Retinol for all

by Kate Lee

At the heart of many anti-aging products is a compound called retinol. What makes it so powerful and so effective that many wrinkle-fighting formulations include it? To fully understand its prowess, we dive a little deeper into the science behind this miracle-worker, and how you can use it in your routine.

Retinol and aging

First things first: let's talk about the skin as it ages. As we get older, our skin gets thinner (less epidermis and dermis layers), and this reduced dermal thickness is due to a downgrade in the production of collagen, the main structural protein of skin. When skin is exposed to UV, it ages more dramatically (photoaging). Photoaged skin, compared to sun-protected skin, has less collagen formation. All this talk about collagen, but what exactly does it have to do with retinol?

Retinol is the technical term given to Vitamin A (think niacinamide and Vitamin B3). It is under the umbrella of the "retinoid" family, which includes retinol and its ester derivatives (we'll get to this later). To affect changes in skin cells, the retinoid molecule travels through the skin and into cells. We break it down in the following steps, which have been severely simplified. Read through the links at the bottom of the post for more info!

  1. The retinoid molecule is transported through the cell and into the nucleus by the Cellular Retinoic Acid Binding Protein (CRABP) types I and II and the cellular retinol binding protein (CRBP)
  2. The retinoid is bound to either a nuclear retinoic acid receptor (RAR) or a retinoid X receptor (RXR)
  3. RARs pair with retinoid X receptors (RXRs) and form homodimers or heterodimers with the retinoid molecule
  4. The heterodimer binds to retinoic acid response elements (RARE) in the DNA in the region that regulates specific gene activity for that retinoid
  5. Transcription is controlled either by activation through specific DNA sites or by inhibiting transcription factors

So what does happen? Retinoids have been shown to increase collagen synthesis and decrease collagen degradation by blocking the enzyme that breaks down collagen, collagenase. Retinoids kind of act like conductors by binding to specific DNA sites, telling certain things to turn off (enzymes that break down the structural proteins of skin) while telling others to ramp up production (collagen and keratin cells). By promoting and protecting the building blocks of skin, retinoids have proven to be a wrinkle eliminator, if not, at the very least, a wrinkle smoother. 

Retinol molecule above. Image courtesy of

Retinol molecule above. Image courtesy of

Not all retinols are equal. Although they do claim to deliver similar wrinkle-fighting and anti-aging effects, the process differs from compound to compound. Retinoids come in different forms. There is retinoic acid, like prescription tretinoin. Retinoic acid is considered more potent than other forms because there is no extra step to convert to the active compound. Retinol, on the other hand, converts to retinaldehyde, and then to all-trans retinoic acid for it to work its magic on your skin. It's about 10-20 times less potent than retinoic acid so products containing retinol typically need to have higher concentrations. There is a "new generation" of retinol, called retinyl retinoate and a few promising studies, mostly from Korea, have claimed retinol-like effects on skin. There are also retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl propionate, which are common esters (a chemical compound derived from an acid) found in skincare products. 

Retinoic acid can cause irritation and redness so depending on the person's skin sensitivity and the concentration, it may limit usability. Retinol and other derivatives are typically more tolerable while still delivering retinoic acid-effects on the skin.

How to use

Retinol can become unstable when exposed to UV light so packaging is important. Look for solutions that come in opaque bottles and have a tight-fitting top: no regular jars! There is a lack of consensus on retinol and UV sensitivity. Vitamin A breaks down when exposed to sunlight (hence the note about packaging). I always err on the side of caution and just assume that if the compound itself is rendered inactive when exposed to UV light, it may also do the same on my skin. Dermatologists do not have a clear unwavering opinion on this one so I opt to use retinol at night. 

How do you incorporate retinol into your routine? If you're down to clown with some heavy-hitting retinol, you can opt for prescription-strength retinoic acid, such as Retin-A, Avita, Differin, or Tazorac. As for products with retinol--you have a plethora of options from serums, like The Ordinary Advanced Retinoid 2% or Paula's Choice SKIN RECOVERY Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum with Retinol, to retinol face creams, like philosophy help me Retinol Night Treatment or Roc Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Facial Night Cream. The choices are endless, and it does amount to some research, depending on your skin type, age, and your concerns.

Like all things, it's about creating the perfect fit in your routine. If you already have a night cream that you love, perhaps opt for retinol as a serum or treatment. You can also choose to go for a treatment that combines different compounds so you get more bang for your buck, like Paula's Choice CLINICAL 1% Retinol Treatment, which contains peptides and Vitamin C. There are also retinol treatments that target specific areas, like the eyes or lips or specific dark spots (i.e. Neutrogena Rapid Tone Repair Dark Spot Corrector). If you're looking for an ester for a gentle retinol treatment, the Sunday Riley LUNA Sleeping Night Oil is a perfect fit. 

Do you have a favorite retinol product? What are your thoughts on retinol?