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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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 ($55 in the shop), 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.