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Retinol is widely recognized as a reliable anti-aging ingredient. It has a specific molecular structure that enables it to penetrate the skin and act as a deep exfoliator. This action speeds up skin cell turnover and encourages the formation of new collagen. The problem is that there can be side effects, including sun sensitivity, extreme dryness, redness and irritation, as well as thinning of the skin over time. Sensitive types, like me, have long been hesitant to use retinol creams and treatments. But times are changing: There are new, gentler forms of retinol that effectively overcome such adverse effects. Now, even I am becoming a convert.
Retinol is vitamin A in its whole molecule form, which can be broken down into thousands of smaller components, including retinoic acid (or Tretinoin, the active ingredient in Renova and Retin-A). What we are interested in, though, are the new variations, as well as the new ways of delivering them. Here’s where things get exciting.
This can be converted by the body to either retinoic acid or retinol, which, in turn, can be converted to retinyl palmitate. Because of this metabolization, treating the skin with retinaldehyde could be effective while reducing the side effects associated with heavy guns. That’s the theory anyway, but does it work in practice? A Swiss study concluded that "retinaldehyde, which is fairly well tolerated, seems to be the most efficient cosmeceutical retinoid; it has significant efficiency toward oxidative stress, cutaneous bacterial flora, epidermis renewing, and photoaging."
While I shouldn’t imply that it is a newer form of retinol, as it has been around for many years, it is only now becoming more common. You can find it in Ao Skincare Rewind Retinal ($119.95 in the shop).
Bakuchiol is a natural antioxidant taken from the seeds and leaves of the plant psoralea corylifolia. It has no structural resemblance to retinoids, but can function in a similar way on gene expression profile, according to a 2014 study. The researchers demonstrated upregulation of types I and IV collagen and stimulation of type III collagen. They then formulated bakuchiol into a finished skin care product and, after 12 weeks, showed “significant improvement in lines and wrinkles, pigmentation, elasticity, firmness and overall reduction in photo-damage was observed, without usual retinol therapy-associated undesirable effects.”
The gentle alternative can be found in Ao Skincare Repair Night Cream ($89.95 in the shop) and Medik8 Redness Corrector Advanced Neutralising Cream ($79 in the shop).
A good way to render retinol gentler without disrupting its efficacy is to encapsulate it in another ingredient that optimizes delivery and performance. For example, Skinfinite traps retinol on what it calls molecular microsponges, creating an active night cream that enhances penetration of a milder dose. Retinol can also be formulated to release over time. This is usually done by suspending the retinol molecules in some type of gel. As the gel dissolves slowly in the skin, you get a slow and sustained delivery of retinol, which helps to prevent the onset of irritation.
When buying a retinol serum, it is important to consider the entire formulation. A good formula can combine a strong concentration of retinol with ingredients that “buffer” it and help prevent irritation. The founder of Sciote, one of the Truth In Aging community’s favorite brands, told us how he uses the buffering approach: “Our Retinol Crème was designed so that you never feel the ‘burn.’ It does contain two percent retinol, but because it is formulated with organic aloe as the first ingredient, green tea and propolis, it is really buffered. Hence the reason it feels so silky on the skin and never stings or burns.” Try Sciote Advanced Retinol Crème ($64 in the shop).