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. Many of the Formulyst’s products harness the power of plant and citrus extracts as well as gold-standard workhorses such as retinol. Read More

Advanced Dermatology

The Advanced Dermatology skin care regimen addresses the most pressing aging concerns. It can be used by men and women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. This award-winning system can help diminish wrinkle appearance, reduce dark spots and hyperpigmentation, fade away redness, even out skin tone and improve the appearance of eye bags and dark circles. Some of the standout products in this line include the Super Youth Serum, Complete Age Defense and Anti-Wrinkle Firming Night Treatment. Read More
  • TDR Original review: Aug 04, 2020. Reply

    Retinol is such a superstar skin care ingredient that it’s popping up in more and more products lately. Serums and oils are especially great methods of introducing this vitamin A derivative to your skin without resulting in too much irritation. Retinol can be notoriously irritating to skin, and there can be an adjustment period before your skin settles down. However, the serums and oils on this list typically have low percentages of retinol to keep irritation at bay.

    Retinol is a type of retinoid that is excellent in combating a variety of skin concerns. Wrinkles are usually at the top of the list, but retinol can also improve overall texture, reduce pore size and even out skin tone by fading away discoloration and dark spots. Moreover, retinol can also tackle different types of acne.

    It works by boosting cell turnover and stimulating collagen production, which allows it to soften wrinkles, unclog pores and firm up skin. Thus, with regular use, skin is kept looking youthful and flawless. If you’ve yet to introduce retinol into your skin care regimen, it’s certainly time, whether you’re in your 20s, 30s or beyond. More than any other ingredient, retinol can help enhance your skin and restore a beautiful glow.

    Retinol used to be only available through prescription (and some stronger forms of retinoids still are), but it can now be found over-the-counter and more brands are making it accessible to the consumer. Our list of curated retinol products contains serums and oils of varying degrees, in case your skin needs some time to get used to retinol. If you’re just starting out using this ingredient, you may want to start with the lowest percentage before moving on to 1% or 2% serums. Note: Always apply these serums at night as retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.

  • User Original review: May 15, 2020. Reply

    What Is Retinol?

    Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, which is best known for its remarkable ability to assist with cell turnover.

    There are a variety of retinoids, the family of chemical compounds that come from vitamin A, that can be found in various skincare products. Retinaldehyde and retinyl palmitate, for example, are two other popular types of retinoids.

    Retinol’s secret lies in its ability to activate enzymes in the skin. These enzymes in turn convert retinol into retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is the active form of vitamin A, and it’s what gives your skin those many wonderful benefits that we will discuss in depth further on.

    A caveat: Stroner retinoids are very powerful and can help you achieve great skin results. However, there are also some significant side effects like irritation, redness and peeling. These can be rather problematic depending on the person, like for those suffering from rosacea. Still, retinol’s benefits cannot be ignored. On top of that, there are milder forms found over the counter that can deliver great results without all those offending side effects.

  • User Original review: May 15, 2020. Reply

    What Does Retinol Do for Your Skin?

    Retinol has the unmatched ability to simultaneously target signs of blemishes, wrinkles, pigmentation, fine lines and uneven skin tone. It can also help stimulate collagen production. Read on to find out exactly how retinol helps to target various particular skin concerns.

    Retinol is a Cell Communicator
    Retinol is a cell communicator that can help damaged skin cells return to their normal function. When skin is exposed to the UV rays of the sun and it absorbs free radicals, which attack healthy cells and steal electrons from molecules in order to try and stabilize themselves. Retinol interrupts this process by attaching itself to damaged cells and communicating with them, helping them to act like healthy cells again. This allows those cells to retain more healthy collagen and elastin, which keeps wrinkles from forming.

    Stimulates Collagen
    Collagen is a protein fiber that keeps skin bouncy, springy, firm and taut. As we age, we slowly but surely begin to lose the amount of collagen in the skin. This causes skin to sag and develop either fine lines or deep grooves (usually a bit of both), and thus, skin begins to look older and lose that youthful firmness you enjoyed in your teens.

    In short, the more collagen you have in your skin, the better it’s going to look. Retinol boosts collagen production by essentially activating certain genes and cells responsible for producing collagen in the first place. When fibroblasts, cells that produce and maintain collagen, are exposed to retinol, they are encouraged to trigger even more collagen. Moreover, retinoids help neutralize free radicals that damage and degrade collagen in the first place. As you can imagine, this collagen stimulation helps skin look plumper, feel firmer and have a more youthful appearance overall. This is just one reason regular use of retinol can make you look significantly younger.

