Retinol is fantastic for treating lines & wrinkles no matter what your skin type or secondary skin concerns. Lines & wrinkles aren’t the only thing this wonder-ingredient can treat though. Retinol has the ability to correct all sorts of skin conditions and concerns including acne, eczema, pigmentation, enlarged pores.
What is Retinol?
Retinol is a form of Vitamin A and part of a family of ingredients known as Retinoids. Vitamin A is a potent antioxidant which has the ability to protect cells from free radical damage thus preventing collagen breakdown. It is also essential for cellular renewal and DNA repair.
Retinol acts like a hormone with the skin, normalising cell function. Therefore encouraging the skin to behave the way it did when it was younger.
Retinoid Skin Care Benefits
Aside from being an effective antioxidant, Vitamin A is essential for collagen synthesis and production. This is why it’s a fantastic ingredient to use when treating lines & wrinkles.
Retinol also normalises cellular turnover. As we age our cell turnover begins to slow down and become more sluggish. So by increasing it, it helps to give a more youthful complexion. By helping to normalise the way new cells are laid down forming the stratum corneum. Anyone who struggles with topical exfoliation should give Retinol a try. It has a similar exfoliating effect, but by stimulating the skins natural desquamation process.
For acne suffers where hyper-keratosis (excess of skin cells being produced) is an issue, Retinol helps to slow down cell production. In other words, helping to regulate or normalise cell turn over to a healthy rate.
Retinol also helps to normalise sebum production by reducing over-active sebaceous glands. So great for excessively oily skins. This regulation of oil production also helps to correct any secondary skin concerns such as acne or rosacea.
The Problem With Retinol
Whilst Retinol is a wonderful ingredient, it does have it’s drawbacks. There are good reasons why a lot of skin care brands do not use it in their formulations.
Firstly, it’s a highly unstable ingredient which deteriorates quickly when exposed to air and light. This is why it’s important to choose a product that uses encapsulated retinol and / or in airless packaging. This helps to ensure vulnerable ingredients are protected and thus remain active.
For example, imagine a product contains 0.5% pure Retinol. If the ingredient has not been protected, then the amount that is available to the skin will be much less. So therefore the results will be affected.
Secondly, it can be highly irritating and not easily tolerated by the skin. Using too much, too soon can cause irritation and over-stimulation. Which is why most over-the-counter skincare brands use such tiny concentrations so to avoid adverse reaction. However they also sacrifice the results from using retinoids.
It’s best to introduce Retinol slowly into your regime. This is another reason to choose a product that uses encapsulated Retinol, thus helping to deliver the Vitamin A to the deeper layers of skin without causing surface irritation.
Are All Retinoids Created Equal?
Vitamin A is such an effective ingredient because it’s recognised by the skin and has the ability to change the cell behaviour. Skin cells have receptor sites that recognise Vitamin A and can metabolise the ingredient. However it’s important to understand that in order for this to happen, Vitamin A has to be in a specific form known as Retinoic Acid. Therefore any retinoid that is applied topically to the skin goes through a conversion process before it can be utilised by the skin cell.
It is possible to apply Retinoic Acid topically in the form of a product called Retin-A (Isotretinoin). However this is a prescription drug and can only be prescribed by dermatologists. Whilst it’s the most effective form of Vitamin A, it’s also the most irritating and likely to cause irritation and over-stimulation.
The stages and order of Vitamin A conversion in the skin are;
- Retinyl Esters (Sometimes shown as Retinyl Palmitate on ingredients)
- Retinoic Acid
The further away from Retinoic Acid and the more conversion needed. The weaker the effect but also least irritating. The closer to Retinoic Acid and the less conversion needed. The stronger the effect but also the most irritating.
By this principle, in non-prescription skincare, then it’s best to choose a product that contains Retinol or Retinaldehyde (or a combination of the two).
Studies have shown that 0.5% Retinaldehyde is just as effective as 0.5% Retinoic Acid. Except Retinaldehyde is more easily tolerated by the skin and without the localised irritation of Retinoic Acid. 
How To Use Retinol Skincare
Choose a product that uses encapsulated Vitamin A and start off slowly. Introducing the product in small amounts with rest days until skin tolerance level is determined.
It’s completely normal to experience some initial dryness or flaking on the third day of using a Vitamin A product for the first time. This is because it takes 3 days for Retinol to be fully metabolise and converted to Retinoic Acid.
Due to the fact that Vitamin A is light sensitive, it’s best to use your Retinol products at night. This avoids the ingredient becoming unstable and therefore ineffective.
Always use a sunscreen whilst using Retinol products. This applies when using any stimulating ingredient on the skin that increases cell turnover and encourages desquamation.
Studies show by combining Retinol with AHA’s helps boost it’s effectiveness, particularly when treating sun damaged / photo damaged skin.
- Profilometric evaluation of photodamage after topical retinaldehyde and retinoic acid treatment. Creidi P, Vienne MP, Ochonisky S, Lauze C, Turlier V, Lagarde JM, Dupuy P, J Am Acad. Dermatol. 1998 Dec; 39(6):960-5.
- Pharmacology of RALGA, a mixture of retinaldehyde and glycolic acid. Tran C1, Kasraee B, Grand D, Carraux P, Didierjean L, Sorg O, Saurat JH. Dermatol. 2005; 210 Suppl 1:6-13.