Retinol. It’s an ingredient that is in soooo many skincare products that tout anti-ageing benefits.
Is it really worth the hype?
Let’s break it down.
What is retinol?
Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A. It is one of many compounds under the umbrella of retinoids (which are all derivatives of vitamin A).
For the purposes of skin and skincare, we are usually talking about retinol, retinaldehyde, or retinoic acid. All of these are ingredients that can be found in skin formulations (some only by prescription). Retinol is converted to retinaldehyde, which is then converted to retinoic acid in the skin.
What do retinoids do in the skin?
- stimulate collagen synthesis
- decrease the breakdown of collagen
- inhibit enzymes that are involved in the tissue breakdown associated with ageing, improving skin thickness
- improve circulation to the skin
- decrease oxidative stress and the effects of inflammation in the skin, i.e., are anti-inflammatory
- even out skin tone and irregular pigmentation
- treat acne by preventing comedones and helping resolve them
- decrease the look of wrinkles and fine lines
- support healthy skin cell turnover
The mechanisms involved in how retinoids accomplish all of these things is a bit nebulous; however, we’re gaining some clarity over time and we have lots of clinical and anecdotal evidence to support the benefits seen in the research.
The downside of retinoids
Retinoic acid as an active ingredient in skincare has the most potential for side-effects but also the most potential benefit. Retinol and retinyl palmitate, which are milder forms, are associated with lesser irritation.
- there might be an adjustment period to a retinoid as your skin gets accustomed to it
- can lead to redness, rashes, dryness, and/or scaliness of the skin
- some people do not tolerate it well due to the above factors
- increased photosensitivity, i.e., skin is more sensitive to UV damage from sunlight (so, wearing SPF 30+ is a must during the day!)
Who can use retinoids?
Some retinoids, especially for treating conditions like acne and psoriasis, are available in the appropriate strength and forms by prescription only.
For general use, retinols and retinaldehydes can be found in various concentrations in many products on the market. The rule of thumb for most people is to start low and go slow, i.e., low dose and a few times per week to start with and then increasing over time. If your skin is sensitive, then sticking with a retinol (instead of another version) and applying it after your moisturizer can be an option to minimize irritation.
Some other considerations would be to use these at night due to the photosensitivity aspect, using SPF during the day, not mixing them in at the same time as other exfoliating or acid ingredients (there will be exceptions to this), avoiding certain sensitive areas, and talking to a dermatologist or medical aesthetician to ensure the product you’re using is indeed helpful for your concerns, whatever those are!
All in all: retinoids seem to be helpful for most aspects of skin health that people are looking to support! I’d say the same thing about facial acupuncture, aka cosmetic acupuncture, which I wrote about in my last blog post here.
Quan T. Human Skin Aging and the Anti-Aging Properties of Retinol. Biomolecules. 2023 Nov 4;13(11):1614. doi: 10.3390/biom13111614. PMID: 38002296; PMCID: PMC10669284.
Szymański Ł, Skopek R, Palusińska M, Schenk T, Stengel S, Lewicki S, Kraj L, Kamiński P, Zelent A. Retinoic Acid and Its Derivatives in Skin. Cells. 2020 Dec 11;9(12):2660. doi: 10.3390/cells9122660. PMID: 33322246; PMCID: PMC7764495.