Retinol is the #1 skincare ingredient, recommended by Dermatologists. – and for good reason! Retinol is an active form of vitamin A, and unlike prescription-level retinoids, is available OTC. BUT with sooo many retinol products on the market, often many are attached with a cray-cray price tag, and deciding on which one can make you a little cray-cray in itself. Well, happy to offer some helpful tips, and a bit of clarity.
First some 411…Surely you’ve heard of Retin-A, available only with a prescription (one of the several brand names of Tretinoin). Both, retinol and Retin-A are retinoids. They’re both made from vitamin A and promote faster skin cell turnover. In clinical trials, retinoids have proven to be one of the most effective, and powerful options for treating skin issues ranging from acne to signs of aging. – increases cell turn over/production and collagen, which can help smooth damaged or wrinkled skin.
Prescription-level retinoids fall into these groups: Tretinoin, Tazarotene, and Adapalene. Common side effects include dryness, redness, irritation, and skin peeling as well as making skin more sensitive to the sun. Being that retinol is weaker than prescription retinoids, undesirable side effects are much less. However, weaker doesn’t equal less desirable benefits. It only means it’ll take longer to achieve the same results. Interestingly enough, majority of retinoid users, actually prefer a retinol cosmeceutical strength over those where a prescription needed (cosmeceuticals available through dermatologists, medical-spas, and estheticians) Personally, I agree. I’m not all that thrilled myself with the side effects prescription strengths bring. Waiting a bit longer suits me just fine.
Benefits: Accelerates cell turnover
Stimulates collagen production
Rebuilds elastin fibers
Improves fine lines and wrinkles
Improves skin tones and uneven pigmentation
Improves texture/smoothness of skin
Provides a more youthful glow to the skin
Improves appearance of sun damaged skin
Improves acneic skin and acne scarring
Alrighty, lets get to some tips!
Amount/percentage – Just because a product has the word “Retinol” on the label – doesn’t mean it’s going to be effective enough to make a real difference. Ideally, “Retinol” should be located in the top 5 on the ingredient list. – Is there a percentage of strength listed on the label? Unfortunately, majority of retinol products do not divulge this info. (more on strengths in a bit..) But even if so, where is that concentration located in the ingredient list? The label may boast being 1-2% strength retinol, but how much of that 1 or 2% is actually in the product? Often times not as much as the fancy label or price would have you think.
Which form is listed in the ingredients! – Look for “Retinol”, not “Retinyl Palmitate”. You will find many products labeled Retinol cream or serum. However, many do not contain pure retinol, but the latter. This is not to suggest that retinyl palmitate isn’t at all beneficial, it is! However, you’re looking for a Retinol product, and for the results you seek, this won’t cut it.
Just as retinol is weaker than Retin-A, the same is true with retinyl palmitate (compared to retinol). Both retinol and retinyl palmitate are forms of vitamin A. Retinyl palmitate is an ester — or chemical compound — formed from the reaction of retinol and palmitic acid. In order to benefit from any form of topical vitamin A, the body must convert it first into retinoic acid. Retinyl palmitate must be broken down into retinol, then retinaldehyde and finally retinoic acid. Although retinyl palmitate is an earlier form of retinol, it does not offer the same effects. Retinyl palmitate is much less potent (when compared at equal strengths of retinol). Retinol converts to retinoic acid faster, and therefore results appear sooner. Retinyl palmitate is also more controversial in terms of safety.
This one greatly surprised me, but nevertheless true…When retinol or retinyl palmitate are applied to skin samples, retinols were uncovered in all five skin layers, including the deepest layer (the dermis – that’s a good thing). On the other hand, when you apply tretinoin directly to the skin, it has been shown to work mainly on the uppermost layers of the skin. Hmm, interesting.
Packaging – Retinols are sensitive to oxygen and light. The longer exposed will quickly degrade and the less effective become. Opt for retinol creams/serums available in opaque, and airless pumps.
