
Retinol increases skin cell turnover rate, which can cause these side effects, especially for those who are new to using them, or too aggressive when first using Retinol. Dryness occurs because Retinoids can decrease oil production in the skin – part of the mechanism that makes it effective in the treatment of Acne. The flakiness comes from the old cells ‘dying’, and the redness is due to the increased sensitivity of the new skin cells produced.
The older skin cells on the topmost layer of our skin somewhat acts like a protective barrier for newer cells underneath. Therefore, when new cells production is increased and there are more new cells on the surface – which makes our skin looks radiant, these cells are more sensitive to the elements and UV light. So remember to use a sunscreen!
Pregnancy & Breastfeeding Risks
There are very little clinical tests regarding the safety of using Retinoids during pregnancy and periods of pregnancy. Some studies have indicated that high concentrations of Vitamin A can cause harm to the fetus and other birth defects, especially when taken orally. So as a precaution, we would not recommend the use of Retinol during this period, regardless of strength. Read more on Pregnancy and Skincare here.
Choose the strength of Retinol and/or type of Retinoid appropriate for your skin concerns.
If you’re relatively younger, and are looking for a more preventative product, we would recommend starting with a low-strength Retinol product. Many night time moisturizers do incorporate Retinol in low concentrations despite it not being in the product name. Look at the ingredients list, and if Retinol (or its derivatives) is towards at the middle or bottom of the list to derive if it’s in low concentration.
If you have advanced anti-aging concerns, start with a medium strength Retinol product to test how your skin reacts before moving up to a higher strength formula!
Retinoids which are for anti-acne concerns are typically prescription-strength. They can come in topical forms or if your acne is serious enough, you can be prescribed an oral course of Isotretinoin by your doctor.
If you have mild acne, try other forms of Acne treatment like using a BHA exfoliant and Benzoyl Peroxide first before visiting a medical professional for prescription-strength Retinoids.
If you have Cystic Acne, we would recommend a visit to a dermatologist, as Over-the-Counter treatments are not very effective for it.
Psoriasis is a genetic and chronic skin condition which is caused by overproduction and overabundance of skin cells. This results in scaly and flaky skin, with redness – typically around the elbows, knees, and scalp. However, its symptoms can manifest in any part of the body.
While it has no cure, skin care is still a viable solution to help mitigate and manage these symptoms.
We recommend, however, consulting with a medical professional before trying to treat it yourself. Treatment for Psoriasis usually includes many other products and ingredients, and a qualified professional is best to get the best suitable treatment. Furthermore, most Retinoids targeted towards Psoriasis are by prescription too!
Keratosis Pilaris (KP or Chicken Skin)
KP is a common, cosmetic skin condition caused by the overproduction and buildup of Keratin in the skin which results in tiny bumps in the skin, and even dryness or roughness. Just like Psoriasis, it can’t be cured or prevented, but can be managed with skin care. But unlike Psoriasis, professional diagnosis and treatment is not necessary unless you’re looking for topical, prescription strength Retinoids.
We recommend that you start with an over-the-counter Retinol based product first, before seeking stronger, and more irritating prescription alternatives. Do consider an AHA or BHA exfoliant as well – learn more about them here.
Each individual’s skin is truly unique, so experiment to see what frequency of application works best for you! While some may be able to tolerate a Retinol product 2-3 times weekly, others can use it daily – morning or night. Remember to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater, if you’re using it in the day.
Aside from using lower strength Retinol products or alternating days of application, try incorporating plant oils into your routine as well. You can mix a non-fragranced, non-greasy, plant oil–based booster/treatment into your Retinol product to reduce the potential irritating effects.
Don’t forget—when you apply your Retinol product, be sure to include your neck and chest so you get those amazing benefits there, too. Also note that improving the appearance of aging skin is too complex for any one ingredient to handle—even a superstar like Retinol.
There are many derivatives and strengths of retinoids available in both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription products today. The term “Retinol” is the name of the purest form of Vitamin A, and used most often to refer to the non-prescription version of Retinoids.
However, Retinol itself is not active. It has to go through a conversion process in the skin to get to the active form which is then usable by the skin.
Retinyl Palmitate –> Retinol — > Retinaldehyde –> All-Trans-Retinoic Acid (Tretinoin)
Although Retinoids/Vitamin A is naturally occurring, there also exists synthetic Retinoids. These forms of retinoids are synthesized to either:
- Better target specific skin conditions such as Acne, Keratosis Pilaris, and Psoriasis; or
- To elicit a better therapeutic:toxicity ratio to minimize the known side effects of Retinoids.
