If there could be a superhero ingredient in OTC anti-ageing skin care, it would be Retinol. For anyone concerned about giving away their age, this is the one must-have in their skin care routine.

It is not surprising then that there has been a proliferation of skin care products using some form of Retinol, from health shops to department stores to dermatologist offices.

Retinol is a less potent form of Tretinoin (Retin-A).  It is a brilliant multi-tasking skin care ingredient that really packs a punch in tackling a number of skin concerns, including fine lines and wrinkles, visible pores, pigmentation, skin tone and acne. What is more is that there is a substantial body of published clinical data to back this up.

Retinol, Tretinoin and other Retinoids

While people generally refer to Retinol in a shorthand type of way, what we are really talking about are retinoids, a group of natural or synthetic compounds used in skin care that are related to the Vitamin A family.

You may know that Tretinoin (Retin-A) is a Retinoic Acid that is classified as a drug and so is only available by prescription in three strengths as a gel, cream or micro-emulsion: 0.025%, 0.05% and 1%. It is proven to reduce fine wrinkles, increase collagen and repair elastin fibres in the skin.

A study published in the Annals of Dermatology in October 2016 found that topical 0.1% Tretinoin cream can be as effective in reducing periorbital wrinkles on the face as IPL and YAG laser treatments. While the mechanism for its effectiveness is not well defined, we know that it affects the keratinocytes and fibroblasts at a cellular level in our skin. It stimulates the production of collagen, speeding up cell turnover and regulating the cell cycle. What this essentially means is that it is able to remodel skin, not just improve its visual appearance. It is also able to prevent photo-ageing before it develops by halting the increase in ‘collagenase’ after UV exposure.

Other types of retinoids do not have the pedigree of Tretinoin, but can still deliver many of the same benefits, just more slowly and less markedly.

Retinol side effects

The problem with Tretinoin and Retinol is that they can be so active as to cause irritation, redness, dryness, flaking and even peeling. This occurs because they are stimulating cell renewal.

If you want to give these a go, ensure you only use them only once a day at night and introduce them into your routine slowly. Use the lowest possible strength and apply only a few times a week to start, so that your skin can adjust.

Adding in nourishing moisturisers and caring treatments will help counter-balance the effects. Stick to gentle, non-drying cleansers, calming toners or essences and soothing serums.

Tretinoin and Retinol are powerful skin ingredients and should not be overused, regardless of your skin type. Those with fine, sensitive or rosacea need to be particularly careful. You may be able to tolerate them at lower concentrations when buffered with other serums or creams, however if that does not work it may be best to stick with less active products.

Skin starts to lose collagen at a rate of 1-1.7% a year from your mid 20s. This has prompted many people to reach for these ingredients too early, resulting in skin that is sensitive and reactive to UV, and has a poor protective barrier. Continually driving the skin to turn over faster and faster through the use of retinoids can lead to improperly formed skin cells that result in the skin not being able to play its most important function: defence. After long periods of use, some people have reported their previously robust skin became completely intolerant and overly sensitised.

In the US, the Environmental Working Group has raised concerns about Retinoic Acid and Retinyl Palmitate, the ester of Retinol, given the potential for them to become carcinogenic when exposed to sunlight.

Retinol and UV protection

The EWG has recommended manufacturers remove Retinyl Palmitate from all skin care products used on sun-exposed skin. After years of reviewing the data, the FDA has not come out with its final assessment, but you may find it prudent to stick to using your topical Vitamin A products at night.

An additional caution has been raised by the German and Norwegian governments, which have said that too much pre-formed Vitamin A – including Retinol, Retinyl Palmitate, Retinyl Acetate and Retinyl Linoleate – can cause a variety of health problems, including liver damage, brittle nails, hair loss, and osteoporosis and hip fractures in older adults. The Norwegian health authorities have advised women who are pregnant or breast-feeding to avoid cosmetic products with Vitamin A. They also have recommended restrictions on the concentration of Vitamin A in face and hand creams, and barred its use in lip and body care products.

The skin care industry, on the other hand, argues that there is very little absorption of Vitamin A from skin products. In one study, 28 women with low Vitamin A diets applied creams with 0.3% Retinol or 0.55% Retinyl Palmitate over their entire bodies for 21 days but experienced no significant increase (Nohynek et al, 2006).

If you want to play it safe, avoid applying any skin care products in the morning that contain retinoids, such as Retinyl Palmitate, which is commonly used in day creams.

Visit our page on UV Protection and how to choose a sunscreen.

Also make sure you read our comprehensive guide to retinoids in our blog What Are Retinoids? and How to Use Retinoids Like a Pro.


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