    Refines the Look of Fine Lines and Wrinkles
    As you can probably picture, retinol’s ability to stimulate collagen also aids it in being able to reduce the size and depth of wrinkles. As collagen is triggered and enhanced, fine lines and even some slightly deeper wrinkles can be made to appear less noticeable. They are essentially refined and smoothed out, ultimately looking less prominent. If your wrinkles are very fine or newly formed, retinol might even help them disappear completely (for a time, of course). It should also be noted that regular use of retinol beginning at a young age, like in your 20s, can help prevent wrinkles from forming for a while.

    A study on retinol further found that regular use stimulated the formation of glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), which are a group of complex proteins that support collagen and elastin. One famous GAG is hyaluronic acid, a substance that can retain 1,000 times its weight in water, meaning it can go far in keeping skin hydrated and plump. GAGs like hyaluronic acid also keep skin from developing wrinkles while also plumping up existing ones to make them less obvious.

    Aging unfortunately can also cause dark spots to form over time, leading to skin becoming dull and uneven. A duller, uneven skin tone can significantly age one’s complexion, even if the person is still young. Retinol can make great strides in reducing uneven, patchy or discolored skin, helping skin to recoup its natural glow. The more even your skin tone, the less likely you would need to even it out in artificial ways, like by using foundation, powder or concealer.

    Retinol combats discoloration by helping to deplete and disperse the amount of melanin in the epidermis. This causes the dark spots to slowly fade away. Moreover, faster cell turnover allows the darker layer of skin to peel away and allow your natural skin color to show through.

    Once pimples heal, they can still leave behind a darker spot as a reminder of their presence. If you happen to pick at blemishes, these dark spots can be even more prominent. Of course, dark spots can also form from excessive sun exposure. Retinol use can help reduce visible discoloration.

    In order to effectively treat visible pigmentation, tetinol needs to be combined with a depigmentation agent. Depigmenting agents work inhibiting melanin synthesis. Retinol accelerates cellular turnover.

  • User Original review: May 15, 2020. Reply

    Retinol is powerful and using it can cause some unwanted side effects. Therefore, it’s best to know how to use it the right way. If you have very serious skin concerns like highly problematic skin or skin that has aged significantly, you should look for higher strength products.

    However, beginning with a stronger product can cause significant irritation that may be a problem to deal with. Less powerful forms of retinol are available in many over-the-counter brands. Still, you should be aware that it might take longer to see results when you’re using over-the-counter options.

    Now, when applying retinol, you should first wash your face with a moisturizing cleanser and pat skin thoroughly dry. You might want to apply some eye cream to create a buffer between the sensitive undereye area and your retinol cream. If you use a toner, apply it now as well. Then, use about a pea-sized amount of your retinol product and apply all over your face (or at least the affected areas) using upward motions.

    Follow up with applying a moisturizer to help minimize side effects like irritation and redness. Always begin by using retinol one to three times a week (for example, every other night) before moving on to more regular, or nightly, use. Avoid using retinol during the day, as sunlight can exacerbate certain side effects. Always wear sunscreen while using retinol as well, although truly you should be wearing sunscreen no matter what. If you’re using prescription retinol, consult your dermatologist for proper use.

  • User Original review: May 15, 2020. Reply

    Retinol and Vitamin C
    You might have heard that retinol and vitamin C shouldn’t be used in conjunction, but that’s not completely true in all cases. Sure, using a powerful active vitamin C serum along with retinol might cause irritation, but if you use a single formula that contains both you might be able to get the potent effects of both in one fell swoop.

    One study on post-menopausal women with aging skin showed that the combination of vitamin C and retinol was significantly able to reduce signs of aging. Feel free to use both a vitamin C serum and retinol together for best results when it comes to reducing wrinkles. Vitamin C is also a very powerful antidote to discoloration and hyperpigmentation. The double whammy of retinol and vitamin C can greatly help to reduce all signs of unevenness.

  • User Original review: May 15, 2020. Reply

    Retinol Side Effects
    Retinol can cause stinging at the site of application, an increase in sensitivity to the sun, peeling, redness, and flaking. These side effects usually vanish after the first few weeks of use.

    Sun exposure may increase the retinol side effects associated with these products, so it is important to use a cream that includes SPF protection and use additional protection if you choose a product that does not have built-in sun block.

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