Retinoid Molecular structure of Retinoic Acid Tretinoin

Skincare Ingredient: Retinol | What is Retinol? | Do I need to use Retinol?

With countless brands and products on the market claiming to turn back the clock on your skin, anti-ageing products can be difficult to navigate. Retinol is a key skincare ingredient in many anti-ageing skincare products and has become very common. Although prevention is key when it comes to youthful skin, using products specifically for ageing skin can help.

A quick search online shows that people start to look for the best anti-ageing cream in their 30’s. Regardless of external influences, after the age of 20, 1% less of collagen is produced in the dermis each year. The skin becomes thinner and more fragile with age which can cause wrinkling and sagging in the skin.

Some anti-ageing products for wrinkles contain silicones. For a quick fix, silicones are great as they fill in any wrinkles or pores to make them look invisible in no time. The downside is that within a few hours, the wrinkles reappear and if you’re in a hotter climate or sweating, it would just melt off. On the other hand, products containing retinol are not a quick fix by any means. They take much longer to work on the skin and may even take up to one month for you to see lasting results.

What is retinol?

Found in many anti-ageing products, retinol is a form of vitamin A and can help with combating wrinkles, dark spots, pores and acne. Many articles use the terms “retinol” and “retinoid” interchangeably, but they’re actually not the same thing. Retinol is another name for the vitamin A molecule which is a powerful antioxidant that fights off free-radicals as well as repair damage that has already taken place. Retinoid is the category of all molecules that can be converted to retinoic acid. Since retinol is vitamin A, and vitamin A converts to retinoic acid… retinol, therefore, is a retinoid but not all retinoids are retinol.

When your skin turns retinol into retinoic acid, (also known as tretinoin!) this active form of vitamin A helps to fight wrinkles and acne. In my illustrated infographic below, the further away a form of retinoid is from retinoic acid, the less powerful but gentler the formula is. That’s why you need a prescription for retinoic acid, but you are able to purchase retinol over the counter. Retinol, in general, works more slowly than retinoic acid but is gentler on your skin.

Retinyl —converts to–> Retinol —converts to–> Retinaldehyde — converts to–> Retinoic Acid

Retinyl Retinol Retinaldehyde Retinoic Acid Infographic for Skincare

This infographic shows that tretinoin (A.K.A. retinoic acid) is the form of retinoid that does all of the work, but every other retinoid must first convert to tretinoin before it’s effective. The strength or effectiveness of a retinoid depends on how many conversations it takes to become retinoic acid. The more conversions it takes, the weaker the retinoid.

What does retinol do?

Retinol is a great addition to a skincare routine since it helps to transform the way your skin looks and feels. Retinol can help accelerate the skin cell turnover rate which means that it prompts skin cells to regenerate more quickly in order for new, healthy cells to take the place of older ones. This increased cellular turnover also helps to treat acne since the lifespan of any clogged pores or whiteheads is a lot shorter. It was hard searching for the best skin care regimen for my acneic skin but I’ve added retinol to my skincare routine and found that combining multiple topicals have helped me a ton. Retinol also has antioxidant properties to help fight free radicals which can cause premature wrinkles. Retinoids also can help to decrease the amount of collagen breakdown by decreasing the synthesis of the enzyme protein collagenase and can help stimulate the production of new collagen.

Stated in plain English: retinol can help to reduce wrinkles, fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation, brighten up the complexion, improve skin texture, and help treat acne.

Who can use retinol?

Although a great product, not everyone is able to add it into their routine. By your mid-twenties, if you’re serious about prevention, you can definitely start thinking about adding a retinol to your skincare routine. Although retinol can help reduce wrinkles, it usually takes 3-6 months to see an improvement depending on the depth and severity of wrinkling. I personally started using retinol in my late teens as I had very bad acne and was able to grab a prescription from my medical professional.

If you have sensitive skin, psoriasis, eczema or rosacea, speak to your medical professional and ask about a gentler form like retinyl palmitate or retinyl acetate. A microencapsulated retinol may also be an ideal way to adding it into your routine as the ingredients are time-released and delivered into the skin over a period of several hours rather than all at once upon application.

If you are pregnant, thinking about becoming pregnant or currently breastfeeding, it’s best to wait until afterward to use retinol as excessive amounts of vitamin A during the early months of pregnancy can cause serious birth defects.

Is retinol safe to use?

When using retinol in your skincare routine, it’s very important that you also add an SPF to your routine if you don’t already. Don’t forget to reapply your sunscreen! The retinol makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight which makes it a lot easier for you to burn. If your skin isn’t used to retinoids, it can irritate your skin and it may flake. By ensuring you start at the right concentration for you, you can decrease irritation.

What strength of retinol should you use?

When it comes to retinol, slow and steady wins the race. The reason why retinol is the gold standard when it comes to anti-ageing skincare is that even just a dab of cream at 0.01% can get the job done for some people. It’s really amazing stuff! Just remember that you can always increase your concentration level in the future, but you should start small at first so your skin gets used to the formula.

If you’re just beginning to integrate retinol into your routine, I recommend sticking to a 0.01%-0.03% concentration. Skin that is a bit thicker, darker and tougher will be a bit more tolerant to retinol when you’re just starting to use it. For intermediate users, I recommend finding products with a 0.4%-1.0% concentration. More advanced users of retinol can go anywhere from 1.0%-2.0% concentration before a prescription is required. Remember that the more skin damage you have (wrinkles, sun damage, enlarged pores, etc.), the higher the percentage you eventually want to use.

If your skin doesn’t peel, flake or is generally more dry than normal then it means that your skin is used to the addition of retinol. When increasing your concentration, it’s important to start slow or else you risk irritating or burning your skin from retinol.

How often should you use retinol?

Retinol is photosensitive which means that the formula is reactive to the sun. When using retinoid products, it’s important to start slow and then gradually move up in concentration. Use your retinoid of choice twice a week and if your skin can tolerate it, you can move up to 3 or 4 days. I personally like to use my retinol once a week and alternate with glycolic acid which has worked wonders for my skin. But you have to be careful not use a product that has ingredients that can make retinoids useless. Dermatologists have stated that glycolic, salicylic and kojic acids can break down retinoids but at this time, I cannot find any scholarly articles that confirm this.

Have you used retinoids before? Let me know some of your favourite superstar products containing them!