The Science of Retinol- What Is Retinol, And What Does It Do? - The Dermatology Review

The Science of Retinol- What Is Retinol, And What Does It Do?



Beauty ingredients may come and go (snail mucus, gold, bee venom) but one ingredient that just about everyone can get behind is retinol. It’s a key ingredient in anti-aging products and has been used in skincare since the 1970s. Here’s a closer look at what is retinol, how it works and whether you should incorporate it into your skincare routine.

What is Retinol?

Retinol is derived from vitamin A. It is the key ingredient in the prescription acne medication Retin-A, which was patented by the dermatologist Dr. Albert M. Kligman. Known as “the father of Retin-A,” Dr. Kligman is also credited with coining the term “photoaging” to describe damage from sun exposure. Patients who were prescribed Retin-A for acne also reported other benefits from using the cream- they found that their fine lines and wrinkles were less noticeable, and dark spots looked lighter. Patients also reported that skin looked smoother and pores appeared smaller. This feedback (and further testing) led to retinol being used as an anti-aging ingredient. Dr. Klingman patented it for anti-aging use in 1986.  Today it is considered the gold-standard ingredient for anti-aging concerns.

What is the Difference Between a Retinol and Retinoid?

Retinols, retinoids and prescription retinols are all derived from vitamin A (or produced synthetically) and they all perform the same function. “Retinoids” is an umbrella term that includes both over the counter and prescription versions of vitamin A, while “retinol” refers only to the over-the-counter version. Retinoic acid is also known as tretinoin.

Some products contain pro-retinols which are listed as retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate and retinyl linoleate in the ingredients list. These tend to be more gentle than retinols. In general, prescription retinoids have a higher concentration of retinoic acid than over the counter products, which means it may take longer to see results from an over the counter product. However, one benefit of an over the counter retinol is that it may not cause as much irritation as a prescription strength version.

What Does Retinol Do?

Retinols work by encouraging skin cell turnover- in other words, think of it as a deep exfoliation. Here’s why it matters. Up until the age of around 30, our skin cells turn over about every 28 days. This process slows down as we age, which can lead to dry, dull skin as well as clogged pores – which can all exacerbate the look of fine lines.

 Applying retinol helps speed up the skin cell turnover, which helps skin look fresh and smooth. Thanks to the boost in skin cell turnover, the products also help to fade the look of dark spots and hyperpigmentation. Without dead skin cells blocking pores, pores may also look smaller.

 According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), retinol may also help fade early stretch marks and products containing 0.3% retinol may also have some effect on cellulite. The AAD also notes that retinol can help with keratosis pilaris, which is dry, rough, bumpy patches.

A 2006 paper published in Clinical Interventions In Aging titled “Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety looks at various short and long term retinol studies. The paper notes “The ability of long-term (more than 6 months) tretinoin treatment to maintain improvement in photoaging was first evaluated by Ellis and colleagues (1990) in a 22-month study carried out in 16 patients with photoaged skin…. It was observed that the improvement of wrinkling continued up to the 10th month and was maintained thereafter.” The paper also notes “In another trial, Green and colleagues (1993) studied the effect of 0.05% tretinoin emollient cream applied daily for 12 months. Tretinoin treatment showed significant improvement in the clinical signs of photoaging.”

A study of high strength tretinoin (0.25% solution) in the same paper noted that “Interestingly, just 4 to 6 week treatment with high strength tretinoin resulted in improvement in fine wrinkling, mottled hyperpigmentation, elasticity, hydration, angiogenesis, and new collagen deposition above the zone of solar elastosis and the extent was similar to the results observed after 6 to 12 months of standard tretinoin therapy (0.05%).

Retinol Side Effects

How To Use Retinol

If you’re considering incorporating a retinol based product into your skincare routine, the general rule of thumb is to start slowly as the products may cause redness, flaking or irritation. Start with clean, dry skin and apply a pea-sized amount of product once or twice a week and see how your skin tolerates it. From there, gradually build up to using it every night.  

And be patient. According to Harvard Health Publishing/Harvard Medical School, “…it takes three to six months of regular use before improvements in wrinkles are apparent—and the best results take six to 12 months.” It is also important to note that the product must be used continuously to maintain results.

What Does Retinol Do for Your Skin?

Other retinol guidelines include applying the product once a day in the evening before bed time– don’t put it in the morning as retinol can break down in the sun. The AAD advises that pregnant and breast-feeding women should avoid using retinols.

 When finding a retinol based product, keep in mind that vitamin A is not stable- meaning it breaks down when exposed to sunlight and air. Try to choose products that come in a sealed tube or pump but if you do buy a product in a jar, try to select one in a dark container.

