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Retinol: When to Use It, How to Use It

retinol for anti-aging
December 30, 2014 Reviewed by Marta 18 Comments

Retinol is one of the most popular anti-aging ingredients — at least with dermatologists and their prescription pads.  The reason for this is that it works —  well, up to a point. And there are some costs attached to frequent and long-term retinol use. This is a controversial ingredient and one that I, for a long time, refused to use. Recent improvements in formulating technologies have won me over — cautiously! So what is the truth about retinol?

Retinol is vitamin A in its whole molecule form. It belongs to the family of chemical compounds known as retinoids

Forms of Retinol

The retinol molecule can be broken down into thousands of smaller components, including retinoic acid (or tretinoin, the active ingredient in Renova and Retin-A) and tazarotene. Retinyl palmitate is the ester of retinol (vitamin A) combined with palmitic acid.

What Does It Do?

Vitamin A is thought to renew and regenerate skin cells and stimulate new collagen production; to have antioxidant properties; and to serve as a skin exfoliator, unclogging pores and effectively treating and preventing acne.

How Does It Work?

Vitamin A itself does not have a direct effect on skin, but is only effective after enzymes in the skin cells convert vitamin A into retinoic acid (tretinoin). Only as retinoic acid can it facilitate communication between cells, encouraging aging cells to continue their renewal process.

Retinol is basically forcing the repeated shedding of the upper dermal layer of the skin to produce new cells.

Retinyl palmitate is gentler than applying Retinol directly and, therefore, a better option for those with sensitive skin. On the other hand, it isn't going to have the exfoliation effect of a Retinoic Acid

Safety and Other Concerns

There is plenty of empirical evidence that confirms that tretinoin, the active form of vitamin A acid that is used in prescription creams raises a number of serious safety concerns.

Retinol is a controversial ingredient because of its potentially hazardous side effects. Although it has many proven benefits, the Cosmetics Database rates it as a moderate hazard ingredient. Retinol has been shown to produce excess reactive oxygen species that can interfere with cellular signaling, cause mutations, lead to cell death, and it may be implicated in cardiovascular disease. It has caused reproductive effects at low doses in one or more animal studies, and it is definitely prudent to avoid retinols of any kind during pregnancy.

The toxicity of retinoids and, in particular, tretinoin is well known and has been understood by scientists for well over a decade. The condition caused by vitamin A toxicity is called hypervitaminosis A (source). It is caused by overconsumption of preformed vitamin A.  A six-year trial on over 1,000 veterans was stopped six months before the scheduled end because of a high number of deaths in the tretinoin group. The concentration used was 0.1%. For more tretinoin and vitamin A side effects read here.

According to FDA scientists, retinyl palmitate breaks down in sunlight to photomutagenic compounds and forms free radicals in the presence of UVA and UVB radiation. This has been confirmed by the National Toxicity Program.

The other issue is thinning of the skin. Because they force new cell production, they might actually speed up aging because cells don't multiply indefinitely but only about 50 or so times before they reach the Hayflick Limit.

The heavy duty cell turnover can cause irritation and dryness. Retinol (along with tretinoin) can cause severe skin reactions, including peeling, redness, scaling, itching and burning. In fact retinol is such a reliable irritant that it is sometimes used in studies to induce irritation. For this reason those with dry and/or sensitive skin (like me) should approach with caution.

Retinol greatly increases the risk of extreme sunburn; care should be taken (shade, sunscreen, etc.) to protect treated skin from overexposure to ultraviolet light.

Retinol and Other Anti-aging Ingredients or Tools

The problem with retinol and other exfoliants is that they deprive the skin of sebum. The result is that the skin tries to put the sebum back and this can slow down the efficacy of other actives. This is why it is generally not a good idea to put on an expensive serum with growth factors and peptides and top it off with your night-time retinol regimen.

Light sensitivity is a result of retinol use and hence users of LED light are cautioned if they are regular users of prescription strength retinol creams. Do a test run, and if the skin does not become unduly red (a flushed look for about 20 minutes or so after LED sessions is normal) then your skin is not overly sensitive to the combination.

Improvements in Retinol Use and Delivery

The main improvement in modern cosmetics has been formulations that intelligently improve the delivery of other actives and provide soothing ingredients so that the retinol does not irritate the skin. A good example of getting this right is Amarte’s Eyeconic Eye Cream, which has soothing argan and other oils to mitigate a stiff 3.8% retinol whilst encapsulating a growth factor for better delivery.

Skinfinite says its retinol in Skinfinite Platinum PM Cream 1% Retinol ($79 in the shop) is entrapped in molecular microsponges that enhances skin penetration in a time-release delivery system.

For more formulation ideas see our Five Best with Retinol 2014.

Note: This article was last updated on December 30, 2014.

