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Retinol: The Skin Care Ingredient That Does It All

And how it became the stuff of skincare legend…

Retinol has long been worshiped by dermatologists, plastic surgeons, celebrity estheticians and skincare fanatics alike as the hero ingredient in the battle against everything from fine lines and wrinkles to acne and uneven skin tone. Some even say that nothing fights the signs of aging better.

Any skin care product promising to stamp out wrinkles, brighten and smooth dull skin, regulate oil production, eliminate age spots, hyperpigmentation, scarring or even clear up acne, will (or should) have some form of vitamin A contained within the regimen.

Keep scrolling to find out everything you need to know about the beauty industry’s favorite ingredient.

What’s the difference between retinoids, retinol and Retin-A?

Retinoid is a blanket term that covers both retinol and Retin-A both of which are forms of vitamin A and a class of anti-aging compounds used in skincare. They help fight acne, reduce wrinkles, stimulate collagen, and promote cellular turnover. They’re also known for evening out skin tone and increasing blood flow to the skin. In fact, this clever nutrient can communicate with damaged cells to function normally again. This is often referred to as DNA repair.

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative. It’s added to topical skincare products to promote skin renewal, reduce acne, boost your skin’s collagen production and all of the other benefits mentioned above. It also functions like an antioxidant to help address free-radical damage, which leads to the visible signs of aging. The difference is that retinols are gentler versions of retinoids, and you typically don’t need a prescription to use them.

Retin-A, on the other hand, is a prescription-only retinoid, and thus stronger than anything you can get over-the-counter. It was the brand name used for tretinoin, which was approved over 40 years ago by the FDA to treat acne. Like retinol, Retin-A also improves skin tone, boosts collagen, reduces fine lines and wrinkles, and speeds up cell turnover, except it’s a lot stronger, and consequently, more powerful.

To sum it up: retinoids are a chemical class that both retinols and Retin-A fall under.

The main difference between these two are potency, effect and irritation level. Retin-A will be the most effective and potent anti-aging cream but will have the highest irritation factor. Retinol is less irritating but takes longer to achieve results.

The reason? Retinol needs to work with the skin’s enzymes to convert it to retinoic acid before it becomes effective. Retin-A is potent enough on its own. This is why retinol takes several months of consistent use to see results.

The reason you see results from a prescription-strength retinoid more quickly than you would an OTC or medical-grade retinol, is because these retinols are in ester forms and there are more steps involved for these ester forms to be converted to active retinoic acid. Prescription-strength tretinoin (Retin-A) works faster than retinol however, patients who haven’t recently used a high strength retinoid often experience intense side effects. These include redness, stinging, burning, peeling and flaking. While Retinol might work more slowly than Retin-A, it’s less likely to cause side effects, less expensive, and the better match for most skin related concerns.

What does retinol do?

Retinol is a gold-standard ingredient in skin care because it reactivates the skin renewal process and works in three main ways: it exfoliates, supports production of collagen and fights free radicals. As the skin ages, we know our cell production slows down but regular use of a Retinol product can help encourage cell regeneration.

Your skin will have far better cell turnover and your youth enzymes essential collagen synthesis will be switched on.

Does retinol work?

In short – yes. Retinol is one of the most revered ingredients in the beauty industry and has been proven to be effective at tackling early signs of ageing such as pigmentation including sun damage, fine lines and wrinkles. As well as having ‘an exfoliating effect that smoothes skin texture and gives a natural glow, it also has antioxidant properties and reduces the appearance of brown spots.

Retinol stimulates flexibility and elasticity of the skin, collagen and also helps to create a bright complexion as well as regenerating melanin to tackle pigmentation.

Make sure you’re using a product that contains the right form of retinol, though. Check the ingredients list first to make sure it contains ‘retinol or retinaldeyhe rather than one of the less effective derivatives such as retintyplalmitate.

Is retinol the same as vitamin A?

Retinol is a form of retinoid, which is a derivative of vitamin A. Retinol is a vitamin A acid, which is the natural precursor to retinoic acid. Then body transforms retinol into retonic acid. It’s in this form, as retonic acid, that the benefits of retinol are truly felt on the skin.

While most cosmetic and cosmeceutical brands have some form of vitamin A (retinol, retinyl palmitate, palmitic acid or retinaldehyde, amongst others) in their offering of products. But not all are equal in quality, stability, efficacy and this will impact the results you are likely to get. A poorly formulated retinol product with a barely-there-hint-of-retinol is a waste of time, or worse will leave you with irritation. Not what you want and with so many brands promising the benefits of retinol it can get a little confusing. A bit of prior knowledge before you buy will help, right?

What else to look for?

Like most nutrients, vitamin A is not stable and can lose its potency when interacting with sunlight, which is why you’ll need a daily topical dose both morning and night to ensure your skin does not become deficient.

There is no benefit to a cleanser with retinoids. To achieve the full benefit, and because of the protective properties retinoids provide they need to remain on your skin, not washed away.

Look for packaging that protects the stability of the ingredients where there is minimal exposure to air and light.

When should I start using retinol?

From your mid-thirties collagen production starts to decline and thus many dermatologist recommend that their patients start using retinol based products in their mid to late twenties. Not only does retinol help to diminish fine lines and wrinkles, but it can even help reverse some of the side effects of sun damage. Adding retinol now will help to preserve your skin today, while reversing any existing damage.

