Retinol is one of the best known skin care ingredients on the market and has long been considered the gold standard ingredient for anti-aging and treating acne.
We are encouraged to believe that it works wonders on fine lines and wrinkles, improves skin’s texture, reduces enlarged pores and minimises scarring and age spots.
With such a long list of skin conditions that it treats it may well sound like it should be taking centre stage in your skin care regime, but is it really as good as all the cosmetic companies suggest?
In this article we look at how retinols work on the skin, how they should be used, what side effects to expect and how to minimise them.
What is Retinol and How Does it Work?
Retinol is a type of retinoid which is made from vitamin A.
To understand how it could help your skin you first need to know a bit about collagen. This is one of the major structural protein in your body. Collagen fibres act as a natural scaffold in your skin, holding cells together and creating a “plumping” effect.
We produce fewer and fewer collagen fibres as we age. As these scaffolding molecules reduce in number, the skin start to look uneven, fine lines and wrinkles appear and it begins to sag.
Enzymes in the skin, matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), break down and recycle collagen fibres. Environmental factors such as UV light, smoking and air pollution, diet and stress can speed up the break down of skin collagen by increasing the activity of these enzymes.
For retinol to become active, it is first converted into retinoic acid (tretinoin) by enzymes inside keratinocytes (surface skin cells). In this form it has been shown to work in several ways to improve the appearance and health of skin.
Studies have shown that retinol increases the amount of collagen in the skin by inactivating MMP enzymes which break down collagen. Evidence suggests that in this way it can directly affect the underlying structure of the skin, reducing fine lines and wrinkles.
Research has shown that retinol increases cellular turnover and can also fade pigmentation. This improves the texture and tone of the skin and gives it a more youthful glow.
Clinical data shows that retinol is an effective treatment for severe acne and significantly reduces scarring.
Finally, Retinol is an antioxidant. This means it is able to block the reactive free radicals generated by exposure to UV radiation. Research has shown that it can reduce sun damage to your skin.
So, there is quite a lot of evidence which suggests that retinol can help correct a range of skin conditions, but there are a variety of retinoids used in cosmetic products and a wide range of concentrations. Both of these factors impact significantly on the claims being made and it is important to note that most of the research evidence is based on higher concentration formulas and retinoic acid.
Know Your Retinols!
Retinoids are a huge family of compounds. It is important not to confuse retinol with its fast-acting cousin retinoic acid that requires a prescription.
There are actually several forms of retinoids found in serums, eye creams, and night moisturizers. Retinol is the most potent. Retinoid esters such as retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate are weaker, but a good starting point for beginners or people with sensitive skin.
There are also different strengths of retinoids in skin care products. Many people make the mistake of jumping straight to the strongest formula, believing it’s better or will deliver faster results. This usually isn’t the case and can lead to uncomfortable side effects.
If you haven’t used this sort of skin care product before you should be using a low percentage (0.1-0.5%). This is also a good option for people with sensitive skin.
If you’re a seasoned retinol user, a higher percentage (1-2%) product will be the best choice.
How Should They Be Used?
Firstly, use your retinol products at night. Retinoids break down in the sun, making them unstable and less effective. That’s why they’re sold in metal tubes or opaque containers. Store your products in a cool, dark place.
Secondly, don’t be tempted to use too much! The recommended amount is about a pea-sized drop for the entire face.
It is important to build up your use of retinol slowly. This will give your skin time to build up a tolerance to this ingredient. Start with a couple of nights a week and build up to more frequent use. It’s important to identify what works best for your skin. Some people’s skin can tolerate it every night, but those with more sensitive skin may only be able to tolerate it every other night or even less.
Applying your retinol product about 30 minutes after washing your face may help reduce any skin irritation.
Don’t expect results overnight! results. The natural skin cell turnover time is about six to eight weeks. Retinol will speed up the process of cellular turnover, but it will usually take 3-6 months to see a visible difference.
Are There Any Side effects?
Unfortunately, retinol does come with some side effects.
People can experience dry and irritated skin and some experience redness, itchiness, and peeling skin when they first start using these products.
These side effects can be reduced by choosing the right type of product for your skin and applying it properly. Any side effects are usually temporary and improve within a couple of weeks as your skin gets used to the product. However, if you do continue to experience skin irritation, you should consider finding an alternative with a lower concentration.
You should be cautious about using these products if you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy. More research is needed, but there is some evidence that they may increase the risk for birth defects and miscarriage.
To Sum Up
Retinol is a very well researched ingredient, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that it has anti-aging effects when used in skin a care products.
These effects are most apparent in the higher strength formulas.
It is important to use these skin care products correctly and build up their use gradually to avoid side effects.