  • July 20, 2016

    by Marta Wohrle

    Hi Shalini, I think that the combination of ferulic acid with retinol is the key in Dr. Dennis Gross formulations. The ferulic acid helps the skin deal with the retinol and it provides important antioxidants as well as sun protection. I do use the overnight cream, but only once or twice a week and always at night.

  • July 20, 2016

    by Shalini

    Marta, what would you say about the Dennis gross retinol recovery overnight serum? Also what about their retinol and ferulic moisturiser? Would that cause more damage than good?

  • January 3, 2015

    by Melanie

    What about Mad Hippie's retinyl retinoate? I have been reluctant to use retinol products before, but am quite curious about theirs.

  • January 2, 2015

    by Marta

    Thanks Stephanie. Interesting. I can't find anything that updates it - but I only did a very quick scan. I'll do some research and see what I can find out.

    Regarding retinaldehyde, we have an article here:

  • January 1, 2015

    by SkinCare Guru

    Retinaldehyde is the new ingredient to look for!
    Here is one such article that discusses this ingredient!

  • January 1, 2015

    by Stephanie

    Hi Marta. Here it is: It was actually published way back in 2002 so I'm surprised we haven't heard more about it. It's news to me.

  • January 1, 2015

    by Marta

    Hi Stephanie can you post a link to the study on palmitic acid. That would be really helpful. Thanks!

  • January 1, 2015

    by Stephanie

    I've been reading a study that shows topical ascorbyl palmitate (oil soluble vitamin C) in small amounts causes "massive" and "catastrophic" skin cell death when exposed to ordinary levels of UV light. The researchers concluded that it was not the ascorbate part causing the problem, but specifically the palmitic acid.

    So I wonder whether retinyl palmitate has the same issue? Especially given that some other forms of retinol such as retinyl retinoate apparently don't suffer from UV problems.

    Does anyone know more about this?

  • January 1, 2015

    by Stephanie

    In the veterans Tretinoin study I wonder what made them speculate that the mortality difference was due to the 0.1% Tretinoin ingredient, being only 1000th of the formula, and ignore the other 99.9% chemical base cream ingredients. For me those raise more obvious suspicions, especially the fairly large amount of BHT with its links to lung cancer.

    If only some clever company would formulate a Tretinoin gel in a simple, safe, natural base! It would be a hit, and these things could then be studied meaningfully.

  • December 30, 2014

    by Hannah

    It seems like the disadvantages really outway any benefits of using Vitamin A. Men age so much better because they have thicker skin, why would we then use vitamin A if it is only going to further thin our already thinner women skin?

  • December 30, 2014

    by Michele Watson

    I am using PSF Pro - a nanosomal retinol gel which is time released Vit A Serum at night - and really impressed so far. No ittitation whatsoever. I read an old review of yours Marta on PSF and retinol and bought this updated product. I can recommend it and their range is really affordable to!

  • December 30, 2014

    by Melanie

    Marta, I would be curious to know your thoughts on Mad Hippie's new vitamin A serum.

  • March 17, 2009

    by marta

    Hi Michelle

    I am testing Glo right now. I feel as if I need another week or so before writing a full review. However, the signs are very good.

  • March 17, 2009

    by Michelle

    Thanks for the feedback Marta! I read the comments, and it seems like a couple of people recommend the GloTherapeutics line. Have you had a chance to test it yet? I think it was listed as one of the Five Best and one of the blogs said to watch that space for an upcoming review, but I can't seem to find that post anymore so I don't know if it's been updated.

  • March 15, 2009

    by marta

    Boots Restore & Renew is meant to diminish wrinkles. If you want to try an alternative then you can take a look at some over the counter retinol creams that we picked out:
    There are more good suggestions in the comments to that post as well.

  • March 15, 2009

    by Michelle

    Hi Marta,

    I remember reading that the Boots No. 7 Restore and Renew serum worked well for you, but then you started having an allergic reaction to it. I've been using it for a while now, but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to look for, or what it's supposed to do. Is it supposed to diminish wrinkles? I'm not sure if it's working. Your post mentioned that Boots No. 7 might be almost as good as a prescription Tretinoin, but are there other products/alternatives to Boots No. 7 that have these benefits without the allergic reaction? I use it along with the Nutra-lift A therapy and the YBF correct EYE cream. I don't think I have any allergies to the product, but I'm just not sure what it's supposed to do for my skin. I'm not sure if I should purchase another Restore & Renew though. Thank you!

  • September 18, 2008

    by Marta

    <p>Thank you so much. Reading such an endorsement is a good way to start my day.</p>

  • September 18, 2008

    by Anna

    <p>PS: By the way, thanks for such a wonderfully written and informative blog. I'm saving your URL to my favourites folder and then intend to send the link to my friends.</p>

    <p>best wishes<br />

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