Retinoids are great for preventing and treating acne, especially comedones [blackheads] because they help unclog pores. If you’re struggling with acne, you can start even sooner, particularly comedones, which are bumps that occur when dirt and oil clog the skin. Be more aggressive about titrating up the strength of your retinoid. OTC retinols won’t clear up moderate to severe acne the way that medical-grade and prescription retinoids can.

Is there anyone who shouldn’t use retinol?

If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, this is not the ingredient for you, since it can cross the placental barrier and potentially lead to birth defects. This is why pregnancy tests are required for patients on a course of Accutane for acne—a very high oral dose of Vitamin A. It’s also contraindicated if you have extremely sensitive skin or conditions such as eczema or rosacea.

How to use retinol?

When first using retinol you can experience some irritation such as dryness, redness and even flaky skin. So if it’s your first time using it, ease yourself in by applying a low percentage and only use twice per week at intervals, gradually increasing to daily as your skin begins to acclimate and tolerate it better. As your skin adapts and, if you don’t suffer from too much sensitivity, you can increase the percentage too. Even if you can’t build up to anymore than two days per week it’s still effective and worth doing so don’t be put off. Environ Skincare’s STEP-UP SYSTEM™ was created to help skin become more comfortable with increased levels of vitamin A until your skin is fully acclimated.

What are the percentages of retinol?

The higher the concentration, the stronger the skin will respond with visible shedding and redness. But, it is just as important to note that this is exactly the reaction that we want for optimal results – it’s no irritation at all. However, skin with no retinol experience should always start low (with 0.3%) and increase the level using 2 or 3 containers before stepping up to the next concentration. If your skin is quite sensitive, just stay with 0.3%. That said, a concentration of 1% is optimal for visible signs of ageing or photo-damage (hyper pigmentation) and acne scars, however you’ll only get this with a prescription.

When to use retinol in your regime?

Retinol can cause skin sensitivity after use, and thus it’s important to be particularly careful in the sun. We recommend appling a high SPF 25 or 50, even if it looks cloudy or grey outside. It’s safe to apply it day and night, as long as you apply SPF afterwards. That said, most people prefer to use it at night as the chances of any sun damage or skin sensitivity are lower.

  • Retinol is best used every night, however if sensitivity occurs you may prefer to use every other night
  • Apply a small amount in the evening as part of your skincare regime, after serums but before heavier treatments
  • Most dermatologists recommend applying retinol at night because it breaks down in sunlight and because it increases photosensitivity… which is why it’s important to always use an SPF 25 or above to protect the action of the ingredients and your skin
  • Try adding some Vitamin C into your morning routine for double the benefits, it helps to neutralize free radicals and protects retinol from oxidation.

Where is it safe to apply?

It’s effective on all parts of the body. It is even included in some hand creams, though it is most commonly found in facial skincare products. A good routine is to start with Environ Vita-Peptide C-Quence Serum 1 or Vita-Antioxidant AVST Gel and apply to the forehead, then the nose, cheeks and chin. Be careful to avoid the eye area and around the nostrils as this area is prone to suffering from dryness. Avoid using standard retinol products around the eyes instead using products specifically formulated for use on this delicate and sensitive area, products such as Environ Vita-Peptide Eye Gel or Antioxidant & Peptide Eye Gel.

Is retinol good for acne?

Vitamin A acid or retinoic acid was first used to treat acne on young adults before it’s skincare benefits were fully realized. Isotretinion, more commonly referred to as the brand name Roaccutane, is a form of vitamin A.

Due to its powerful cell renewal property, retinol can be incredibly helpful for people who often have acne and breakouts. It helps to normalize cell turnover and has an exfoliating effect that stops pores from clogging and pimples, blackheads and cysts from forming.

Be careful if you’re on any prescribed acne medication though. Certain ingredients commonly found in acne medication such as salicylic or glycolic acid can cause irritation and redness if combined with retinol, so be sure to check with your doctor before using.

How long does it take to see results?

Like all skincare products you should be patient with the results. Skin is renewed every 28 days on average, which means the new cells migrate to the surface of the skin after which time you should start seeing results.

Staying out of the sun.

As with any skin care regimen where the goal is to minimize and fight the signs of ageing. Once retinoids are included in your routine you really should be considering a well-formulated SPF 25+ sunscreen. We recommend Environ Broad Spectrum SPF 25 Sunscreen. This light and creamy face and body sunscreen formulation contains essential antioxidants as well as sun absorbers and reflectors that work together to protect skin from the damaging effects of the sun and harsh environmental influences. It is formulated with a combination of physical sunscreens as well as a unique phyto-complex to work synergistically in protecting the skin from harsh environmental influences and the damaging effects of the sun. No point going to all this effort just to ruin it with more sun damage. Right?

So that’s it. If vitamin A is not in your skin care routine then we highly recommend commencing soon, no matter what age, in fact when it comes to skin health and the prevention of dysfunctions like lines, wrinkles and pigmentation, the sooner the better.

Interested in adding retinol into your skin care regime?

Now that you know the benefits of retinol, choosing the right skincare products should be left to the professionals. Optimal results come from a two fold approach that includes: prepping the skin at home with an intensive regimen of products, and then treating it with combined procedures in-clinic.

PLEIJ is a unique salon, spa and wellness center, providing aesthetic services to the Central Ohio region. Our estheticians can create a customized skin care regimen to address any of your problems or concerns. We offer clients of every age group the advanced skin care services and products they need to achieve healthy, radiant-looking skin for years.

Skincare consultations are always free at PLEIJ and are also included in each and every one of our facial service offerings.

Call to schedule your consultation today and take the first step toward healthy beautiful skin.

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Be sure to learn everything about this awesome program and even send out referrals.

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