Over-the-Counter (OTC) Retinoids
An ester of Retinol combined with palmitic acid – a saturated fatty acid derived from palm oil. Found in many sunscreens, Retinyl Palmitate is considered to be one of the weakest Retinoids. The upside to that is that it’s also one of the gentlest forms – great for those with sensitive skin.
An ester of Retinol combined with linoleic acid – an unsaturated omega-6 fatty acid found in corn, safflower, and sunflower oils. There are still very little research on this particular ester of Retinol, and are found in few products as compared to it’s more commonly found cousin – Retinyl Palmitate.
The purest form of Vitamin A, and the most commonly used term in OTC skin care products. Found in many moisturizers, serums, and targeted treatments.
Many skin care formulations try to overcome the known irritating side-effects of Retinol by leveraging time-release delivery systems, and also by formulating it with other soothing ingredients.
Strength by Percentage: Low (<0.04%); Moderate (0.04%-0.1%); High (0.5%-1%)
A stronger form of Vitamin A as compared to Retinol. Compared to the rest of the OTC Retinoid family, Retinaldehyde has promise in being an anti-acne treatment, without the same harsh side effects of its prescription cousins.
However, Retinaldehyde is still not as commonly found in OTC skin care products due to its higher cost, as well as its relatively limited research regarding optimal concentrations, usage practices, and potency when compared to prescription Retinoids.
When used, however, they’re typically found in lower percentages (0.05% to 0.1%) as compared to Retinol.
Synthetic Retinoid with research showing its usefulness for restoring and improving signs of aging in skin. Retinyl Retinoate has been shown, in limited but promising, to be less sensitizing than prescription-strength Retinoic Acid (Tretinoin).
Retinyl Retinoate may also be less sensitizing than pure Retinol because of its slower conversion in skin to its active form. Although there’s reason to try Retinyl Retinoate if your skin seems intolerant of cosmetic Retinol, note that it shouldn’t be construed as a better or safer alternative than Retinol itself.
Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate (HPR)
Ester of Retinoic Acid which is claimed to work similarly but without the irritation. Manufacturer patch testing results in significantly lower irritation when compared to the same concentration of Retinol.
Because HPR is an ester of Retinoic Acid – the active form of Retinol, instead of an ester of Retinol, it doesn’t have to go through the same conversion process to be used directly by skin. So, in theory, a lower amount of HPR can elicit the same results as higher concentrations of Retinol.
Although it sounds very promising and is already found in a few skin care products (marketed as Granactive Retinoid), there is a lack of independent studies at the moment to further test and verify these manufacturer claims.
Also known as All-Trans-Retinoic Acid (ATRA), Tretinoin is the active form of Retinol which is able to be used by skin. It is typically marketed and referred to as Retin-A or Renova as a topical cream to commonly treat acne. Generically, it is also marketed as a use to reduce the appearance of stretch marks.
Commonly found in strengths of 0.025% to 0.1%
First every synthesized Retinoid, also commonly known as Accutane or Roccutane. It’s prescribed as an oral course for the treatment of severe acne. Due to its side effects, however, it is considered as a very serious prescription, and one of the very last resorts for acne. Those who go through this treatment, are subjected to very close medical supervision during the course.
Besides dry lips, and increased photosensitivity, just like with other types of Retinoids, Isotretinoin can also cause muscle aches/pains and headaches in certain patients, and also other potential psychological side effects.
The upside is: most patients who successfully complete a course of treatment, which usually lasts close to half a year, would never experience acne again.
Third-generation synthetic Retinoid made for topical use, which works similarly to Tretinoin, but chemically more stable – meaning that it can be produced in higher concentrations. Adapalene has also shown to be more effective to Tretinoin, where a 0.1% concentration of Adapalene works as effective as a 0.025% concentration of Tretinoin, all while producing less irritation.
It is sold in the United States under different brands such as Differin or ProactivMD, although it can be found generically as well. Despite it being a prescription-strength Retinoid, it is approved in the United States & Singapore to be sold as an OTC treatment for mild to moderate acne in a 0.1% concentration.
However, do not take the OTC-classification as a sign that it is not as irritating as other prescription-strength Retinoids, even at a ‘low’ 0.1% concentration. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) still warns that skin may experience ‘redness, itching, dryness, burning’ in the first few weeks of use.
Adapalene is also available in higher concentrations via prescriptions, up to 0.3%
Third-generation synthetic Retinoid prescribed for acne, psoriasis, wrinkles and photodamage. It’s sold under different brand names marketed for different treatments: Tazorac (Acne;Psoriasis), Avage (Wrinkles), and Fabior (Acne); and typically found in concentrations of 0.05% or 0.1%
For patients with acne, compared to Tretinoin at the same concentrations, Tazarotene as been shown to be more effective after at least 8 weeks of use, all while producing similar levels of irritation.