Should Retinols Be Used as A Spot Treatment?

It’s a mistake to think of retinol as a spot acne treatment. To get the most from the product, it should be used all over the face (not just on fine lines or dark spots) as the whole complexion can benefit from retinol’s skin cell turnover boosting properties.

Who Can Benefit from Using Retinols?

The board-certified dermatologist Adam Friedman told Self magazine in 2017, “Everyone and their mother should be on retinoid.”  A retinol based product can be used by anyone looking to improve the appearance of their skin. Many people start using retinols in their mid-twenties but it’s never too late to start using them. In general the products are suitable for all skin types but as it can cause irritation, anyone with dry or sensitive skin should proceed slowly. Some people also apply a retinol based cream on the back of their hands and décolletage to help fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation.

What is Encapsulated Retinol?

You may have seen some skincare products touting “encapsulated retinol” as an ingredient. It works just like retinol but is delivered to the skin in a different way. Encapsulated retinol is protected at a microscopic level so the potent ingredients are delivered slowly – which could help minimize irritation.

What is Vegan Retinol?

You may have seen some skincare products listing “vegan retinol” or “natural retinol” as an ingredient. Of the plant based retinols, one of the most commonly used is bakuchiol, which is found in the seeds and leaves of the Asian  psoralea corylifolia plant. It is thought to work in a similar way to retinol, by boosting skin cell turnover. Bakuchiol tends not to be as irritating to the skin as retinol.

Are There Any Side Effects With Retinol?

Some people using retinols develop flaky, red and irritated skin so incorporating a good moisturizer to help soothe the skin is a must. For some retinol users, the face can look worse before it starts getting better, in a process that is called “retinization.” Patience is key. If your skin looks particularly dry and flaky, resist the urge to exfoliate those dry spots away; try using a soft washcloth to gently buff away dry flakes of skin. It is also a good idea to avoid skincare products with alcohol (such as some toners) as they may be too drying.

Some retinol users adopt a rotation method where they switch between a “work” night, meaning they use a retinol or exfoliate the skin on certain days, and take a break with a “nourish”  night where the focus is on soothing the skin with extra hydration through a mask or an oil based serum.

Using retinols can also make the skin more sensitive to the sun, so it is critical to wear a sunscreen with a high SPF every single day. When using a retinol pay attention to your facial cleanser and make sure it isn’t stripping your skin. You may want to switch to a creamy or milk based cleanser that is extra gentle on the skin. Anyone with skin issues such as rosacea, eczema, psoriasis or sensitive skin may find that retinol is too much for their face; check with a health professional first.

Some skincare professionals suggest skipping ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide and alpha hydroxy acids when using retinols as they can be too drying to the skin.

Where to Find Retinols

Retinol is found in eye creams, facial moisturizers, oils and serums as well as some peels and “resurfacing treatments.” Some products are sold as “pure” retinol containing up to 1% retinol, but the average range is from 0.1 to 1.0 percent.

What Are The Best Retinol Skin Care Products?

Retinol is one of the best ingredients to incorporate into a skincare routine, as it helps keep the signs of aging at bay, while helping keep skin looking and feeling smooth. Think of it as the MVP of your skincare regimen. When deciding which products to try, consider Formulyst.

Formulyst makes it easy to create your own skincare routine. Each skincare concern is assigned a number, and your personal combination will be just as unique as you (and your skin) are. All you have to do is find your formula, and  follow the numbers.

Here’s a look at some key Formulyst products containing retinol.

Wrinkles and fine lines are no match for Formulyst’s Anti-Aging Night Cream With Retinol. The star ingredient is encapsulated retinol. This means the cream delivers a high dose of retinol but also helps keep skin soft and hydrated, thanks to nourishing jojoba and safflower seed oil.

Eyes may be the window to the soul, but they can also be host to a wide range of skin concerns  including wrinkles, puffiness and bags. Formulyst’s Complete Anti-Aging Eye Cream is a multi-tasking formula designed for the various signs of aging around the eyes. The powerful cream contains retinyl complex and peptide technology to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, while hyaluronic acid and cucumber extract soothe and hydrate the delicate eye area.




The philosophy of Formulyst is long-term and effective skincare, rather than covering up any imperfections. The comprehensive line of products tackles everything from wrinkles to dark spots and dry skin. While some brands rely on unnecessary fillers and scents, Formulyst focuses on ingredients that help create results, such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.Read More

Carrot & Stick

Carrot & Stick takes a tough love approach to skincare. What does this mean? It perfectly balances the power of plants with innovative science, offering the best of both worlds.Read More

Advanced Dermatology

The Advanced Dermatology skin care regimen addresses the most pressing aging concerns.Read More

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