Formulated to be less irritating – Some retinol serums are specially designed to enhance absorption to the cellular level and with less irritation.
If you’re acne-prone, make sure the Retinol product doesn’t contain pore-clogging ingredients (like alcohol denat.). Skinceuticals is a perfect example. One of the few with a 1% (and that actually divulges this info.), however contains ingredients that could potentially clog pores.
MEDICAL-GRADE Stronger than over-the-counter versions, but not as intense as prescription-strength products, medical-grade retinol is commonly found in doctors’ offices or through a professional private labels, and can be obtained without a prescription.
Use common sense – Hey, I love a great deal as much as anyone, but when I see a “1+%” retinol serum for $20 (??) Sorry, not happening. This product will not contain the high quality ingredients, concentrated levels, and be nearly as a effective, if at all. Same goes for retinol serums priced for 100+ bucks…keep looking, you can do better.
Start slowly – Not everyone’s skin can tolerate retinol right away (especially sensitive skin types). The use of a retinol product can lead to redness, dryness or flakiness. It is really important to start slowly according to what your skin can handle. Start out applying nightly 1-2 times a week, then alternative days, or mix your retinol product with a regular moisturizer or serum. If your skin becomes red or irritated, then you need to cut back. In no time your skin will adjust. Some even refer to the “ugly stage”, once implementing retinol into a skincare regimen. – equally expressed, that ugly stage is so very well worth it. Agree!
This is a schedule that works for those with non-sensitive skin types. Those with sensitive skin may want to go 1-2 levels back (for instance, one week 5-6, you would still be doing what those on week 1-2 are doing). Other than that, this schedule works amazingly well.
A common misperception about retinol is that it exfoliates your skin. Vitamin A/retinol in any of its forms does not do the same thing as AHAs or BHA. AHAs and BHA exfoliate the surface layers of dead built-up skin, improving sun damaged or genetically thickened skin cells.
Whether over-the-counter or prescription form, retinol is a cell-communicating ingredient that “tells” skin cells to make healthier, younger cells and can enhance the production of new skin cells. It is not an exfoliant.
Where it gets confusing, retinol in both over-the-counter and prescription products can cause flaking. Because of this side effect, people assume it is also exfoliating their skin. Flaking skin is not exfoliation. AHAs and BHA help skin do what it should be doing naturally, and naturally you don’t see your healthy skin cells shed. Instead, you just see a smooth, renewed skin surface and a healthy glow.
For the best anti-aging, anti-wrinkle benefit it is ideal to use both an exfoliant and a vitamin A/retinol product.
Another Myth buster: If you’ve heard you can’t use retinol with vitamin C (or AHA & BHA exfoliants) due to claims the ingredients deactivate one another, not to worry, this isn’t accurate in the least. – However, some do believe the use of Glycolic (AHA), salicylic acid, and kojic acid can break down retinol and retinoids. This is a highly debatable topic, and honestly I don’t know where to stand. When I received my esthetic training many years ago, this too was the teaching, and for many years I followed the rule with my clients. But now? I find it somewhat difficult to have a firm opinion on the subject. I’ve read countless of articles, all written by highly creditable sources, and many opposing the other. (blah, one of those) I was also learned, one must discontinue all forms of retinoids for approx. 10 days prior to receiving a glycolic treatment. Well, my regular skincare regimen includes a concentrated retinol serum, and occasionally I do glycolic peels. – I’ve had no problems, and I have very sensitive skin. My regimen also includes a professional strength vitamin C serum (I can assure you, no way would I be without either!) But again, no problems and continue to receive noticeable results.
Despite retinol’s superstar status, treating signs of aging is far more complex than any one ingredient can address! A few other ingredients making the list of must-haves are peptides, vitamin C & E, hyaluronic acid, and AHAs.
*Important note – Do not use retinoids when pregnant or nursing. Apply an SPF cream during the day.