When compared similarly to Adapalene, Tazarotene treatment had mixed results between 2 different double-blind clinical trials. One had patients showing comparable results with both treatments, but another showed that Tazarotene was “significantly superior to adapalene in reducing overall disease severity”. However, both studies did conclude that Tazarotene produced more side-effects (burning, dryness, peeling) than Adapalene.
Myth: The higher the percentage of Retinol, the better.
Many consumers are concerned about the percentage of Retinol in anti-aging products such as serums or moisturizers. Although the percentage can make a difference (especially if it’s too low), it’s not helpful in understanding how a Retinol product will benefit your skin. Far more important is the delivery system, packaging, and the other ingredients present with the Retinol.
Using a product with a range of anti-aging ingredients plus Retinol is far more valuable for skin than using a product with only a supposedly high percentage of Retinol. Skin needs far more than any one ingredient can provide, however great that one ingredient may be.
Packaging is a key issue, so any container that lets in air (like jar packaging) or sunlight (clear containers) just won’t cut it. Lots of Retinol products come in unacceptable packaging; these should be avoided because the Retinol will most likely be (or quickly become) ineffective. Look for opaque, airless, or air-restrictive packaging.
Myth: Retinol exfoliates your skin.
This is not accurate. AHAs and BHAs works fundamentally different from Vitamin A/Retinol.
Retinol works from the deeper layers up by communicating directly to the cell to enhance the production of healthier, newer skin cells. While AHA and BHA exfoliators work by assisting/enhancing the natural exfoliating process of the skin by loosening the bond between the dead layers of skin and the newer radiant skin beneath them.
This misperception occurs because Retinoids can cause flaking, and users may think that is part of the natural exfoliating process of the skin.
Myth: You can’t use Retinol during the daytime.
Research has shown that Retinol works well under SPF-rated products to protect skin from UV light. Furthermore, Vitamins A, C, and E, even when in combination, also remain stable and effective under an SPF-rated product when exposed to UV light.
The general recommendation to use Antioxidants (which Retinol is) at night, is due to the fact that many do not use an SPF-rated product as the last part of their daytime routine! We always recommend using a sunscreen in the day, regardless of antioxidant application. But for best results, be sure to apply antioxidant-rich skincare products morning and evening.
Myth: You can’t use Retinol with a leave-on AHA or BHA exfoliant.
There is no conclusive research that suggests that that AHA or BHA exfoliants reduce the effectiveness or is incompatible with Retinol when used together in a skin care routine.
The confusion about using Retinol with AHA or BHA products has to do with concern over the exfoliant’s acidity lowering the skin’s pH, and by doing so, disrupting the Retinol’s ability to work its anti-aging, skin-smoothing magic.
The reasoning behind this claim is that if the pH of skin is below the typical 5.5 to 6, an enzyme in your skin won’t be able to convert Retinol into its active form – Retinoic Acid, to be used by skin.
This is based on the assumption that these acidic exfoliant ingredients lower the pH of skin, thus destabilizing the Retinol and/or deactivating the enzyme in skin that converts Retinol to its active form. But, that’s untrue.
The sole study which claimed this was only to compare how animal and human skin metabolize the form of vitamin A naturally present in skin, not about how topical Vitamin A benefits or functions in skin. Its conclusions were not intended to be used to make decisions about skincare.
Retinol even remains stable in low-pH formulations. It’s worth noting that no research has replicated the pH limitations of the study.
In fact, AHA or BHA can increase the benefits of Retinol by removing layers of dead skin which limits its absorption!
Myth: You shouldn’t combine Retinol with vitamin C.
Just with the AHA and BHA myth, this one is also based on the pH/acidity issue because most forms of Vitamin C, especially the pure form – Ascorbic Acid, are naturally acidic.
Vitamin C generally requires a low pH to remain stable. We know that Retinol works in an acidic environment, as mentioned above, and that skin’s pH is naturally acidic. So, from what the research has shown us, using Vitamin C in tandem with Retinol makes sense.
Vitamin C actually helps Retinol work better because it fights the free radicals that can destabilize the Retinol as it penetrates into skin; thus increasing Retinol’s anti-aging benefits!
Furthermore, Vitamin C is found naturally in the skin, so it’s there whether you apply it topically or not. Given that vitamin C is always present in skin, it clearly doesn’t block or interfere with the benefit of any skincare products you apply to your face, including Retinol.